Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college football (Hugh Freeze commemorative hospital bed Coke Zero bottles sold separately):
Decided schematic advantages are fleeting
At the beginning of the decade, the sport was aflame with spread offenses running at breakneck tempos. They were ahead of the defenses, and it seemed like that side of the ball may never catch up.
Fast forward to 2019, and many of the smartest guys from the 2010-14 range are struggling to stay ahead of their peers — and ahead of opposing defenses. Coordinators are putting faster defenses on the field now, and the shock of playing uptempo offenses has long since disappeared because nearly everyone routinely runs some form of no-huddle attack. Playing fast and spreading the field are not the inherent advantages they used to be.
So the question becomes adaptability: If defenses counter your pet strategy, what’s your counter to their counter? And how fast can it be implemented?
This is simplistic, but it bears repeating: The best offensive tacticians do their best work with their best players. The more talent — especially at quarterback — the more plays per game and yards per play and points on the scoreboard and victories. (In other words, drawing up plays for Cam Newton and LaMichael James and Johnny Manziel and Robert Griffin was easier than the current predicament.)
A closer look:
Chip Kelly (11). The UCLA coach’s team produced 218 yards of offense in a 24-14 loss to Cincinnati. That’s the fewest for a Bruins squad in three years and the fewest for a Kelly-led college squad since his very first game as a head coach at Oregon, the infamous LeGarrette Blount punch game at Boise State in 2009.
The glory days: Kelly’s teams at Oregon averaged 6.05 yards per play (2009), 6.76 (2010), 7.21 (2011) and 6.60 (2012) — the last three years the Ducks were in the Top 10 in the nation in that category. They also went 46-7 under Kelly.
Now: In his first year at UCLA, in 2018, the Bruins were 80th nationally in yards per play (5.52), and after one game this year they’re 118th (3.52). They’re also 3-10 in that time. The Bruins were facing a very good Cincinnati defense on the road and were down at least two key skill-position players, but the offense was still shockingly ineffective.
Kevin Sumlin (12). Arriving at Arizona last year and inheriting dual-threat star quarterback Kahlil Tate hasn’t translated to success. Scoring dipped 10 points per game from the last year under Rich Rodriguez (2017) to the first year under Sumlin (2018).
The glory days: With Case Keenum as his quarterback, Sumlin’s Houston team was No. 2 in the nation in yards per play at 7.61 in 2011. The next year, his first at Texas A&M, the Aggies were No. 2 nationally in yards per play with Manziel running the show. They were No. 4 in 2013, Manziel’s final season of college ball.
Now: Arizona averaged 6.23 yards per play last season, which wasn’t bad (26th nationally) but was far behind the best seasons at A&M. The Wildcats averaged a fat 7.59 per play against Hawaii in Week Zero and still lost, dropping Sumlin’s 13-game record at Arizona to 5-8.
Gus Malzahn (13). Until Bo Nix pulled it out of the fire on Auburn’s final possession against Oregon, the Tigers’ offense looked a lot like it had the previous two seasons. That’s not good. Auburn was averaging 5.05 yards per play Saturday, then moved 60 yards in 11 plays to score the winning touchdown and make everyone forget about the previous 58 minutes.
The glory days: Malzahn was the offensive coordinator when Newton was the quarterback at Auburn in 2010, and the Tigers were third nationally in yards per play at 7.37. They were also in the Top 10 in that category with Nick Marshall at the helm in 2013 and ’14.
Now: Auburn was 70th last year in yards per play and is 88th after one game of 2019. Average rank from 2015-18: 58th. Playing in the SEC West is a difficult place to flourish offensively, but that’s why Malzahn is making an astronomical $7 million a year after flirting with Arkansas two years ago.
The Briles Coaching Tree (14). Art Briles brought his breakneck Texas high school football style with him into college ball, with great results on the field. (Off the field is another story, which is why Art is now a high school coach — and shouldn’t even have that job.) He spun off Philip Montgomery as the head coach at Tulsa; Dino Babers went to Bowling Green and now Syracuse; and son Kendal has become an itinerant offensive coordinator since leaving Baylor — Florida Atlantic to Houston to Florida State.
The glory days: From 2011-15, the Briles-led Baylor was perhaps the ultimate embodiment of the spread-tempo movement. The Bears moved the ball on everyone and scored on everyone, average more than 7.25 yards per play in 2011, ’13 and ’15. Montgomery got off to a good two-year start at Tulsa. Kendal Briles was productive working for his dad and thereafter, working for Lane Kiffin and Major Applewhite.
Now: Montgomery’s offense has completely imploded at Tulsa, ranking 112th in yards per play last year and 130th (dead last) so far this season. The Golden Hurricane actually ran for a minus-73 yards Saturday against Michigan State. Kendal Briles, meanwhile, saw his Florida State offense get off to a lightning start Saturday and then break down, producing just 49 yards, four first downs and zero points in the second half.
The current Briles Tree shining star is Dino Babers (15), who won 10 games at Syracuse last year, earned a preseason Top 25 ranking and is off to a 1-0 start in 2019 after beating Bedridden Hugh Freeze and Liberty.
Notre Dame has work to do
Here’s the Dash dispatch from Cardinal Stadium on Monday night, where No. 9 Notre Dame (16) struggled far more than it should have in putting away Louisville (17), 35-17.
Credit the Cardinals for showing up with a plan and with passion, two things that were blatantly missing as Bobby Petrino all but abandoned the program during the season last year. The fan base has every reason to be excited about the future under new coach Scott Satterfield (18). Louisville’s climb out of a deep, dark hole may not be as long as it appeared it would be.
Yet while the Cardinals played like a program eager to prove itself, the Fighting Irish played at times like a program that felt like it had nothing to prove after making the playoff last year. Many of Notre Dame's most important players did not look ready to be challenged Monday night.
This is a talent-deprived Louisville team that the Fighting Irish should have walked all over, especially given the plus-two turnover margin. Yet this was a one-score game until the middle of the third quarter.
The Notre Dame defense lost important players on all three levels, so some struggles were expected there — but Louisville had them flailing and off balance for quite a while, with assignment busts and mental errors by most of ND's defensive standouts. The bigger surprise was the wildly uneven play of quarterback Ian Book (19) and wildly uneven play calling by Chip Long (20), who seemed oddly reluctant to lean on a running game that was shredding the Cardinals early.
Book threw for 193 yards and a touchdown and ran for 81 and another score. But he also lost one fumble and nearly lost another, made some uncharacteristically inaccurate throws and was often unsettled in the pocket.
“Really no excuses, honestly,” Book said afterward. “Just got to get better from it.”
Head coach Brian Kelly was justifiably pleased with several of his young players who stepped into new roles and made big plays. But he also correctly noted, “Our veterans have to play better. Our young guys emerged tonight. … We need our veterans to step up their play another level.”
They have 19 days to do so. Notre Dame goes to Georgia on Sept. 21, and the need for major improvement by then is obvious.
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