10 College Football Teams Implementing New Offensive Systems in 2014
Sometimes, all a program needs is a new offensive direction.
Such was the case at Auburn last season, when the Tigers, fresh off an embarrassing 3-9 year, hired Gus Malzahn and Rhett Lashlee, implemented a unique strain of the uptempo spread offense, averaged more than 500 yards per game, won the SEC and came within 13 seconds of being crowned national champions.
It is more than a bit unrealistic to expect such a drastic turnaround—from any team—in 2014, but it's just as crazy to not acknowledge the possibility. We have all seen what a new offensive system can do.
On that note, let's preview 10 FBS teams that are introducing new schemes this upcoming season. Primary consideration was given to teams in the power conferences, although one reigning "group of five" conference champion was added to the list as well.
One note before we continue: This is not a simple list of teams with new offensive coordinators. Even if they were outside hires, and even though that may mean new terminology and subtle schematic differences, only teams making a marked systematic change were included. This is explained in more depth on the following slide.
Sound off below, and let me know which team from the list you think will have the best—or most improved—offensive output in 2014.
Note: All pace of play stats courtesy of CFB Matrix.
New Regimes, Similar Schemes
The following schools made an outside hire to come in and run the offense this season. Even though there will be minor differences from one system to another, the new coach's projected scheme is not different enough from that of the previous regime to make this list.
Lane Kiffin is a little more intrepid than Doug Nussmeier, but the general mood of their offenses are similar. Especially working under Nick Saban, who knows the importance of controlling the clock and keeping his defense rested, Kiffin should not deviate far from the pro-style, run-first attack Alabama has enjoyed so much success with.
Chris Petersen is gone, so obviously things are going to change. He was (and is) one of the most pioneering minds in college football, and his offense cannot be perfectly replicated. If anyone can come close, though, it is new head coach Bryan Harsin, who served as the Broncos' offensive coordinator under Petersen from 2006 to 2010.
Offensive coordinator Seth Littrell comes over from Indiana, where he helped Kevin Wilson turn the Hoosiers into a surprising offensive juggernaut. Before that, he had plied his trade under Mike Leach at Texas Tech. Littrell's air raid offense is promising but not altogether different from the spread favored by departed coordinator Blake Anderson and head coach Larry Fedora.
James Franklin has brought a renewed energy to State College, but his pro-style offense is not a drastic departure from that of Bill O'Brien. Even with a little Wildcat thrown in here and there, the schemes are—in the words of quarterback Christian Hackenberg, per Mark Dent of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette—"pretty similar" to one another.
Despite a coaching overhaul this offseason, Rutgers does not want to change what it does; it just wants to do those things at a higher level. Former Maryland head coach Ralph Friedgen is an experienced molder of the pro-style offense—something Rutgers has run some variation of for the past decade—and appears like a savvy choice to lead this offense into the Big Ten.
With all of the cooks in the kitchen—namely former Louisville offensive coordinator Shawn Watson and former Oklahoma State offensive line coach Joe Wickline—and all of the questions under center, it is hard to say with confidence what Texas' offense will look like next season. My hunch is that it will look a lot like last year's, although this, to be honest, could go in any number of directions.
Steve Sarkisian will bring a new wrinkle to the USC offense—although he vows, per Rahshaun Haylock of FoxSports.com, that it will not be a spread. Still, the decision to retain offensive coordinator Clay Helton, plus Sarkisian's own ties to former head coach Kiffin (both were assistants under Pete Carroll) should ensure some offensive stability
Utah has been running a strain of the spread offense ever since the Urban Meyer era. Every spread offense is different—Meyer's, perhaps, more so than any other—but the Utes will continue that tradition with former Wyoming head coach and Missouri offensive coordinator Dave Christensen.
Former head coach Dave Clawson (whom we'll get to later on this list) did a good job shaping scheme to personnel during his five-year run at Bowling Green. Last year, the shape his offense took was run-oriented and slow—ranking No. 112 in the country in pace of play—but good enough to win 10 games and a conference championship.
New head coach Dino Babers, however, prefers to coach the opposite direction—that is, he prefers to shape his personnel to his scheme. A former Art Briles assistant at Baylor, Babers believes in the uptempo offense, which he used to help guide quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo to 5,053 passing yards and 53 touchdowns at Eastern Illinois last season.
"Tempo is what we do. We will play fast," Babers told Martin Rickman of SI.com before spitting out the best quote of the offseason:
I know how to win the other way. I prefer not to. It’s more fun to coach. It’s more fun for the players. It’s much more fun in practice. Practices are boring, but when you practice at that tempo, you don’t have time to be bored. You either play or you do not play. We’ll go Yoda on you. ‘Do or do not, there is no try.’ I love movies, man.
