Friday, October 30, 2015

Checking in on Big 12 recruiting

Recruiting doesn't always get a ton of play at this time of the year, mainly because we're all caught up in the football that's taking place on Saturdays, but I thought I'd check in on how things were going and give some brief thoughts.

What I've done is taken the highest ranked player, per 247, from each Big 12 team and I'm going to give some of my thoughts on how much they offer that team. I'm going to go in order of how 247 has ranked the Big 12 teams' current classes.

Personally I don't think much of recruiting rankings and will offer my own thoughts on each class in February but 247 does a good job of organizing and presenting all the info to be digested by fans. Anyways, here we go:

1. TCU's Isaiah Chambers

6-4, 258, strongside end, 4-star rating
Houston, TX (Aldine MacArthur HS)

Chambers will be an interesting case study in TCU DL development post-Bumpas. While explosive and athletic, he's already close to being as large as some of their defensive tackles and will likely be so after getting plugged into the Frog S&C program.

What Patterson may have here is an explosive 3-tech that makes their stunts and four-man rush absolutely devastating. But he's also fast enough in his first steps and taking the edge to stay outside at end, even at 270 or so. He should be a load either way and his ability to make darting movements in a box while make him a great fit in that defense.

Cornerstone rating: 4/5
Chambers could be a foundational piece for the TCU defense in the future as a disruptive and play-making DL.

2. Baylor's Patrick Hudson

6-6, 325, left tackle, 5-star rating
Silsbee, TX (Silsbee HS)

The problem with 5-star rankings is that they tend to go to the players that have the kinds of measurables and skills as 17 year olds that you want from players that are 21 and several years into college. Well...the list of players that will have ideal measurables and skills as 21 year olds aren't going to be recognized as such when they're 17.

Hudson is the rare high schooler with NFL-caliber size and athleticism, so naturally he's given five stars, although it would likely be a few years before he was ready to compete at left tackle for Briles. Watch his tape and you'll see a kid with good flexibility and overwhelming power who bulldozes DL on goal line plays almost like he's going up against a sled on a routine drill.

Obviously he's listed at tackle for a reason, but I agree with my man Jamie Uyeyuma that he may end up on the right side or at guard. The Baylor offense pulls just about everyone so his greatest strength, blocking on the move, could translate at either tackle or guard. I think where he ends up at Baylor will depend on whether his ability to be a mobile wall translates to protections or if he's better as a tool in the running game.

Cornerstone rating: 4/5
I'm not sure if Hudson will be groomed into a stud left tackle like Spencer Drango but I do think he'll at least be a starter and a major weapon in the run game.

3. Texas Tech's TJ Vasher

6-5, 180, wide receiver, 4-star rating
Wichita Falls, TX (Rider HS)

Most guys this tall take a moment to get up to speed, but then they're gone, Vasher is actually quicker in his first few steps than he is in 4th gear and there is no 5th gear.

That's actually what you want from a big WR, well not the lack of a 5th gear, but for them to be quick enough to get open and to have reliable hands. A 6'5" dude who can get open easily makes for an easy target both in the possession passing game as well as on vertical routes.

Vasher reminds me somewhat of Josh Doctson and he could have a similar role in a few years.

Cornerstone rating: 3/5
Vasher seems a good candidate to be a guy that can command double teams and at least a guy that will be a big, reliable target on the outside.

4. West Virginia's Steven Smothers

5-10, 152, wide receiver, 4-star
Reisterstown, MD (Franklin HS)

Smothers is another legit 4.5 burner of the sort that Dana Holgorsen regularly brings into the Mountaineer fold. He's taken to using these burners at outside receiver where his run game and bigger formations allow them to operate in open spaces but he could also end up in the slot.

Smothers strikes me as more of an outside guy for whom football can be simplifed to "beat them outside, beat them inside, or if you can't do either turn around, come back and catch it."

Cornerstone rating: 4/5
Smothers has good hands and is very fluid both before and after the catch, he's going to be very easy to feature in the Holgo-Raid.

5. Oklahoma's Jordan Parker

5-11, 180, cornerback, 4-star
Pittsburg, CA (Pittsburg Senior HS)

Oklahoma and Mike Stoops' run of relying on California for the athletes they used to get from East Texas or DFW continues with Jordan Parker. This kid has the type of COD (change of direction) to mirror receivers and to break on routes while playing in cover 3 as well as the recovery speed to play tight on people.

With good training in technique he could eventually be a lockdown corner in the OU system, something they desperately need, and be someone that could try and match up with the Corey Colemans of the league without a safety over the top and without getting abused for 200 receiving yards.

More likely, he'll be a good cover 3 corner, particularly at right corner where he can play deeper off the ball.

Cornerstone rating: 4/5
Good cover corners are a precious commodity in this league, were Parker a little bigger or a little faster he'd be a 5/5 cornerstone piece for the Sooner defense.

6. Oklahoma State's Jonathan Marshall

6-3, 249, strongside end, 3-star
Shepherd, TX (Shepherd HS)

Martin is several good meals and weight-lifting sessions from being the next 3-tech defensive tackle at OSU. He's got a lightning first step for that position and the ability to get under an OL's pads and fight through them to the ball.

The reason a player like this isn't rated higher is that he's not an elite athlete for a DE, which is where his body currently has him, but he's not yet at the weight he'll be as a college DT so no one has seen what he'll look like at his eventual destination.

Cornerstone rating: 3/5
I don't think Marshall is going to set the world on fire, but he might be a starting quality defensive tackle that can help you control the line of scrimmage and anytime you find one of those it's a reason for celebration.

7. Texas' Tren'Davian Dickson

6-0, 171, wide receiver, 4-star
Navasota, TX (Navasota)

You can read my thoughts on Dickson, along with several other valuable tidbits, by following this link to Inside Texas.

Cornerstone rating: 4/5
Dickson would be a huge addition for anyone else but with Texas' offensive direction currently somewhat ambiguous it's not clear what the impact of this kid will be just yet. It's most likely that Texas is much more passing oriented in the future than they are now though.

8. Kansas State's Skylar Thompson

6-2, 195, (dual-threat) QB, 3-star
Independence, MO (Ft. Osage HS)

They've got this kid well hidden with mostly private highlight tapes, but from what I can tell he doesn't fit the mold of typical K-State QBs. More of another Jesse Ertz than a Collin Klein. He knows where the ball needs to go and can put it there with touch. He's a good athlete but not an explosive runner and not a guy who's going to hold up in K-State's single-wing offense getting 10-20 carries a week.

I keep getting the sense that K-State wants to eventually evolve their offense into a precision spread attack with more RPOs and POP passes. Thompson would certainly aid them in that endeavor.

Cornerstone rating: 2/5
It's not clear how good this kid really is and he doesn't seem to be a guy that could be feature player of their offense. Of course he might be much better than I realize and I simply don't realize it because his tape is missing. I don't see much to differentiate him from the other 20 QBs on their campus.

9. Kansas' Maciah Long

6-2, 215, linebacker, 3-star
Houston, TX (North Shore HS)

This is what you'd hope your QB recruits would look like if you're a K-State fan and I'm not sure why he was convinced to play LB at Kansas when he's got some solid tape at QB. You can tell from his QB tape though that he's a smart kid, and perhaps he sees clearly enough that his pro potential lies on defense.

The kid is an exceptional athlete and I imagine he'll be a good LB just because of his vision and mental processing speed, which are integral to great reading and reacting inside the triangle. You'd also hope that a kid of his size might be a weapon in the blitz game. I don't think I've seen an athlete of this caliber play defense at Kansas since...

Cornerstone rating: 3/5
He could be a great player, and landing a big time and sought-after athlete from Houston is ENORMOUS for Beatty's Jayhawk program, but I need to see some film of him taking on a block before I'm ready to say he's going to rock the world on defense.

10. Iowa State's Lawrence White

6-0, 170, athlete, 3-star
Bakersfield, CA (Ridgeview HS)

A combination of a 4.68 40 time and 4.58 shuttle time scream out for an obvious deployment to this Big 12 writer, safety.

Guys that have played QB in high school and run 4.7 or better coming downhill often make for good safety prospects provided they are up for meeting a RB with square shoulders in the alley. The best safeties can play with initial depth and close on the ball with good leverage, which requires some straight line speed and good instincts and football IQ, both of which White has.

On his highlights, White plays the ball well in the air and his tackling, as infrequently as it's depicted, suggest a future at strong (field) safety in the current Iowa State defensive scheme.

Cornerstone rating: 3/5
White seems a really solid athlete, but good athletes that can cover ground from depth aren't all that rare. Every roster should have a handful of such players on their defense, the other feature that sets these players apart is toughness and tackling. He might be an all-B12 safety someday, it'll depend on what kind of tackler he turns out to be.

All told, there are six Texans listed here with ISU, OU, K-State, and West Virginia all finding their (currently) top-rated players elsewhere. While it's normal for West Virginia to mine Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Florida for players, it's curious to see Iowa State and Oklahoma relying so heavily on California.

