Boston College hasn't knocked off an AP Top 25 opponent since it upset No. 9 USC in 2014. Steve Addazio's tenure ended with 16 straight losses to programs ranked in the AP Poll. From 2016-19, ranked opponents drubbed Addazio's teams by an average of 30 points. BC scrounged together 10.2 points per game in those matchups, scoring a lone touchdown on six occasions. The Eagles were a national afterthought.
That changed when Jeff Hafley took over.
After turning around Ohio State's defense in 2019, Hafley revitalized a BC program that was stuck in neutral and projected by many to finish in the ACC's basement last season. Although the Eagles didn't earn that coveted ranked win in 2020, they did come closer than they have in years. BC was a two-point conversion away from forcing overtime against 12th-ranked North Carolina and lost to No. 1 Clemson and No. 2 Notre Dame by a combined 20 points.
Perhaps most importantly, though, Hafley's staff and players established a culture that saw BC go five straight months without a positive COVID-19 test. And now they're bringing back a total of 18 starters on offense and defense with a much lighter schedule than last year's slate.
Previewing Boston College's Offense for 2021
Offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti inherited a run-oriented scheme and pivoted hard to produce a potent aerial attack. In a single season, the Eagles went from second-to-last to third in the conference in passing offense. Quarterback Phil Jurkovec played a big part in the metamorphosis. The Notre Dame transfer won the starting job last summer and ran with it, throwing for 2,558 yards and 17 touchdowns in 10 games. Jurkovec won't have his security blanket, tight end Hunter Long, this fall. But he'll still have plenty of weapons.
BC returns All-ACC first-team wide receiver Zay Flowers. The speedy Flowers put up a conference-best nine touchdowns as a sophomore last season. He was tied for fifth nationally with seven receptions of 40 or more yards. Another wideout to watch is redshirt senior CJ Lewis. The 6'3" former high school quarterback caught everything thrown his way in 2020, piling up 460 receiving yards and five touchdowns. BC also gets back wide receiver Kobay White, who missed last season with an ACL tear but led the team in receptions the previous year.
The biggest question mark remains BC's run game, which surprisingly plummeted from eighth in the country in 2019 to a meager 118th last season. The Eagles shifted to a zone run scheme in 2020, resulting in growing pains. Luckily for BC, it retains everyone up front, including Zion Johnson and Ben Petrula, both of whom passed on the 2021 NFL Draft.
Previewing Boston College's Defense for 2021
Following a historically bad 2019 season, BC began to restore its defensive tradition under the watch of Hafley and defensive coordinator Tem Lukabu. The Eagles improved from 125th to 73rd in total defense, 101st to 60th in scoring defense and 122nd to 82nd in pass defense, allowing 40 fewer passing yards per game in 2020 (245.5) than they did in 2019.
The secondary is loaded with experience. The safety group is headlined by transfer and former five-star recruit Jaiden Lars-Woodbey, who started 22 games for Florida State. Then there's redshirt senior Brandon Sebastian, a three-year starter on the outside. Fellow corner Josh DeBerry was named All-ACC honorable mention last year. Redshirt juniors Elijah Jones and Jason Maitre also started their fair share of games in 2020, with Maitre often playing nickel.
BC frequently lined up in a 4-2-5 formation last year and will likely do the same this fall with the departure of linebackers Max Richardson and Isaiah McDuffie. Those two combined for 206 total tackles last season. There's going to be competition for the starting spots, but Temple grad transfer Isaiah Graham-Mobley should snag one.
The Eagles created takeaways — the third most in the ACC (21) last year — but it'll be worth monitoring how consistent their pass rush and run defense are this fall. Seventeen of BC's 25 sacks came in four games, and defending mobile quarterbacks was a big issue in 2020.
Previewing Boston College's Specialists for 2021
Placekicker Aaron Boumerhi and punter Grant Carlson stuck around for another year. Despite coming off his second right hip surgery, Boumerhi was one of only two ACC kickers last season to make 15 or more field goals and convert at least 80 percent of his attempts. He was 16-of-20 on the year, including 16-of-18 inside 50 yards. Carlson ranked eighth in the league with 15 punts inside the 20-yard line last season and had only three touchbacks. He averaged 42.4 yards per boot, the second-highest mark in his three seasons as BC's punter.
The program is searching for its first eight-win season since 2009. Hafley could finally end that drought this fall. The Eagles certainly have the schedule to do it. BC kicks off the year with four straight non-conference games, and only two of the Eagles' 2021 opponents finished last season with a winning record. BC's offense should be able to rock with any team in the ACC. The Eagles will find themselves in the postseason; however, the level of bowl game will likely depend on whether their defense can take another step forward.
National Ranking: 42
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(Phil Jurkovec photo courtesy of BC Athletics)