Tuesday, November 29, 2016

What does Tom Herman need to win early at Texas!

Over at Inside Texas I have an article available for free on what personnel Herman needs to find, add, or develop to get Texas going in year one.

Sounds like replacing D'Onta Foreman will be a major priority. I've been identifying three components as being crucial to Texas' run game dominance in 2016. The RB D'Onta Foreman, TE Caleb Bluiett, and the left side of the OL who were anchored by LT Connor Williams and then quite good with either Jake McMillon or Patrick Vahe with him at LG.

Two of those three components are gone, but the one returning (the left side of the OL) is probably the most valuable and essential. Now Herman just has to fill in the other two spots.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Harbaugh vs Meyer: To the scorecard!

Jim Harbaugh has has suffered two of the worst losses I've ever seen in just two short seasons as the head coach at Michigan. In 2015 the "go blue" faithful were devastated by the blocked punt incident at home against the Michigan State Spartans, who then went on to claim the Big 10 championship and a bid in the playoffs.

This year it was the narrow defeat to the hated Buckeyes that included a fourth and one play where JT Barrett picked up the first down by the narrowest of margins and then Ohio State won the game on the next play.

There was a lot of fury over that fourth down spot, as well as Ohio State's avoidance of penalties throughout the game. Personally I thought the Buckeyes did enjoy a little bit of home cooking overall but I also thought it looked fairly conclusive (or at the least too inconclusive to overturn) that Barrett did indeed pick up the first down.

In my "Harbaugh vs Meyer: Round II" preview at Football Study Hall I scored their first round in 2015 a 10-8 win for Meyer.

I'm calling this one a 10-10 tie. Yes, technically the Buckeyes won but Michigan controlled the game up until the fourth quarter, took things into double overtime, and were playing on the road. I think the Wolverines are the better team this year, but the Buckeyes won where it matters and they'll probably gain the reward that comes with it in the form of a playoff berth.

In the playoffs, I think Ohio State will be a worthy entry and have a good a chance as most of beating Alabama.

Now, the popular sentiment in Columbus right now seems to be that the Buckeyes just staved off the Wolverines and that now they'll be in position to reign supreme in the Big 10 East for a year or so while Michigan licks their wounds and rebuilds a roster that is about to lose a ton of players to graduation and the NFL. This is, of course, totally wishful thinking and completely detached from reality.

Harbaugh vs Meyer will continue on and next year the Wolverines will also have a veteran QB and will be the team playing at home. Don Brown has built elite defenses at Boston College utilizing less talent then what he'll have on the Michigan roster next season and the Wolverine offense will likely be one step closer to realizing Harbaugh's vision for a power-coast team with balance from the passing game and overpowering muscle at the point of attack.

When you have a system and program fully installed, losing starters doesn't have to kill you so long as you have players waiting in the wings that have been developed in the system for two-to-three years waiting to step in. Ohio State fans should know this as it's the reason they are consistently good every year regardless of whether they have returning starters at multiple positions or not.

The Buckeyes just survived the opening salvo from Harbaugh that came with Hoke's players. They aren't going to come away as the kings of this rivalry and the Harbaugh vs Meyer war until they fend off a Michigan team stocked with Harbaugh players.

Round III should be another good one.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Harbaugh vs Meyer: Round II

Over at Football Study Hall I broke down the biggest game of the weekend, Michigan vs Ohio State.

I'm scoring round I as 10-8 for Urban Meyer but I think Harbaugh has a fair shot at either drawing closer or even stealing a round if they can find a way to get some points against Ohio State's defense. Everyone's sleeping on Michigan this year and they shouldn't, if I'm right you're all about to find out why.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

How Houston DC Todd Orlando shut down Lamar Jackson

The Gary Anderson/Dave Aranda school of defensive wizardry had another nice win against Lamar Jackson and the Louisville Cardinals last Thursday night. Over at SB Nation I detailed how Orlando went about the task of attacking the Cardinals and Lamar Jackson.

This school is very similar to zone-blitz methodologies of the past but it involves greater usage of quarters coverage (as well as Tampa-2) and it relies on the 3-4 base defensive structure. This style is becoming pretty common for a lot of teams as a sort of third down defense but these coaches have built it out into the foundation of an entire defense.

