Rashad Madden, Rickey Scott and Bobby Portis ...
Questions abound during skid
Arkansas coach Bret Bielema leaves the field after an NCAA college football game against South Carolina in Fayetteville, Ark., Saturday, Oct. 12, 2013. South Carolina defeated Arkansas 52-7. (AP Photo/Danny Johnston)
FAYETTEVILLE It’s hard to disagree with Bret Bielema: “Obviously, this is getting a little old.” There’s no more point in doing a film review of a 52-7 loss than there is of a 52-0 loss.
Rather than revisit it, let’s look ahead and answer a burning question that has riveted through Hog nation over the last few days.
“What if we had hired Gus Malzahn?”
Good question. The answer is simple: the 2013 Hogs would be much, much better. Malzahn would find Brandon Mitchell (who will start for NC State this weekend) a serviceable quarterback for his system. Alex Collins wouldn’t be a Razorback, but Jonathan Williams would combine forces with Nate Holmes and likely a junior college transfer to anchor a strong running game.
Arkansas receivers would still struggle, but the system would be kinder of the offensive line. The Razorback offense wouldn’t be explosive but it would be much more productive. Defensively, Malzahn would be partial to a 4-2-5 defense, which would allow the Hogs to put as few linebackers on the field as possible (which is good news for the 2013 team). It would be more flexible given the current personnel, and would probably be more productive overall. After a 3-0 start that included blowout wins over Samford and Southern Miss, the Hogs would have knocked off Rutgers in Piscataway.
The team may not have won any of the last four, but would have been more competitive. The Hogs would finish 6-6 at worst, and more likely 7-5.
Of course, this isn’t 2012. The Hogs don’t need a coach for just one year. With Alabama dominating the state and Auburn reeling, the Tigers didn’t have time to wait. They needed what we’ll call a “quick fix.” As far as quick fixes go, they hit a home run with Gus Malzahn. He brought in a junior college transfer at quarterback and running back, installed a quick fix defense, and the Tigers are 6-1. Good for them.
Ole Miss needed a quick fix as well. Dan Mullen had Mississippi State in firm control of their state, and the Bulldogs were putting up snarky billboards in Jackson, which is a no-no as far as Ole Miss is concerned. Wanting to rid themselves of the taste of Houston Nutt and take back their state, along with avoiding falling into the SEC West cellar, Ole Miss made its move, bringing in a quick fix in Hugh Freeze. Freeze instantly made the Rebels competitive, and shifted the momentum away from State. Mission accomplished.
Arkansas, on the other hand, didn’t need a quick fix. The Hogs weren’t moving conferences and had no natural rivals encroaching on bragging rights or recruiting territory. They could take their time, and install a system that works in the long run. And that’s just what Bielema is: a long-term coach. That’s not to suggest that Malzahn and Freeze are short-term coaches, but there is one simple, undeniable truth about what they do: spread offenses are quick fixes. Their long-term prospects at the same program are iffy.
Since I’m an X’s-and-O’s guy, I’ll give you the X’s-and-O’s of any spread offense: get the ball to the fast guy in space. It’s pretty simple. It can be implemented quickly. Auburn had a number of four- and five-star recruits just waiting to be properly utilized. That Malzahn had already recruited most of them in his previous stop is icing on the cake. Malzahn’s offense is a matchup-based offense in which the offense looks for a defensive weakness and attacks it with fast guys in space. It’s great for taking teams by surprise in the first or second year, but every coach has tendencies and spread matchup offenses are particularly susceptible to having such tendencies exploited.
A 4-2-5 defense is also a quick fix defense. There’s a strong correlation between teams that struggle on defense and teams that have bad linebackers. A 4-2-5 replaces one linebacker with a safety and adjusts some alignments in the back seven. It’s great for teams that don’t have great linebackers, but it’s also cop out: no 4-2-5 defense has ever played for a national title, despite the defense’s abundance.
At the end of the day, cutting down on the number of linebackers won’t fix the long-term problem: good linebackers are necessary to have a good SEC defense. Auburn needed a quick fix, so they’ve postponed the problem until a later date. Arkansas didn’t need a quick fix, so by installing a 4-3 defense without the caliber of linebacker necessary to run it, the Hogs have chosen to take their lumps up front.
But how does the spread offense work long term? The results are shaky at best. Spread coaches are often characterized for being highly mobile, rarely staying in one place long enough to have to work completely with their own recruits. Oregon is, of course, the notable exception. It doesn’t seem to matter who the Ducks’ coach or quarterback is, their offense continues to hum. Outside of Oregon, long-term consistency remains an issue that goes back years.
John Jenkins was among the first great spread coaches. His Run-N-Shoot offense helped Andre Ware win the 1989 Heisman trophy and the Cougs win ten games. After Ware came David Klingler, who had a good season in 1990 and owns the NCAA record for passing yards in a game. But then, curiously, right when Jenkins should have been hitting his stride, the Cougars collapsed. Texas A&M defensive coordinator Bob Davie noticed that the Houston offense was all about matchups, just like all spread offenses. To stop it, he popularized (in college) the “zone blitz,” which successfully disguised all matchups and blitzes before the snap. The entire rhythm of the Run-N-Shoot was thrown off, and Houston plummeted in the win column. Jenkins was fired after a 4-7 season in 1992, and the Run-N-Shoot vanished from the college ranks.
Arkansas offensive coordinator Jim Chaney knows all about quick fixes that didn’t survive long-term. In fact, former Purdue coach Joe Tiller’s offense remains the most famous example of a spread offense not standing the test of time.