I'm not sure it's a terrible strategy if you have connections there that can guide you to the good players, but you wonder if part of Oklahoma's decline from being a team that physically intimidates the rest of the Big 12 on defense to getting beaten up by Texas every October has something to do with the dearth of East Texans on their roster. It's hard to say obviously, and there are probably many factors contributing to that annual outcome.

Overall, a brief glance tells us that the league's top dogs are eating pretty well. We'll dive deeper into every team's recruiting over the course of the season and wrap it all up in February.

Temple's experienced defense

Some teams, like Iowa, love to build experienced teams that are masters of doing something simple exceptionally well. Others, like Temple, build experienced teams that know how to do a million different things.

Read about Temple's strategy over at SB Nation.

Iowa and a strategy model for non-blueblood teams

The Hawkeyes are in solid position to reach the college football playoffs if they can stay healthy, beat out the rest of the Big 10 West (they've already beaten Wisconsin), and then win a big game in the B1G title against Michigan State or Ohio State.

Their defense is standard, 4-3 Over/Cover 4 stuff that most everyone runs. They're the Midwest version of Kansas St on defense with comparable players and strategy. We already know that works reasonably well in the Big 12 although they might struggle to get away with playing a 225 pound space-backer rather than a nickel.

What's more interesting is how committed Iowa is to stretch zone on offense, which allows them to build awesome running games with a cast of 6'3" 285 pound OL. Think Big 12 teams could find OL like that?

TCU is built around stretch zone as well, although with bigger OL, and they've married it to the Air Raid. Texas Tech has done this as well, in theory, but they've not really been committed to it. Mangino more or less relied on that strategy to turn Kansas into a contender back in the day.

I'm curious to see if more teams can master this strategy and be willing to commit to the rep-intensive nature of it and still get enough reps to make a spread passing game work. TCU might be a model for this, David Beatty and Kansas should be taking notes and Iowa State might want to aim for something like that if they need to replace Rhoads at the end of the year.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Things are starting to come together for Texas

They have a chance to win every remaining game on the schedule, read more over at Inside Texas.

Big 12 midseason power rankings

ESPN's FPI rankings have Baylor, Oklahoma, and TCU as the top three teams in the nation, in that order. The rankings' defenders, who incidentally are virtually all either ESPN employees or fans of those programs, note that the rankings are meant to indicate which teams have the best chance of finishing out the year with the most wins, not which teams are the best.

Of course, this is equally ridiculous, because those three teams all have yet to play each other. After they do so, there is virtually no chance of them finishing in that order.

Statistics can be useful for explaining what has happened, but they can't tell you "why?" something happened. Similarly, using stats to build predictive models is a methodology that often has the appearance of validity and authority but isn't necessarily so.

Trying to predict the behaviors of 18-22 year olds who play a sport where 22 different people interact in 150+ different events is pretty hard and processing all the available stats to make sense of it all is an intensely difficult task. If you think stats are telling you that Oklahoma is better than Alabama this season it might be time to take a step back and re-evaluate your process.

With all that said, here's a totally subjective ranking of the Big 12 based on my own opinions as someone who knows all the teams reasonably well (except Kansas) and watches a lot of Big 12 games. Take it as you will:

1. TCU

The Boykin + Patterson magic show is the best in the league now that Seth Russell is out for the year. The Horned Frogs are vulnerable on defense, but they're difficult to just blow away since their DL is quite good, and Boykin and the offense can score on any defense in the league. You have to beat them in a shootout and I don't trust any combination in a shootout more than Boykin+Patterson.

2. Baylor

Even with their leader out, the Bears are still a loaded football team with possibly the best player in the league in Corey Coleman. I would have had them safely over TCU with Russell and Billings both healthy (I know, Billings should return) but with a freshman QB at the helm I suspect Baylor will become too limited and mistake-prone to maintain that edge.

If Billings is limited against a team like TCU or OU than the Bears become very vulnerable.

3. Oklahoma State

Oklahoma St is a running game away from being the best team in the Big 12. What they do have is a potent passing offense, particularly when Rudolph's hand isn't numb, and a strong red-zone package that makes them pretty dang good at converting drives into touchdowns.

The defense might be the league's best and they have quality or star players at every position as well as a variety of different packages. There's an outside chance that OSU comes through the late season purge as the top team in the league. They're use of different packages makes them great at situational football, which is how winning is done.

4. Oklahoma

The Sooners are no longer the more physical and aggressive team in the Red River Shootout, but they're still one of the better teams in the league. Their new found 3-3-5 package has done a great job of replacing Devante Bond with nickel corner Will Johnson and freeing up Striker to wreak havoc near the line of scrimmage.

Their run game is also improving thanks to Riley's abandonment of the gap schemes he brought from ECU and embrace of the zone blocking that OL coach Bill Bedenbaugh excels at teaching.

5. Texas

Texas may end up climbing even higher on this list as they are getting better with each passing week. This is the most physical team in the league now and the defense features several freshman that are still learning on the job. They're almost like a bizarro Bill Snyder Kansas State team.

6. West Virginia

I'm not going to punish Holgorsen's team for the sin of having a tougher opening schedule than much of the rest of the league. They're 0-3 in league play, yes, but they played @Baylor, @OU, and home against OSU as their only B12 games thus far.

They may finish near the bottom of the league but I believe this is a stronger team than the ones below them.

7. Texas Tech

It's brutal watching Tech play run defense. Their offense is fantastic, as always, but they cannot control the tempo of a game and aren't up for a fist fight playing away from Lubbock. I'm still curious to see what happens with the David Gibbs experiment on defense but you have to wonder at some point if Kingsbury knows how to oversee a culture that can produce real defense.

8. Iowa State

After watching more Cyclone film I can understand why Rhoads insisted on Lanning and a more run-centric approach to the point where he was willing to fire Mangino. Rhoads is coaching for his job right now and Iowa State finally has an OL and RB that can run the dang ball...all that he's ever wanted.

On the downside, they run a 3-4 defense and none of their four LBs are very good.

9. Kansas State

The Wildcats are basically in a free fall at this point. They've lost Danzel McDaniel for the year and may never get Dante Barnett back, which means two of their three returning starters that were supposed to make their 2015 secondary special are just gone. Poof!

Meanwhile, their offense can't function because their QB can't throw. I won't be shocked if they just end up starting Alex Delton at some point and preparing him for the future. If that happens, they could end up climbing the list.

Also, I'm intrigued by the possibility of a 2016 KSU D that returns Wood, Geary, Davis, Lee, Barnett, Prewett, Newlan, Shelley, and Starks. Wildcat fan, step back from the ledge! You still have so much to live for...

10. Kansas

Has Kansas won a game yet? No? My only interest in that team is seeing whether they can go defeated all season. Heck, I wonder if they could go defeated next season as well. It'd be a challenge, as their pre-conference slate is Rhode Island, Ohio, and Memphis, a schedule scarcely tougher than Baylor's.

Speaking of Memphis...

11. Memphis

I figure the Tigers are near the front of the pack for teams warranting inclusion into the Big 12 if the conference determines to get back to 12 teams again and add a championship game. Adding Houston or SMU makes zero sense as neither team expands the geographic footprint of the league into new TV markets, but Memphis is a real program that brings in new TV sets.

12. BYU

The stormin' Mormons are always on the radar and would also bring in new TV sets as well as a legitimate AQ-caliber program. The problem is that BYU and Memphis would make for poor companions in joining the league as they'd stretch it across multiple time zones.

The better solution would be to add BYU plus another non-AQ in the west, such as Wyoming or Boise State. Memphis could be paired with someone like UCF, offer West Virginia a companion out east, and get the Big 12 into Florida. The former solution would make for some fun football while the latter solution is more likely because of the TV-money component.

There's also a solid chance that the Big 12 dissolves, or loses Texas and Oklahoma to the ACC and adds teams like the ones mentioned above, becoming a non-AQ conference. That'd be terrible for the league's not at all out of the realm of possibility.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Baylor without Seth Russell and other thoughts on the Big 12

The Big 12 dropped two bombshells on Monday with some big time ramifications for the league.

The first being that Seth Russell was going to need surgery on his neck that would sideline him for perhaps as many as six months and certainly the rest of this season.

The second bombshell was that Paul Rhoads and Mark Mangino had reached such a serious point of disagreement on who the starting QB in Ames should be that Rhoads evidently fired Mangino. The reason was apparently that Rhoads loves what has been happening in the Iowa State running game this year and couldn't convince Mangino to tweak the offensive philosophy, play-calling, and personnel (i.e. starting QB) to feature this run game.

Let's start with that Iowa State bombshell before moving on to how Baylor will make do without Russell:

In Mangino we trust

Mark Mangino turned the Kansas-freaking-Jayhawks into a BCS bowl-winner. He won a national championship with Josh Heupel as his QB at Oklahoma. The only reason he isn't still the head coach at Kansas is because it turned out he was verbally abusing his players, not because of any major flaw in the results his methods were producing.

