SEC West, be prepared: The Mike Leach Air Raid is here, and it's a different beast to tame
Three years ago, Mike Leach teed off on the SEC.
The then-Washington State coach was asked about new Ole Miss offensive coordinator Phil Longo bringing the Air Raid offense to the SEC. Leach, who is one of the founding fathers of the Air Raid, addressed the assumption that a non-traditional offense couldn’t work in the big, bad SEC (via the Clarion-Ledger):
“I’ve got bad news for all these levels people,” Leach said. “Your level isn’t special, your conference isn’t special. All this ‘different level this, different level that.’ That’s crazy.”
“How is it better? Somebody coaches better athletes, somehow they morph into something smarter? That’s crazy. I mean, you still have problems, you still have 11 parts you can wiggle around to counter the other 11 parts.”
Eight months after Leach’s quote ruffled feathers in the SEC, Neal Brown and his Air Raid fueled a stunning win for Troy at No. 25 LSU. In 1998, Brown was a receiver at Kentucky, where offensive coordinator Leach implemented his Air Raid with Tim Couch, who set Kentucky’s single-season completion record (400) and the SEC’s single-season yards record (4,275, since broken) before he became the No. 1 overall pick.
Brown actually brought the Air Raid to Kentucky when Mark Stoops hired him as his offensive coordinator in 2013. After a horrendous Year 1, Brown improved the nation’s No. 108 offense to No. 63 (9 points per game). But when Brown left to become the head coach at Troy in 2015, Kentucky’s 1-year experiment of Shannon Dawson running the Air Raid failed and he was fired at season’s end.
Between those stints, Longo’s brief time running the Air Raid at Ole Miss and a couple of other instances, we’ve gotten little tastes of that offense in the SEC.
But now, we’re getting the full enchilada. Leach’s first season at Mississippi State will be dissected nationally, not just because of his press conference rants or his pirate-loving shenanigans.
Leach can finally make good (or bad) on the SEC jab he delivered 3 years ago.
To be fair, SEC offenses have developed since Leach’s criticism of the league. Alabama decided that spreading 4 wide and letting Tua Tagovailoa take over games was smart, LSU revamped its entire offense and scored more points in a season than anyone in college football history and even Georgia made the wholesale move this offseason to implement the … Air Raid.
But with Leach, we’re going to see the most extreme version of the Air Raid that promises to be unlike what we saw for stretches at Kentucky or Ole Miss. Again, we’re talking about someone who, in this modern era of pass-happy offenses, led a team that threw the ball an average of 10 more times per game than the next-closest team last year.
That next-closest team was Texas Tech, which Leach coached from 2000-09. That’s where the Air Raid offense became mainstream (the Red Raiders just finished their first season not using the Air Raid offense in the 21st century). Who was the offensive coordinator in Lubbock for 3 seasons after Leach left? Brown, of course.
Is Mississippi State going to follow in the footsteps of post-Leach Texas Tech, which became synonymous with high-powered offenses and porous defenses that led to mediocre finishes? Or are the Bulldogs going to be the fly in the ointment like the prolific Ole Miss spread teams? Or rather, 2012 Texas A&M.
If you recall, it was the Aggies and their Air Raid with Kevin Sumlin and Kliff Kingsbury — he accepted the head coaching gig at Texas Tech in 2013 — who took the SEC by storm with Johnny Manziel in 2012. Granted, that wasn’t exactly a Leach Air Raid. There was a distinct difference. The Aggies thrived on having a mobile quarterback like Manziel who could improvise as well as anyone we’d ever seen in college football.
Mississippi State doesn’t have the personnel to be that type of fly in the ointment in Year 1 with Leach’s version of the Air Raid. Well, that’s an assumption based on what we’ve seen from K.J. Costello and his career 96 rushing yards, as well as Garrett Shrader and his 15 pass attempts per game as a true freshman.
