Monday Rewind: a family Sirmon, Washington's QB battle, and FPI thoughts
Welcome back to the Monday Rewind. Hope you all had a wonderful weekend. Let’s dive in.
A family reunion at Cal
There’s something pretty cool happening in Berkeley this season.
Jackson Sirmon will play for the Golden Bears on the defensive side of the ball. The inside linebacker transferred to Cal from Washington in January. At his new home, he’ll play for a defensive coordinator and position coach he’s pretty familiar with: Peter Sirmon.
Jackson calls him “Coach Dad.”
Not really. “I don’t think on it too much,” he told reporters with a smile after Cal opened the spring period. Jackson did well to sort of downplay the significance of playing for his father. He’s a linebacker in a defense. He’s one of 11 on the field at any given moment. It’s not all about the Sirmons, though their subplot is something to acknowledge.
“No (reservations),” Jackson said when asked if playing for his dad was something he had to think on for a bit longer than usual “It’s cool that he’s my dad but I know he’s a great linebacker coach. I’m gonna learn a lot of things about football, improve myself as a player. I know they’ve got great players on the team down here. The other linebackers are fantastic, good players, good guys, smart guys.”
Cal had five different inside ‘backers record at least 25 tackles last season. Four of them return. Add Jackson to the mix and there’s some serious depth at the position for Peter to work with both as the positional coach trying to flesh out a rotation and the coordinator working to piece together defensive packages. Cal could field some unique looks.
Jackson made 33 appearances for the Huskies in four years with the program. This past season, the former 3-star linebacker had 92 tackles, two pass breakups, a forced fumble, and an interception. Only four Pac-12 defenders had more tackles than he did. In the previous three seasons, he had 56 total tackles and 3.5 tackles for loss.
With Jackson up north and Peter coaching down south, there haven’t been many opportunities for father to watch son on Saturday. “Rarely,” Peter said when asked if he’d been able to watch Jackson play. He’s seen a couple of games in person, a chance Thursday or Friday game for one that allowed the other to watch on Saturday or a coinciding bye week.
“I coached him in some flag football back when he was in second grade,” Peter said with a laugh. “That was the last time.”
This will probably be just as entertaining.
For now, though, they’re both focused on work.
“Right now he’s No. 8 on the field. It’s great being around him. You have the coach-player relationship and then when that’s off you have family around. He’s a talented player and he has a significant amount of experience, so we’re looking for him to help the team.”
A significant QB competition in the Pacific Northwest
The most important position for head coach Kalen DeBoer and his Washington Huskies is still in flux. Washington’s spring game takes place April 30, and with two weeks left to iron out the quarterback rotation, DeBoer had good things to say about each of his three guys—Indiana transfer Michael Penix Jr., former 5-star and 2021 UW starter Dylan Morris, and Apple Cup starter Sam Huard.
“It’s been a solid week for all three of them,” DeBoer said after the team’s scrimmage this weekend, per RealDawg.com’s Mike Martin. Mike can make some things happen tough situations, he can backpedal out of there and buy a split second. You can see his arm talent show in those situations in the way he’s able to get rid of the ball. (Morris) has been really consistent all spring, and Sam had a great touchdown throw towards the end of practice today. All three guys have had their times when they showed up.”
At the outset of spring ball, DeBoer said offensive coordinator Ryan Grubb has an exhaustive review process for the quarterbacks. “Every throw in routes on air, every throw in 7-on-7, every throw in team, you name the throw, it’s tracked and evaluated and written down and documented,” DeBoer said. “We can tell who dropped it and the ball placement. It’s very thorough, and in the end it comes down to production.”
Penix has done the most in-game. And he’s also the only guy on the roster who was tape operating in a DeBoer scheme. The two were paired up together in 2019 when DeBoer was coordinating the Indiana offense and Penix was emerging as the Hoosiers’ guy. He has taken 606 career dropbacks, 100 more than Morris and a bit more than that over Huard.
Reports from UW practice suggest Penix is ahead of Morris and Huard at this point, if only slightly.
The former Indiana man has multiple years of experience on Morris, but he hasn’t played through a fully healthy season in some time. It’s entirely possible multiple guys play.
“I think it’s just all about continuing to stay the course and help them focus on just themselves,” DeBoer said of how he approaches QB battles. “Not be looking over their shoulder or seeing what the guy next to them is doing, just focus on you, and I think that’s the No. 1 message we have for our whole team but especially at the quarterback spot.
“The quarterback obviously is the one that drives our offense. It’s been that. It’s important for that guy to be successful. I think the hard part when you’re going through this is when you’re talking about the quarterback, when you name a quarterback, that person now can take on the identity of the leader of the team. We try to encourage them to do it and we try to put them out there in front of the team, but it’s hard when they don’t know if they’re the starting quarterback or not and what direction it’s going. I think that’s one of the hardest pieces as you’re trying to push your culture and build that swagger, that confidence. That’s the one piece that is held back a little bit as you’re going through a competition at quarterback.”
