Mississippi State is moving on from the Air Raid, but here's why there's hope it can improve in 2023
I was surprised, but I get it.
It was inevitable that Mike Leach’s offensive play-calling successor was going to bring more balance. I mean, we’re talking about an offense that led the nation in passing attempts in each of the 3 seasons that Leach was in Starkville. In 9 of Leach’s final 10 seasons as a head coach, his offense led FBS in that stat. MSU was going to undergo an offensive shift, no matter who Zach Arnett tabbed as his new play-caller.
But when it was announced that Appalachian State offensive coordinator Kevin Barbay would be that guy, I admittedly was caught a touch off guard. I assumed that there would be a desire to keep a bit of schematic continuity, especially with Will Rogers set to return for Year 4 as a starter.
Barbay isn’t an Air Raid disciple with Leach-based roots. Sure, he’s from Texas and he graduated from Baylor, where the Art Briles offense took off in the 2010s, but Barbay’s offenses have had much more balance. He called plays for Jim McElwain’s Central Michigan offense in 2021, and he did so at Appalachian State in 2022. They averaged 35 and 30 passing attempts per game, respectively.
By hiring Barbay as his first offensive coordinator, Arnett is telling the world “this is going to be a different offense than the one you’re used to.” Dare I say, there’s hope that it can also be a better MSU offense than the one we’re used to.
For what it’s worth, that wasn’t a knock on a group that improved each year under Leach. At the same time, MSU hasn’t had a top-40 scoring offense since Dak Prescott left Starkville … in 2015.
Maybe that shouldn’t be considered a surprise that Arnett would deviate from the Air Raid. After all, he’s a defensive-minded coach. It’s not a coincidence that Leach only coached 1 team (2005 Texas Tech) that finished with a top-20 scoring defense. Complementary football isn’t typically a staple of the Air Raid.
To Arnett’s credit, he had some solid units under Leach. They always ranked in the top 1/3 nationally against the run and they averaged between somewhere between 5.15-5.6 yards per play allowed in all 3 years. The hope is that number will get closer to 5 yards per play, which would be in the top 20 nationally.
Over the past 2 years, Barbay’s offenses rank in the top 20 at a combined 448 yards per game. Despite a frustrating finish to App State’s 2022 season after a start that included a win at Texas A&M and a College GameDay visit, the offensive numbers were promising (FBS ranks):
- No. 8 in 40-yard scrimmage plays
- No. 11 in 40-yard passing plays
- No. 21 in yards/rush
- No. 22 in yards/play
- No. 23 in scoring/game
Notice the adjectives Arnett used to describe Barbay.
“His offenses have proven to be creative, efficient and explosive, and his attacking offensive philosophy will be an excellent fit for our program,” Arnett said in a release. “We couldn’t be more excited to welcome him and his family to Starkville.”
“Explosive” and “attacking” are the words that stand out. MSU wasn’t exactly explosive under Leach. The Bulldogs were dead last among Power 5 programs with 4 scrimmage plays of 40 yards. They had a total of 16 scrimmage plays of 40-plus yards in 3 years of the Leach offense. In 2022 alone, Barbay’s offense had 21 such plays.
Of course, Barbay wasn’t doing that against SEC competition. Only 3 of those 40-yard plays came in those 2 games against Power 5 competition. There will be a learning curve in Barbay’s first job as a Power 5 play-caller, which Leach mastered for more than 2 decades. Outside of working as a grad assistant at Baylor, Barbay’s lone Power 5 role was working as a director of player development on McElwain’s Florida staff from 2015-17. It could take some time for Barbay and Rogers to develop anywhere near the bond that we saw the MSU quarterback have with Leach.
There is, however, more intrigue than ever in what Rogers will do in a non-Leach offense. Those throwing windows should open up a bit. There’ll also be a learning curve for Rogers in how he reads defenses. Even reading his own offensive alignment will be different. It won’t just be 4-5 receiver sets. There will be — wait for it — tight ends!
In 2022, Barbay’s Appalachian State offense had:
- A) 9 touchdown passes to tight ends
- B) 45 catches by tight ends
- C) 504 receiving yards by tight ends
- D) 4 different tight ends play at least 120 snaps
- E) All the above
It’s “E.” It’s always “E.”