Perhaps we'll get to see how it handles Big 12 offenses next year...

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

The Big 12 moves towards silly season

When the two Oklahoma schools smashed TCU and West Virginia respectively it established Bedlam as the de-facto Big 12 championship game in 2016.

Good thing they scheduled a new championship game starting in 2017, which in 2016 would mean that OU and OSU met on the field in Norman for a meaningless game before replaying the match-up the following Saturday in Dallas for all the marbles. Granted this probably wouldn't be a particularly common occurrence, but it is troubling to say the least.

I wonder what those schools would even do? I think you can assume that they'd rest anyone injured and quite frankly if I'm Oklahoma State I'm probably going to either start the back-up QB or bring him in after a quarter or so spent probing the Oklahoma defense with Mason Rudolph. As I reflect on the possibilities I realize this would actually be pretty interesting from an analyst's perspective but for the common fan it'd be hot garbage and for Oklahoma season ticket holders it'd be downright scandalous.

I'll break down Bedlam either here, SB Nation, or Football Study Hall next week. It should be an interesting game now that the OSU running game is really humming. I think that improving dimension to their offense pulls them pretty close to even with Oklahoma's own offense which when combined with Oklahoma's iffy pass defense make this a pretty competitive looking matchup.

The rest of the conference is now heading either towards silly season or towards recruiting bonanza, as the case may be. I'll be breaking down every class in the league again, although I'm not sure where I'll make that available yet so stay tuned.

I want to talk briefly about a few of the teams that are heading towards silly season right now.

The Texas Longhorns!

The state's flagship program and the biggest (resource-wise) program in the Big 12 seems very likely to make a move in the coming weeks to oust Charlie Strong and then replace him.

Over at Inside Texas Eric Nahlin detailed where things stand right now ($) while I broke down how a certain leading contender for the job might fit withTexas' offensive roster.

For all the drama, largely created by how easy it is to play the Texas media and various factions against each other, I think this will probably play out pretty predictably.

The Kansas State Wildcats

Things are always pretty quiet in Manhattan as Bill Snyder keeps a tight lid on things in that program. I've been suspicious for over a year now about Jerry Kill's hire and very active participation in the football program but whether he's going to be there to hold Sean Snyder's hand upon Bill's retirement or to bring over his man Tracy Claeys is less clear to me.

There's also the question of when Bill Snyder's retirement could come. However, K-State is poised to finish about 4th in the Big 12 this year in a year in which the Big 12 is quite frankly not very good at all.

The Wildcats were done in this year by a need to resort to a youth movement to get an acceptable level of talent on the field. They lacked expertise and developed skill at the QB position, the mainstay of Snyder teams, and they also lacked a defense with enough veterans to hold up their "bend don't break" schemes without regularly breaking due to assignment errors.

The question is now whether Snyder sees the youth on this team as a reason to stick around or whether he sees the slipping quality of the Wildcat football product as a sign that this job is passing him by at long last. I've heard in the past that he might be interested in hanging around to make a final run at a big postseason but there's no chance of this team reaching the playoffs with this roster or any roster they're likely to have over the next several years so at the most he'd be waiting around to potentially have a shot at going out as Big 12 champs.

The 2017 Big 12 season is probably going to feature another front-running OU team (Mayfield is probably back, much of his best supporting cast mates might go pro, D should improve), an improving TCU team, depleted Tech and OSU squads, a potentially improved West Virginia (Will Grier replaces Skyler Howard), and possibly a well-coached Texas team with a ton of talent entering their 2nd or 3rd year in the program.

If Snyder really likes his team and wants to go out on top of the league, he could probably convince himself that he could win this league next season.

The Texas Tech Red Raiders

Since I wrote that "what's next for Kingsbury and Texas Tech" column, the Red Raiders got beat at home by Texas (not especially shameful) but were then lambasted by Iowa State. I think Kingsbury will probably be retained, but before that game I assumed he'd at least have to make some staff changes.

What's next for Tech is going to depend on his ability to convince a good DC to come, to change his own program management to give that DC a chance at success, and then to see major improvements from their returning DL and LBs so that they don't get run over every week in 2017 like they have been for the last several years.