Paul Rhoads has overseen crap offenses at Iowa State for some time now. The program has gone downhill since he lost Tom Herman and since he graduated the players that Gene Chizik left for him. The Cyclone's calling card under Rhoads was physical toughness and sound defense but they haven't played good defense in a few years now.

He snatched up Mangino to oversee the offense and give him his best chance at saving his job and spoke bluntly after hiring him that he was going to pretty much have carte blanche to do what he needed to do. Now Mangino is gone, and there's no one left with anything on their resume to suggest that they can turn a perennial doormat like Iowa State into a competitive team in this conference.

I suspect that Mangino had good reasons for not wanting to start Joel Lanning and not wanting to go hog wild with the run game like the defensive-minded head coach prefers and I'm fairly confident that this will go poorly for the Cyclones and Paul Rhoads will be fired at the end of the year.

Perhaps then Paul Rhoads will be hired to try and build a physical, sound defense in a location with an offensive-minded head coach who will undermine him and demand that he blitz more. Lotta potential for irony here and if Rhoads is fired I'll have some thoughts on what the Cyclones should be looking for in terms of a coach who could bring some success to Ames.

Is Baylor finished?

Probably, in terms of winning the Big 12 and reaching the playoffs at least, but not necessarily. The truly unfortunate part of this story, besides the fact that a really impressive young man just lost his season and may see his career seriously altered because of a devastating injury, is that Baylor's schedule is back-loaded this year and they weren't able to milk their precious time with Russell to get more wins against the league's top teams.

Now they are left with a true freshman trying to lead college football's most explosive offense against the toughest part of their schedule with the weight of championship expectations on his shoulders.

On the positive side for the Bears, the first thing to note with their offense though is that much of it is relatively simple. The spacing clears up the reads for the QB and the better part of their offense is RPOs (runs with pass options) and play-action bombs where the QB can often just stare down a single receiver and throw him open deep.

Stidham is the back-up as a true freshman for a reason and it's that he can handle this stuff and he has the arm talent to hit the throws, as you can see on this tape of all of his snaps this season. (Quick aside, if you are a Baylor fan who reads this blog but doesn't read then you're impoverishing yourself as a consumer of Bear coverage).

The second thing to note with Baylor is that they are perfectly designed to handle having inexperience at the QB position. Corey Coleman is a god of war right now and much of their playbook is just designed to get him in space and allow him to destroy man-to-man coverage. Their run game has a deep stable of backs and a very talented and very veteran OL. The rest of the WR corps is fantastic and includes some up and coming options (Davion Hall, Ishmael Zamora) that he's been throwing to in practice and garbage time.

Now here's what could hurt Baylor about having a true freshman trying to lead the way for them as they compete for a third consecutive Big 12 title and a first playoff berth...besides the fact that this is a ton of pressure for a freshman to handle and he may not have the needed experience and wisdom of how to schedule his time, take care of himself, and lead his team in such a pressure cooker situation.

First would be the team that can disguise their looks and muck up Stidham's reads in their option game and at the line of scrimmage. Baylor loves to go fast but they also love to have their QB direct things and make adjustments at the line, which they'll probably have to abandon with Stidham. Can they maintain their pace and will he understand what Patterson's Frogs are doing?

The next challenge would be the team that elects to play man coverage, brings numbers to stop the run, and dares Stidham to actually beat them by out-executing coverage in the passing game while also navigating blitzes. This used to cause Petty some problems, particularly if he didn't have Tevin Reese on the field to simplify things for him, and will likely be the approach that Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, and Texas bring against Stidham.

How will he respond if someone can take away Coleman, force him to make progressions, and slow down the run game? What if that happens on the road?

Here's how the rest of the Baylor schedule goes:

bye week

Couldn't have come at a better time.

@Kansas State

The Wildcats are bad. They're tweaking their defense in ways that will make them stouter but they are as simple as can be in terms of scheme. The only scary thing here for Baylor is just that the Wildcats may still have some juice left to try and salvage their own season with an upset win at home. Thursday night games in Manhattan aren't fun. On paper though, this is a good place for Stidham to start.


Here's a big one. The Stoops brothers should be highly motivated to avenge last year's drubbing in Norman and they've been working on a coverage-heavy defense to help them handle Baylor's stresses. It's at home, but this will be a tough one for a freshman QB. The hope here is that Baylor's D will show well at home and that OU won't have any answers for Corey Coleman.


Possibly the hardest game on here because it's against a good team that knows how to play Baylor, has a hostile home field advantage, and the contest is sandwiched between the two biggest games of the year. I'd go so far as to say this might even be the most likely loss.


Disregarding intangibles, this is the hardest game on Baylor's schedule. Trevone Boykin is going to light up the Baylor defense and Stidham is going to have to match him with a big performance of his own against all of the wizardry and disguise that Patterson can conceive of to make this difficult. If the Bears get through this one it'll probably be because their run game carried a lot of water for them and prevented the Frogs from being able to shield their green CBs from having to play Cannon and Coleman on islands down the sideline.

bye week

I bet they wish this happened before the TCU game.


It'll be interesting to see how much Baylor has to play for in this game. Texas will be fired up regardless, looking for a chance to make the season with a big win over the upstart Bears, and they have the kind of formula as a team (really physical run game+stout defense) that K-State has used to make things difficult for Baylor in the past.

This should have been a nearly automatic W for the Bears but things could get interesting now that Russell is gone.

One last thing to remember though is that Art Briles has worked at a disadvantage for much of his life and he absolutely THRIVES in this role. If he hadn't lost his QB he would have manufactured some other reason to believe that the world was aligned against him and that he was going to have to fight and claw for everything he got.

Baylor will probably show up big for their two home games against the perennial powers, Texas and Oklahoma, the big question will be if they can transition to the type of mindset that sets one up to go into a place like Ft. Worth or Stillwater and "put down the rebellion" so to speak. That's actually a mindset that's easier to come by as a traditional power with big time confidence and years of experience at putting down teams that are trying to challenge the crown.

When you feel like you're up against the world and are raging like a bull that can help you take down a bigger opponent or protect home field, but it's hard to maintain that mindset and energy through a brutal stretch of games like Baylor is about to face. If anyone can do it, Briles can, but I don't think 2015 Baylor and their freshman QB will be able to handle that task.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Dime packages in the Big 12

Over at Football Study Hall I wrote a post on "dime packages and blueblood privilege" the gist of which is that major programs often have deep enough defensive rosters to field really good dime packages for combating spread teams as well as deep DL rotations that can keep pressure coming all day long.

There are many spread teams that get going when they wear out a DL and kill their legs so they can't withstand finesse zone runs or bring a pass-rush any longer. That doesn't work against the likes of Michigan or Alabama who can keep coming at you with waves of 270+ pound monsters and back them up with six versatile, 180+ pound DBs.

Within that post is a brief note on the 2015 TCU "quantitative easing" defense, which I've described as basically a 4-0-7 defense with no true linebackers unless they bring Ty Summers in off the bench. Granted, Travin Howard and Montrel Wilson will probably grow into linebackers over their time at TCU but currently they are still converted safeties who are built like safeties.

Dime packages that can choke out Big 12 spread offenses have often been the privilege of Oklahoma and Texas, the former of whom popularized nickel defense when they moved Roy Williams down into the "Roy-backer" position where he could be free to wreak havoc in the middle of the field which he ruled like a brutal lord of old.

The 2005 Texas team that took down the Trojans was similarly lethal for the fact that it could put five future NFL DBs on the field at one time.

Another Big 12 team that has had some good dime packages is the OSU Cowboys under Glenn Spencer, who are a very package-heavy defense. One of Mike Gundy's most brilliant moves as head coach at OSU was to start committing more numbers to defense than offenses to allow Spencer greater flexibility in building good defenses. That's the path to winning the Big 12, everyone can play great offense from time to time but not everyone can play D.

The confounding problem for dime packages in the Big 12 is the Baylor Bears, who necessitate that you flood the field with good coverage players but also can generally require that you have six really good players up front or else they'll just bury you with their veer-inspired run game.

I see two potential solutions to Baylor: One is a dime package like the Alabama unit that took down the Aggies. They played a box safety at a hybrid linebacker position, much like K-State's "coverage linebacker" spot and then played mostly cover 4 with a very rangy and safety-heavy defense squad that could make throws difficult, rally to the ball and tackle, and get pressure with four or five.

Hopefully we get to see Baylor play Michigan or Alabama in the post-season so we can see if a dime package that uses a box safety as the 6th DB offers enough of a solution to avoid getting gashed by the Bears' run game.

Another solution is the OU/Texas approach, which is probably what you can expect to see when the Sooners travel to Waco in a few weeks, a nickel package with at least four DBs on the field who can play man coverage.

