Is There a Power Shift Taking Place in the S.E.C.?

As always, I will begin with the requisite yet sincere disclaimer: I like College Football Resource. I agree with him about playoffs, I agree with him about the Rose Bowl, and I have said so . . . repeatedly.

He and I part ways, however, whenever CFR starts making observations like these:

Auburn's hiring of Al Borges beget LSU's hiring of Gary Crowton, both former Pac-10 offensive coordinators. Florida won a title with a coach it hired because of his reputation as an offensive mastermind. Auburn continues to win the Iron Bowl. Alabama's gotten antsy and hired a competent coach who in turn hired a hotshot young offensive coordinator (Major Applewhite). Tennessee ditched its ineffective offensive coordinator for the more aggressive David Cutcliffe. Arkansas flirted with Gus Malzahn as its offensive coordinator. There's a dramatic shift going on within the conference at the moment, actioned mostly on the offensive side of the ball.

We can argue about how effective Borges has been post-2004, whether Cutcliffe really fits into all of this, how much Florida's offense had to do with the championship and all these other issues again, but that's not really what interests me so much as the trend behind it all. There's an offensive shift going on that has the power to reshuffle the deck completely.


Ordinarily, when it comes to that whole Pac-10/S.E.C. thing, I have tried to mediate between extremes and endeavored to build consensus, but I find it difficult to lend credence to college football's version of the flat earth theory, Offensive Chic.

Tommy Tuberville observes the master at work. (I hate Auburn!)

We have trod this ground before, so excuse me if I repeat myself, but College Football Resource's attempt to suggest that "former Pac-10 offensive coordinators" are causing "a dramatic shift" in the Southeastern Conference is more than a little bit of a stretch. As noted by Senator Blutarsky, Jimbo Fisher was the offensive play-caller preferred both by Les Miles and by Nick Saban, each of whom hired another O.C. only because Coach Fisher took work elsewhere.

Of course, I find it difficult to malign Al Borges's offensive brilliance, for I still recall the three passes for 69 yards and a touchdown that Brandon Cox threw to Tra Battle in last November's Georgia-Auburn game. Then again, Tra Battle plays for the Bulldogs and the Red and Black hung a 37-15 whipping on the Tigers.

To the extent that Gus Malzahn enjoyed any success as an S.E.C. offensive coordinator, it was only because his gimmicky scheme was scrapped in favor of the old-fashioned running game . . . an approach that led Arkansas to a 10-win season and a Western Division championship. Likewise, vaunted offensive guru Urban Meyer won games with defense, capturing a national championship with a team that bore more resemblance to the 1980 Georgia Bulldogs than to the 2004 Utah Utes. Regardless of what desperate pundits will tell you, defense still wins championships.

Heisman Trophy winner Troy Smith guided Ohio State to the national championship game, where he completed four of his 14 pass attempts for 35 yards, one interception, and no touchdowns.

As for the revolutionary offensive innovations Coach Meyer is preparing to spring upon unsuspecting S.E.C. defenses, Orson Swindle has seen the future and this is how it looks to him, with emphasis added:

[O]n plays where Tebow scrambled or took off on a designed run, he pulled up on two hand touches with an irritated turn, clearly miffed that he couldn't plow into people. The defender who can bring him down solo will be rare, which you could have guessed. What you may not know is that this year's Tebow, Cam Newton, showed the same willingness to run headlong into the fray, even if he spent most of the first half dropping shotgun snaps and throwing high and wide over the middle. Quarterback runs, a large part of the offense last year, will only grow in importance as Meyer now has two baby rhinos giddy about dragging the game of football back to the 1950s.

Beyond that, the West Coast credentials of S.E.C. play-callers are, to put it mildly, somewhat dubious. Consider these O.C.s, whose pedigrees are decidedly not traceable to Orange County:
  • Mike Bobo was born in Augusta, went to high school in Thomasville, holds the Georgia high school career passing yardage record, enjoyed a stellar career as the quarterback for the Bulldogs, was an administrative assistant at his alma mater in 1998 and a graduate assistant in 1999, spent one season coaching quarterbacks at Jacksonville State, and returned to the Classic City when Mark Richt arrived on the scene. After over five years spent working with such quarterbacks as David Greene, D.J. Shockley, and Matthew Stafford, Coach Bobo was promoted to offensive coordinator following a successful audition and he acquitted himself effectively in the Bulldogs' bowl game.
  • David Cutcliffe was born in Birmingham, played football for Bear Bryant, and has spent every autumn of his coaching career in Alabama, Mississippi, or Tennessee. During his two stints as the Volunteers' offensive coordinator, Coach Cutcliffe has guided his teams to a 9-2-1 record against Pac-10 opponents.
  • Major Applewhite was born in Baton Rouge, played quarterback for the Longhorns, served as a graduate assistant at his alma mater, and spent a year at well-known West Coast enclave Syracuse before becoming the offensive coordinator at Rice. Texas, it should be noted, is not a Pac-10 school, despite the fact that the 'Horns have won two of the last three Rose Bowls.
Steve Spurrier unquestionably revolutionized offense in the Southeastern Conference in the early 1990s, but the league just as clearly caught up to him. His Gator squads finished first in the S.E.C. standings six times in his first seven seasons. (A seven-point setback to eventual national champion Alabama in Birmingham in 1992 was all that stood between the Evil Genius and seven straight first-place finishes.) The Ol' Ball Coach captured only one conference crown in his last five seasons in the Swamp, though.

Of course, he later took over a South Carolina squad that had gone 6-5 in 2004 and guided it all the way to a 7-5 record in 2005!

The game of football constantly is evolving. Sometimes the offense is ahead of the defense; sometimes the defense is ahead of the offense. While new wrinkles can bring forth occasional outbursts, these usually represent novelties providing the short-lived element of surprise rather than fundamental paradigm shifts.

Football features few bright-line break points starkly separating one era from another comparable to the end of the "dead ball" era in baseball. Since the legalization of the forward pass, there have been few quantum leaps on the gridiron rising even to the level of the addition of the three-point arc to the basketball court. Even those new ideas that qualify as such distinctions---the wishbone, for one (arguable) instance---did not spring up everywhere overnight. The installation of such systems throughout the sport was a gradual process, as was the shading of the gradient back in the direction of defense.

Coach Borges's dual discoveries that (a) Jason Campbell shouldn't be allowed to try throwing the ball farther than five yards downfield and (b) it's a good idea to hand the ball off when you have two first-round draft picks lining up at tailback hardly justify the bold assertion that "[t]here's an offensive shift going on that has the power to reshuffle the deck completely."

Absent the power of suggestion and the determination to cherry-pick favorable facts while ignoring the square pegs of reality that will not fit the round holes of pet theories, there is precious little evidence of such a shift. If anything, the lesson of the 2006 season is that special teams matter perhaps even more than we thought. Georgia, the team that had represented the Eastern Division in three of the previous four conference championship games, slipped downward dramatically due to weaknesses in the Bulldogs' kicking game and Florida was put in position to win a national title by South Carolina's kicking woes.

I respect CFR and I enjoy his work, but there are a lot of theories that didn't pan out and Offensive Chic is one of them. It's high time for CFR to hang with a better gang.

Go 'Dawgs!

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