Maybe Phil Bennett will be available.

The Baylor Bears!

Baylor has been in the headlines recently for seeing their associate AD, hired to help improve the image of the program, charged with assaulting a reporter (choking) for trying to interview a student-athlete and for being likely to hire Chad Morris from SMU.

That program continues to be an amazingly awful mess, yet they might be about to hire the best possible man for the job of replacing Art Briles.

A long, long time ago in a galaxy far, far away...well actually it was a HS in West Texas called Stephenville in the year 2004, Chad Morris set about the task of replacing Art Briles as the head coach. He initially struggled to match Briles' prodigious offensive output until he went to seek the help of a jedi spread master named Yoda Gus Malzahn.

It was there that he learned the ways of the force Wing-T and how to deploy it in a spread offense. From there he went to Lake Travis, which he transformed into a powerhouse that won two state titles under his direction and three more immediately after he left. Then on to Tulsa to be OC, then to Clemson where he built the infrastructure for the Deshaun Watson offense, then to SMU to get back to Texas and be a collegiate head coach.

He's a practitioner of the smashmouth spread and, like Briles, he tends to emphasize passing QBs that can deal death on RPOs rather than running QBs like Malzahn has tended to find more success with. At SMU he hired Van Malone as his DC, a guy who was responsible for coaching up some very good Oklahoma State secondaries, and they've had some solid success there rebuilding that unit. Presumably he would bring him with to Baylor.

Morris is very well respected across the state as a good, friendly guy in addition to being a favorite son of the Texas HS coaching ranks. He was a huge part of the spread revolution that took the state by storm and can probably be counted on to recruit pretty well at Baylor.

Quite frankly, the program doesn't deserve someone of this caliber given all the crap they've pulled over the years. Baylor fans, you'd better treat this guy well when he inevitably struggles to get things back on track with the mess of a roster he's going to inherit from the wake of the Briles scandals.

I'd say there's a good chance that Baylor can avoid going back to the gutter for more than a short visit with Morris in charge. I suppose that's ultimately for the good for the conference and it should make for some fun football in future seasons.

Any thoughts or questions?

Saturday, November 19, 2016

What's PJ Fleck all about?

I profiled what PJ Fleck has done to turn (initially) 1-11 Western Michigan into an undefeated squad this season over at SB Nation.

His offensive approach reminds me some of what Herman has tried to do at Houston or what Jim McElwain tends to do. It's a "bellcow" spread system, meaning that the goal is to get the ball to the best playmakers as often as possible.

Consequently, he puts a major emphasis on recruiting so as to get bellcows to campus that he can emphasize in his offense. With that strategy, the success he's had in it, and his emphasis on energy and branding he seems like a really good fit for a major program.

If I'm Oregon I think about giving him as long of a look as I'm planning on giving to Scott Frost.

Friday, November 18, 2016

Scouting Oklahoma, West Virginia, and Oklahoma State

Over at Football Study Hall I scouted the best attributes of the Big 12's three contenders for the conference title.

In the future I'll try and break down the results of OU-WV and OSU-TCU and then perhaps provide a big breakdown of the Bedlam game if it proves to be the conference title game.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

A big picture perspective on the Big 12

I've not blogged enough about the Big 12 this season given how fascinating the conference has been this year and I wanted to touch, however briefly, on the main programs in the league and where they are right now from a big picture perspective.

If that perspective includes competing for the Big 12 title great, but some of these other teams have a lot else going on as well. Let's start with....

The Texas Longhorns

You can find tons of content on Texas at Inside Texas, either by me or by some truly great and knowledgeable writers like Justin Wells, Scipio Tex, and Eric Nahlin. I recently broke down where Texas is in terms of firming up some major weaknesses after the West Virginia game.

The picture at Texas right now is fairly murky. The best possible outcome for this season (from a wins and losses perspective) is 8-5 with a nice bowl victory (if you care about that kind of thing) while my own money is on a 6-6 outcome that concludes with Gary Patterson thumping Charlie for the third consecutive year.

Scipio Tex recently went on the radio in Austin and provided some great perspective on where Texas is right now and what should come next. Check it out here.

