In college football, adaptation is the name of the game.
Many a great college football innovator has been fired from several jobs, even as others win with the system he invented. The best example may be Hal Mumme, the inventor of the Air Raid offense, whose best season as a coach was a 7-5 year with Kentucky in 1999. As Mumme’s 2000 Kentucky team went 2-9, he had to watch Oklahoma win the national championship that year running his Air Raid offense. Now, every NFL team and most college teams use at least some Air Raid concepts in their own offense.
This year alone, two great innovators are on the hot seat. Rich Rodriguez revolutionized the zone-read game at West Virginia. After a spectacular failure at Michigan, his Arizona Wildcats can’t quite get over the hump, and are now projected to finish near the bottom of the Pac-12 South. Meanwhile, Gus Malzahn used a lot of Rodriguez’s concepts in a hurry-up, no-huddle framework, leading Auburn to the 2010 national title as an offensive coordinator and the 2013 SEC title as head coach before a stunning fall from grace that has seen the Tigers go 2-10 in SEC games since the early part of 2014.
Rodriguez and Malzahn found that it’s not enough to innovate once; you have to innovate every year or the game will pass you by.
Bret Bielema and Kevin Sumlin aren’t quite innovators, but they are flag-bearers of their offensive principles. Bielema wanted to come to Fayetteville with his power-running game and run over the SEC like he ran over the Big Ten at Wisconsin. When SEC defensive lines objected, Dan Enos has improved quarterback play and created a more dynamic offense. When his Big Ten-style defensive coordinator couldn’t stop the run, he was replaced by a Johnson/Davis/Schiano disciple who would.
Sumlin, likewise, wanted to come to College Station with the pure Air Raid that helped Case Keenum set NCAA total offense records. He bought some time with Johnny Manziel, but the Aggies have had diminishing returns on both offense and defense since that magical 2012 season. So Sumlin adapted. He dumped his defensive coordinator after an awful 2014 and hired John Chavis away from LSU. When his defense improved tremendously, but his offense went south in 2015, he went and found a new offensive coordinator, who doesn’t run an Air Raid. There’s less Air Raid and more dedication to the run game now, but Texas A&M is 3-0.
The jury is still out on Sumlin and Bielema, but perhaps unlike Malzahn, at least they’re trying to adapt.
When Texas A&M has the ball
The Aggie offense clearly lags behind the defense in 2016, and the Hogs will certainly have opportunities to exploit it. New offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone brings a lot of experience and adaptability. His career has had massive ups and downs. And he’s no stranger to the SEC West.
Mazzone isn’t an Air Raid guy by trade, but his offense is very similar. He’s actually from the One Back family; specifically, from a different part of the coaching “bracket” that gave us Bobby Petrino. He was the offensive coordinator for TCU in the famous 1990 shootout with Houston, when his quarterback Matt Vogler threw for 690 yards (then an NCAA record) but lost 56-35 because Houston’s David Klingler threw for 563 and seven touchdowns. He was hired as Tommy Tuberville’s offensive coordinator at Ole Miss in 1995 and stayed with Tubs as he jumped to Auburn in 1999. But things there didn’t go quite as planned, and Tubs made Mazzone his fall guy after the 2001 season and hired Petrino, who significantly improved the offense. Mazzone then bounced around the country for a few years, coaching at Oregon State, NC State, Ole Miss (under Ed Orgeron), Panther Creek High in North Carolina (seriously), Arizona State, and, finally UCLA under Jim Mora from 2012 to 2015.
Under Mazzone, the Aggies are refocusing on the run, although this is still a pass-first offense. The offense is mostly zone-read stuff, and quarterback Trevor Knight will keep off the zone read. He’s a decent runner – probably not quite as good as TCU’s Kenny Hill – but he’ll get more carries on designed runs.
The personnel is mostly four wides with one back. Mazzone used a tight end/H-back at UCLA quite a bit, but hasn’t so far at A&M. The passing game is predicated on stretching the defense laterally, with lots of screens, swing passes, and short slants and hitches. The Aggies love “package” plays, where they’ll give Knight a short passing option combined with a zone read. Check out their favorite, a snag plus a zone read.