For OU that'll be their corners Jordan Thomas and Zach Sanchez plus coverage safeties Will Johnson and Steven Parker. With four man-competent DBs on the field the Sooners can then leave six true front players in the box to handle Baylor's running game. If that isn't enough up front then OU will be in some serious trouble but having a strong enough secondary to leave the defensive front intact seems to be the re-occurring theme with teams that have slowed the Baylor attack.

I'm not sure there's another solution because no B12 team really has a dominant hybrid, box-safety right now that could be the guy who vacillates between being the 6th man in the box and being a space player save maybe for TCU who fields such players almost exclusively (and none of them other than Kindred could really be described as dominant). That probably ain't going to work either because you'd like to have at least one true ILB on the field to take on lead blocks and spill plays to all of your DBs.

I'm looking forward to seeing what different packages Big 12 teams have in store for Baylor this year and whether any dime packages see the light of day as a solution to their confounding attack. If not, let's hope for a compelling post-season contest between the Bears and either Michigan or Alabama.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Justin Fuente, the rise of a coach, and the search for a QB

At SB Nation I wrote a post on how Fuente discovered Paxton Lynch and built Memphis into a non-AQ power in the middle of SEC country.

There are two interesting dimensions to this story. The first is that a up and coming coach who is in his first head coaching job and is hoping to springboard himself into a major opportunity somewhere needs to find a QB to be his meal ticket in order to get those opportunities.

The surest way to land a better gig is to develop a QB, win big with him as an upperclassman, and then cash in your chips. Plenty of coaches that were really only decent were catapulted into major jobs because they had a good QB before it turned out that they couldn't replicate that success again. Brady Hoke, anyone?

Finding and developing the QB is the real key and you can't just pick off the top rated QBs in a given year. For instance, take a look at the top QBs in the Big 12 right now:

Trevone Boykin: 3-star Athlete

Boykin was one of many 2/3 star "athletes" that TCU recruits every year and as far as anyone knew, he was going to end up as an All-American, but perhaps at DE, or LB, or SS, or perhaps as a RB or WR where he initially started out with the Frogs.

Then he was pressed into action at QB because of Casey Pachall's collapse into substance abuse and showed decently in his first year before turning in a terrible performance the following year. Then Sonny Cumbie and Doug Meacham came with the Air Raid and voila! He's the best QB in the league.

Baker Mayfield: 3-star QB

I like to bag on the services but they are often more accurate with the QBs than schools are. They had Mayfield as a 3-star despite the fact that his best in-state offer was from Rice. Mayfield had a higher vision for his own career and decided to prove it as a walk-on. He tried to walk-on at Texas and received little interest so he ended up at Texas Tech.

He thrived there as a true freshman starter but was miffed when it seemed they were going to pass him over with scholarship player Davis Webb, so he left and walked on at Oklahoma. Now he's the foundation of their offense.

Seth Russell: 3-star QB

Russell was not a terribly well-regarded prospect coming out of Garland, TX with offers comparable to the one he got from Art Briles to come and learn at his feet in Waco. Most of Baylor's QB recruits have not been highly-regarded studs, although the services are now beginning to regard anyone Briles chases as being good since none of his takes have been anything less than a 4k yard passer as of yet.

You think maybe the system in Waco for development and deployment might be a factor here?

Pat Mahomes: 3-star QB

Me and my man Justin Wells knew Mahomes was going to be good based on his high school film but he was a player that the biggest schools ignored and left for Texas Tech and Oklahoma State to fight over.

Of course now it seems obvious that he's a true dual-threat with a cannon arm that he combines with his legs to do insane, indefensible things like scramble for five seconds and then hit a go route 60 yards downfield.

Mason Rudolph: 4-star QB

Rudolph is the only blue-chipper on this list and OSU plucked him out of South Carolina while beating out Ole Miss, LSU, Louisville, Virginia, and Virginia Tech for his commitment. No one else listed above had anywhere near that kind of attention or competition for his commitment.

The lesson? I see two:

1). Offensive coaches should very carefully evaluate multiple players at QB because conventional wisdom on who will be great and who won't is often terribly misguided.

2). The system for developing a QB after he arrives on campus is probably much more important than people realize.

If I were a young coach trying to climb the ladder I'd invest time sorting through leftover QB prospects and I'd either try to specialize in QB development or attach myself to people who have a gift for it.

How will the depleted K-State Wildcats match up with the rejuvenated Longhorns?

Read about it for free at Inside Texas.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Glancing at ESPN's midseason All-Big 12 team

The good folks at ESPN's Big 12 blog made a midseason all-B12 list recently that was interesting to glance at both for seeing how other writers who focus on this league think of what's been happening this season as well as for thinking through which players have been most impactful on the season.

It's very early in conference play so much of this could change as the season progresses, but I thought I'd take a look at their selections and make a few notes here and there on what I've seen.

Also for reference, here's how I projected things before the season.

ESPN's Big 12 Offense

QB: Trevone Boykin, TCU

This is just a no-brainer at this point. Sure Seth Russell has been effective, and Pat Mahomes has been no slouch, but Boykin's effectiveness both in their pass and run games has been on a different level than anyone else. He's playing like a Heisman right now.

RB: Shock Linwood, Baylor

Eh, it's not that Linwood hasn't been great, but he couldn't have an easier job than running behind a strong and veteran OL while surrounded by wildly effective constraints that open up huge holes for him to blast through. For my money, Wendell Smallwood has been the best back in the conference.

RB: DeAndrew Washington, Texas Tech

I like Washington or TCU's Aaron Green here about equally. What I would have liked more was a shoutout to any of the league's many ancillaries (TE, H-back, FB) who often play critical roles for their teams. As it happens, I'm not sure who I would name to the 1st team at that spot currently. Perhaps Gronk, I have to concede that more B12 teams are going two-back with two true RBs this year than are utilizing normal ancillaries.

WR: Corey Coleman, Baylor

No-brainer, Coleman is one of the best skill players in the nation and would be a favorite to be B12 OPOY if not for Trevone Boykin.

WR: Josh Doctson, TCU

Also easy, Doctson's emergence as a total receiver who understands how to get open vs zone or man has made TCU very difficult to deal with this season.

WR: Sterling Shephard, Oklahoma

I think I'd have gone with Jakeem Grant here, partly because he fills a slightly different role than Doctson and Coleman and partly because I think he's been a tad better than Shephard this year but it's close. Splitting hairs, really.

OT: Spencer Drango, Baylor

Perhaps the best OL in the conference.

LG: Cody Whitehair, Kansas State

Cheating! While Whitehair would be the best left guard in the league if he actually played that position...he doesn't, so he isn't. I don't have a great counter here, perhaps TCU's Jamelle Naff who's been quite good.

OC: Joey Hunt, TCU

I think this is right on, Hunt struggles a tad if you line up a monster nose tackle across his face but he's been the best center in the conference this year and that frankly doesn't happen hardly ever. Dalton Risner of K-State is probably the future here.

RG: Daniel Burton, Iowa State

Daniel Burton actually plays right guard, so this is a nice and accurate nod. Iowa State's running game has been surprisingly good this year, not at all what was expected from this offense in the preseason when it wasn't even clear who could play RB for them.

RT: Le'Raven Clark, Texas Tech

Another cheat in order to recognize the five OL who are actually the best in the conference, a job which I think the ESPN staff performed quite well. Texas' RT Kent Perkins could have been up for this had he not missed the last two games. 

ESPN's Big 12 Defense

E: Emmanuel Ogbah, Oklahoma State

Ogbah was an easy call and was my 1st-teamer over Oakman in the preseason. His size and strength mean that OSU can put him at left, or strong end to free up his counterpart Jimmy Bean to attack the blindside.

N: Andrew Billings, Baylor

Yep, Billings is the best player on the Baylor defense and a contender for DPOY in the Big 12.

T: Hassan Ridgeway, Texas

Texas has ended up using Ridgeway as a 3-tech as often or more often than at nose tackle where he played last year, freeing us from having a Ridge vs Billings debate. If Texas had landed Billings in recruiting (or if Baylor had landed Ridgeway, I guess) that would have formed a DT tandem that would have solved the spread offense.

E: Dale Pierson, Iowa State

This is almost like a middle finger to Shawn Oakman, although Pierson has been unquestionably more productive in terms of total sacks. I prefer to have a "rush-end" label here but it'd still be hard to deny Pierson.

LB: Eric Striker, Oklahoma

If we have a "space-backer" designation than Striker will earn the nod for it, although he's occasionally unsound because he's always hunting for the big play. TCU's Denzel Johnson has also been very good though.

LB: Malik Jefferson, Texas

I don't like that ESPN offered us a 4-2-5 defense without listing a single true, inside linebacker. Malik plays more of a hybrid role in the Texas defense and Striker is purely an edge weapon. For my money, Baylor's Taylor Young is the best but he's been limited thus far this season. Montrel Wilson of TCU has a chance to earn a spot here. Kansas State's Elijah Lee is my choice here.