The Oklahoma Sooners

The Sooners are still rolling towards a likely 10th Big 12 championship for head coach Robert Anthony Stoops. Big game Bob has that program to a point where they are a full notch below the elite programs that Sooner fans would like to use as a measuring stick but also a full notch above the rest of the Big 12. That's not a terrible place to be, even if it means a frustrating postseason in Norman every year.

Baker Mayfield has done a predictably good job of managing the offense and distributing the ball to the tremendous talent around him. Dede Westbrook at full speed has been terrorizing the league, Joe Mixon and Samaje Perine are both phenomenal backs, the OL is always good, Mark Andrews is a matchup problem...

It's a great offense and Lincoln Riley has done a good job of balancing all of the threats at his disposal, save for that Ohio State gameplan which I thought was a little stubborn. The defense has struggled, but they have some playmakers on that side of the ball that usually do enough to allow their own offense to win shootouts.

I'm planning on previewing their game against West Virginia later this week, which could very well determine the Big 12 title or else set up Bedlam as the de-facto championship game.

The Oklahoma State Cowboys

Mike Gundy has once again maneuvered his program into "no. 1 contender" status within the league after temporarily yielding that ground to the private Texan school upstarts in Ft. Worth and Waco. The Cowboys are back up in Texas recruiting as well right now. Gundy always gets the most out of his roster, developing a few legit stars to build around and then casting everyone else into roles that serve the identity.

I wrote all offseason on how this team would have a devastating passing attack and a fundamentally solid defense that was strong up the middle but that their ceiling would be determined by whether they finally built a functioning run game again and if they could find some athletes on the perimeter of their defense.

Well they predictably focused on zone blocking this offseason and developed a Pistol-I formation to help supplement their run game and now freshman back Justice Hill is averaging 5.1 yards per carry and is on track to reach 1k yards before the year is done. On defense, they haven't quite found the athleticism they need at DE or CB to build a truly good unit but they've done well enough and they've gotten a lot out of star DT Vincent Taylor. Bedlam will be a fun game.

Long term you really have to wonder if they'll be able to hang on to Mike Gundy as he's getting mention to replace Les Miles at LSU (whom he replaced at Oklahoma State) and he could be in line for other jobs this offseason as a reward for about a decade's worth of making the most of Oklahoma State's resources.

The West Virginia Mountaineers

Before the year it seemed likely that Dana Holgorsen was going to seek or be pushed to new pastures at the end of the year with the Houston job a leading contender if Tom Herman left town. Now it looks like Holgorsen will come back for another round with new QB Will Grier, a ton of returning skill talent on offense, and a really strong supporting staff including OL guru Joe Wickline and star DC Tony Gibson.

In the meantime, the Mountaineers are in nice position to win the Big 12 after surviving against Texas in Austin last Saturday. They get Oklahoma at home, then get a sort of break traveling to Ames to take on Iowa State, then they finish at home against a Baylor team that's in a free fall right now and no longer looks like a contender. For fans of the Big 12 this would be sort of a letdown save for the fact that many fans of the Big 12 are as delighted to see Baylor implode as they would have been to see a compelling end of the year game. Personally I'm torn, I prefer having compelling football to watch but I'm not crying any tears for the Bears save for Seth Russell.

The Baylor Bears

When it became clear that the misdeeds of the Briles era were as egregious as they were the right answer was to burn things down, reset the foundation, and get started on rebuilding as quickly as possible. Instead Baylor tried to tease things out and prevent the dip from going to low in order to protect the massive investments into the football program that had helped to put Waco on the map in a major way.

They brought in Jim Grobe to put a pleasant face on the situation, kept as much of the Briles infrastructure in place as possible to keep the gravy train rolling, and then hoped that purging the goose that lays the golden eggs and the AD would be enough and buy time to find a HC that could keep the Bears competitive.

Of course it wasn't, Art Briles didn't take too well to receiving so much blame for something that was systemic to the entire institution and in his battle to clear up his image and find a new job he dragged the B.O.R. into a fight that has exposed cracks in the foundation that the program wished could have remained hidden. His assistants publicly took his side while appearing to mail in the football season, leading to a collapse down the stretch that is playing out before our eyes.

