Saturday, December 19, 2015

BYU gets their coach and other notes

As someone who loves big picture, abstract thinking this is one of my favorite times of the year in college football. Teams reshuffle their decks and try to hire staff to make the most of different programs with some teams making sensible choices and other programs operating under mistaken notions of what will work in their own context.

Here's a few recent moves that I'm very interested in seeing play out.

BYU hires Kalani Sitake 

I wrote about BYU and their near-hire of Navy's Ken Niumatalolo recently, a move that I thought might fit their program long-term but would really struggle to make the most of a roster built to win in the near-future with QB Tanner Mangum.

SB Nation's Steven Godfrey noted that this was a very important hire for BYU as a big realignment move that could put them in the Power 5 might be imminent, in which case they want their program to be as strong as possible. Their choice? Kalani Sitake.

Sitake is a long time member of the Gary Andersen/Kyle Whittingham coaching tree who got started on offense as a RB/TE coach and then OL coach at Southern Utah after playing football as a fullback at BYU. He switched to the defensive side, coaching LBs under Whittingham at Utah and eventually working his way up to becoming defensive coordinator.

He has a great reputation as a defensive coach with the only potential hesitation coming from the fact that in his first year as a DC away from Whittingham the Utes pushed on and were fine while Sitake and Andersen were unable to turn the Oregon State Beavers into a good defense in year one. However, it would have been a miracle if they had, so there probably isn't too much to worry about there.

As a native Tongan, Sitake is perfectly situated to help BYU take advantage of their MAJOR recruiting advantage as a program, which is to land Islanders.

As an adherent of the Whittingham school of defense, he knows how to coach a zone-blitz heavy team that can match the aggressiveness of Bronco Mendenhall's units and make the most of what's already on that roster.

Since he isn't married to the flexbone like Niumatalolo, but instead more of a power-coast approach, he should be able to make hires and oversee something on offense that makes the most of Tanner Mangum.

Here's the challenge for him at BYU: defensive backs. His cover 3-heavy approach to defense is all about owning the middle of the field with great tackling safeties and aggressive pressures while daring opponents to beat the corners on the outside. There's little doubt that he'll be able to field DL and LB that can do real damage with this approach.

The big question is where he's going to find a rangy deep safety or athletic corners who can match-up and stay alive on the outside? Twenty-four year old married white guys and 210 pound aggressive Islanders don't make for very good cornerbacks, generally. Mendenhall had to adjust his schemes to feature off-coverage on the outside and play much more bend don't break styles.

Sitake is either going to have to find a recruiting pipeline of good DBs or else adjust his system to get by. Fortunately for him and his Cougar program, they weren't exactly swimming in NFL corners at Utah either and managed to get by so you have to figure he knows what he's doing here.

The marriage of Justin Fuente to Bud Foster

The hire of Fuente at Virginia Tech while simultaneously holding on to Bud Foster was one of the most terrifying successes of this offseason hiring process. On the one hand the Hokies add a spread coach who's built explosive offenses built around future NFL QBs he found and developed at TCU and Memphis. Fuente's resume as a builder of QBs and offenses is exceptional, one of the best in the business.

His struggle is the need to be paired with a great defensive coach. At TCU, he was operating under Gary Patterson who's one of the best in the business. He started at Memphis with Barry Odom, now the HC at Missouri, but lost him and saw his defense drop. Now he gets to work with Bud Foster, who's been building top defenses at Virginia Tech for a very, very long time.

The ACC is really rolling now with FSU and Clemson really putting strong teams out there on an annual basis and adding Fuente to Virginia Tech should make for an interesting mix to that division. Under Frank Beamer the Hokies rarely had exciting or particularly fearsome offenses save for when Michael Vick was manning their option attack but Fuente should get that straightened out in time.

His first move was to recruit Texas JUCO star Jerod Evans, who has the size and athletic ability of Tyrone Swoopes (with a little more quickness and a little less size) only a much greater feel for the QB position. He was a touchdown machine this year in the JUCO ranks and has the big frame to excel in Fuente's favorite concepts.

Without being familiar with the rest of Virginia Tech's roster for 2016 I'd venture a guess that they may not have to wait too long before they see results in the wins column.

Friday, December 18, 2015

North Dakota St offers the Midwestern blueprint for beating the Air Raid

Back when Stitt and Klieman faced-off to open the college football season I watched that game in order to break down Stitt's Air Raid, which led me to be impressed once more by how well coached North Dakota State was.

I noticed that once the Bison adjusted to simply playing more two-deep coverage and using stunts to help stop the Grizzlies from running on a five-man box, they really slowed down Stitt's attack. I wondered, "if they got a re-match, would they expand on that approach and would it work better or would Montana adjust?"

The answer? North Dakota State stuffed the Stitt offense. Here's how they did it.

There are lots of lessons here for someone like Matt Campbell, who intends to build a Midwestern team at Iowa State, to apply to winning in the Big 12. Building a DL that can allow a multiple, two-deep approach to defense seems the best way to go.

Of course TCU has been going that route for years but Patterson is usually too aggressive-minded to try and apply his brain to stopping the run without involving his safeties. Many of the best defenses of today are the ones that are learning how to live with only having five players in the box to control the trenches with. It would be interesting to see that approach take a deeper hold in the Big 12.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Previewing the Oklahoma Defense against Deshaun Watson and the Clemson Offense

Read about it at SB Nation.

That Boston College Defense

The Eagles played fantastic defense this season, finishing third in defensive S&P despite not having a single player on the unit who was rated higher than 3-stars by the recruiting services. You can read about their DL-based, multiple defense here.

Some lessons for Big 12 teams that'd like to be able to play defense that well who also don't have access to premier talent.

1. Getting sturdy DL that are violent with their hands goes a long, long ways towards building good defense. The Eagles DL are great at stunting in particular, which means they have a lot of pressures they can send that don't require sending numbers.

2. Culture matters. Addazio may have produced a crap offense this year but his physical style was undoubtedly instrumental in helping foster a culture that produced this defense. My next point will come back to this.

3. Convert corners into safeties. Adherence to "the rule of three" necessitates that teams recruit lots of physical, quality corners and convert some of them into safeties or else they risk being unable to hold up against B12 passing attacks. However, this teams need a physical culture that encourages the growth of corners into safeties that are willing to lay it all out in the alley.

4. The two-deep fire zone is a pretty nice tool in the arsenal if a team has the safeties to make it work. If they aren't rangy and good tacklers? Forget about it. But if they are it's a nice change-up for attacking QBs that are used to punishing blitzes based on single-high coverage.

Texas' QB options for running the "veer 'n' shoot" offense

Suffice to say, neither of the QBs (Tyrone Swoopes and Jerrod Heard) who have been taking snaps for Texas over the last two seasons are particularly adept for running Briles' option offense.

However, Texas has finally started stocking the roster with some true passing QBs that might be able to make it work. Read about it at Inside Texas.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Has Texas stolen Baylor's identity?

Not exactly, Gilbert has his own take on Briles offense, but sort of, yes. It's funny to see Briles and some Baylor fans be indignant about it given that they've been attempting to steal Michigan State's defensive identity and should probably steal some more of it.

Stealing ideas is a major part of the coaching game. What's sad for this Texas fan though is that back in the days of DKR, it was the Longhorns who innovated new takes on the option and everyone else who stole from Texas. Now Texas is reduced to stealing what they couldn't come up with on their own, like some land thief from across the Red River.

Over at Inside Texas I break down what Sterlin Gilbert's variety of the Briles offense looks like and how it fits at Texas.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

My 2015 All-Big 12 Team

It's time to wrap things up with a summary of what the 2015 season's main actors have accomplished this season. Normally the All-Big 12 team is a place where the writers reward the league's best players by jamming them into whatever positions is necessary to make sure their season has been acknowledged.

I used to hate that style, since it typically results in a team that doesn't make any sense and which often ignores the contributions of important or even essential role players who don't put up gaudy stats that stand out. Now I've made my peace with it, but this list is going to aim for recognizing what the 22 main positions on the field are and who was most excellent this year in each role.

