CFB Insider: Perfect scheduling. Pruitt in trouble? Can Auburn really win West?
Each week, Matt Hayes uses his sources around the country to bring you insider knowledge about what’s going on in and around the SEC ahead of this week’s games.
This is what he’s hearing from coaches and NFL scouts in Week 5 …
8 is great for conference schedules
The addition of numerous Power 5 home and home nonconference series over the last year isn’t as random as it looks.
One industry source says the SEC is “trying to will” the rest of the Power 5 conferences to schedule accordingly. The Pac-12, Big Ten and Big 12 all schedule 9 conference games and 3 nonconference games. The SEC and ACC play 8 conference games.
The SEC formally told its member schools 2 years ago that every schedule needs at least 1 Power 5 nonconference game a season (Notre Dame and BYU are considered Power 5 games). Since then, many SEC teams are adding 2.
“The dream scenario, I think, for the SEC is for everyone to come to their plan: 8 conference games and 2 Power 5 nonconference games,” the industry source said. “I know they’ve talked about it at the commissioners’ meetings, but I don’t know how much traction is there.”
That’s why, the source said, SEC schools are expanding their nonconference schedules.
Florida alone – which hadn’t gone West of the Mississippi for a home and home series since the early 1980s (USC) – added home and homes with Texas, Colorado and Utah. The Gators also play Florida State every season.
The overriding theme, the industry source said, is strengthening the product and generating revenue. When asked what “strengthening the product” means, the industry source said, “I think it’s fairly obvious what part of that is – expanding the Playoff.”
College football already is dealing with the unavoidable: the ease of sitting at home and watching games on a 70-inch television in the comfort of your own home and not dealing with traffic, costs or lines. Additionally, fans simply aren’t traveling to games and filling large stadiums, paying top dollar for tickets and buying apparel when the opponent is Towson. If the opponent is Texas, that’s a completely different story.
Those marquee nonconference matchups could also strengthen College Football Playoff résumés – and long term, be the impetus to expanding the 4-team tournament.
When I asked SEC commissioner Greg Sankey this summer about a new scheduling philosophy, he said maybe the best idea isn’t the SEC (and ACC) moving to 9 games. “
“Maybe 8 really is the best number for all (Power 5 conferences),” Sankey said. “There’s a lot of flexibility with 8.”
The Big Orange roadmap
In the past 2 days, I’ve talked to 2 sources close to the situation at Tennessee and both say it’s going to get worse before it gets better.
But – and here’s the critical disclaimer — that doesn’t mean Vols coach Jeremy Pruitt is out of a job by the end of this season.
“What message does that send? Not just to the players, but to our fans and any coach who might be interested?” one source said. “Sure we need help – but you’re not getting the time to make it happen. You’re going to be on a short leash like the other 4 guys before you. Then you’re constantly reinventing the wheel.”
Another source said it would take a “colossal collapse” before there could – “I’m stressing, could,” he said – be momentum for change. When asked what that collapse would look like, the source said, “losing every SEC game.”
The buyout for Pruitt and coordinators Jim Chaney and Derrick Ansley is nearly $15 million.
The weekly grind
The question swirling around the SEC: Can Auburn really win the conference by running the ball and playing elite defense?
“How crazy would that be?” an SEC coach told me last weekend. “They’re not going to scare you in the pass game, but boy, that power run game is impressive. I think (QB Bo) Nix will get better throwing with accuracy, but what he has now is the ability to extend (plays) and get those bonus yards.”
In 4 games, Auburn has nearly double the number of rushes (192) as passes attempted (107). The Tigers have rushed for more than 1,000 yards (1,038) and are averaging 5.4 yards per carry.
Gus Malzahn is back calling plays, and that means the run game is center stage once again. The two most successful seasons at Auburn with Malzahn calling plays were 2010 (when he was offensive coordinator and Cam Newton was the QB) and 2013 (his first season as head coach with Nick Marshall at QB).
In 2010, Auburn’s run/pass ratio was 652-to-296, and the Tigers ran for 3,987 yards and 41 TDs. In 2013, the ratio was 729-to-285, and Auburn ran for 4,596 yards and 48 TDs.
They’re on pace this season to reach those raw numbers – if they play more than 13 games (see: SEC Championship, CFP).
Another SEC coach thinks Auburn will eventually run into a defense that, at minimum, will force Nix to make multiple throws to win the game. Texas A&M tried it, and Nix was spotty – and Auburn still won going away.
Florida next week? “Not that defense,” an SEC coach said. “They’re not thick and physical enough up front, and other than (David) Reese, those linebackers are questionable.”
LSU or Alabama: “Definitely. I’ll take either one of those two (over Auburn). But when you can play defense like Auburn can, and you can force mistakes and give your offense short fields, every game is within reach.”
Bruised and Blue
Michigan’s offense is a mess, and suddenly Jim Harbaugh’s inability to find the right system/coach in his return to college football has become an open sore of criticism.
“It’s hard for me to watch that team,” an NFL scout told me this week. “I know what Jim is all about. He’s a bright offensive mind, always has been. But they’re a mess right now in executing offense.”
The sticking point in all of those big game disappointments (1-9 vs. Top 10 opponents, 0-7 as an underdog, 1-6 on the road vs. ranked opponents) is the team’s inability to not only score, but control the clock and dictate the tempo. The very thing Harbaugh’s teams did with such success when he coached at Stanford in the 2000s.
He finally gave in this offseason and hired former Alabama assistant Josh Gattis to renovate the offense and bring it into the 21st century. But that, too, has been problematic.
Despite the criticism of Gattis and his play calling, the reality is he’s still working with personnel that was recruited to run a different offense. The RPO sets don’t magically become second nature for players; they have to be learned and executed over and over until those critical, split-second decisions are like taking a breath.
That’s why it looks so disjointed. That’s why it looks like quarterback Shea Patterson is lost. It also doesn’t help that the offensive line is struggling to run block and pass protect.
Look for former 4-star QB recruit Dylan McCaffrey to get more snaps in the RPO-based offense — Gattis believes he’s the perfect fit for the system and one of the team’s best athletes — moving forward.
The only holdup: McCaffrey sustained a concussion last weekend against Wisconsin, and is doubtful for this week’s game against Rutgers.