Predicting the first week of college football in 2020 is likely a fool's errand. This is already a season unlike any other, and Bowl Championship Subdivision (BCS) teams have yet to lace 'em up and play a game.
Adding mystery to intrigue is Georgia Tech's week 1 foe, Florida State. If you were to draw two random teams out of a hat with the goal of finding the biggest questions marks heading into the season, you'd likely do no better than the Jackets and Seminoles.
Georgia Tech's unknowns are well documented. We have a coaching staff that has been together at the BCS level for three years. The first two at Temple provided a small lens into their likelihood to succeed at Georgia Tech, with Head Coach Geoff Collins going 7-6 and 8-4 in two consecutive seasons at the helm.
That short tenure, combined with a 3-9 start in year 1 at Georgia Tech following the transition from the under center spread option, has only widened the array of prognostications for future success. Jackets' fans don't need another prediction from yours truly to inform their opinion. They need real data in the form of wins and losses in 2020, as well as signs of measurable statistical improvement on the field and in the overall program, to be swayed.
If we counted the number of variables in play for Georgia Tech in week 1, we'd have enough talking points to fill the 3.5 hours of television for the talking heads. Now add in Florida State, a media favorite going through their own coaching transition, and the output is a national TV spot on ABC, September 12, 3:30pm ET.
Head Coach Mike Norvell's transition from Memphis to Tallahassee has been, let's just say, interesting. Mostly heralded as a great hire, his first offseason has garnered the type of attention that Florida State fans were hoping had passed. Despite the coaching changes from Jimbo Fisher to Willie Taggart to Mike Norvell, drama continues to infest the Florida State program. Norvell was accused publicly by his inherited players of lying to the media in June. Then, his players publicly alleged nontransparency and concerns around Covid-19 testing safety in August. Strike 1 and 2?
Norvell can quickly push those stories to back burner through success on the field in year 1. The challenge is, given Florida State's on-field dysfunction in 2019 and a coaching transition in 2020, where do you set the bar?
An oft-cited data point to measure a coach's ability is to look at their relative performance via strength-adjusted metrics. Football Outsiders has long provided this trove of information, so let's peel back the onion on Norvell's tenure at Memphis, which stretched from 2016-2019.
Ignoring year 1 as his own transition year there, here's how Norvell's Tigers performed in his final three years.
For the sake of brevity, I'm going to assume that Georgia Tech fans have a baseline understanding of FEI as it's an oft-cited metric.
So what's the takeaway? In Norvell's final three years at Memphis, his teams performed admirably overall, finishing around 32 overall and in the top 25 on offense and special teams. FEI is strength-adjusted, essentially meaning you can't inflate your ranking by beating up on patsies, and more credit is earned through your performance against top teams.
Florida State floundered last year by its historical standards, finishing with an overall FEI of 49. Especially poignant was their performance in the phases where Norvell has historically excelled, finishing with an FEI strength-adjusted ranking of Offense on 67 and Special Teams on 87. The defense finished at a respectable but far from elite, 39.
So we have a chance, right? Yes, absolutely. But if we're being fair, we have a long road to hoe to match Florida State's performance of last year.
Here's how the Jackets fared last year, with Collins' first two years as a FBS head coach thrown in for added context.
If you were to calculate an average in apples to apples fashion, I would have to discount 2017 (year 1 at Temple) and 2019 (year 1 at Georgia Tech) as I did with Norvell's average at Memphis. That leaves 2018 as a barometer, and one-year averages don't mean a whole lot.
So what do I make of the data? At a minimum, I'm comfortable concluding that Collins' and Offensive Coordinator Dave Patenaude's offense at Temple improved after a troubling first year. That first year was apparently a lot like last year's painful experience for Tech fans, which yields a healthy dose of optimism for this year. Likewise, defense has rarely been a question mark for Collins, who fielded salty defenses as a coordinator before accentuating that as his strength in Philadelphia.
In the end, there are question marks everywhere for both teams. Ev. Er. Y. Where. And with Covid-19, we should probably expect the unexpected with respect to ongoing roster attrition even in week 1. Based on 2019 performance and data, Florida State has the head start. Based on familiarity with a new system and "team cohesion", the edge goes to Georgia Tech.
Florida State, playing at home, rightfully has the edge publicly and via the eyes of Vegas (11.5 point favorites). But as 2020 has proven, anything can happen.