All-Big 12 Offense

QB: Trevone Boykin, TCU        
        Baker Mayfield, Oklahoma

Boykin gets the nod because he was the most dominant player in the league in the 10(?) games that he played to the extent that you could never count the Frogs out so long as he was on the field. He's probably the most powerful and most difficult to tackle QB I've seen in this league since Vince Young. He's your OPOY.

Mayfield had a brilliant season as well, the fact that he's coming back next year fills me with dread. Next man up for honors in my book would be Pat Mahomes, than Mason Rudolph.

RB: Samaje Perine, Oklahoma
        DeAndre Washington, Texas Tech

I'll have to eat crow here as I had Aaron Green higher than Perine on my preseason list because I figured the move to the Air Raid would blunt Perine's effectiveness. I was right, and then they figured it out, and then Perine tore through the league. In the meantime he was a selfless blocker, which enabled their two-back game with Mixon in to work as well. Perine was truly impressive this season. I'd honor Smallwood but he fumbled too much, Warren was very good, Linwood was a great back as well.

Ancillary: Winston Dimel, Kansas State
                  Blake Jarwin, Oklahoma State

Jarwin grew enough as a blocker to replace Jeremy Seaton in the Cowboy offense while Dimel "the hammer" proved to be more of true fullback than did Gronk who's really more of an undersized tight end. Honorable mentions go to Kody Cook who played WR and Wildcat QB at a high level, Tyrone Swoopes and JW Walsh who ran brilliant "4th phase" units, and Joe Mixon who was a RB/WR/FB hybrid for OU this year.

X: Corey Coleman, Baylor
     James Washington, Oklahoma State

Corey Coleman was utterly dominant this season until injuries robbed the Baylor passing game of it's effectiveness. They probably catered too much to his dominance at the expense of utilizing the rest of their WR corps, I'm sure the rest will be unleashed next season. Washington grew into a true deep threat this season.

Z: Josh Doctson, TCU
     KD Cannon, Baylor

Doctson is only a hair behind Coleman as the most complete WR in the league and was equally brilliant winning over the top or running curl routes or zone beaters underneath. His injury was most unfortunate. KD Cannon has been something of a one-trick pony but his trick is pretty good (he's fast).

Slot: Sterling Shepard, Oklahoma
        Jakeem Grant, Texas Tech

Shepard lined up all over the field, wherever OU wanted to attack a given opponent, and ran great routes from multiple positions. I'm putting him in the slot on this list but he deserves recognition up there with Coleman and Doctson. Grant was also brilliant this season, expanding his role beyond burning teams after the catch on screens and adding more deep and possession-style routes to his game.

LT: Spencer Drango, Baylor
       Cody Whitehair, Kansas State

These two guys, in addition to protecting the blind side, served as the de-facto lead guards for their teams' run game as both squads regularly ran behind these players. Honorable mentions go to Le'Raven Clark, who was also great, and Connor Williams who will be better than any of them before all is said and done.

LG: Adam Pankey, West Virginia
        Jonathan Alvarez, Oklahoma
Most of the better guards played on the right side this year and many of the better left guards missed time with injury. Kansas State's Boston Stiverson, for instance, was one of the better guards but missed a lot of time. This position will probably be better next season.

OC: Jamison Lalk, Iowa State
        Joey Hunt, TCU

The league had a lot more quality at center this year and OU's Ty Darlington and WVU's Tyler Orlosky were also good. Lalk was the anchor and main reason for Mike Warren's 1k yard season and Hunt helped TCU field a couple of big dudes at guard who were barely mobile walls of flesh.

RG: Nila Kasitati, Oklahoma
        Daniel Burton, Iowa State

Kasitati was the best all around OL for OU this year in my book, they might miss him next season. Mangino did a great job with the Cyclone OL, as is his wont and the reason his Kansas teams were good, and Burton had a really strong year. I really liked Michigan transfer Kyle Bosch as well and Patrick Vahe will eventually be the best guard in the league.

RT: Joseph Noteboom, TCU
        Marquis Lucas, West Virginia

Not much to recognize here, some of the right tackles for the Big 12 this season were downright poor. Kent Perkins was one of the better OL in the entire league but split time at LG, RG, RT, and on the bench with injuries.

All-Big 12 Defense

End: Emmanuel Ogbah, Oklahoma State
         Charles Tapper, Oklahoma

Shawn Oakman failed to turn his freakish strength and length into great production this season but Ogbah had no such difficulties. Tapper had a great final season, having fully mastered at last the 4i technique at Oklahoma.

Nose: Andrew Billings, Baylor
          Will Geary, Kansas State

Honorable mention to Iowa State's Demond Tucker, who was very disruptive in bursts. Billings is your DPOY and his disruption inside and mastery of double teams was instrumental to all of Baylor's defensive success. Geary is one of my favorite players in the B12, he doesn't even look like a D1 lineman until the ball is snapped and he's whupping people in the trenches.

Tackle: Hassan 
Ridgeway, Texas
              Charles Walker, Oklahoma

Ridgeway was, at times, the best DT in the entire conference but his play was inconsistent and he struggled early and late with injuries and conditioning. Charles Walker didn't even start at OU (behind Matt Dimon) but he dominated games when he was on the field. Travis Britz was stout, as always.

Edge-Rusher: Eric Striker, Oklahoma
                        Malik Jefferson, Texas

You could qualify Obgah here but since he played with his hand in the dirt I decided to make him the defensive end. Striker had another great season at OU and really benefitted from the emergence of Bond opposite him and Parker behind him. Malik Jefferson didn't have a particularly big year numbers wise but opponents tracked his whereabouts very carefully and he destroyed Oklahoma.

Inside-backer: Jordan Evans, Oklahoma
                         Dominique Alexander, Oklahoma

Props to Will Davis, Peter Jinkens, Travin Howard, and Montrel Wilson but OU had the best ILB play in the conference by a safe margin, as well they should have considering both have been there for a few years now. Montrel Wilson could have been 1st team had he played more this season and should be excellent next season.

Outside-backer: Nick Kwiatkoski, West Virginia

                            Elijah Lee, Kansas State

Lee is about a year away from being one of the better defensive players in the Big 12 and he's proven to be a great fit for the Wildcat defense with his ability to handle playing in space and what he brings to the pass-rush. Kwiatkoski had a great season wearing a lot of hats for the Mountaineers.

Space-backer: Denzel Johnson, TCU
                         KJ Dillon, West Virginia

In the Big 12 my "outside backer" designation is basically becoming a space-backer while this position is more of a box safety. What I mean here are guys that play in the nickel but who rarely carry verticals and play as roamers and enforcers in space. Denzel Johnson was the best of that bunch and KJ Dillon also had a solid season doing that and also dropping into deep coverage.

Boundary corner: Xavien Howard, Baylor
                                Zach Sanchez, Oklahoma

Nod to Sanchez who was much improved in run-support this season and was up to his usual tricks in baiting throws and having flypaper hands to nab anything thrown at him. Howard was also very solid and gave Baylor some nice run-force on the edge in cover 2.

Cover safety: Duke Thomas, Texas
                       Steven Parker, Oklahoma

Duke Thomas played mostly nickel but also played at right cornerback, left cornerback, and finished the year at strong safety. He was great in coverage, physical and reliable as a tackler, and played with good leverage all over the field. Steven Parker was also fantastic in similar roles, these were two of the better DBs in the league this year.

Safety: Derrick Kindred, TCU
             Jordan Sterns, Oklahoma State

Kindred+Johnson was one of the only great things TCU's defense had going for them and I've detailed his great season here. Jordan Sterns is one of the best pure run-support safeties in the league.

Field corner: Daryl Worley, West Virginia
                       Kevin Peterson, Oklahoma State

Special nod to Oklahoma's Jordan Thomas, who will probably be one of the best corners in the league next season, and to Texas' Holton Hill and Davante Davis who are going to be a fearsome combo in time. Worley had a great season when he wasn't asked to play man coverage on Corey Coleman and is particularly adept at playing a "don't get beat deep" technique and providing almost an extra safety with his pursuit and run-support. Peterson was solid as well and wore a few different hats for OSU this year.