"Offenses are nothing but a giant Rolodex," Babers told Rickman in the same (highly recommended) interview. "When 60 or 70 percent of the offenses are running it, defenses are seeing it a lot more, they figure out what’s good and bad, and they start stopping it. As an offensive coach you want to stay ahead of the trend."
Man, am I excited for #MACtion.
Florida's offense was historically woeful, annoyingly predictable and comically slow under Brent Pease in 2013. It finished No. 115 in the country with 316.7 yards per game and dead last in pace of play.
New offensive coordinator Kurt Roper will try to speed and open things up in his first season with the Gators, coming over to Gainesville after helping David Cutcliffe lead an offensive renaissance at Duke. By contrast, the Blue Devils averaged more than 100 yards more per game and nearly a full play more per minute than Florida.
Roper told Bruce Feldman of FoxSports.com (then with CBS Sports) that the principles of his scheme will mirror what Cutcliffe taught Peyton and Eli Manning at Tennessee and Ole Miss, respectively. But he also said that he will spread out the defense and allow athletic quarterback Jeff Driskel to play from the shotgun.
"The way I like to describe it is we're a spread run team, but a pro-style passing team," Roper said. "And I think this guy [Driskel] can do it."
Say goodbye to "big, dumb, ugly" Will Muschamp football.
Iowa State hired the controversial Dr. Eggman Mark Mangino to run its offense after struggling to move the ball last season.
"They are a tough out defensively without question," said an anonymous Big 12 assistant of the Cyclones in the Athlon Sports 2014 College Football Preview. "But the question with them is, can they manufacture enough offense to keep it interesting?"
Mangino has never had a problem manufacturing offense—even against the Big 12, and even with a less-talented-on-paper roster.
He learned the air raid under Mike Leach at Oklahoma in 1999, and as the head coach at Kansas from 2002 to 2009, he helped make the Jayhawks legitimate contenders with an opportunistic offensive attack.
Temperament questions (to put it kindly) forced Mangino out of his position in Lawrence, leading to a three-year hiatus from coaching. He popped up off the radar as the tight ends coach at Youngstown State last season, and although his hiring comes with inherent risk, it's a risk Paul Rhoads and the Cyclones are willing to take.
And they're probably wise to do so.
The former Notre Dame head coach and Florida offensive coordinator has tinkered with his offense on a week-to-week basis, a thinly veiled attempt to compensate for an admitted lack of talent on his roster. But even when his plots and schemes have worked out in the short term, they have almost always been figured out by halftime, leading the Jayhawks to get exposed as opponents make adjustments.
Weis is still running the show (for now), but Kansas has relieved him of his playcalling duties and hired a familiar face to lead the offense. John Reagan was part of Mark Mangino's staff from 2005 to 2009 and helped lead Rice to a C-USA title last season, and although he has never been a Big 12 coordinator, he has vowed to provide stability.
"We definitely will have an identity," Reagan told Jesse Newell of the Topeka Capital-Journal. "I don’t think you’ll see us as a team that one week does this and the next week does that. There’ll be absolute trinkets and changes each week, but I think you’ll see things that are very familiar from Game 1 to Game 12 and 13."
No more getting cute from game to game.
Efficiency was the name of the game for Charlie Strong and Shawn Watson, who forged a great Louisville offense that was happy to take its time to score. Per Football Study Hall, the Cardinals finished No. 6 in the country in success rate (an offensive efficiency metric explained in depth here) last season despite ranking No. 124 in pace of play.
At their best, Bobby Petrino's offenses are also highly efficient. He doesn't sling the ball down the field willy-nilly, as it sometimes appears on TV; he knows the importance of running the football, staying on schedule and getting into manageable third downs.
However, Petrino's offense does incorporate more vertical concepts than that of Watson, and he's much more willing to take chances down the field. The best Strong-era offenses were efficient above all else, but the best Petrino offenses are efficient along with explosive.
Especially with a retooled defense that cannot possibly match last year's high watermark—Louisville finished first in the country in yards allowed per game—the Cardinals offense should get back to attack mode under its current and former head coach.
Michigan's once-proud ground attack was among the worst units in the country last season, averaging just 3.28 yards per carry. Al Borges was fired in the aftermath, and Doug Nussmeier was brought in from Alabama to revitalize a dormant group of runners and blockers.
The scheme will not change in name—i.e., Michigan will continue trying to establish a pro-style offense now that Rich Rodriguez's spread-tailored players are gone—but the way this unit goes about its business will be different in 2014. It will be a more physical, tighter-run ship than it was during last year's ugly campaign.
"We have to know a lot more this year," said sophomore quarterback Shane Morris, per Brendan Quinn of MLive.com. "We have to know what lineman do on every play, who the back blocks on every play so we know who our (hot routes) are; stuff like that."