The blowout defeat at home against TCU that featured both fans and boosters taking a public stand for Art Briles was probably the worst thing that could have happened. Now the program is looking at having to make a hire this offseason who will be willing to replace a coach who achieved legendary things in Waco, left a bare cupboard in terms of the roster, and still has support from some of the key supporters of the program.

Now they have a skeleton roster filled with players that are going to be checking out their options in the transfer market next offseason, a scant freshman class that was pillaged by the rest of the league when things went down last offseason, and two commits thus far in the 2017 season. They also have an alumni base and B.O.R. that is close to being at war with each other over the direction of the University.

Who is going to want to step in to replace Briles in the midst of this political madness and horrible football situation? Not P.J. Fleck, the dream hire of Baylor faithful. Not top candidates that could be interested in coming to Texas, like Sonny Dykes, Larry Fedora, or Chad Morris. They may end up having to stick with Jim Grobe for a period at this rate while turning over most all of the assistants.

They should have owned everything from the beginning and started to clean house before the season started, now they're already a year behind and in a protracted political battle over control of the process.

This is all fairly good news for...

The Kansas Jayhawks

I think Kansas is one of the main beneficiaries of Baylor's total collapse as they now have a chance to climb out of the cellar simply by stepping on the Bears' rotting corpse. Coach David Beatty may or may not be a good long-term answer at Kansas but he's slowly but surely improving their talent level and play.

They're still horrible though.

The Kansas State Wildcats

Let's be honest, even just a few years ago Bill Snyder would have had his program in position to take advantage of a down year in the Big 12 and they'd be competing for the conference championship to the dismay of pundits everywhere. But things are slipping in Manhattan and it seems that they are always a little too preoccupied with plugging leaks resulting from a thin roster that prevent them from fielding the kind of veteran-laden team that Oklahoma State or West Virginia are currently riding to the top.

Meanwhile, Jerry Kill is basically taking over the Kansas State football program as associate athletic director or whatever made-up title they gave him to oversee the Wildcats' transition to the post-Snyder era. It truly sounds like he's thriving and he's essentially setting himself up as the Barry Alvarez of K-State football, there to make sure they always have staff and process in place to make the most of their program. This is what I predicted last offseason when he was brought aboard.

I'm betting Snyder sees the writing on the wall, retires but with some assurance of a spot for his son Sean, and then perhaps Kill brings his pal Tracy Claeys over from Minnesota to lead things in Manhattan. Whoever coaches at K-State next is clearly going to have to be okay with Jerry Kill looking over their shoulder all the time which I think helps make the Brent Venables option all the more unlikely.

If I'm a K-State fan though, this is probably all a good thing. Kill is a great mind and overseer to have and many of the likely HC candidates for the Wildcats (Sean Snyder, Dana Dimel, Tracy Claeys, Brent Venables) are guys that would probably benefit from Kill's oversight.

The Iowa State Cyclones

Matt Campbell has this team playing some fairly solid football in terms of fundamentals but he just didn't inherit a roster with the kind of OL or DL he needs to make his style work, nor did he inherit QBs that could help him make up for it.

However, the Cyclones are currently ranked third by 247 in Big 12 recruiting with 20 commits. Y'all probably know I don't put a ton of stock in recruiting rankings but there's no doubt that Campbell is elevating the process in Ames. He's already signed 11 OL/DL and all of them are at listed as being at least 6-3. Naturally two of the DTs are JUCOs intended to instantly elevate the quality of their trench play for 2017.

Kansas should continue to trend up but they're not going to be very good for a long time. K-State's ability to stay competitive will depend on how well Jerry Kill orchestrates the transfer of power from Bill Snyder. Oklahoma State could potentially lose their head, Baylor is starting to look like Chernobyl, and Texas is still wandering around in the wilderness waiting for Joshua to emerge.

The opportunity is there for Campbell to elevate Iowa State into the power vacuum.

The TCU Horned Frogs

The Horned Frogs have quietly and predictably rebounded on defense, now ranking 43rd nationally in S&P, and have a chance at finishing 8-4 and looking good for the future if they can overcome Oklahoma State, Texas, and Kansas State down the stretch.