That's all she wrote. Make note of your vehement condemnations of my choices in the comments!

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

The future of BYU football

Football Scoop says BYU is strongly considering Navy's Ken Niumatalolo. A look at BYU's options at Head Coach reveals better options than you might have guessed considering that the head coach has to be a member of the LDS Church and also willing to coach at a place with unusual parameters for the football program.

Amongst those parameters are the requirements that players don't drink alcohol or engage in extra-marital sex, which are some of football players' favorite pastimes for blowing off steam. This is undoubtedly a disadvantage in recruiting talent that isn't already Mormon, yet the numbers of LDS athletes out there in in the world are shockingly high so it doesn't hurt the team as badly as you might think.

Niumatalolo has been coaching at Navy, which also has some tough, self-imposed restrictions including the need for great academics as well as weight limits and fitness requirements that don't lend themselves to producing massive, fast-twitch football players. Given that he's used to working under difficult parameters and a Pacific Islander who's a major figure in that community, which is the source of much of BYU's talent, it would seem he's a phenomenal cultural fit for the Cougars' football program.

The problem, as the Salt Lake City Tribune's Kragthorpe laments, is that Niumatalolo is an adherent of Paul Johnson's "flexbone" triple-option offense, which is markedly different from the offenses that BYU has traditionally relied on in years past.

As it happens, BYU is the place where the modern Air Raid offense found much of its inspiration, although for a long time what BYU was able to accomplish throwing the football was dismissed as something that was only possible because the school is loaded with 24 year old married dudes who possessed the discipline and know-how to run all of the timing routes and concepts.

Eventual 49er great Steve Young was groomed in this system and unleashed Manziel-esque hell heck on the Mormons' foes back in the 80s, throwing for 3900 yards, 33 TDs, 9.1 ypa, and adding 400+ rushing yards in 1983 when he finished 2nd in the Heisman voting.

The more recent Bronco Mendenhall era of BYU was more about capturing the Islander identity of the program's talent pool, specifically with odd front defenses that were designed to create havoc and pressure up front while asking their athletically-limited DBs to play bend don't break behind them.

Bronco struggled to build good offenses before making the move towards a wide-open spread attack built largely off the veer-option that was deadly when Taysom Hill was healthy and average when he wasn't. Then this year, after Hill's inevitable early season injury, they turned the offense over to 22 year old true freshman Tanner Mangum and instead emphasized a spread passing attack more akin to their 80's roots.

It really appeared as though the next few years of Mangum-BYU football were going to be very interesting as the Cougars combined a skilled passing game with a premier throwing talent with a Bronco defense. But then Mendenhall left for Virginia and here we are.

The big question for Niumatalolo is not whether his triple-option attack would work at BYU, there's no question that it would. The triple-option is about having smart OL, a smart, tough, good decision maker at QB, and some backs who can do damage on the edge.

The Cougars have typically had an abundance of tough, heady players on offense and should be able to find one or two guys with explosiveness in a given year. Defensively Niumatalolo would have to find a good coach to match Mendenhall's tradition but the pieces are there to continue to field tough units.

The question is how would the program adjust and what is the opportunity cost of going in the flexbone direction when the roster is designed for Mangum to find success the traditional BYU way?

It should be interesting to see what direction they go with this hire.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Early thoughts on the CFB Playoff match-ups

If styles make fights then the committee didn't do us any favors with these playoff selections, squaring off the two physical running teams against each other while the spread/QB focused teams meet on the other side of the bracket. I can't complain too much about the rankings as they more or less reflect how I would rank these teams based on their resumes this year.

Let's start with a few quick notes on each team:

1. Clemson

The Tigers are undefeated and have taken down several good teams including Notre Dame (arguably the best team in the country before injuries) and Florida State. They are keyed by DeShaun Watson on offense while their defense is all about Mackensie Alexander locking down top WR targets and their FS T.J. Green provides an extra man in the box to stuff the run.

Whether or not Watson can be handled is likely to be a major theme of the playoffs while Alexander's impact will also be sizable.

2. Alabama

This is the most talented team in the country but I'm still hesitant about Jacob Coker. The Bama defense is going to be a major handful for every opponent and if you don't have the ability to attack every part of the field with good players and schemes you probably just aren't going to score many points against them. Only two teams broke 20 on them and both were spread passing squads (Ole Miss and A&M).

The offense is loaded as well but there's a reason Coker couldn't win the job from Blake Sims last year and why they had to simplify the offense for him this season. If you can stop Derrick Henry (big if, there) and pressure Coker you can limit them from breaking 20 as well.

3. Michigan State

The "team of destiny" it would appear. Usually the team that gets into the playoffs due to repeatedly climbing out of tough spots and winning close games eventually gets beat. The best teams don't have to win close games all the time, they just blast people's doors down and take victories.

The Spartans are rounding into form at the right time though so we'll see. They've solidified their secondary by moving Demetrious Cox to full time safety and now have what might be the best safety tandem in the playoffs. The team that boasted that honor last season won. Their defensive front is exceptional against the run or pass and very, very physical. I wish we were seeing OU take these guys on as it would be a jarring difference for them from facing the more finesse-based teams in the Big 12.

Their run game is good and Connor Cook can make NFL-level throws, so they can find offense even against good secondaries and defenses. Their biggest problem is that an opposing team that can take away Burbridge without getting gashed by the run is going to erase their entire offense.

4. Oklahoma

The alternative "team of destiny" that rode in on the backs of wins against teams reeling from recent injuries to their starting QBs. Oklahoma has been playing excellent football over the last two months, but it's hard to know how much mettle they really have due to their level of competition.

The Sooners are an Air Raid team that is actually built around the running game, throwing to Sterling Shepard, and Baker Mayfield's improvisational skills. Their defense is a very athletic odd front team similar to what Oregon has looked like on defense in recent years but with better pass-rush and a healthier secondary than the Ducks had going into last year's playoff. Also better ILBs.

Now onto the match-ups:

Clemson vs OU

Early line: Oklahoma -2 (now OU -3)

It's easy to see this game proving to be a lower scoring contest than commonly assumed simply because OU is well equipped to handle Clemson's spread while the Sooners are likely to struggle facing a defense with the level of athletes Clemson has and without Mayfield's safety blanket (Shepard) likely to be open as often thanks to Alexander's coverage.

In fact, it's not hard to see Clemson having some success replicating Texas' strategy of locking down receivers and controlling Mayfield by virtue of having lots of good athletes on the field tracking him down. The quality of Big 12 defenses this year was down due to TCU's injury problems, Texas' youth, and K-State's injuries. OU had a good defense but their own offense didn't have to face it on Saturdays.

The line frankly makes no sense save for the fact that there's always likely to be money coming in for OU. Clemson has been equally impressive this season while facing a tougher schedule when you factor in Oklahoma's luck with opposing team injuries. I'll have to look deeper but early on I like Clemson a lot in this one.

An Oklahoma victory would probably look like hanging around and getting Mayfield going late in the game, a difficult formula to stop. If they can't handle Watson's running though I could see this getting away from them.

Alabama vs Michigan State

Early line: Alabama -9

Alabama is probably a superior overall team than Sparty, although Dantonio's team is putting things together at the right time, but I don't love this match-up for them.

The popular refrain is that Alabama always crushes pro-style offenses...I think it's more accurate to say that this Alabama defense crushes all offenses and they'll probably crush Michigan State's as well. The issue is what happens if they get into a low-scoring slugfest like Iowa, Michigan, or Ohio State found themselves in earlier this year?

I firmly expect the Spartan defensive front to be able to handle Derrick Henry and the Tide running game and then the game will become a matter of which QB makes more big plays and avoids mistakes. Are you betting on Connor Cook's ability to thread the needle against Bama coverage? Or Coker's ability to diagnose Sparty's six-man zone pressures that send Bulloughs flying through the A-gaps while athletes like Darian Hicks or Montae Nicholson read his eyes?

I'm betting on Sparty in that scenario.

