Should Kliff Kingsbury be considered among the nation's best, most creative play-callers?
Courtesy of its wide hash marks and hundreds of available coaching jobs, college football is home to more offensive creativity than any other sport.
From the spread to the pro-style and the run-heavy to the Air Raid, there are no limits placed on what's available to today's play-callers. Each method is feasible, and each method has a proven record of success. And with the recent focus on producing offensive results, effectively meshing and building off a variety of attacks is a must for continued success.
This need has resulted in some of most creative offensive schemes ever produced on a football field. At the same time, many programs have watered down this creativity by simply copying what the other guys are doing—becoming different and the same all at once.
There are still some innovative minds walking the sidelines. They don't just add a trick play or two then call it a new concept. Instead, they take an idea or a scheme, mold it to fit their personnel and then call the plays as part of winning game plans. After all, creativity is a moot point if it's just a different path to losing.
Following are the five coaches who currently develop and implement their unique game plans better than anybody in the country.
Phil Montgomery's play-calling has turned Baylor into the nation's premier offense.
Head coach Art Briles gets a lion's share of the credit for what's happening at Baylor. He deserves it for leading the Bears from a Big 12 doormat to the foremost offense in the nation.
But behind Briles is a tight-knit coaching staff that includes both his son and son-in-law. At the head of that group is Phil Montgomery, a 15-year veteran of Briles' staff and the play-caller behind his relentless offensive attack.
As Grantland's Chris Brown explains, the Bears' offense is the premier incarnation of the popular spread offense. Briles and his staff have taken your typical zone-read and up-tempo principles and stretched those concepts to a whole new extreme. Literally.
The Bears don't just line up their receivers out wide—they put them on or outside the numbers. They don't just try to score. They try to score every single time they snap the ball—which is a lot. In 2013 alone, that approach yielded the only FBS program with top-12 rushing and passing numbers, the nation's top scoring offense and a Big 12 title.
A finalist for the Broyles Award, Montgomery's play-calling is at the root of all that success. His constant calling of downfield passes forces the defense to spread itself thin, for which he punishes them by running the ball on over 60 percent of the snaps. It's pick your poison at its finest, and that's before he starts working in the play-action pass.
What hurts Montgomery is that he calls plays for an offense that his head coach largely developed. Even then, he implements it beautifully and deserves the recognition for doing so.
A typical look from Mike Bloomgren's offense at Stanford.
In this age of up-tempo attacks, lining up in a power formation to move the ball is almost frowned upon. For a team to trot out nine offensive linemen is downright blasphemous.
While unconventional, that's the approach Mike Bloomgren has taken as Stanford's offensive coordinator. Deploying nine blockers is far from the norm, but he has zero qualms about bringing out more than five. In fact, according to Sports Illustrated's Pete Thamel, the Cardinal runs most of its plays with six or more linemen.
David Shaw told Thamel, "What we've done has been successful, and we've shown that old principles still work." They have so far, as Stanford has gone 34-7 in Shaw's tenure and 11-3 in Bloomgren's first season running the offense.
In truth, this approach has exposed a glaring weakness in the trendy spread attack. The Cardinal has used its attack to knock off Oregon's no-huddle offense each of the past two seasons, holding the ball for a combined 80 minutes in the two contests.
Not only is watching this style of football rare, it's refreshing and should serve as a cautionary tale for those who believe the spread is a cure for all offensive woes.
Known as a disciple of Mike Leach's Air Raid offense, Kliff Kingsbury was expected to bring his college coach's high-flying offense back to Texas Tech. What Red Raiders' fans actually got is something much more creative.
To call Kingsbury a 34-year-old version of Mike Leach is short-sighted. For obvious reasons, Leach would never garner the comparisons to movie star Ryan Gosling that his former quarterback has. From a football standpoint, Kingsbury has shown to be much more flexible in terms of his philosophy and play-calling.