CB: Zach Sanchez

Sanchez has been pretty good, and also frequently avoided, in part because he's often been playing across from weaker players but also because he's plain good.

S: Derrick Kindred

Kindred has been a B12 DPOY candidate, filling a million holes for TCU and flying around the field making big tackles.

S: Jordan Sterns

Sterns has been good and is one of the better "support" safeties in the league. There isn't really a "cover" safety on this list though, either a coverage-minded nickel or a coverage-minded free safety. Kindred is close but he's also a fantastic support safety. I'd list Steven Parker or KJ Dillon here.

S: Karl Joseph

He was playing great, but now he's out. Orion Stewart has played well this year and could end up being the choice for "support safety on my final list.

CB: Terrell Chestnut

It wasn't Chestnut who was called upon to cover Corey Coleman but Daryl Worley, nor was Chestnut the 2nd option as he lines up at left cornerback. I think Daryl Worley or Texas' Duke Thomas are better choices.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Twitter-bag! Answering questions on the Big 12

Twitter-bag should probably be an insult used to describe the types of jerks who use Twitter to find people to troll, start pedantic arguments, and generally dish out hate across the interwebs. Until that term catches on though, I'm going to use it to describe what I'm doing here.

I'm going to post questions from folks on Twitter about the Big 12. If you have a question you'd like me to answer in the future keep 'em coming and I'll store them up for usage in the next Twitter-bag post. The advantage here is that I can answer detailed questions with long-winded and diagram-assisted prose whereas on Twitter, 140 characters and all that.

Let's get started:

While I didn't watch OU vs K-State (who would other than fans with A&M-Bama and Sparty-Michigan on?) I liked Will Johnson's JUCO tape at cornerback and I've noticed that OU seems to prefer a 3-3-5 approach on defense with Devante Bond injured rather than their 3-4.

When they do this, they get Steven Parker at the nickel, which leaves them with a pair of run-support safeties and a potential coverage weakness, especially when they bring nickel blitzes or play cover 4, either of which ask a safety to play man coverage on vertical routes.

If I were the Sooners, I'd consider bringing the better coverage player on the field in nickel as well. What's interesting though is that K-State's passing game isn't very good so it's curious that they felt they needed Johnson out there over Hatari Byrd for the purpose of stopping Joe Hubener or Kody Cook on QB Power. But they pitched a shutout so...who's gonna argue?

Also noteworthy, getting Will Johnson safety reps will be INVALUABLE for the Baylor game later in the year when OU will want to have four good coverage players on the field in the secondary to allow them to attempt to play man coverage against the Bears. In that game, choosing Johnson over Byrd will make all the sense in the world.

If I can risk making an assumption without looking like an ass, I'd say that the question at the heart of this question is whether Baylor has the SOS to reach the playoffs if they finish the year as a one-loss team.

I'm on record as saying that I don't think the Big 12 will have a playoff team but Baylor's success and the lack of dominant teams nationally are starting to change my mind. The big questions are whether Seth Russell will perform well on the road (and not just against TCU) and if the Horned Frogs can continue to turn Boykin + Patterson defensive wizardry into victories.

Neither of those questions have obvious answers.

I believe that Baylor has demonstrated that their offense is as potent this year as most any other year in recent memory and that their defense is at least as solid as last year, though Billing's health is a big question.

The potency of the Baylor offense can often be summed up by...well, let's continue this with our next question and sum up by saying:

Beating West Virginia is a quality win and Baylor should get into the playoffs, even with one loss, provided that loss doesn't come against the Horned Frogs. I think losing at OSU but winning the other three games in the OU, @OSU, @TCU, UT gauntlet at the end of the year would do the trick for Briles and prevent him from having to hire a crappy marketing firm again to help make the case.

A former Big 12 defensive coach put it to me like this: "How unstoppable Baylor is in a given year really depends on how many 'aliens' they have in their WR corps."

By aliens he meant "guys that you can't cover in man-to-man coverage." He noted that in 2011 Baylor had four such players with Kendall Wright, Terrence Williams, Tevin Reese, and Lanear Sampson. Every year after that they had fewer and fewer, until now when they have two (in my estimation) in Corey Coleman and K.D. Cannon.

The most important key to stopping Baylor's offense is to stop their vertical passing game, or else you'll be buried in an avalanche of points. But of course, their offense is engineered around forcing you to make impossible choices, like how do you stop a vertical passing game that is tied to the run game with play-action and RPOs (run/pass option plays)?

The Baylor RBs are good but not terrifying, but it's hard to keep a lid on both Cannon and Coleman and still have enough numbers in the box to stop the Bears' veteran OL from blasting open giant holes for said RBs.

If I were in charge of game-planning this Bear team I'd try and do the following:

-Press Coleman at the line of scrimmage and play a safety over the top of him.

-Put my best coverage player on Cannon with strict "just don't get beat deep!" instructions and no safety help.

-Devote as many remaining players as possible to stopping the run.

-Regularly bring disguised pressure, and when doing so, bring a LOT of pressure and play press coverage against both Coleman and Cannon. Your goal here is to rattle Russell, create negative plays against the run game, and force Baylor to beat you with precision under pressure.

I have a few ideas of how this could work...but scheming the Baylor offense is just about the most challenging problem the modern game has to offer. It's just simple geometry, their spacing and competencies all play off each other. It's hard to do without either having NFL players on your defense or Baylor having a dearth of "aliens."

I'd say those three factors all played a role, as did the game being in Waco rather than Morgantown. Baylor is nearly impossible to beat in "the Thunderdome" these days but are also a team that is frequently vulnerable playing on the road and Morgantown is a hostile atmosphere, perhaps the most hostile in the league.

The biggest difference was that last year, Petty was looking to Goodley over and over again and the Mountaineers made that a very inefficient proposition. While Goodley had big numbers in that game (nine catches for 123 yards), I'd guess that the Bears had several more incomplete passes that came when he was targeted by Petty, who had poor numbers on the day.

This year, Baylor went into the game looking to feature Coleman and West Virginia didn't have a good plan for controlling him. The Bears would isolate Coleman by bunching up receivers to the other end of the field and West Virginia didn't have anyone that could cover him in man-to-man.

Last year West Virginia played a ton of man coverage against the Bears while mixing in some deep, max zones that had someone over and under Goodley. That couldn't work against formations like this:

That's Coleman up top facing press coveraeg with no one else within 15 yards of him.

This is like dumping the ball to LeBron James in the post while he's surrounded by three-point shooters. They're isolating Coleman on Worley and the big WV corner couldn't handle it. None of them could.

Aliens, man.

Okay one final one and we're done for today:

TCU definitely did this, I would do this if I were a Big 12 DC, I didn't watch the Oklahoma-KSU game but that move is still within the Stoops' brothers least so long as they aren't in the Cotton Bowl.

The Frogs would do it by showing a look, waiting for the audible, and then sneaking SS Denzel Johnson (usually) into the box late before the snap. You can see them doing it in the last clip I put up in last week's "did K-State blow it against TCU?" post here.

Not every defense is crafty enough to pull this off but when opposing teams can dictate that you have to throw the ball but you are wildly inefficient doing have big problems.

The Wildcats are going to have to battle hard to reach 6-6 and bowl eligibility, but that's not the major issue for this team. Their problem is that they need to find an answer at QB as they are currently without a clear plan at the position for the first time since before Collin Klein took over.

The 2013 Wildcats went 6-6 but it wasn't a big deal because they had Jake Waters and a plan to build a strong 2014 offense around him. Snyder isn't going to want to build the 2016 offense around Joe Hubener but who really knows what they have in Jesse Ertz and who knows if Banks or Delton will be up for taking over either? Should be interesting to see how this develops.

That's all, feel free to send more questions and I'll get to them later this week or next Monday.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Did Kansas State blow it against TCU?

Kansas State had a chance to do something special last Saturday night in Manhattan against top-5 ranked TCU and they blew it by failing to just "run the dang ball," or at least so goes the common narrative about the game.

Facing 4th and 1, down 45-42 with 1:52 on the clock, and choosing to kick a field goal has generally been labelled as the decisive point when a failure to run the ball cost Kansas State the game.

But let's back-up from that moment and talk about what K-State needed to do in order to have a chance to win this game:

1. They needed to keep TCU's offense off the field and out of rhythm.

TCU has arguably the most explosive offense in the Big 12, or at least the most explosive roster, as Doctson, Green, Boykin, and Turpin are threats to score every time they touch the ball. If allowed to have multiple possessions and opportunities they were eventually going to make plays against a K-State defense that has a big hole on the field with Dante Barnett hurt and added more holes when Morgan Burns and Danzel McDaniel were unable to play.

So, K-State needed to control time of possession and have some good, long drives.

They were actually successful here to an extent. They held the ball for 39:45 of game clock, aided no doubt by the fact that TCU scored quickly multiple times, but they also converted 8-14 3rd downs, which is the way to maintain drives and wear down an opponent.