Their problem has been in the turnover department, they're -2 on the year and while Kenny Hill has made a habit of giving it away a few times per game (10 INTs on the year) the TCU secondary has only picked off seven passes (four by weak safety Nick Orr). The best TCU defenses regularly confuse and turn over offenses and they just aren't there yet. Hill's shoddy impersonations of Johnny Manziel have been getting him in trouble for his entire collegiate career and have exacerbated the issue.

Still, they could finish 2016 reasonably strong and then head into 2017 with nearly all of the key pieces returning and the chance to revisit the QB situation with a more experienced Foster Sawyer pushing Kenny Hill to cut down on his errors. There's been a lot of talk that TCU is in decline on defense because of their Air Raid offense but I'm not buying it, this squad is going to be much healthier, deeper, and more experienced next season and we'll see what happens.

The Texas Tech Red Raiders

I recently wrote up a "what's next for Texas Tech" piece at Football Study Hall asking what Kingsbury was going to do to save his job in 2017 whilst losing star QB Pat Mahomes. The Raiders have a really young defensive front this year that has been totally porous against the run but I'm guessing that rather than stay the course that Kingsbury will be pushed to make staff changes and start over again on defense.

I don't know who he's going to be able to hire that will get things fixed in a single year, especially with Nic Shimonek the likely starter rather than Mahomes and consequently a decreased margin for error when the D gives up points.

The smart money probably has to be on Kingsbury failing to save his job next season and then taking an OC job somewhere and hopefully (for his sake) learning something about how to oversee a program that can be great on both sides of the ball. Maybe the OC job at Oklahoma or TCU will be open and he can learn from Bob Stoops or Gary Patterson.

The big picture perspective on the Big 12

The Big 12 is trending down as a conference. The big question after Texas A&M, Nebraska, Colorado, and Missouri left was whether some of the remaining programs in the league could pick up the slack and grow into nationally competitive programs or whether new additions TCU and West Virginia could help carry that mantle.

TCU and West Virginia have done credible jobs of growing into worthy programs but the leftover Big 12 schools have lacked the infrastructure to achieve the monumental tasks of replacing programs like Colorado or Nebraska (while those programs in turn have struggled when drawn away from the Texas recruiting base).

Baylor made the strongest push to be a new, major player but they sold their soul as part of the process and now may end up back where they were before, at least for a time.

Rather than continuing to carry the league, Texas and Oklahoma have really allowed the diminished status of the Big 12 to drag them down as well. As iron sharpens iron...

The Sooners haven't been maximizing their potential as a program for most of this decade but there's little impetus for change or overhaul so long as they can continue to win conference championships.

Texas almost retained a flailing Mack Brown because he went 8-4 in a dinky league back in 2013 and are now wrestling with whether or not to keep Charlie Strong whom hasn't managed to do even that. If the Longhorns were still regularly playing Texas A&M it would be clear that things aren't where they need to be but instead they're playing the Big 12, and while Gary Patterson is doing all he can to help the UT Admin make a call the rest of the league isn't really doing their part.

This is a fun league to watch but I don't think you'll see it rise up in the national estimation or in overall quality until Texas rights their ship, builds the kind of elite team they have the resources to build, and makes clear where the league needs to improve by stampeding over everyone else (including Oklahoma) in epic fashion. When that will happen is anyone's guess.

Friday, November 11, 2016

The Pistol-I formation and future of K-State football

In this article over at Football Study Hall I talk about the Pistol-I formation and how it allows an offense to make the most of both the classic I-formation and modern spread-option run game concepts.

Some Big 12 team should think about utilizing the idea of modern, Tom Osborne-esque offense oriented around classic power football and option and then utilize the Pistol-I to help accomplish that goal. After all, the Big 12 can barely stop Texas running the ball from this set with D'Onta Foreman and they barely do anything else from the package but run zone slice.

Just watch, there's about a 50% chance that Kansas State hires Tracy Claeys this offseason to replace a retiring Bill Snyder and they take that path to remain relevant.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

My big miss on West Virginia

Skyler Howard looked pretty solid down the stretch last year and then really came through in the Mountaineers bowl win over Arizona State when he finally found the range of his talented but young WR corps.