First off, Kingsbury has an excellent ability to adjust his personnel. In 2012, he called plays for Texas A&M's SEC-best rushing offense that was led by Johnny Manziel, who set the conference mark with 5,116 total yards of offense. Last season, Kingsbury's tight end Jace Amaro set the FBS record for receiving yards as a tight end.
The chances of reaching any of those milestones with Leach calling the shots would have been slim to none. The Mad Scientist scarcely uses the tight end in his four-wide formations and was blasted for not running the ball by former Oregon defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti.
The Air Raid is still a noticeable influence on Kingsbury. Case Keenum set every major career passing record while working under Texas Tech's head man. Last season, Red Raider quarterbacks threw 721 passes, roughly 59 percent of the called plays, for over 5,000 yards in 2013.
Prior evidence shows that this was Kingbury making the most of what he had, and his track record still says that he is a different animal. Before too long, his offense should have earned its own name.
Despite not having played in over a full season, Henry Josey became a star in Josh Henson's offense.
Originally considered a safe hire for Missouri, Josh Henson did not just make the Tigers relevant in the SEC. He took them right to the top.
With his pro-style beginnings mixed with spread concepts, Henson unloaded on the nation's best conference in 2013. The Tigers went from 5-7 to 12-2 in going from the SEC's fourth-worst scoring offense to its third-best in 2013.
How did Henson do it? He looked at receivers Dorial Green-Beckham and L'Damian Washington, who are 6'6" and 6'4" respectively, and made them his home run hitters. With those two, he would stretch the defense while a four-headed rushing attack, led by Henry Josey and quarterback James Franklin, handled the downhill running. As a side effect, he got rid of almost all horizontal running.
Looking back, this all seems like a no-brainer, especially with Green-Beckham and Washington. But in spite of their size, neither had caught more than 30 balls in a season. Meanwhile, the 190-pound Josey had just spent almost two years recovering from a significant knee injury. Franklin's injuries in 2012 had all but derailed the team's debut season in its new conference.
In the end, it all worked out. DGB and Washington each had over 800 yards and 10 touchdowns. Josey finished fifth in the conference with 1,166 rushing yards. Even an injury to Franklin couldn't derail the 2013 Tigers, as Maty Mauk stepped in and delivered three wins over SEC foes.
In summary, Henson took over an offense that flopped the year before. He built his offense around four guys who were far from proven assets and turned them into stars. That's gutsy creativity at its best.
Right now, no play-caller does a better job creating and running his offense than Gus Malzahn.
In terms of offensive creativity and his ability to structure around his players, nobody does a better job than Auburn's Gus Malzahn.
An early pioneer of the hurry-up, no-huddle, the Tigers' head coach proved his mettle in 2013. The Tigers led the nation with 328.3 rushing yards per game, led by SEC-leader Tre Mason. In doing so, Malzahn took the Tigers from winless in the SEC to champions with wins over the likes of Alabama and the aforementioned Missouri Tigers.
The formula looks familiar for the program's former offensive coordinator. In 2010, his second season with the program, Malzahn engineered the SEC's best offense around Cam Newton en route to a national title. With Nick Marshall filling the Heisman Trophy winner's dual-threat role, he almost did it again in his first year back calling plays for the Tigers.
At least that's what it looks like on the surface. In actuality, both conference-winning offenses were quite different in practice. With Newton, Malzahn leaned heavily on an inverted veer that basically made his 6'6", 240-pound quarterback into a power back. This past season, Marshall ran a more traditional option look that borrowed heavily from the Nevada pistol.
Malzahn has also made waves in pass-heavy offenses. He was co-offensive coordinator at Tulsa in 2007, in which Paul Smith led the nation's third-ranked passing offense. In 2009, his first season at Auburn, quarterback Chris Todd was a top-25 passer in terms of yards per attempt and overall rating—all while incorporating the same no-huddle concepts we see today.
Every year, Malzahn changes his offense based on his personnel. And every year, he produces a great offense using the same fundamental ideas. Right now, nobody does it as well as him.