Of course, I reserve the right to change my mind after further reflection and film study but that's how I see things so far.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

How Texas can beat Baylor

I'm not saying it's likely, but here's what that outcome would look like. FREE!

What is Matt Campbell's plan for Iowa State?

I wrote about the Campbell fit at Iowa State over at Football Study Hall.

One of my comments in response to a Hawkeye skeptic of the Campbell plan:

"Iowa state has this problem with any hire

A new coach either has to be great at recruiting JUCOs, Oklahoma, Iowa, and Texas OR they need to be able to add new recruiting territory.

Campbell is planning on pitching Midwestern kids on playing in the Big 12 and beating up finesse teams. Not sure if that will work but I won’t say it can’t."

Read all about it here.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

A few thoughts on the major coaching changes taking place

It's silly season in college football, when rumors are flying everywhere, sources are sayin', and overwhelmed athletic directors are making some curious choices.

Here are some scatter shots on who's winning and losing in silly season:

Georgia...treading water

The Dawgs have been making some frankly baffling choices. Here's the situation: They had a beloved coach in Mark Richt, known as a man of integrity in every sphere, who had been there for 15 seasons and had one losing season (2010).

After this season's 9-3 finish when they were expected to potentially compete for an SEC title and playoff berth, he was pushed out. Now, two SEC titles and zero national championship appearances, much less wins, is a long history. I understand why Georgia would make the assessment that Richt didn't have much else to offer than what he's already shown.

Here's the interesting aspect of all this, Georgia's trajectory as a program and their decision to replace Richt with Kirby Smart.

You'll notice that, while they've been just worse than the SEC's elite programs, they've also been very good. Even more interesting, let me call your attention to two key features here.

2014 was Georgia's last season with Mike Bobo, a fantastic OC who's now getting consideration for head coaching gigs at major programs. 2013 was their last with DC Todd Grantham (now at Louisville) whom they replaced with Jeremy Pruitt.

Pruitt coached two of the secondaries that I've ranked as the greatest of this century, one at Alabama as the DB coach (2011) and then one at FSU as the DB coach/DC (2013). He took over a Georgia secondary decimated by transfers and still produced a top unit that then improved the following year (this season).

If I had a choice between Kirby Smart, Will Muschamp, and Jeremy Pruitt to be my defensive coordinator at a top program I'm probably choosing Pruitt. Richt made a great hire in pulling him away from Florida State. He made a less great hire with Brian Schottenheimer in 2015 but it's only fair to note that Brian was running Richt's offense and without great options at the QB position.

So moving forward, Georgia is well situated to be a top defensive team year after year and needs either to go in a new direction on offense or simply to find a QB. Since the offensive direction at Georgia has been set by Richt for the last 15 years, it makes sense that if you think his offense puts a ceiling on this program that you'd hire a new head coach.

Georgia hired Kirby Smart who's apparently planning on releasing Jeremy Pruitt back into the wild, where Nick Saban is likely to snatch him up as the DC for Alabama. Smart apparently plans to poach Will Muschamp from Auburn, Alabama's rival.

In summation: Georgia is not going to upgrade their situation on the defensive side of the ball, since they already had an excellent DC who was taking that program to an elite level as a defensive team. They are going to potentially downgrade Auburn's defensive situation and possibly upgrade Alabama's coaching staff.

So far they've made a hire that puts them exactly where they were before on defense, which is good, but they have yet to rectify their situation on offense. There is talk that they'll snatch up Western Kentucky's spread coach...we'll just see how this goes.


The Trojans were my third strongest college program, but I'm starting to have second thoughts after watching Pat Haden flounder through another coaching search. Why is it that the Trojans never, ever seem to end up with a the coach that the top programs are all targeting? Or even a coach that other top programs are considering?

It very much seems like they stumbled upon Pete Carroll almost by accident and have misidentified the key to his success as having been about the explosive offenses he fielded rather than the strong defensive units that have always been his true calling card.

After they had to dismiss Sarkisian in disgrace they ultimately settled on replacing him with...offensive coordinator Clay Helton. Essentially they are doubling down on the original assumption that Sarkisian's staff and approach were what was going to bring the Trojans back to greatness and simply promoted from within. I'm not sure why they thought Helton and the status quo was better than every other option out there, although I will at least say in their defense that their need for a coach was sprung upon their own failure to vet and and provide oversight for their staff.

This is a program that could rule the Pac-12 with an iron fist yet no one is going to be terrified by this move.


I won't pretend to be confident about what a Scott Frost program will look like overall, but I do know that the Oregon offensive system will be murderous with Floridian and Georgian athletes of the type that UCF will be able to regularly bring aboard.

Oregon is based largely around outside zone blocking, which requires hard working, swift-footed OL of the type that a program like UCF can expect to find. From there it's about having an option-savvy QB and blazing fast athletes who can do major damage in space.

It's all too easy to see this going very well at UCF although their conference, the AAC, is quietly becoming one of the best athletic leagues in the nation because it's comprised of schools in talent-rich areas that are starting to invest more in their football and basketball programs.

It's no longer a simple matter to go to an AAC school, do a great job of recruiting local talent, and then going out and whipping people in order to earn a better coaching job back in an AQ conference. Because every AAC school is hiring people trying to do that.

Nebraska fans...losing

I wrote this time last year that "Nebraska can only hire the right coach after a blunt self-assessment." I believe they did so with the Mike Riley hire as they landed a coach that knows how to recruit nationally, how to find players in the margins, how to scheme to create systemic advantages for his players, how to oversee a thriving walk-on program, and who basically has all the competencies needed to make Nebraska as great as they can be.

Nevertheless, their fans seem to want the flashier Scott Frost toy that's in the window and are hoping that Frost will prove his mettle at UCF and in a few years time be ready to take over for a Riley regime they assume will fail.

One ironic thing about this is that Riley inherited a smaller OL built for outside zone and is now trying to remake Nebraska to mash the ball inside with tight zone plays...Frost would have to redirect back to a faster OL if he took over just as Riley would have gotten the OL where he wanted it.

Another ironic note here is that Frost has proven much less as an overall program director than has Riley, who's been the head coach of a team with a good defense before. Frost hasn't even been the OC of a team with a particularly good defense.

If there are any Nebraska fans reading this I would urge you to give Riley enough time to get his program going in Lincoln before seizing on a distraction like Scott Frost. I'd also give caution to the wise to wait and see if Frost can demonstrate the program management skills to win big in the AAC before committing all-in on him on your message boards.

My summary of OU's triumphant 2015 season

They definitely got lucky, but they also ended up putting together a team that works together really well and proved to be the most complete squad within the league.

It'll be very interesting to see how they fare against the other playoff teams. Read up on it here.

Monday, November 30, 2015

Big 12 Twitter-bag Volume 3

The 2015 Big 12 season is over and it did not end as I had expected. Before the season my guess was that OSU would be the main challenger to TCU and Baylor thanks to a passing game built around Mason Rudolph and the versatility afforded by Cowboys' TE personnel.

They might have under-utilized their TEs but still got a lot out of Rudolph and a deep WR corps. However, while they were perfectly positioned to take down Baylor and TCU and win the Big 12, they were stopped by their Bedlam rivals who proved to be better situated to steal the league crown from Briles.

We'll talk about how OU won the wild, wild west in another post this week but for now, let's do hit some Twitter-bag questions.
The question of what a "league average" QB in the Big 12 looks like is maybe a more interesting one than what that would do for Texas or West Virginia. I'd say it probably looks like Skyler Howard, who happens to be returning next season.

If you could put Skyler Howard on either Texas' team or West Virginia's which team would be better? With their current offensive staffs you'd have to say the Mountaineers, but I'd argue that the Longhorns actually have slightly better offensive personnel with the following freshmen all coming back next year: Deep threat WR John Burt, thundering RB Chris Warren, pulling guard extraordinaire Patrick Vahe, and future 1st round pick LT Connor Williams.
They probably do, but it would have been very interesting to see if one-loss Baylor, TCU, or Oklahoma State would have got in ahead of a team like Notre Dame or Stanford who also had one loss. I don't think anyone had any serious doubts about whether the Big 12's lack of a championship game or overall pedigree was going to hurt Texas or Oklahoma in a beauty contest.
Are we counting Mark Mangino? He might get some crap job at a D2 school this offseason. I'll say Doug Meacham, who might already have locked up the job at UNT, heaven help him. Lincoln Riley and Kendall Briles are another pair of names that are likely to be looking for similar opportunities in coming seasons.

