They say that defense wins championships.
I don’t know who exactly “they” is. I do know that “they” is not referring to SEC athletic directors who had to make a coaching hire this offseason. If they did believe that, surely they won’t be sitting beside their new offensive-minded coaches and preaching how championships are the goal and the expectation.
Arkansas athletic director Hunter Yurachek, who’s been on the job long enough to have a sip of coffee, was the latest SEC leader to hire an offense-first head coach. After the Gus Malzahn negotiations fell apart, Yurachek zeroed in on SMU’s Chad Morris. It’s interesting because Malzahn and Morris both have something in common.
When Morris was the offensive coordinator at Clemson, he of course recruited and coached Deshaun Watson (Morris left for SMU after the 2014 season). You know, that guy who dropped 40 points on Nick Saban’s defense one year, and put 35 on it the next. Like Watson, it was Malzahn’s offense that out-schemed Saban 2 weeks ago in the Iron Bowl.
So in a way, both Malzahn and Morris played a part — the former’s role was a bit more hands on than the latter’s — in accomplishing the toughest challenge in college football. That is, handing Saban an “L.”
Morris is part of a movement in the SEC that we’ve seen unfold since Malzahn handed Saban his second “L” in 39 games. The movement goes against that old mantra. I’d love it if Yurachek got to the podium and became the first SEC athletic director to come out and say what they’re all thinking.
“Offense wins championships.”
Before you starting pounding your fist and crying foul with that argument, let me answer your question. Yes, I watched a defensive-minded coach lead Georgia to an SEC Championship on Saturday. I know that Kirby Smart and Saban, two defensive guys, are representing the SEC in the Playoff while offensive gurus like Malzahn and Dan Mullen missed out.
But speaking of Georgia, ESPN college football analyst David Pollack (and former Georgia star defensive lineman) had an interesting reaction when he saw that the Dawgs were taking on Oklahoma in the semifinal round. What did Pollack say when giving instant analysis about the game?
“That offense is going to have to score because Baker (Mayfield) is getting 30,” Pollack said on Sunday. “You can put 30 up there on his side. The Georgia offense is going to have to score. I think we are looking at 40-something to 30-something.”
Pollack is probably right. Defensive-minded Georgia is going to have to find a way to score a bunch of points to win a Playoff game. That’s what history indicates. Look at the final scores from every Playoff game to date.
Alabama’s 24-7 win against Washington in last year’s semifinal marked the first and only time in the Playoff era that the winning team failed to score at least 31 points. In the national championship, which featured Alabama the past 2 years, teams averaged 38 points. And even in the lowest-scoring Playoff title game to date last year, it was still one of those “last offense on the field is gonna win this one” games.
Call me crazy, but I think SEC teams like Arkansas are catching on to that. Just look at all of the recent offensive minds who got head coaching jobs in the SEC the past 2 weeks:
- Dan Mullen, Florida
- Chad Morris, Arkansas
- Joe Moorhead, Mississippi State
- Jimbo Fisher, Texas A&M
- Matt Luke, Ole Miss
That’s not a coincidence. That list doesn’t even include Malzahn’s massive extension at Auburn, and the fact that Missouri offensive coordinator Josh Heupel just landed arguably the best Group of 5 job in America at UCF.
Offense is all the rage right now, and it’s not hard to see why. Having coaches who can develop quarterbacks and light up the scoreboard sells itself. It’s entertaining, it’s easy to recruit and most important, it’s been pretty successful.
This idea that you can simply impose your will on teams with a predictable offense and play solid defense is gone. If it were still here, Les Miles would’ve gotten the Arkansas gig instead of Morris. Even Saban adapted with the times and he let Lane Kiffin change his offensive philosophy.
And as much as the Auburn and Georgia defenses did the heavy lifting, go back and look at their offenses when they were at their best. They used plenty of misdirection and spread principles to gash the defense.
The hope for Arkansas is that it can do the same thing with Morris.
The Hogs couldn’t do that with Bret Bielema. The predictable offense that worked so well for him at Wisconsin didn’t translate to the SEC because he couldn’t consistently win that battle in the trenches. Having someone like Morris, who can incorporate an offense that will resemble Malzahn’s, won’t be so dependent on that.
Morris isn’t going to walk through the door and preach concepts that he heard 30 years ago. He didn’t play college football. The guy majored mathematics with a minor in statistics, but he understands how to recruit quarterbacks and run an offense (SMU was 8th in scoring in 2017).
Speaking of quarterbacks, Morris gets a lot of credit for plucking Watson out of the heart of SEC territory. People might forget that Morris was also the one who recruited Chad Kelly to Clemson. Kelly, of course, later transferred and ended up at Ole Miss, where he accomplished the same feat that later earned Watson and Malzahn a whole lotta money. That is, he beat Saban.
That’s really at the root of all of these coaching hires in the SEC. Everyone is trying to find a way to beat Saban, albeit in different fashion. Nobody is able to beat him at his own game. They aren’t going to go out and land No. 1 recruiting classes and have 5-star athletes filling the 3-deeps.
The league that prides itself on smash-mouth football was a bit overdue for a facelift. You can’t have a coach dominate the league for a decade like Saban and assume that the same strategy will work with the next coach. Credit Yurachek and others for realizing that times are changing.
That time is now.