Going into 2016 it was already established that West Virginia would probably be at least solid on offense by virtue of returning their experienced interior OL, QB, and their more promising WRs. They were losing RB Wendell Smallwood, who was legitimately good, but Dana Holgorsen knows how to build a running game and he brought in OL/Zone blocking guru Joe Wickline in the offseason to bolster this existing strength. They also returned power back Rushel Shell and Holgorsen always has a stockpile of solid backs on campus.

Despite all of this, I figured Skyler Howard just wasn't a great enough QB for them to field an elite offense even if they did field a solid one.

I was right.

The Mountaineers are ranked 30th in offensive S&P this year and while they are a tough bunch to shut down, they aren't really blowing anyone away either. Their season on offense has played out in a fashion that I've found to be totally predictable and in line with how I perceived their program.

Where I was very wrong was about the defense. I already liked Tony Gibson's program on defense, his strategy for dealing with spread offenses, but I didn't like the fact that his team was replacing its starting nose tackle, starting three linebackers, and four/fifths of the secondary.

To me that kind of attrition suggested massive decreases in the effectiveness of their strategy, which had always depended on having a very strong secondary and disruptive linebackers. Could they really replace all those figures and still get positive results? Apparently so.

Here in their depth chart you can find the key to their success:

DE: Redshirt senior, returning starter.
NT: Senior.
DE: Redshirt senior, returning starter.
SLB: Redshirt senior.
MLB: Redshirt junior.
WLB: Redshirt freshman.
CB: Redshirt senior.
SS: Junior. JUCO transfer.
FS: Senior.
BS: Redshirt senior. Returning starter.
CB: Redshirt senior. Iowa transfer.
N: Redshirt senior.

The defenders for West Virginia are all veterans who've been in the program for several years, seen what it takes to win in college football, and have honed their techniques over years of practice while facing an offense that gives them a good representation both of the better run games and the better passing games in the league.

Look elsewhere around the league and you won't find this same degree of depth and experience across the two-deep. Even if the team isn't loaded with playmakers there's a lot to be gained simply from being competent and sound at every position on defense.

In the Big 12, lining up in sound alignments and playing your assignment is half the battle.

Now let's take a look at the Mountaineer offense.

QB: Senior. Returning starter. JUCO transfer.
RB: Redshirt senior. Returning starter.
FB: Redshirt senior. Returning starter.
XWR: Redshirt junior. Returning starter.
YWR: Senior. Returning starter.
ZWR: Redshirt junior. Returning starter.
LT: Redshirt senior. Returning starter (played LG previously).
LG: Redshirt senior.
OC: Redshirt senior. Returning starter.
RG: Redshirt junior. Returning starter.
RT: Redshirt freshman.

Lots of redshirts in that mix and guys that have in the program for a while absorbing the system and the techniques, just like on defense. There's also a strong mix of returning starters on this side of the ball, unlike on defense.

The upshot of all this is that West Virginia is poised to create marginal advantages from week to week that come from experience and knowhow in winning Big 12 games. Talent still matters of course, but West Virginia has comparable talent to most of the rest of the league save for Texas and Oklahoma.

In 2017 I'll have to watch more carefully for which teams have players on the roster that have been around and know the drill. Having a starting lineup filled with kids that have been in the program for 3-5 years, whether they've been playing much or not, is a massive advantage.

Friday, November 4, 2016

Life after Mahomes

While Texas Tech is eviscerating defenses and struggling to win enough shootouts to reach bowl eligibility, you have to wonder what Kingsbury will do after his ace signal-caller moves on to the NFL.

I took an early look at this sub-narrative to the Tech season at Football Study Hall, check it out.

The Boise system takes root in Washington

I did a write-up on the Washington Huskies offense and how it works. Could be pretty relevant if and when they're in the playoffs. Check it out at Football Study Hall.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Who's going to win the Big 12?

The popular narrative from week nine in the Big 12 is that the league's playoff hopes are dead with West Virginia and Baylor no longer undefeated. I find that narrative a bit off for a few reasons. One is that the Big 12 never really had any great playoff hopes in my estimation.

It was clear that Oklahoma was going to need to find several impact players to even match last year's success (which they've actually done reasonably well) and that last year's Oklahoma success was as much due to a remarkably fortuitous schedule as it was their own brilliance. Clemson dominated that team and did so without having to resort to their calling card on offense, the 4/5-wide sets with Watson firing off quick passes or buying time with the scramble. No, Clemson just lined up and ran the Sooners over.