Also on this note, if A&M is axing Jake Spavital then I'm betting he lands a job with a Big 12 program this offseason. West Virginia would make a lot of sense, where Holgorsen is currently in charge of coaching QBs.
Kansas successfully went defeated in 2015!

I ended up breaking my rule and watching a single Kansas football game (against Texas), although I didn't even watch it live. I have two things to say about Kansas:

1. I'm not terribly impressed with Clint Bowen, I think some of his defensive plans venture towards being unsound

2. Ryan Willis is a better QB than anyone at Texas. He's probably going to end up helping them to be pretty solid when they actually have a real OL and some skill players around him. Some of their players this year would have struggled to earn a starting spot at a 6A Texas high school.
Well, it appears that the likeliest playoff outcome is Clemson, Alabama, Oklahoma, and then the winner of Iowa vs Michigan State.

Because their OL is not dominant and much of their offensive firepower comes from the abilities of Samaje Perine and Baker Mayfield to make stuff happen, a team with a strong DL and comparable athletes in the defensive backfield could cause the Sooners some major problems.

I'd say every defense listed above, save for maybe Iowa, matches that profile.

The Sooner defense has really toughened up this year and are playing at a pretty high level that shouldn't excite any opponents that would have to face them. I tend to think the power-based teams like Alabama and Michigan State would be most concerning simply because being spread out isn't a great fear of OU's but their DE's and ILB's may not shine as bright if forced to stand their ground in the trenches with a downhill rushing attack.

Right now I definitely wouldn't have OU as a favorite heading into this thing but if the field is shaken up, who knows?

Alright, final question:
So these are power rankings of which teams that I would favor to win the most games if the season played out in a neutral field tournament in which no one could incur any more injuries.

1. Oklahoma

The Sooners have the best defense in the league and an offense that can match points with anyone in the league.

2. TCU

Patterson's ability to field competent defenses no matter the situation really shined through this season and with Boykin back this is one of the better offenses in the league. Perhaps the best.

3. Baylor

I'd be curious to see if Chris Johnson could repeat his magic against the Cowboys in another go round where the 'Pokes would be prepared for him but I just can't put them behind OSU after they took them down in Stillwater. The Bear defense was pretty decent this year, thanks largely to Andrew Billings.

4. Oklahoma State

Glenn Spencer is starting to lose some of his luster in my eyes with a 2nd consecutive unit that you simply couldn't trust to stop the league's better offenses. I wonder if this team is capable of being who they were back in 2011-2013 without a Justin Gilbert on the roster.

Spencer started to move the team away from Bill Young's emphasis on staying really sound and simple and added more disguise and complexity and the results just haven't been there for the 'Pokes. I'll give him one more year with what will be a pretty veteran group in 2016.

5. West Virginia

The Mountaineers were very, very close to Baylor and OSU by the end of the year. Look out for this team next year because they have a lot of talented young WRs that will be coming back next year including Jovon Durante, Shelton Gibson, and converted QB David Sills who may end up being a real stud at outside WR.

6. Texas Tech

Perhaps the league's most explosive offense paired with one of the very worst run defenses I've ever watched in my entire life. David Gibbs is basically out to prove right now that he can foster a defensive culture that can produce physical, hard-nosed units under the auspices of Kliff Kingsbury. If he can't, I wonder who (that Tech could convinced to come to Lubbock) could? Paul Rhoads?

7. Kansas State

The Wildcats were pretty poor this season, but they simply don't fall victim to circumstances in the same way that other Big 12 teams do. They'll play anyone but the best teams tough. I'm expecting this team to make a big leap next year with a roster that will see a ton of quality players back from injury and also have much better options at QB.

8. Texas

Decent at home, awful on the road, perhaps the most physical team in the league but also one of the least competent. I know Iowa State blistered them in Ames but Texas is really young and has a much higher beta than the Cyclones. You never seriously entertained the possibility that Iowa State would beat a top team but with Texas anything between a blowout and a close agonizing loss was pretty likely.

9. Iowa State

This is really a pretty poor team. Their defense just wasn't much to write home about and the offense struggled mightily considering that they had some pretty nice pieces to work with. To me their season can be wrapped up by saying "Rhoads desperation moves to hire Mark Mangino and convert to the 3-4 defense failed to move the needle."

I'll be very curious to see what Matt Campbell brings to this team and I suspect that they've made a great hire.

10. Kansas

In the year 2015 the Kansas Jayhawks went defeated. My guess is that they win some games in 2016 but finish at the bottom once more.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Derrick Kindred vs K.D. Cannon: The key to TCU vs Baylor?

Read more on how Kindred has held the TCU defense together this year and how his face-off with K.D. Cannon could determine that game.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

What'd I say about Cardale Jones?

At SB Nation I broke down Sparty's victory over the Buckeyes, namely how they stuffed the normally potent Ohio State offense.

From the beginning of the season I've been with team Cardale Jones, often by my lonesome, for the simple reason that a QB who's proficient throwing the football has more to offer a feature back like Ezekiel Elliot than a QB who's just another running back.

Against Michigan State J.T. Barrett was just another running back, and running backs were getting stuffed that night by the Spartan front.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Three tips for Paul Rhoads' successor

What a week in the Big 12!

In my estimation the league was heading for a Big 12 championship game in Stillwater next Saturday between Oklahoma and the 'Pokes, but Baylor had other ideas as they ripped apart the Cowboy defense. We'll talk more about that in the week.

Glenn Spencer was known for producing good, sound defenses under Bill Young as the OSU linebacker coach and he turned the fantastic upperclassmen he inherited in 2013 into a fantastic defense. But since then, OSU just hasn't looked as good on D and you wonder if Mike Gundy will be looking around this offseason for a replacement.

One obvious option would be Paul Rhoads, who was just fired from Iowa State.

As for the Cyclones, I've got a few tips for Rhoad's successor that I think will help spare him from also enduring repeated losing seasons until he's unceremoniously dumped.

Tip 1: Don't hire a complete jerk to be your offensive coordinator

When Iowa State blew their game against Kansas State, who I suspect will also soon begin a search for a new head coach (probably with the assistance of the current head coach), Mark Mangino taunted the program with a tweet.

You might recall that I was skeptical in this space of Rhoads firing Mangino, even when the result was a crushing 23-0 win over Texas and solid offensive showing from replacement Joel Lanning. I just knew Mangino knew more about QB development than Paul Rhoads and was also less worried about trying to save his own job like Rhoads was.

Sure enough, Lanning has been iffy when not scrambling or running, and the Cyclones have fallen apart since their big win over Texas.

But while Mangino had the Cyclone OL playing better than I've seen them in some time while trying to rebuild their passing game, he's just a jerk. Plain and simple. Rhoads entrusted him the role of trying to preserve his job and it's no surprise that it didn't work out for anyone.

I wouldn't hire either of them to be a head coach and I'd think long and hard before hiring Mangino at all, even though he's a fantastic, detail-oriented coordinator. I would be interested to hire Rhoads as a DC and would be curious to see what he could do with better players.

I bet he could be an option at KSU or OSU within the Big 12, and a dozen other spots outside the league.

Tip 2: Don't try to compete with the 2/3 stars from California and Florida that no one else in the country wanted

Recruiting is dictated FAR more by staff connections than the average fan realizes. It's more than plain that Rhoads and his staff relied on connections to the big programs in California and Florida (and Texas somewhat) to guide them to players. From there, they tried to build them through a good S&C program and effective coaching into a unit that could take down more talented teams.

There were just a few problems with that strategy. First of all, the Florida and Cali kids from the big high schools that every other college program knows about aren't going to make Iowa State their top choice. The Cyclones were the last to a very crowded bowl every year and that meant that when they found talented kids they were often ones with baggage that would later get them kicked out of school anyways.