Arkansas has already played three teams (Louisiana-Lafayette, Southern Miss and Texas A&M) whose philosophy was derived at least in part from Tiller, and one more (Mississippi State) remains on the schedule. Tiller coached Purdue 1997-2008, and Chaney was his offensive coordinator from 1997-2005. Tiller offered a quick fix: Big Ten cellar-dwellar Purdue immediately won nine games in each of Tiller’s first two seasons (they had gone 3-8 the year before Tiller was hired). In 1999, the Drew Brees-led Boilermakers put up 52 points and 568 yards of offense on Nick Saban and Michigan State, still the most points ever surrendered by a Saban-coached defense.
But the fun didn’t last. Purdue never won ten games, and Tiller’s best two seasons were his arguably his first two. He was fired after going 4-8 in 2008, having been unable to sustain his once-promising system. After trying another quick fix in coach Danny Hope, the Boilermakers have since hired pro-style coach Darrell Hazell to build for the long-term.
Consider some of the other notable quick fixes in recent memory:
Bob Stoops, Oklahoma, 1999: The Sooners spent most of the 1900s wallowing in mediocrity, but Stoops, formerly Steve Spurrier’s defensive coordinator, hired hotshot offensive guru Mike Leach to install an Air Raid offense to complement his defense. Stoops got the Sooners back to a bowl in his first season, and then won a national championship with a junior college transfer QB in 2000.
Urban Meyer, Florida, 2005: Like Stoops, Meyer inherited a strong program fallen on harder times after Ron Zook’s collapse. He installed a spread offense and quickly won 10 games in 2005, and then claimed the national title with a mobile QB Chris Leak in his second season.
Chad Morris, Clemson, 2011: Hot-seat coach Dabo Swinney hired Morris, a Malzahn disciple, to save his job. Morris’s offense, and young quarterback Tajh Boyd, instantly blossomed. Clemson immediately won the ACC title and has won 10 games each of the last two years, and will likely do so again. Morris is currently the nation’s highest-paid offensive coordinator with good reason.
As successful as three quick fixes have been, there are some common strands. Most notably, all of the quick fixes were accomplished via the spread offense with blue chip recruits. Just get the ball to the fast guys in space.
Of course, there’s also a dark side to the quick fixes. Stoops famously hasn’t won a national title since that one in 2000. He’s only come close once, losing to Florida following the 2008 season. The Sooners’ penchant for losing big games has earned Stoops the nickname “Big Game Bob.” Worse yet, the claim I made earlier about the spread offense being a hard philosophy to “install” beyond a quick fix has shown itself to be true in the Sooners offense, which has constantly evolved over the years.
When the lineup consists of Sam Bradford at quarterback and Adrian Peterson or Demarco Murray at running back, it works. Much of the rest of the time, it doesn’t. Oklahoma owes its current 6-1 start to the defense, as the offense has struggled, never more evident than in a 36-20 loss to rival Texas.
Florida went 10-2 in Meyer’s first season with Chris Leak at quarterback, but after a national title in year two, the Gators lost three games in 2007 and five games in 2010, and Meyer resigned after Tebow graduated and Nick Saban established himself as the new king of the SEC. Meyer was undeniably successful at Florida, but most agreed that Meyer left Florida after his program had already peaked, and that Tim Tebow deserves much of the credit for all Gator success after the 2006 national title. Without him, when the system was full of “his recruits” not named Tim Tebow, the Gator offense was abysmal and the team went 7-5.
Morris saved Dabo Swinney’s job in quick fashion, but his quarterback Tajh Boyd hasn’t really progressed since a phenomenal freshman season. The Tigers were just dismantled 51-14 on their home field by their “normal American football” rivals at Florida State. This wasn’t a Petrino-versus-Alabama kind of game; Clemson’s recruiting rankings are annually at a high level, unlike what Petrino was working with.
The point isn’t to rag on these coaches, each of whom are fantastic coaches with strong resumes. These are also examples of schools who have much more talent than Arkansas based on recruiting. The point is to note that a spread offense is indeed a quick fix, but the long-term sustained success prospects are shakier. If the Razorbacks’ priority was winning in 2013, then Bret Bielema was a poor choice. Comparing Bielema’s first-year success to the first-year success of coaches like Gus Malzahn and Hugh Freeze is foolish. Try again in year four. History has shown that more pro-style, old-fashioned systems take much longer to install, but also have more long-term success.
Consider a final spread coach. Texas A&M needed a quick fix. Texas was reeling and the Aggies needed to make a move to assert themselves. They were moving to the SEC and needed a good first impression to maintain recruiting and support in the state. A number of consecutive top 10 recruiting classes under Mike Sherman were going to waste with a 7-6 team in 2011. So they hired Kevin Sumlin, a Bob Stoops disciple. It’s very obvious they were going for the quick fix, and boy did they get it. They got Johnny Manziel and Mike Evans out of nowhere. They took the conference by storm.
But the good news ends there. The Aggies lost at home to Auburn over the weekend to drop their SEC home record to 3-4 since joining the conference. They’ve already lost two games this season, with LSU and Missouri still on the schedule. Worse yet, Manziel and Evans are likely gone to the NFL at year’s end. Does anyone honestly think that Sumlin will ever have another player of Manziel’s caliber? Has he peaked already, just like his mentor Stoops did? If so, it’s not good news for the Aggies, who despite their success have yet to sniff an SEC West title.
Bret Bielema’s Razorbacks haven’t begun to scratch the surface of their potential. How many fans will still be here when it happens?