In that regard, it seems better to find your starter earlier rather than later. DeBoer said at the start of spring they could take the competition into fall camp if they needed to. We’ll see.
As Washington looks to rebound from a 4-8 season in 2021, a more quarterback-friendly offensive system will surely help.
ESPN’s Football Power Index (FPI) projections for the 2022 season were released last week. There are more than a few curious nuggets in the numbers.
For one, Texas, Auburn, and LSU were all ranked ahead of Utah. A quick rundown of those three:
- Texas: has one double-digit-win season in the last 12 years; finished last season 3-7 against Power Five opponents; finished 31st in Sagarin and 48th in SP+; is middle of the pack in returning production for 2022; will have a brand new quarterback; opened 33rd in SP+ projections for the 2022 season
- Auburn: is 12-12 in the last two years; plays in the toughest division in football; finished last season 30th in Sagarin and 29th in SP+; is middle of the pack in returning production for 2022; just let the booster base run completely rampant with false accusations and outlandish claims trying to dig up any possible dirt it could find to fire a coach who just completed his first season and then walked out a tepid “we’re keeping him” message that felt more like “we couldn’t find anything” than “we back our coach”; opened 25th in SP+
- LSU: is 11-12 in the last two years; plays in the toughest division in football; finished last season 35th in Sagarin and 65th in SP+; sits on the low end for national returning production numbers; will have a first-year head coach; opened 45th in SP+
FPI’s top 10 looks very different from mine on the backend, and I’d suspect many others. It has Alabama and Ohio State and Georgia and Clemson in the top four spots, which is standard and bulletproof. It has Notre Dame fifth. Fine. It has Texas sixth and Michigan seventh, Oklahoma eighth, Pittsburgh ninth, Auburn 10th, and LSU right there at 11th, separated from Auburn by decimal points.
Utah, according to FPI, is the 15th-best team in the country, a point worse than LSU and Auburn and nearly five points worse than Texas.
In terms of payoff, there’s not a better team in college football to bet on than coach Kyle Whittingham’s Utah team. Few are paying attention to what will be one of the 10 best teams in the country next season. They have a CFP ceiling with a finished-22nd-in-the-AP-poll floor.
The Longhorns have the fifth-best chance to make the College Football Playoff, according to FPI, with the likelihood at 21%. Utah has a 4.9% chance.
FPI prides itself on being “a measure of team strength that is meant to be the best predictor of a team’s performance going forward for the rest of the season,” a model-based metric that’s supposed to weed out “Coach X is here now and we really like that coach” levels of bias. With this kind of ranking at this point in the offseason, it reads more like a way-too-early poll or a power ranking.
Predictive models are supposed to be… predictive. Giving LSU and Auburn the 13th and 14th best chances to make the Playoffs seems like rather reductive thinking. There’s nothing in the numbers that suggests Texas is a better team or will be a better team than Utah, which finished 10-4 last season for its fourth 10-plus-win season in the last 12, won the Pac-12 title, played in a Rose Bowl, returns the same level of production as its peers, returns the sixth-best quarterback in football last season by ESPN’s own metric (QBR), finished 11th in Sagarin and 16th in SP+ and opened 14th in SP+ for the 2022 season.
LSU and Auburn could finish fourth in their own division. Texas has won more than five Big 12 games in a season once since the McCoys left Austin, Texas.
Perhaps Whittingham loves all this. Utah is the hunted in its conference but still struggling to garner national respect. Let’s just dust off the shoulder and place that chip squarely on top of it.
Elsewhere in the rankings, we find Arizona State at 41st nationally and fifth in the Pac-12. The Sun Devils are right behind USC and UCLA. Washington State is tabbed ninth in the conference and 79th nationally. More than anything, these two teams make you think this is nothing more than a model based on data and not context, which only makes the top of the list all the more confusing.
Arizona State is a team being faded by human projections. The Sun Devils, 8-5 last year, lose their starting quarterback and they’ll continue to move through the offseason with an NCAA investigation lingering in the background and a cloud over their coach’s head. Some have suggested this group might only win three games.
I think Arizona State is going to have a pretty salty run game and a pretty nasty front seven on defense. The quarterback spot is a concern, but teams have been good in the trenches with a so-so quarterback and turned in great years before. Arizona State at 41, with a projection for nearly eight wins, focuses on the positives and ignores the context around everything. Could absolutely happen, but perhaps undervalues the “other” stuff.
Washington State’s spot seemingly ignores the other stuff. The Cougars were extra low in SP+ as well, 70th to be exact.
One big reason I can think of: no one is accounting for FCS transfer quarterback Cam Ward. FCS-to-FBS transfers are hard to quantify when it comes to returning production. Some choose to leave out those players in team numbers entirely. Some weight that production. SP+ left out FCS transfers. Did FPI do the same? It appears that way. If so, Wazzu looks like a team that lost its starter at quarterback and did nothing to replace him.
We know that’s not the case. The Cougars could win eight or maybe even nine games in 2022 behind Ward. FPI gives them a 30% chance to reach six wins. That’s just bad.