Secondly, that talent pool of well-coached high schoolers wasn't a good one to execute the plan of building up players once they arrived on campus. Rhoads needed a talent pool of players with much more upside.

Finally, they totally ignored the advantage of recruiting in a small mid-western state like Iowa. Namely, there are tons of kids all around that just need a closer look and maybe a greyshirt and they could be built up into much, much better players than anyone would expect. Iowa State in the Paul Rhoads era didn't have nearly enough local kids that turned out to be excellent because he wasn't looking locally.

The local Iowa Hawkeyes represent a better model for the next coach, as does Kansas State. Beef up that walk-on program, take the hard working local kids and milk them for all their worth, and find dog bowls that aren't crowded with much bigger breeds.

Tip 3: Don't give up on building from the trenches

As the only real midwestern program in the Big 12, unless you count Kansas, the Cyclones should look to build from the inside out with tough, physical DLs and OLs. We've seen flashes of this working in the Paul Rhoads era. The current team has a good, physical interior OL and a RB that keeps his legs churning and isn't fun to tackle.

They've also fielded some stout fronts in the past, especially when they had guys like Stephen Ruempolhamer or Jake McDonough at nose tackle and guys like Jake Knott or AJ Klein at inside linebacker. Those are the kinds of players that are available locally, so the next head coach should probably aim to build around strategies that involve stout, hard-nosed players up front on both sides of the ball.

They could also hire Bob Stitt, who seems to be capable of making a dynamic Air Raid team just about anywhere in the country, but my choice would be North Dakota State's Chris Klieman, who fields a team better than Iowa State just about every year with players that Rhoads has ignored.

Good luck, Cyclones.

Friday, November 20, 2015

DeForest Buckner, OU, and the highly prized 4i-technique DE

I wrote a post today for Football Study Hall on the 4i-technique strongside DE you can read here. The upshot is that big SDEs that can battle with offensive tackles and vacillate between setting the edge and filling interior gaps are becoming prized tools in anti-spread, odd fronts.

Lots of Big 12 teams are after kids like this, yet a likely future stud like Andrew Fitzgerald is still not fully recognized for his potential value in the role. OU has somewhat miscast Charles Walker in this role, and he's doing real work there despite being more of a natural 3-technique. Texas will use Hassan Ridgeway in that role and the impact he's capable of is probably blunted somewhat as a result.

The guy who has some lateral quickness and 6'4" or better length is the ideal.

The game is always changing and it's hard to keep up if you don't watch lots of film of lots of different teams, which is why you read this site, no?

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Previewing OSU-Baylor and OU-TCU

The state of Oklahoma is about to host two major football games that could have a big impact on a Big 12 championship race that is starting to look like it might come down to the Oklahoma-Oklahoma State season finale in Stillwater.

Baylor and TCU look to be out of the running due to injuries, which have now claimed Seth Russell and Josh Doctson, two of the better offensive skill players in the entire league. But of course, both of those teams are still more than capable of playing spoiler to the playoff hopes of the Oklahomans.

The rest of the Big 12 is a morass of struggling teams with major questions marks about how long their coaches are going to stick around. I'm very curious to see what happens at Kansas State, for instance, and Mangino is now available again while Iowa State will presumably be on the market for a new O.C.

But for now, every team in the Big 12 that really matters is playing on Saturday night in one of these two games.

Sizing up Baylor at Oklahoma St.

The biggest question here is whether or not Jarrett Stidham is healthy and ready to go. Now I tend to think he'll be fine, but no doubt that a back injury in the days after the injury is a difficult thing to work through and Baylor's young QB really needs reps.

If Chris Johnson is the man at QB for Baylor against Oklahoma State than this game is probably already over.

The match-up between Oklahoma State's offense and Baylor's defense is probably the most interesting aspect of this game. Mason Rudolph got his career off to a great start when he nearly took down Baylor a year ago in Waco and now he comes into this game looking to protect home field and an undefeated record.

Last year he did a lot of damage against the Bears throwing 7 routes to David Glidden matched up on Terrell Burt:

You'll note this is the same weakness that Oklahoma picked on a week ago with Sterling Shephard, although they tended to use snag rather than this "bash" concept (also known as 7-ins).

OSU also has outside receivers like James Washington that can present problems for the Baylor cornerbacks when they're matched up in isolation. Take this post-dig route combination from last year, for instance:

They get twin receivers to the boundary, which forces Baylor to play their cover safety over the boundary slot or risk losing the boundary linebacker against the run. However, the linebackers are sucked in by the play-action, the cover safety is sucked in to stop the dig route, and that leaves the corner on an island against the post route by Washington.

So suffice to say, the Cowboys are very capable of attacking the same coverage weaknesses that Oklahoma ruthlessly exploited last Saturday in Waco.

The big questions are the run game, whether the Bears will be able to handle the pass more conservatively without getting punished by the OSU ground game, and if the Bears can get a pass-rush from their DL.

The Cowboys are one of the few good offenses in history that can't run the ball worth a lick (108th in rushing S&P, 105th on standard downs) and it's because they do work on passing downs (8th in the nation!).

Since the Bears are wretched on passing downs I expect that OSU will score some points in this one.

On the flip side, the 'Pokes have a mediocre run defense but are excellent on passing downs thanks to their numerous packages and the DE tandem of Jimmy Bean and Emmanuel Ogbah who have combined for 16 sacks on the year so far.

Their ability to get pressure with four and match personnel with Baylor makes me think this game could get ugly for Baylor nation. Look for some more cover 2 brackets on Coleman, including plenty of tampa-2 on passing downs, and for the Bears to continue to pound away with the run game in response. That might work better this week than against the Sooner front but I again foresee it failing to produce enough points to keep up.

Sizing up Oklahoma at TCU

Oklahoma is the flavor of the week right now after slowing down Baylor's offense and another week of the Baker Mayfield-improv hour getting great results. It's worth noting that the Sooners' current five game winning streak came against four creampuffs and a Baylor team that might have been overrated and was adjusting to life without their starting QB.

Of course, TCU is dealing with injuries to what might be the three most important players on offense with Trevone Boykin (ankle), Joey Hunt (something), and Doctson (wrist, done). It's hard to see the Frogs taking down the Sooners without a healthy, running Boykin.

The uncertainty around Boykin is probably why Vegas hasn't given odds on this game.

Here's something we do know though: there is quite a bit of optimism from the Sooner side about running the ball on TCU and I'm not sure this optimism is entirely well placed.

First of all, OU has a finesse approach to blocking with a heavy reliance on stretch plays and Samaje Perine bringing the physicality when he can square up his shoulders and run through people. That latter element should be concerning to TCU, but the finesse approach to blocking won't scare the Frogs' defensive front.

Part of the reason TCU has survived this season on defense in the midst of all their injuries, besides the fact that Patterson is a patchwork-quilt maker, is the play of their DL. They aren't getting a ton of pressure on the QB with their base rush but they are stout against the run and have several good DTs between Davion Pierson, Chris Bradley, Aaron Curry, and Tevin Lawson.

What's more, their safeties can run and tackle and they play with great leverage as a team. You figure Perine probably bulldozes his way to a solid game regardless but the overall OU run game may not find much success or explosive plays against this group.

Perhaps the bigger concern is covering Sterling Shephard, as the TCU secondary basically consists of three traditional safeties, an up and coming corner (Nick Orr), and an older more suspect corner (Corry O'Meally). OU should be able to force TCU to roll some coverage over to Shephard and then attack the resulting soft spots with the run game or other receivers.

Gary Patterson is going to make it a point to try and confuse Mayfield and hide where the Frog weaknesses are and it's going to take a savvy, veteran performance from the Sooner QB to see through it all and get after them.

But without Boykin it's hard to see TCU scoring enough to require too much. For that reason, an OU victory seems fairly likely in this one.