The problem came in the 2nd half when K-State's first four drives failed to score points (for KSU at least) or use up even two minutes of clock.

2. They needed to punish TCU's two major weaknesses: Undersized and inexperienced linebackers and inexperienced cornerbacks.

You can't efficiently move the ball down the field if you can't hammer a sore spot over and over again. Then when you do so, you eventually can blow them away. In this game, the opposite happened.

What has to be noted here is that attacking TCU's tiny linebackers is trickier than you might assume. Ideally you want to require them to beat blocks, make fills, and do things that are hard for 200 pound, inexperienced, converted DBs to do.

However, first you have to deal with the Frog DL and secondly you have to control the three other 200 pounders (the safeties) and prevent them from allowing the LBs to play with decisiveness and have numbers advantages.

Ideally, you handle the first issue with double teams and effective blocking from the front and the second issue with a passing game that requires conservative safety play.

Execution by K-State in the 1st half

The simplest way to attack the linebackers without getting ripped by the safeties is with the QB run game, which K-State happens to have:

This is QB Power with the next Braden Wilson (Winston Dimel) at fullback and an offensive set (11 personnel, one back and one TE) that puts extreme stress on the defense. Do you want to send numbers to stop the passing strength of the trips receivers or to stop the running strength?

TCU played a corner-over version of their base two-deep defense against this set but the problem here was that they were still outnumbered at the point of attack because the QB is the runner and everyone else is a blocker or away from the point of attack.

By the end of the first half Hubener had already carried the ball nearly 20 times and he finished the game with 26 carries, which is about as many as you want your QB to get in a given game.

The next issue is how to attack the linebackers with the running backs and how to do so without inviting the safeties into the action?

There are two ways that could have been approached by K-State. One would have been to go with big formations, which TCU usually responds to by bringing their weak and free safety Ridwan Issahaku and Derrick Kindred closer to the action.

The other option was to spread out the Frogs and make strong safety Denzel Johnson or one of the two green linebackers responsible for balancing run/pass conflicts. That's the option K-State chose for this game.

Kansas State's two backs Charles Johnson and Justin Silmon combined for 97 yards on 19 carries, or 5.1 yards per carry. In the first half those runs looked something like this:

That's an inside zone run with five blockers for five defenders and the 6th player accounted for with a QB read of an unblocked end or of an outside linebacker with a pass option (RPO).

With few exceptions, K-State's OL struggled to execute the combo block throughout the game against TCU's DL. Since the Wildcats don't have the most talented line in the country they like to focus on controlling DL with their double teams and then using variety, speed, and option to control the linebackers and prevent them from taking advantage of the extra time they get.

The Wildcat OL are always hesitant to come off the double team if there's a risk of giving up a negative play. The problem is that this often prevented them from reaching the TCU linebackers and keeping them from being able to make the play. In the clip above they were able to make a positive gain but they couldn't block Chris Bradley out of the play with a single block from Hayes and also couldn't blow him off the line of scrimmage with the Risner double team before TCU LB Wilson arrived.

Nevertheless, this kind of steady gain would have made it much easier for the Wildcats to maintain their lead in the second half rather than being forced to punt over and over again.

Frog counters in the 2nd half

K-State had eight RB carries for 54 yards in the first half, good for 6.8 per pop. However, four of those carries went for two yards or less (none were negative). In the second half, they managed only 42 yards on 11 carries at 3.8 yards per carry with one negative run (-4 yards) four more that were for one yard or less.

The QB run game, which K-State was probably hesitant to rely on too heavily given their depth situation and how many carries Hubener had already received, also struggled in the 2nd half:

Several key differences in how TCU played the scheme this time. One is that they basically played man coverage on the trips side which cost them having strong safety Denzel Johnson in the action but gained them Derrick Kindred filling the alley. Another is that K-State ran it to Kleinsorge's side this time rather than Whitehair's, which means a rather serious blocking downgrade. Finally, the backside linebacker was scraping hard to get there and couldn't be reached.

Now check out TCU's defense of a zone run with big personnel on the field:

As I explained initially, and as K-State had to know in their game-planning earlier in the week, that kind of scheme was going to invite TCU to play the run aggressively with numbers. Especially if they were playing from behind.

You'll also notice that TCU's LB Wilson is either filling super-aggressively or else run-blitzing, which prevents K-State's double team to effectively control the DL.

Now a K-State zone spread run in the 2nd half:

K-State audibled to a run here but then strong safety Denzel Johnson snuck into the box after the audible and late before the snap. What's more, K-State's interior OL couldn't drive the Frog DTs off the ball, so it was simply a matter of Jones either trying to cut into the back-side B-gap and beat Wilson's tackle or trying to get around the DTs (iffy proposition) and into the play-side B-gap without getting tackled for a loss by an unblocked Johnson.

At the end of the day, K-State was never going to be able to clear room for their running game without connecting in the passing game and punishing the Frogs for either dropping the deep safeties into the box with throws outside or punishing the down safeties and linebackers with throws to the slot receivers.

To that purpose, Joe Hubener went 13-33 with 157 yards and a pick-6...which may have occurred as a result of Kindred knocking Reuters over before the ball arrived but the point remains that KSU wasn't efficient in the passing game.

So where do we lay the blame for the Wildcats' failure to pull off the upset?

Distributing blame

When K-State was facing 4th and 1 with 1:52 on the clock, or when they were facing 3rd and 3 on the previous drive while up 42-37, they didn't have great options for running the ball on the Frogs that could guarantee a high rate of likely success. Why?

You could say it was because they hadn't established the passing game in a manner that could guarantee that TCU's safeties at least thought about that threat before flying at the line of scrimmage, but this isn't really true.

Gary Patterson and TCU know they're in the wild, wild west and they don't play by the rules. They were going to attack the line of scrimmage aggressively in those situations no matter what. K-State's failure to execute in the passing game prevented them from blowing open the game and avoiding those situations but it wasn't necessarily relevant to their failures in those specific instances.

You could also say that they failed to run the ball enough to run clock and test the Frogs' mettle. This is probably true, but the failing was more in their Tuesday game-planning to find ways to attack TCU with their RBs or in their failing to put winning this game above the risk of losing their QB.

The real problem though is that TCU couldn't trust their OL to win the point of attack against the Frog DL and they lack either the needed depth at QB or passing acumen to punish the Frogs' aggression. Facing that 4th and 1, K-State was always going to chose the conservative option and making their opponent prove he could take the game.

You can say that K-State blew it against TCU and you'd have plenty of evidence for your claim, but the team came within three points of beating a more talented opponent with a rather weak QB and a disadvantage in the trenches. The coaches could have been more clever but "Why didn't you out-smart Patterson more often?" seems a rather blunted criticism to offer in light of the whole game.

I would have called more pulling plays to move the point of attack, but I suspect K-State had reasons for running more inside zone and without a better passing game it's probably a moot point.

I would have gone for it on 4th and 1. When you're the underdog you have to be aggressive and take chances at times to come out ahead. Snyder went conservative and lost, but Snyder almost always goes conservative so at this point, you know what you're getting. Second-guessing the Purple Wizard seems silly and I don't think you can question their game planning or in-game decisions at key moments without second-guessing the old man.

Complaining about being overly conservative is too complain about the foundation of K-State football.

Were I a K-State fan, and I almost count as one, I think I'd shrug my shoulders and hope for better next time or hope or hope for a better QB in the future so these games don't come down to 50-50 decisions.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

USC and the 10 strongest blueblood programs in college football

Because college football is becoming so money-driven and the culture is becoming more short-term oriented, losing its ability to maintain longer time-preferences, top 10 jobs are available virtually every offseason.

So far in 2015, USC has a vacancy with Oklahoma looming as another possible opportunity if the Sooners can't rebound from their loss in the Red River Shootout and proceed to drop several more games (another loss to Oklahoma State would really put Bob in some hot water).

I wrote up a bit on what and who USC should look at in hiring their next head coach over at Football Study Hall. I'd like to take a fun opportunity to rank the 10 programs in college football that I think are the strongest as USC is undoubtedly in the mix.

The strength of a program is tied most strongly to its base of support, particularly from the alumni. Without a strong network of alumni or other boosters who are fully invested in the program it's very difficult to be competitive in the spending wars that draw in top coaches and players.

The next most important quality for a blueblood program is access to premier players. This can come either through being located next to a region that produces a ton of talent or else having a diaspora of invested alumni to help convince players to come to campus.

Finally, there's tradition which is important both for selling players and coaches on the program. Tradition usually carries with it one of the previous two qualifiers but it brings a total credibility that these talent pools and this existing culture knows how to win and how to support a program.

If you're a coach at one of these ten programs you know that you have as good or better chance than anyone in your league of building champions.

Understand that these rankings are subjective and I reserve the right to change my mind on the order, but what could be more fun to debate?

Alright, here we go:

Honorable Mentions

Auburn, Penn State, Texas A&M, and Tennessee just missed the cut for me.