The safer bet is that MSU will have a top-10 passing offense nationally. That’s what Leach did each of the last 8 seasons at Washington State. After Year 1, Leach actually produced a top-4 passing offense in 7 consecutive seasons. Even with the SEC’s top returning rusher in Kylin Hill, MSU is going to throw, throw, throw and throw some more.
Mike Leach’s inspiration for the Air Raid came from the Wishbone. Two objectives him and @AirRaidCert Hal Mumme stole from the Wishbone offense:
1. Attack as much space as possible
2. All skill positions touch the football
The Wishbone and Air Raid are married with principles! pic.twitter.com/PfrxSUi54D
— Pistol Triple Option (@PistolOptionFB) January 17, 2020
How effective will it be? And will MSU beat teams that it’s not supposed to a la Troy at LSU in 2017 or A&M at Alabama in 2012?
I don’t have an answer to that, and neither do you. I tend to think that’s actually more dependent on how formidable of a defense Leach’s team will have. In those aforementioned upsets, both Troy and A&M won without the Air Raid hitting 30 points because their defenses played at an extremely high level (people forget that Troy defense was No. 11 in scoring in 2017).
At Washington State, that always limited the Cougars’ upside. Leach had 1 defense that ranked in the top 1/3 of FBS teams during his 8 seasons in Pullman. Not surprisingly, it was the 2018 team with Gardner Minshew that yielded a top-10 finish in the AP Top 25. That was the only time Leach finished with a ranked team at Washington State.
That’s not to say history will repeat itself in Starkville. Leach has a new defensive coordinator in 33-year old Zach Arnett. How he develops talent to slow down offenses that have evolved at powerhouses like LSU and Alabama could determine MSU’s upside.
But what people like Nick Saban, Ed Orgeron, Kevin Steele and Mike Elko will have to prepare their defenses for is a new type of offense. Leach’s teams at Washington State threw the ball an average of anywhere from 51-64 times per game. (All 8 of his teams led the nation in attempts.) In the 2010s, here were the SEC teams who threw the most in a given year:
- 2010: Arkansas, 35.8 attempts
- 2011: Arkansas, 36.2 attempts
- 2012: Tennessee, 39.8 attempts
- 2013: Ole Miss, 37.7 attempts
- 2014: Texas A&M, 39.5 attempts
- 2015: MSU, 38.5 attempts
- 2016: Ole Miss, 40.3 attempts
- 2017: Ole Miss, 36.2 attempts
- 2018: Ole Miss, 36.8 attempts
- 2019: South Carolina, 38.8 attempts
That shows you just how different Leach’s offense will be for the SEC. Only once did an SEC team in the 2010s average at least 40.0 passes per game, and Leach’s offenses averaged at least 51 passes per game in all 8 years at Washington State. Oh, and in Leach’s 18 seasons as a head coach, his teams averaged less than 50 attempts per game just once. That was in 2005 when Texas Tech averaged … 49 attempts.
SEC coaches will inevitably say before a matchup with MSU this year, “well, it’s not like I’ve never faced the Air Raid before.” Yeah, but how many of them have faced Leach’s Air Raid? It’s not to say their defenses can’t succeed against it, but in the same way that preparing for the triple option is different for any team, so is preparing for a group that throws the ball like it’s playing backyard football.
I cannot stress this enough. This is going to be different.
Leach isn’t going to change his style for the SEC. He plans on having the SEC change its style for him.
And who’s to say he’s wrong? The guy has 12 seasons of 8-plus wins as a Power 5 coach. This works for him. It’s what was at the foundation of teams who never had a single top-25 recruiting class.
We don’t know yet if that will translate to the SEC. Surely MSU fans would prefer to have the best of both worlds. Ideally for the Bulldogs, those peak-Leach years like 2008 Texas Tech or 2018 Washington State will come more often than once a decade. They’ll become a yearly expectation and it won’t feel like a massive upset to take down Alabama or LSU.
Leach finally has his opportunity to tee off on the SEC. Well, at least where it actually matters.