One would think that MSU will now start loading up on tight ends in the transfer portal. This will likely be the first time since 2019 that the Bulldogs have a single player on the roster listed at the position.
What tight ends, especially those who can catch, allow modern offenses to do is disguise run-pass at the line of scrimmage. MSU’s goal under Leach wasn’t about disguising run-pass. Defense knew they were throwing the football and probably no further than 15 yards. They just didn’t know where and when that would be.
That brings us back to the other adjective that Arnett used to describe Barbay’s offense — “creative.”
Take Henry Pearson. He was Appalachian State’s top tight end with 329 receiving yards and 5 touchdowns. Those numbers might not jump out to you. His snap count, however, should:
- Inline: 393
- Backfield: 133
- Slot: 91
- Wide: 6
That’s right. A little more than 1/5 of his snaps came with him lined up in the backfield. More than 1/3 of his snaps were out of non-traditional tight end alignment (traditional is inline). But even when Pearson was lined up inline, we saw him used creatively by Barbay. That included a wheel route for a wide-open touchdown in the opener against UNC.
There was nothing gadgety about that pre-snap look out of the pistol formation. It’s 11 personnel (1 running back, 1 tight end) with Pearson lined up inline and 3 receivers, 2 to the right and 1 to the left. By having both receivers on the right run routes to the middle of the field, it clears out space and created a massive throwing window for an open Pearson, who never got picked up underneath:
APP STATE!! Chase Brice hits Dalton Stroman deep for 41 yards, next play Brice hits a wide open Henry Pearson for the 22 yard TD! pic.twitter.com/nouUYTH9S1
— ?????? @???????? (@FTBeard7) September 3, 2022
Yes, Barbay will see more disciplined defenses than the one his offense matched up against that day against UNC when the Mountaineers put up a season-best 649 yards and 61 points. He’s also going to be working with a quarterback who knows how to survey a defense and capitalize on coverage busts. One would think there’ll be more opportunities for those in an offense that’s much closer to balanced.
The expectation is that Barbay’s run plays will typically be out of the pistol formation, which was the base offense in both of his years as an FBS play-caller. In those 25 games, Barbay’s offense ran more than it passed 17 times. MSU obviously hasn’t had a game with more rushing attempts than passing attempts since the pre-Leach era in 2019.
Sometimes, that 1-dimensional offense led to frustration against elite foes like Georgia and Alabama. Other times, that 1-dimensional offense led to Rogers getting in a special kind of rhythm like 2021 Auburn or 2022 A&M. Maybe MSU wouldn’t have won those 2 games if the game plan had been focused on balance. Alternatively, perhaps MSU will win games in 2023 because of that balance.
Barbay’s assignment isn’t an easy one. He’s tasked with implementing a new offense for a group that really has only been part of 1 unique scheme at MSU. Even more challenging is the fact that Barbay has to do that in the SEC West, where “get-right games” are virtually non-existent.
Five years ago, that proved to be a challenge for Joe Moorhead when he was tasked with implementing his scheme with a veteran group that only knew the Dan Mullen offense. A decorated multi-year starter like Nick Fitzgerald and the MSU pass-catchers couldn’t consistently execute the passing concepts, and out of necessity, it led to a much more run-heavy approach in the latter half of the season.
The goal for Barbay is to avoid being forced into a similar spot with a sputtering offense. That’s not a given. Rogers could struggle to get in a rhythm with just 30 passes instead of 45. MSU might need to mix up the offensive line to find the right group to run-block. It wouldn’t be far-fetched to see a defensive end or linebacker switch to the other side of the ball to add some depth at tight end. This can still be a prolific unit even if those issues surface.
Arnett hired Barbay under the assumption that he’d roll with those changes and build the MSU offense into one of the SEC’s best. That wouldn’t have happened if Arnett kept it in-house by retaining Steve Spurrier Jr., who called plays in the ReliaQuest Bowl. But that wasn’t the path taken by the new head coach. Instead, Arnett met his first challenge head on.
We shouldn’t be surprised if that risk yields great rewards.