Auburn is on the rise thanks to demographics and booster investment from their fan base but they aren't quite there yet and are the 2nd biggest program in a state that isn't particularly large in a greater region with a lot of other powerhouse programs.

Tennessee has a similar minor shortcoming that holds them back but could also be in the top ten very easily if things break the right way. For Tennessee the biggest problem is lack of local talent, the state simply doesn't produce a ton of great players. The surrounding states do, but the Vols rely on their powerful alumni network to help draw those players in which means they have to overcome the other SEC powers that are closer to the talent.

For Georgia it's mostly just a lack of tradition of winning championships. It simply doesn't happen often enough to prove they belong in the top 10. However, they have tremendous booster investment and an absurd base of talent from which they always have their pick of the litter.

Penn State is close, and their support and access to talent are both better than many realize. They basically just need to stake their claim by knocking over Big 10 East rivals Michigan and Ohio State a few times with a coach who's name isn't Paterno.

A&M has fantastic support, premier facilities, and easy access to Houston, DFW, and East Texas. Their problem is a lack of tradition as they've always been an also-ran in every conference. You figure that if they were able to win a title things might start rolling for them but they also have a unique, insulated culture that makes it harder for them to be an easy flag for every one to follow.

10. Notre Dame

The Irish are prime to get knocked off this list by one of the rising SEC powers if they can't start winning some titles in the playoff era. However, the Irish brand is one of the strongest national brands in the country and they've long served for both the Irish-American and Catholic-American community at large as a sort of mascot and source of pride. So they have national resources, a national fanbase, and a long history of winning.

9. LSU

The Tigers are new to this list, but they are in great position to never give up their spot and even to potentially climb to a higher ranking. Why? Louisiana has the most talent per capita of any state in the union and their boosters and fans are passionately committed to ensuring that the Tigers always have their pick of the litter within the state.

8. Florida

The Gators are clinging desperately to this spot against the efforts of other SEC programs to the west. The thing is, Florida is the biggest university in the nation's most talented state, and their boosters are committed to taking advantage and making sure the Gators don't lose their position as a national contender.

7. Florida State

I'm sympathetic to Marco Rubio's claim that Florida is the better school based on my interactions with Noles fan on twitter, but "free shoes university" has a longer and better tradition of winning. Barely. If you're the head coach at FSU you know that you have everything you need to pull in top Florida players and go whip some opponents.

6. Michigan

Granted the Wolverines have only won one title since 1950 and yes they've often been a laughingstock in recent years. Yet their insanely long tradition, passionate and massive alumni network, and gigantic stadium mean that every coach there has a chance to bring in the best talent in the region (or even nationally) and have every needed resource to develop it to its fullest potential.

I suspect Jim Harbaugh's tenure will vindicate much of the Wolverine's pride in their program, to the chagrin of the program's detractors.

5. Texas

Texas has as many resources as any program in the nation, they're the flagship in a massive state with tons of talent, and they have tons of powerful and invested boosters. That said, the program often struggles to get all of those resources pointing in the same direction.

The Texas job at times is almost like the ring of power, it's difficult to learn how to wield it and trying to do so without the necessary power and will is likely to end in disaster.

4. Oklahoma

The Sooners have a stronger support network than Texas, which has often allowed them to poach many of the Longhorn's advantages and pick off top players in DFW or East Texas or to set up their coaches for major success.

Oklahoma doesn't have much else but the OKC Thunder and wealthy people who aren't owners can't use a pro basketball team as a vanity project. So much of the state is fully behind the football program and their alumni network extends into Texas where most of the talent has traditionally come from.

Oklahoma has claim to seven national titles, with the first coming in 1950, and played in four BCS championship games. That's strong evidence that the foundations of that program are granite.

3. USC

We covered them in the article linked above, it's very easy for the Trojans to be "the team" of the west coast, which is a massive and powerful region.

2. Ohio State

Ohio features the most high school football talent of the entire midwest region yet only has one major football program within the entire state. I suspect this is by design as it allows the Buckeyes to be "the team" for the entire state.

Much like with Oklahoma, when you have an entire region fully devoted to a program the results are going to be considerable.

1. Alabama

The investment from Alabama's base of support matches that of any other program and it has for a very long time. They claim 15 national championships and whenever Saban departs they will doubtlessly go spend huge money to bring the best possible coach to take up his mantle.

The state of Alabama is home to some great talent but the entire South is absolutely loaded with great players and Alabama is the big dog when recruiting all of them. They've also been great at going to states where players are willing to leave town to play (Florida) and picking off top players there as well.

Thoughts? Rebuttals?

How Oklahoma helped Texas find its identity, once again

Read about it for free at Inside Texas.

Utah and Whittingham making some noise

Kyle Whittingham's recent success at Utah is going to position him to be a candidate for some interesting jobs next offseason. Should be fun to watch, in the meantime here's how he's positioned his program to benefit from a down year in the Pac-12.

Utah is the Michigan State of the Pac-12 right now. They're oriented around playing great defense, anchored by good DL play, and run-centric on offense with multiple formations but an overall emphasis on building everything off the run game and Devontae Booker.

With all of the redshirted upperclassmen they have in the starting line-up, that makes for a nice recipe for college success and a chance to win 10 or more games when the teams with better talent in your league are in utter turmoil.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

The importance of the running game in the wild, wild west

It was another fascinating weekend in the wild, wild west (Big 12) as Texas pulled off a major upset over #10 ranked Oklahoma, probably eliminating them from playoff contention, while K-State almost did the same to #2 ranked TCU.

In either instance it would have been an example of a defense+run game (heavily utilizing the QB) overcoming an explosive passing team, but the traditionalists could only manage to go 1-1 on the day.

Even though Texas Tech was never quite able to win the Big 12, the success Leach had in the 2000's with his Air Raid spread passing offense really changed the league forever and that system and its philosophy now rules the day in this league.

Because modern development programs for young players is so intense and thorough it's becoming possible for passing games to become precise enough to attack defenses and execute game plans that used to be impossible for college teams to attempt.

New England's last Super Bowl victory was the warning bell that running the ball at a high level may no longer be essential to playing dominant football. However, the prevalence of teams built around the QB and passing game is more common to the NFL where they have the time to master an intricate passing attack and the field layout doesn't work against them.

But then you watch Bob Stitt's Montana offense execute a passing game at an extraordinarily high level with players that wouldn't be given a chance anywhere in the Big 12 (save for maybe at Kansas State) and you realize...this is eventually coming to the college game as well.

The main reason? With a spread passing game you have a larger margin of error.

When you can chuck the ball around effectively you can either scores lots of points early, build a lead and force your opponent to play catch up while playing your style of game, or else you can languish for a few quarters but then come alive and catch up to your opponent very quickly.

How many times have you seen a spread team get down big in the first half only to win the game by multiple possessions after getting going in the second half?

But all that said, spread passing teams at the college level need to interact with the run game and they need to have the following relationship with the run game in order to take on all comers and win championships:

First, they need to be able to control the run

You don't have to totally stuff the run, but you can't let the opponent control the game with the run, gash you, and put points on the board by running the ball. Spread passing teams can overcome giving up rushing yardage and losing the time of possession battle but they can't survive a team that can run the ball well enough to score.

TCU is going to get themselves eliminated from the playoffs at some point, probably before the selection, because they can't control the run. Now it's not really their fault, they're just all beat up on defense and forced to play undersized, inexperienced kids at linebacker and weak safety. When these kids are beefed up upperclassmen they'll be stuffing teams but for now, they're exceptionally vulnerable.

Texas let them off the hook with bad defense and a failure to establish the run early (mistakes they did NOT repeat against similarly pass-happy OU), K-State let them off the hook by not having more run audibles in their playbook and not going for it on 4th and 1. Art Briles is almost certainly not going to let them off the hook and if the Frogs play a B1G school or SEC school they won't let them off the hook either.

Spread passing teams that can't stop the run struggle to find rhythm on offense, can't as easily turn the game into an up and down shootout where their own efficiency in scoring quickly and late can dictate the outcome, and get set up to get blown away late as their defense loses their legs to exhaustion while the other defense stays rested and doesn't exhaust their blitzes and disguises.

Finesse offense may be finding a greater place at the table in football but you still can't be soft in this game.

Second, they need to be able to run situationally

How many spread teams have you seen that can't convert when they get into short-yardage situations? They stall out in the red zone, or blow it in key short-yardage scenarios, or can't slow down their pace and speed up the clock to protect a lead in the fourth quarter and prevent their opponent from catching up.

Spread passing teams virtually always rely on tempo, upon OL that are built and developed for pass protection, and on skill players that can catch the ball and score. They generally don't have a bunch of really good TEs or FBs to help them run out the clock late in the game, or even if they do their OL or team simply isn't very good at executing these strategies.

The best proposed solution I've seen for this problem comes from Coach Joe Willis of Colleyville Heritage (formerly Cedar Park) and is based around building a "4th phase" unit, in addition to your offense, defense, and special teams.