The rest of the league was clearly a notch below (except TCU, whom I thought might match Oklahoma only to be proven completely wrong) and there just isn't enough talent on any of these teams to emerge from the league without some losses. Texas has that ability somewhere within their players' bones but it has yet to be drawn out by Charlie and his staff.

Once the Sooners went down against Houston that was pretty much all she wrote for the Big 12 and the 2017 playoffs. Indeed, even before week nine the most likely scenario in which the Big 12 entered a team into the playoff was one in which the Sooners went undefeated in league play. That's still technically in play, but the needed combination of defeats from powers outside of the Big 12 and the Sooners avoiding any slips against Baylor, West Virginia, and Oklahoma State is pretty unlikely.

Meanwhile, the Big 12 race is now basically between Oklahoma and West Virginia.

Why do I say that? Take a look at the schedules of the top competitors for the league crown.


TCU, @Oklahoma, K-State, Tech, @West Virginia

Texas repeated Oklahoma State's strategy of using double TE sets to run the ball down Baylor's throat while taking advantage of having far superior cornerback play to the Cowboys. You can read my breakdown of the events for free at Inside Texas.

Baylor's D is better suited to play the smaller, less physical offenses at the other Big 12 schools but they are vulnerable to enduring some ground and pound. Meanwhile their own offense is very susceptible to anyone with solid DBs to cheat the run game and bring man blitzes or down safeties.

They're about to face some of the better defenses in the Big 12 and Seth Russell's accuracy problems are going to be exposed for all the world to see. That kid is a great athlete but he's a WR at the next level and probably the worst passing QB Baylor has seen since...2009 Nick Florence? Maybe even further back than that.

Oklahoma State

@K-State, Tech, @TCU, @Oklahoma

The Cowboys are combining a competent run game, brilliant Mason Rudolph-led passing attack, and hard-working, sound defense to milk the most out of their roster. Their victory over West Virginia was emblematic of the fact that Mike Gundy and his staff always have a good plan and have an edge in matchups with teams featuring comparable overall talent.

Their problem is that the Sooners have much superior talent and will be playing at home, probably with the league title on the line. What's more, that remaining schedule is a very tough slate for a team without a major talent advantage to navigate. The Kansas State Wildcats aren't going to compete for the league crown but they can play with anyone at home, Tech is always a nightmare because Pat Mahomes cannot be controlled, and the Frogs may not truly be in the free fall they seem to be experiencing.

To do better than .500 in that stretch would be hard and the Cowboys already have one loss on the schedule.

West Virginia

Kansas, @Texas, Oklahoma, @Iowa State, Baylor

The Mountaineers are still in nice shape to win the league, even after dropping the road game in Stillwater. It takes a truly great team to survive round robin play without dropping a road game against one of these explosive offenses in the Big 12 and there are no such teams in the league this season. In fact, there hasn't been such a team this decade.

The Mountaineers still have five games left, but two of them are against the league's dregs and that road date in Austin is a bit of an unknown at this point. Their big advantage is getting both Baylor and Oklahoma at home. One of those teams will do the other in earlier in the year and West Virginia may be playing Baylor for a chance at the crown at the end of the season.


@Iowa State, Baylor, @West Virginia, Oklahoma State

Still several tripwires out there for the Sooners, but they can probably afford to drop one of these games and still win the conference since it's unlikely any of the other teams mentioned will get through the league without taking on a second loss.

Bob Stoops is using this two week stretch of facing Kansas and Iowa State to get his team healthy for the stretch run. Obo Okoronkwo is back against Iowa State, and I've already noted that between him, Steven Parker, and Jordan Thomas the Sooners have the pieces to put together a "good enough" performance against most every offense in the league.

They're also getting a chance to work in some of their young DL that have promise for the future, some young LBs, and they got NB Will Johnson back recently which only serves to upgrade their coverage options.

This is where the smart money is right now. The Sooners have some of the best players in the league, they can score on anyone, and they have the athletes on defense to get enough stops to make winning shootouts a near certainty. The question now is whether they can go undefeated and if they do, will the committee even care?