Todd Monken vs. Bill O'Brien: Why their pre-SEC Championship numbers don't tell the full story
Really, there’s not much debate. At least there shouldn’t be.
Ask Georgia fans. Ask Alabama fans.
“If I gave you the choice of Todd Monken or Bill O’Brien as your offensive play-caller on Saturday in the SEC Championship, who would you pick?”
I’m not breaking news by saying Monken wins that argument in a landslide.
Monken has been everything Kirby Smart could’ve hoped for when he moved on from James Coley as UGA’s offensive coordinator after a disappointing offensive showing in 2019. O’Brien has been … well, let’s just say there were some disappointed Alabama fans when it was announced that the Tide offensive coordinator wouldn’t be filling the head coaching vacancies at Virginia Tech or LSU.
If you just glanced at the raw numbers, you’d think both would be in good standing with their respective fan bases — and not just Monken. Look at the side-by-side comp:
It’s also worth remembering that Bryce Young is going into the SEC Championship as the Heisman Trophy favorite. If he wins the award, he’ll be the first Alabama quarterback to do so. O’Brien would be remembered as the play-caller who helped make it happen.
But those 3 last words — “make it happen” — probably just hit a nerve with Alabama fans.
It’s Young who excels at making things happen when plays break down. That play in the Auburn game where he threw out of his own end zone to find John Metchie wasn’t some brilliant scheme. It was Young buying time and having a receiver who recognized the situation and found the soft spot in the zone. Young’s poise was praised for that 97-yard, season-saving drive, not O’Brien’s offensive acumen.
That’s at least how it’s perceived. It was O’Brien’s offense that was held without a touchdown for 59-plus minutes against an Auburn defense that suddenly looked like the 1985 Chicago Bears. O’Brien was also the guy at the controls when Alabama scored 20 points against a left-for-dead LSU team at home. That’s really when the anti-O’Brien crowd multiplied, and in a way, it makes sense. That game ended Alabama’s FBS record streak of 34 consecutive games with 30 points. Now in 2 of the last 3 games, the Tide came short of that mark.
Recency bias? Yep. Outside of Steve Sarkisian and Smart, how many Alabama coordinators have ever avoided the public’s dog house since Saban turned Alabama into a contender? The list isn’t long. But O’Brien knew it would be like that when he took over for the guy who led the 2 most prolific offenses in school history.
Maybe that’s a small part of why Monken has been embraced in a different way. Coley didn’t exactly shatter records in Athens. In 2019, UGA had the No. 50 scoring offense in FBS even though Jake Fromm returned as a 3rd-year starter and D’Andre Swift was one of the top backs in the country. By season’s end, Coley’s exit was inevitable.
Monken, on the other hand, is within striking distance of finishing with the school’s best offense (the 2014 group averaged 41.3 points per game which means this year’s team would need to average about 45 points in its remaining games). UGA fans still have that fresh perspective of not cracking the top 100 in scoring in Smart’s first season in 2016. This is still a group searching for its first top-40 passing offense of the post-Aaron Murray era.
Perspective is key. It’s also a testament to Monken’s play-calling that this group has been so efficient with Stetson Bennett IV as the starting quarterback. Who would’ve thought that the Dawgs would be without JT Daniels and George Pickens for the majority of the season and still be in position for a historic offensive finish. That doesn’t even include the fact that Arik Gilbert didn’t play, and 2020 leading receiver Kearis Jackson has been limited to 1 game with more than 30 snaps.
Monken is out here dialing up the nation’s No. 6 offense with a former walk-on quarterback, true freshman tight end Brock Bowers and redshirt freshman Ladd McConkey, who wasn’t even a top 1,000 recruit in the 2020 class.
Ladd McConkey is a STAR pic.twitter.com/arWocihVmX
— The Transfer Portal CFB (@TPortalCFB) October 9, 2021
Let’s get back to that other point — the efficiency. Take a closer look at the numbers and you’ll see why Monken is in much better public standing than O’Brien:
Now let’s take it a step further and break that down just within SEC play:
Against SEC competition, Georgia is averaging a touchdown more per first half, more yards per play and it’s essentially a wash with explosive pass plays. And that’s with Bennett at quarterback with Bowers and McConkey leading the passing attack … compared to the 5-star Heisman favorite, preseason All-SEC wideout John Metchie and the SEC’s leading receiver Jameson Williams.
It also helps when you’re essentially going into the break with a 3-score lead almost every SEC game like Georgia. O’Brien’s miscues are magnified partially because he has more opportunities to screw up. You could say that’s on him, or you could say an Alabama defense that’s struggled with consistency also has something to do with that.
Alabama was in a 1-score game in the 4th quarter in 6 of its 8 SEC matchups. In its 8 SEC games, Georgia never led by less than 14 points in any 4th quarter (that lone 14-point lead vs. Auburn became a 17-point lead just 8 seconds into the 4th quarter). On that 97-yard drive at the end of the Auburn game, Young had as many passes (10) as Bennett has had in the 4th quarter all season.
Both O’Brien and Monken have been received in different ways by their respective fan bases. Saturday will have a major say in that, as well. It’s the most important game that either has called plays for in 10 years.
As Oklahoma State’s offensive coordinator in 2011, Monken drew up an offensive clinic in a blowout win against Oklahoma to keep the Cowboys’ BCS National Championship hopes alive (OSU got left out of the title game in favor of the LSU-Alabama rematch). A couple of months later, O’Brien had an even more monumental pressure-cooker game. He was tasked with calling plays for Tom Brady and Co. in the Super Bowl against the New York Giants. O’Brien ultimately came up a dropped Hail Mary short that night.
Where was that game played? Lucas Oil Stadium, AKA the home to this year’s College Football Playoff National Championship. If O’Brien is going to get back there a decade later, he’ll need to call the game of his life against a historically dominant Georgia defense that allowed 69 points all season (that’s if you take away non-offensive touchdowns allowed). There’s no denying that there’s more pressure on O’Brien than Monken. At the same time, don’t overlook how Monken would be perceived if Saban stymies the UGA offense and pulls out another win against Smart.
Saturday is a prime opportunity for one of the 50-something offensive coordinators to shine on a big stage. This is exactly what both signed up for when they came back to the college ranks.
Time to make it happen.