The 4th phase takes the field in "winning time" situations, like 3rd and 1, on the goal line, or in four-minute offense modes trying to protect a lead. It'll consist largely of offensive players but the goal is to get the best and most physical players on your team on the field when you really need to just go out there and impose your will on the opponent.

Third, they need to be able to run on a five-man box

In that wonderful North Dakota State vs Montana game, Bob Stitt's Grizzlies were almost done in by this defensive scheme from the Bison:

Stitt really wants to throw the ball on every defense, but when you get a five-man box like this with safeties aligned over the top of either side of the field and well-trained defenders aligned to take away easy slants and quick game routes it becomes very difficult to efficiently operate a spread passing game.

The Grizzlies' only real run game solutions to this were an inside draw and a zone play that would get five blockers on five defenders and allow the RB to choose his crease. The problem was that with this nose-tackle twist the Bison were tying up the interior OL with their nose tackle (sometimes tying up all three blockers with him) and either causing the RB to cutback into the gap that the tackle was stunting into or else creating a pile-up that allowed the strong safety and middle linebacker to reach the play despite aligning deep and wide to stop the pass.

The Bison settled on this as their primary solution midway through the game and stymied the Montana offense for much of the contest when deploying it.

This kind of strategy often causes a struggle for spread teams that spend most of their practice reps mastering timing routes and adjustments but then face a defense that can out-scheme or out-talent them between the tackles because they themselves lack the versatility or physicality to always be able to run the ball on an undermanned front.

Those spread teams usually lose at some point in the year. It happens to Ole Miss almost every year, it just happened to Oklahoma, it happened to Texas in 2009, and it happened to Texas Tech all the time which led Dana Holgorsen to develop his own Air Raid system that was more smashmouth oriented.

If you have a dangerous running QB you can usually just count on this being the odd game where he has to get 10-20 carries but most spread passing teams don't have a mobile QB and they can't rely on having one every year that can also execute their intricate passing attacks.

The spread passing game is going to continue to dominate the Big 12, and it should, but only the teams that can maintain enough balance in their approach to the run game will be tough enough to come out of the gunfight alive.

Friday, October 9, 2015

Sizing up Baylor and Kansas State

Since I don't support gambling in the first place and have been humiliated trying to pick B12 games against the spread, I figured this week we'd just talk about what a few different teams in the league have shown thus far into conference play.


Phil Bennett is seizing advantage of the fact that his defense is returning nine starters from last year by diversifying the coverages that they're playing on the back end. New nickelback Travon Blanchard doesn't seem to have that much more trust than did Collin Brence when it comes to carrying vertical routes regularly so the Bears have started mixing in two alternative coverages to protect him from getting targeted by opponents.

One is a classic tampa-2 that drops mike-backer Grant Campbell down the seam and the other is a trips coverage called "solo" that proves that much of the Baylor defense is simply stolen from Michigan State.

Here's how "solo" works:

The Bears did some of this in 2014 but it seems to be more their preference in 2015, perhaps in particular with Burt out and Chance Waz replacing him at field safety. With "solo" they can roll veteran Orion Stewart over to help out while also playing Blanchard closer to the action. The weakside is exposed somewhat but that's where they play "Rocket" so NBD.

Grant Cambpell is a definite downgrade from Bryce Hager but with Taylor Young back and a very strong DL in front it hasn't really mattered much yet for Baylor. It'll be interesting to see how their team looks in 2016 after they lose Oakman but there should still be some pieces in place to play pretty good defense.

The offense is just steamrolling people and it's because no one they've faced is remotely capable of combating their run game without sending numbers nor defending their WRs without having help over the top. You have to pick one or the other or else have some serious range from your safeties.

I think the team that will give Baylor the most trouble in 2015 will be either one that plays them away from Waco (duh!) or one that has safeties with enough range to play over the top of the vertical passing game but still make tackles that prevent Linwood and the run game from destroying them. The Briles' may get impatient, or their young QB might, and throw a pick trying to force the action.

Also noteworthy is that Seth Russell is an effective runner, but that also means that he has an internal clock that goes off rather quickly instructing him to run rather than to throw deep. It'd be better if he could use his legs to buy time and throw downfield as RG3 used to do in this offense rather than pulling it down as often as he does.

On the other hand, it's a fantastic option on RPOs where he realizes the throw is risky but doesn't want to double clutch for fear of drawing a penalty for having blockers downfield. I might break my rule and watch just a tad of their game against Kansas to see what Stidham brings to the, no I won't.

We'll learn a lot more about this team when they face West Virginia at home, Iowa State at home, and then travel to Manhattan to play...

Kansas State

The Wildcats are having some trouble on defense without All-B12 strong safety Dante Barnett (out with injury). Like the Bears, the Wildcats are taking advantage of having so much experience in their secondary (Barnett's replacement is redshirt senior Nate Jackson) to run a greater variety of coverages this year than you sometimes see from them.

In addition to their preference for quarters and for the "special" trips adjustment that doesn't roll coverage, the Wildcats are also playing some "solo," lots of cover 3, and some single-high safety blitzes which they find more appealing with Elijah Lee in their LB corps.

Despite coming into prominence thanks to his pass-rushing, Lee serves as the "coverage" linebacker in KSU's 4-2-5 defense while Will Davis remains as the "inside" linebacker who aligns based on which position is more likely to have to fill gaps quickly in the run game.

This alignment has worked well for them as it often gives Lee a chance to be an eraser pursuing the ball in space and cleaning up plays before they result in scores, which is essential in KSU's "bend don't break" strategy for defense. He's currently their leading tackler, followed by "Cat" safety Donnie Starks (their nickel position), free safety Kaleb Prewett, and then inside linebacker Will Davis.

The main problem is that Starks is so high in tackles, and it's not because he's the perfect replacement for three-year starter Randall Evans, it's because opposing teams are finding it too easy to throw to the field and find yardage.

This is one of the strongest fronts the Wildcats have had in some time but they're not getting the full value out of it because opponents can move the chains with the passing game. The DE rotation of Jordan Willis, Marquel Bryant, and Tanner Wood already have three tackles for loss and 7.5 sacks on the year while the tackle tandem of Will Geary and Travis Britz has another three tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks.

Nate Jackson isn't able to enforce the middle of the field like Barnett could if healthy while Starks is vulnerable down the field in coverage and they're having to play a lot of off-coverage everywhere with some players that aren't excelling in it.

They're still a tough defense because Morgan Burns is a good man corner, Danzel McDaniel is still a physical eraser, and because the front is so good. But Kaleb Prewett is still learning on the job (he'll be very good eventually, possibly a star in 2016) and the Jackson-Starks combo against the opponent's passing strength is a sieve against better throwing teams like Oklahoma State. Starks vs David Glidden went terribly for K-State.

When Barnett comes back, this defense will make a leap and be really nasty, much like they were in 2014 before Travis Green went down and they had to bring Schellenberg back at free safety.

Meanwhile the Wildcat offense is trucking along and seeing some players emerge that are better than expected...much like every other season in the Snyder era. The preseason hyperbole about this being a great WR corps may actually be true and it's because Heath and Burton are great athletes and because Kyle Klein is somehow a brilliant receiver.

The dude just knows how to get open, he's quick in and out of breaks and he's a massive target at 6'4" 210. They need Heath to be healthy as he makes a lot of their concepts much more effective by being a threat running flat routes and crossers but this WR corps is very competent and capable across the board.

Also hilarious and typical is that walk-on Justin Silmon is a good running back. He could probably start or get significant snaps for multiple teams in the Big 12, perhaps including Texas, and he's great at making cuts and getting the most out of runs with his wiggle and willingness to run through tackles.

They like to use him on a tackle lead play similar to some stuff Baylor has run in recent years:

The Wildcats have a few varieties of this play, in this example they ran it as a QB option play with the backside defensive end unblocked against a cover 3 buzz call from OSU. They can also run it as an RPO although Hubener has proven to be inaccurate on RPOs this season.

K-State has a huge collection of running schemes in their playbook but the nice thing about this one is that if they run it to the right they can use left tackle Cody Whitehair as the pulling lead blocker, and Whitehair is probably going to be a multi-year pro in the NFL as a pulling guard.

The "kitchen sink" offense is starting to find its legs thanks to the overall competency of the K-State offensive roster and the confidence they've built up beating the little sisters of the poor in their pre-conference schedule. They'll probably play spoiler for some contender or another, perhaps even TCU this weekend in Manhattan...but probably not.

Their QB run game, which they used to great effect when Kody Cook came in against OSU, is a nightmare for a team like TCU that just doesn't have big bodies to survive a pounding over the course of the game. Unfortunately for the Wildcats, they're very thin right now at QB due to injuries. It''ll take a herculean effort for their defense to hold off Boykin and the Frogs from lighting up the scoreboard and forcing Snyder to throw the ball. These things have happened before in Manhattan, but it's a tough assignment.