The next OC at Texas

I keep having to write this column, it'd be nice to have some stability in Austin again. Here's a look at what Charlie needs to look for (and who he might look at) to bring some leadership and vision to the Texas offense.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Baker Mayfield, the unwanted high school champion

Over at SB Nation I did a write-up on Mayfield, who's now garnering Heisman attention after taking down Baylor.

The 6'0" or shorter, quick-thinking, quick-moving, solid-armed, gritty white QB has generally been pretty underrated by college evaluators these days though that's now changing. The services were actually more accurate here than college coaches as Mayfield was given a three-star rating despite not having very good offers.

Like I say in the article, colleges hadn't caught on that prototypical height and NFL measurables don't really matter in the spread era. Being able to throw concepts, buy time, and make off-schedule plays is a much bigger deal.

Baker Mayfield is basically another Jake Waters, and you can win a lot of games in the Big 12 with a guy like that. I wish Texas had taken him in any of their numerous opportunities to do so.

How Oklahoma ended Baylor's 20 game home winning streak

Oklahoma at Baylor was probably the biggest game of the season for the Big 12 because it firmly established that the Baylor dynasty is on hiatus for a year. This team can't win the Big 12 with a true freshman QB, although I'd venture a guess that this QB will probably win a Big 12 title before his career is over.

We don't yet know if OU can win the Big 12 either, it's looking more and more like a two- or three-way tie at the top might be in the cards. One. Two. Three. True. Champion(s).

We'll talk more about that later, for now I'll break down how exactly the Sooners finally broke through against the Bears.

1. They were finally able to score on Baylor's defense

Over the last two seasons the Sooners haven't been balanced or skilled enough on offense to attack Baylor's aggressive, Sparty-inspired brand of 4-3 Over/Cover 4 defense. The nature of the Bears' defense is such that if you get behind and show weakness they will absolutely swarm you with press coverage on the outside and flat-footed safeties coming downhill to outnumber your run.

Well thanks to Baker Mayfield, the Sooner offense is now quite balanced and capable of requiring that you commit numbers to multiple areas of the field to shut them down.

Before the game I noted Mayfield's ability to create off-schedule plays with his feet was going to be a tough challenge for a Bear defense that pairs a backfield at its best playing two-deep zone with a defensive line that can't get consistent pressure without blitzing.

Baylor ended up with three sacks, but they failed to contain Mayfield and he made several plays either scrambling for first downs (or penalties) or buying time before finding Sterling Shephard.

The Sooner WR was probably the biggest problem Baylor had and Lincoln Riley moved him all over to punish the Bear DBs not named Xavien Howard. Shephard ended the game with 16 targets, 14 catches, 177 yards, and two touchdowns. That's 11 yards per target.

With formations like this the Sooners could ask challenging questions of the Baylor defense, particularly with Shephard as the man in the slot. Do you bracket him with the weakside linebacker and safety ("R" Stewart) or try and man him up with the safety and allow Rocket to fly to the ball to stop Perine?

They'd do the same thing to the field side and hit Shepard three different times with seven routes (a deep out) against three different Baylor DBs (Burt, Waz, and Singleton) most often with a "snag" route combo:

The goal with this concept is either to get easy yardage on the flat or "snag" route underneath if the underneath defenders carry the vertical route by the slot or else to get that slot in a favorable match-up downfield against the safety. Covering that route is a very tough challenge for the field safety, which is why Baylor tends to go with a more coverage-minded athlete at that position.

Throwing that seven route to the field is a challenge though, but one that Mayfield was up for. Chance Waz and Travon Blanchard are solid zone defenders and tacklers but they're not up for handling a combo like Mayfield-Shephard on a field seven route.

Samaje Perine also had a great day simply because he's freaking hard to tackle if the OL can give him anything close to a crease and some momentum to work with. They were able to do so and Orlando Brown did a respectable job of staying between Shawn Oakman and the ball, even if he couldn't stop the freakish DE from getting a lot of penetration.

Andrew Billings was a big problem for OU as well but Perine routinely broke tackles from Baylor's unblocked run defenders. Such is life.

So Oklahoma was able to keep pace with Baylor, but that probably wasn't the biggest problem for Baylor.

2. The Sooner DL won the line of scrimmage

There were a few problems in the trenches for the Bears which added up to a difficult night for a unit that was trying to protect Jarrett Stidham from having to win the game by himself.

Obviously Linwood had a good day, with 21 carries for 103 yards, but the Baylor offense isn't designed to move the ball methodically on the ground. They're designed to blow the game open with the passing game and OU was content to allow Linwood to do 100 yards worth of damage without committing extra numbers to the run knowing that this wouldn't result in Baylor scoring enough points to win a shootout.

Here's the Bears' best running play this year, which they of course will combine with WR screens, H-back blocks, and even downfield routes:

Here's why it's Baylor's best play: You force the defense to commit numbers out wide to the field, away from the trenches in order to stop the bubble screen from picking up easy yardage, you get Coleman in a 1-on-1 match-up on the backside to run whatever route is most likely to yield results, and then you have a running play with down blocks and your best OL (Spencer Drango) leading into the hole for the RB.

This play yielded some results on the first drive for Baylor, and then OU shut it down. How? In part because their odd front required Baylor to win some battles on base blocks without the benefit of angles. In that match-up, Charles Walker dominated the Bears' right tackle Pat Colbert, their nose tackle often squeezed the gap closed as well working against Fuller, and the right guard Jarell Broxton also struggled to connect on OU's LBs at the second level.

The Bears then tried to run this play to the left side with Colbert as the lead blocker, but Colbert would regularly whiff trying to block the play-side linebacker whereas Drango is dependable at finding and connecting.

Ironically, when DE Matt Dimon was kicked out for his egregious attempt to kick the Baylor long-snapper (you sure picked a real threat to neutralize there, Dimon) it probably hurt the Bears because it meant more snaps for Walker, who's probably the second best DE/3-technique DL in the conference (Hassan Ridgeway).

But then, this is why you carry a 410 pound TE on campus, right? To come in and mash skulls when you're struggling to win the line of scrimmage, right?

Well it turns out that Laquon McGowan is a terrible football player who routinely misses blocks. I counted one series where he whiffed on his assignment three consecutive times. Here's one of the more egregious examples that got him relegated to the bench:

The Bears had to turn to Gus Penning, which helped greatly, but by then it was becoming too late to try and blow open the game with running plays and Stidham had a costly pick that sealed Baylor's fate anyways. I'd expect to see more of Penning in the coming weeks, save for maybe on the goal line where McG's massive paws are still an asset and opposing defenders are easier to find and block.

3. The Sooners took away Corey Coleman

Oklahoma started out with a plan to keep some numbers in the box to stop the run, since they assumed (and I did as well) that an honest six-man box would probably perform well enough against a Baylor run game that's used to bullying undermanned fronts.

They had an evolving plan for stopping Coleman from abusing them for this strategy. If Baylor brought four receivers on the field then the Sooners would match up in man coverage with Jordan Thomas on Coleman and a little bit of help coming from the middle of the field and underneath:

When Baylor would bring a TE on the field, the Sooners still bracketed Coleman with an OLB underneath and Thomas over the top and would drop Steven Parker down on the slot, still in man coverage.

Jordan Thomas had some help, but he also just had to be able to run with Coleman without getting beat and he did a great job in the first half. In the second half, OU felt comfortable enough with how things were going in the trenches to just play more Cover 2 and bracket Coleman the traditional way without fear that a 5.5 man front would get gashed by the run.

Coleman finished the day with three catches for 51 yards. That ain't no way to win a shootout.

It was clear that Stidham's comfort level with the Baylor passing game beyond the RPOs that make up a good chunk of the offense is still not there yet. The Bears run a ton of option routes that he will someday be murderous with but against the Sooners he threw a curl straight at Zach Sanchez when Cannon was running a slant.

Moving forward, the Bears need to improve his comfort level throwing these routes to Jay Lee and K.D. Cannon because the road doesn't get any easier with trips to Stillwater and Ft. Worth and teams aren't going to stop bracketing Coleman. I think a 9-3 outcome is most likely for the Bears unless Boykin and Doctson are seriously limited.