But it's not just accountability that Nussmeier brings to the table. He also brings a consistent, rigid zone-rushing scheme that marks a sharp contrast from Borges' erratic system. Ian Boyd of SB Nation explained the specifics of this difference back in March:
The run game will likely be built around inside zone and remain committed to the concept from week to week. Whereas Borges would build a million different constraints and play calls around multiple different run and pass schemes, Nussmeier will run inside zone in multiple ways, from multiple formations, and with different constraints built off of it to counter defensive responses. At Alabama, players would rep inside zone against every single defensive look that might come up, ensuring it could be called against any opponent.
Ideally, Michigan's young linemen can focus on their footwork and assignments without being asked to master several different techniques in order to have a dynamic gameplan.
The Wolverines hope that less is more in 2014—that by having his offensive lineman master one technique, and by sticking to that technique on a week-to-week basis, Nussmeier can cultivate a consistent (albeit less versatile) running game.
Almost anything would be better than last year's.
TCU is catching up to the times.
Its old mode of possessive, defensive football has not translated well to the Big 12; despite continuing to stifle opponents on the defensive side of the ball, the offense has been too anemic to succeed. After going 77-13 from 2005 to 2011, it has gone 11-14 the past two years.
In response, the Horned Frogs hired a couple of offensive coordinators renowned for their knowledge of the uptempo spread offense. Doug Meachem comes over from Houston after serving eight years under Mike Gundy at Oklahoma State, and Sonny Cumbie was Kliff Kingsbury's right hand man at Texas Tech last year.
Like Kingsbury, Cumbie played quarterback at Texas Tech under Mike Leach, where he learned air raid principles. In 2005, he threw for 441 yards and four touchdowns in a 70-35 beatdown of TCU—the most points head coach Gary Patterson has allowed in his 13 seasons.
Is it time to return the favor?
The Red Raiders travel to Fort Worth on October 25.
Vanderbilt's offense will do many of the same things in a different way now that James Franklin and John Donovan have departed.
It will still aim to control the ball, and it will still value efficiency over explosiveness, but instead of using the pro-style system favored by the former regime, it will shift to the conservative West Coast stylings of new offensive coordinator Karl Dorrell.
Dorrell was the head coach at UCLA from 2003 to 2007. Ostensibly, his experience running a program played a role in his hiring alongside first-time head coach Derek Mason. However, Dorrell's college career petered out for a reason, and Bruins fans remember him more for the banality of his playcalling than for anything he ever achieved.
Dorrell has kicked around the NFL since leaving UCLA, most recently serving two years as the quarterbacks coach of the Houston Texans. Fair or not, it would be remiss not to mention the implosion former Pro Bowler Matt Schaub had under Dorrell's tutelage last season (although his backup, Case Keenum, was a pleasant surprise).
We'll see if Dorrell has learned from past mistakes.
As mentioned on a previous slide, Dave Clawson and offensive coordinator Warren Ruggiero were versatile at Bowling Green. They switched things up from season to season based on personnel.
Clawson explained this methodology to Andrea Adelson of ESPN.com:
…If there’s a really good player we think can play in the ACC and help us win, we have to adjust our system to fit the player. My first year at Bowling Green, we threw the ball for 4,000 yards and Freddie Barnes had 155 catches and broke the all-time NCAA single-season mark. Now four years later we just produced the No. 1 single-season tailback mark in Bowling Green history. The thing we do well is adjust to our personnel.
Longtime head coach Jim Grobe brought an option-based offense to Winston-Salem, and even though he sometimes switched gears—Ben Mauk's injury and Riley Skinner's emergence in 2006 come to mind—he never wavered far from those principles. He wanted to be efficient, he wanted to plow the ball forward and he wanted to pass to the slot.
Clawson wants to do those things too, but in a different way.
His offense is more open and less compact, more prone to taking chances down the field. Ruggiero also spent one year (2008) as the quarterbacks coach at Kansas State, so he's privy to the occult secrets of Bill Snyder—the magical way he seems to isolate offensive players on defenders without using a spread formation.
Expect to see more Wake players in space this coming season.
Chris Petersen's offense is one of a kind. Unless he was replacing one of his former assistants, his arrival assuredly meant a new scheme.
Alas, Steve Sarkisian never coached under Petersen, which means the Huskies and their fans will be introduced to the ways of a new offense this season. And chances are they will like what they see.
The calling card of Petersen's offense is multiplicity—a flavor-of-the-week word in college football coaching circles that Petersen helped make so popular. He has a seemingly endless amount of formations at his disposal, and the ubiquitous presence of receivers and tight ends in motion makes them even harder for a defense to identify.
Petersen used mind games to beat more talented opponents during his time at Boise State. He forced defenders out of their comfort zone, to think instead of react. Now that he has Pac-12-quality players, he is not as obliged to attack with novelties and gadget plays.
But don't think for a second that that will stop him.
Follow Brian Leigh on Twitter: @BLeighDAT