Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The Most Important Games Of 2011

Now that was a long off season, wasn’t it?

There’s no denying that football is in the air, and amidst the tide of predictions and previews for college teams nationwide, the schedules demand our attention. Unlike baseball, where the prevailing wisdom is that anyone can win coming out of spring training, a lot of teams come into the season opener knowing the die is cast.
Vanderbilt is not winning the ACC. Indiana is not taking orders for the Rose Bowl. No one is putting names like New Mexico and Duke together when reviewing BCS matchups.

But if some teams can’t reach the summit in one season, they can certainly try to reach for it, and such is the case with the 2011 Georgetown Hoyas. I live roughly 15 miles from the site of the I-AA national title game and the odds that Kevin Kelly is leading his team onto Pizza Hut Park in January is not worth spending too much time on. The 2011 Hoyas are still too young, a step slow on offense, lack a playmaker in the backfield, and have not yet shown the ability to make it to the fourth quarter in games and still compete within it. That’s certainly not to say it’s time to make plans for basketball season, only that the holes over the last five+ seasons don’t fill back by themselves.

And when people circle a proverbial calendar and say this is the most important game of the season, which is it for Georgetown?

Howard? Colgate? Fordham? Lehigh? In fact I’d say there are two, and they are the first two weeks of the season.

Why now? And why Davidson and Lafayette?

Thanks to a gauntlet of a schedule that takes the Hoyas on the road five straight weeks from Sep. 17 through Oct. 22, home games are absolutely essential for Georgetown to build some…no, make that ANY momentum. Kelly-coached teams are 4-24 on the road since 2006 (to be fair, not much better than a 5-21 at home), but three of those road wins came within the first two weeks of the season. Put another way, Georgetown has not shown any ability over the last five seasons picking up road wins after game films are broken down and teams are picking up the GU sets.

The last four games are troubling in a different way. For a number of years, Georgetown has fallen victim to a Patriot league scheduling measure which allows its preferred teams (I can almost hear Chris Rock saying  “Yeah! I said it!”) the ability to schedule three of more Ivy teams in the early season and backload its PL games, meaning that Georgetown would spend September in league play and be all but finished with league games when some were just getting started, with the Ivies already locked into their schedules. In each of the last two seasons, Georgetown has had just one PL game after Oct. 17.

This season changes that equation, although not necessarily to Georgetown’s immediate benefit. The Hoyas end the season with three PL teams and Fordham to run out the season, splitting two home (Colgate, Fordham) and two on the road (Holy Cross, Lehigh). Since 2001, Georgetown is a combined 0-18 against Colgate and Lehigh, 2-18 against HC and Fordham, and each of these teams enters late October and early November as significant favorites, home or away. That's not to say Georgetown can't win these games, but there's no track record of it, either.

So let’s return to Davidson and Lafayette. The Wildcats (3-8 in 2010) are a lot like Georgetown—they don’t recruit from depth, they struggle to maintain offensive intensity, and late season mistakes have begun to resemble a self-fulfilling prophecy. The Wildcats enter the 2011 season with a new offensive coordinator and a commitment to a pass-intensive game plan,emblematic of its days as a power in the Southern Conference (where the Wildcats even made the 1969 Tangerine Bowl). That promise makes it debut Saturday against Georgetown’s best secondary in a decade. If the veteran Hoyas can shut down the Davidson passing offense, the Wildcats are going to struggle. A lot.

So too, the Lafayette Leopards, who turned in a sub-par 2-9 season in 2010 but return depth and experience in the passing game for 2011. Senior QB Ryan O’Neil completed 20 straight passes against Georgetown en route to 343 yards last season, but four turnovers were Lafayette’s undoing in a 28-24 loss that still baffles the Easton faithful . Once again, the Hoyas and Leopards could come down to the Lafayette passing game and the Georgetown secondary. Were the Leopards looking past Georgetown that night, as most PL teams are altogether capable of doing? Perhaps. There’ll be no such looking ahead this time.

Lafayette’s opening schedule is as imbalanced as Georgetown’s, beginning at North Dakota State and three more on the road, with its first home game in October. Depending on the severity of play against ND State, the Leopards could arrive in Washington looking to recover, or coming off a big upset and ready for more. Similarly, Lafayette could be staring at 0-4 if things get out of hand early.

And that’s why the first two games of this Georgetown season, at home, drive the discussion thereafter. A 2-0 Hoya team after week two would have a fighting chance for redemption Yale, a better chance at Marist, a split at Bucknell and Wagner, and a toss-up at Howard that could see the Hoyas at 5-2 or better heading into Homecoming. A 1-1 outcome means the Hoyas have its work cut out for them to build some momentum on the road, where it has never done much agaisnt these opponents in the last decade: (0-2 at Yale, 0-3 at Marist, 1-4 at Bucknell). An 0-2 start is a hole this young team does not want to climb out of.

If you don’t believe the power of an quick start, look no further than last season. Coming off a winless 2009 season, the 3-1 start (and a last second loss at Yale) was the story of the season, not the six straight losses which followed. Were it not for the adrenaline from wins over Davidson and Lafayette to open the season, was a 1-10 season in its flight path?

Once again, Davidson and Lafayette are the biggest games of the season, and for a team with two home games thereafter, Georgetown must make the most of them, and give fans a reason to come back in October to see what they’ve done with it. Coach Kelly has raised the expectations game for a program whose expectations have been unusually low in recent years. It’s time to see the Hoyas take its next step forward.

National title game? No.

3-8? Likely.

So how about 5-6? It’s time to see the Hoyas take its next step forward, and for the next two weeks, it's all that matters.