Next Saturday we get OU-TCU in Norman and Baylor-OSU in Stillwater. If there's going to be the threat of a three-way tie we'll know it when the dust settles from those two contests.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Previewing Oklahoma at Baylor: Pt II, when OU has the ball

At some point in the last few years Oklahoma went from being the dominant bully on the block that everyone is afraid of to being this decade's version of the 2000's Mack Brown Texas Longhorn team.

After getting physically whipped by their rival, the Charlie Strong Longhorns (who are largely incompetent at this stage but plenty violent in the Cotton Bowl), the Sooners were perfectly set up for a recovery run before traveling to Waco to take on the league's new big dog.

The Sooner schedule has played out since that defeat as follows:

@Kansas State: 55-0 victory
Texas Tech: 63-27 victory
@Kansas: 62-7 victory
Iowa State: 52-16 victory

Those are arguably the four worst teams in the Big 12 and the two better squads in that group had to play in Norman. However, the Sooners took great advantage of this easy stretch to settle on their run game identity, develop a new nickel package that could be useful against Baylor, and tinker with their OL.

In particular, they've been able to get Samaje Perine and the run game going just in time to face their brutal concluding stretch of @Baylor, TCU, and then @Oklahoma State.

Perine's performance in the first five games of the year was dulled as the Sooner OL was struggling to control the line of scrimmage in some of Lincoln Riley's new gap schemes. In those five games he had 82 carries for 364 yards, 4.4 yards per carry, and three touchdowns.

In the four games since Perine has carried the ball 58 times for 442 yards at 7.6 yards per carry and with seven touchdowns. Backfield mate Joe Mixon has also taken off in this time with 45 carries for 359 yards, 7.5 yards per carry, and four touchdowns.

With this rekindled identity and balance on offense, Oklahoma is now hoping to do what they haven't been able to do in either of the last two seasons and keep pace with the Baylor offense.

Big bodies will collide when OU runs the football

The OU run game has become fairly diverse in scope but is now largely focused around zone blocking, which has been a better fit for their personnel. They're probably at their best in 20 personnel groupings with three WRs and both Perine and Mixon on the field but they also have some solid options in fullback Dmitri Flowers and TE Mark Andrews to mix in as well. Their formational versatility and the versatility of both Perine and Mixon gives them a lot of flexibility for how they can attack opponents.

A big question for them this week will be what they do at left guard with former starter Jonathan Alvarez back from an ankle injury. While he's been out they've been playing the 6'8" 339 pound converted tackle, Derek Farniok and running a lot of "stretch C" blocking where Farniok blocks down while the rest of the OL executes standard reach blocks and center Ty Darlington pulls around the edge:

A scheme like this raises a dozen questions for this OU-Baylor match-up. Let's stay with the theme of left guard as this scheme requires that the left guard (when run to this side) be able to control Baylor nose tackle Andrew Billings.

If Jonathan Alvarez is back in action they'll probably want to support his 6'3" 297 pound self against Billings with a double team rather than pulling Darlington (only 6'2" 285 himself) around the edge to try and find Taylor Young (Rocket) in space.

The success of Alvarez and Darlington in double teaming Billings and then sealing off linebackers to create cutback lanes could be one of the most crucial factors in this football game. Now seems a good time to mention that Billings is also coming off an ankle injury.

Then there's big issue number two here, the edge block by OU left tackle Orlando Brown against Baylor right defensive end Shawn "I am Groot" Oakman.

Oakman is used to being able to totally dominate opponents virtually at will with his absurd 6'9" 275 pound athletic frame. Well, Brown may be a young guy as a redshirt freshman, but he's also a pretty big guy. At 6'8" 342 and shockingly light on his feet, Orlando Brown is going to test Oakman in ways he's not accustomed to. If Oakman wants to get paid next summer he'll show strong in this one.

Finally there's what happens if and when Oklahoma gets Samaje Perine on the edge. Will Baylor prefer to play more standard cover 2 on the boundary with the corner responsible for forcing the run? Or will they bring rover Orion Stewart down aggressively and how will he handle trying to tackle Perine?

That's three "strength on strength" match-ups on only play concept and it's hard to say with great confidence who will gain the advantage in any instance.

Oklahoma could also try to run more power or inside zone schemes but the best way to take advantage of Billings, if he's hurt, and to leverage the strengths of their own OL is with stretch blocking that forces him to move his feet while potentially springing Perine to the edge where he was an absolute terror in 2014.

For the Bears, it's all about Billings and their run defense takes several steps back when he's not in the game. They do have several good run support players though starting with Taylor Young, who's brilliant when covered up by his nose tackle, and also including their very solid safety tandem of Chance Waz and Orion Stewart.

The Bears will usually look to outnumber the run and bring Stewart into cutback lanes so that Young can just run to the football with reckless abandon and it's difficult to punish them for this approach without throwing the ball.

Baker Mayfield vs the Bear pass defense

The biggest weakness to this OU offense is their pass protection and breakdowns there tend to highlight the best and worst of who Baker Mayfield is as a quarterback.

At this point the Sooners are now starting true freshman Dru Samia opposite redshirt freshman Orlando Brown at right tackle after Texas absolutely abused Josiah St. John. Their OL is not full of guys who thrive against the blitz and Mayfield is still learning to hit hot routes rather than trying to make something happen with his legs.

What has made OU dangerous this year is that Mayfield is very effective at escaping pressure and either scrambling for yardage or finding receivers on the run. He has great lateral quickness and can win the edge against most defenders, particularly when using the threat of a throw downfield with his more than respectable arm strength.

Texas abused them because they were able to get pressure all day long while fielding multiple linebackers that were faster than Baker Mayfield when he tried to scramble. There aren't any great solutions for the Bears here, who have had a weak pass rush all year, unless they want to bring Rocket-Groot blitz combos all day. While it's easiest to attack the Sooners on the right side of their OL, the Bears simply don't have great personnel there.

They're probably better off trying to contain Mayfield in the pocket and hoping the rush can get home with time.

The other big worry for the Bears is pass coverage, where they've not been great in 2015. Bennett has diversified the coverages that the Bears will play this year, mixing in some tampa-2 looks that frankly haven't gone that well (Grant Campbell isn't the best guy for defending the seam) and trying to keep safeties Stewart and Waz in two-deep zones where they aren't asked to pick up players in man coverage. They'll also leave their corners on islands at times and have seen mixed results from this approach.

The problem for the Bears has been that what their defensive backfield is best at, sitting in zone and rallying to the football, works best when the DL can consistently get pressure. The Bears' alternative means for getting pressure is zero-blitzes and they don't have anywhere close to good enough DBs in man coverage to pull this off without getting burned.

They definitely don't want to ask any of their safeties to spend quality time playing man coverage on Sterling Shephard, who will be the best WR Baylor has faced this season and may prove to be the best WR they face all year depending on how healthy Josh Doctson is when Baylor rolls into Ft. Worth. Shephard can run by weak corners, is effective coming back and getting open when Mayfield scrambles, and will also move inside and run crossing routes and seam stretchers over the middle of the field.

The Bears best hope of containing him is to be able to play both safeties deep all day long and play bend don't break, but that will require their corners and nickel to be very effective at stopping the run, which takes us back to the question of Brown vs Oakman and Billings vs the double team.


There's a reason the line on this game is only Baylor -2.5 and the most likely result of this game is that Oklahoma is able to do a much better job of keeping pace with the Bears and the whole game comes down to whether Mike Stoops has schemed Stidham well or if the freshman is ready to make plays on a big stage.

Oklahoma has enough strength across their offense to take on the strength of the Bears' defense and between Baylor's lack of pass rush and Mayfield's effective scrambling there's likely to be some fireworks when the Sooners throw the ball.

At the same time, if Baylor gets a great game from Billings and can play more cover 2 then they have a great chance to keep the OU offense from turning this into a shootout played in the 40s.

Since I have no faith left in Mike Stoops, I'm expecting Stidham to stave off a game effort from Mayfield with something in the realm of a 38-33 victory in Waco.

This Big 12 season is about to get crazy.