“Snag” is Mazzone’s favorite pass call. It’s just a short inside hitch from the outside receiver, with the inside receiver coming on a flat route under him. Knight has the option to hand off the back, throw it to one of the two receivers in the concept, or keep it and run himself. It’s hard to defend because it stretches the field laterally, forcing the defense to play close to the line of scrimmage to account for all possible angles.
Once the defense has moved up to cover everyone side-to-side, the Aggies throw deep.
Rushing (Success Rate: 45.8%, 47th nationally; isoPPP: 1.23, 25th nationally)
- Keith Ford, 5’11, 215, 32 carries, 155 yards, 4.8 average
- Trayveon Williams, 5’9, 200, 28 carries, 236 yards, 8.4 average
- Trevor Knight (QB), 6’1, 215, 28 carries, 164 yards, 5.9 average
As you can see, carries are split pretty evenly. Ford, an Oklahoma transfer, is the more physical runner. He doesn’t seem like a serious threat: he played poorly against both UCLA and Auburn and padded his numbers against Prairie View.
Williams is more explosive. He has a lower opportunity rate (just 36% compared to Ford’s 44%) (remember, opportunity rate is percent of carries that gain at least five yards), but has many more explosive runs, including an 89-yarder in the fourth quarter against Auburn, which is somewhat skewing the stats you see here.
Overall, and I hope I’m not wearing the pig-colored glasses here, but I don’t see A&M’s running game as a significant threat. The Hogs have been solid so far this year at stopping designed runs, especially inside runs. Knight scrambling is more of a concern.
Passing (Success Rate: 44.1%, 48th nationally; isoPPP: 1.45, 78th nationally)
- Trevor Knight, 6’1, 215, 63/119, 830 yards, 5 TD, 2 Ints, 52.9% comp%, 6.8 yards per attempt
- Josh Reynolds, 6’4, 193, 19 targets, 13 catches, 229 yards, 12.1 yards per target
- Christian Kirk, 5’11, 200, 27 targets, 18 catches, 168 yards, 6.9 yards per target
- Ricky Seals-Jones, 6’5, 240, 26 targets, 9 catches, 128 yards, 4.9 yards per target
- Speedy Noil, 5’11, 200, 13 targets, 6 catches 84 yards, 6.5 yards per target
Like TCU and Louisiana Tech, Texas A&M prefers a lot of four-wide sets and doesn’t use a tight end. The slot receivers (Kirk and Noil) get most of the screens, swing passes, and slants, while the outside receivers (Reynolds and Seals-Jones) get more downfield stuff. The downfield stuff has only been so-so this season (note the Aggies’ low isoPPP on pass plays), but Reynolds is dangerous.
As I’ve written several times before, Arkansas is very good at covering outside receivers and very bad at covering inside ones. Reynolds doesn’t scare me nearly as much as Kirk does (Kirk had 8 catches for 173 yards and two touchdowns against the Hogs last year), so look for Kirk in the slot to be a huge factor. He’s capable of doing to the Hogs exactly what TCU’s KaVonte Turpin did.
Texas A&M’s offensive line is very good and Knight has only been sacked once this season, although much of that is due to the fact that the ball leaves Knight’s hands very quickly on most plays.
When Arkansas has the ball
The primary reason that the Hogs are 3-0 is that “Points per Opportunity” stat. That’s the average number of points scored on drives that get at least one first down inside the opponent 40-yard line. Obviously, “7.0” is preferable as that means a touchdown on each drive. That’s exactly what Arkansas did against Texas State (five touchdowns in five scoring opportunities). The Hogs also won the stat against Louisiana Tech and TCU. The offense is 7th nationally and defense isn’t bad either at 38th: that means the Hogs average 6.5 points per trip inside the opponent 40, while opponents score just 4.1 points per trip inside Arkansas’ 40. That’s significant.
Looking at A&M, defensive coordinator John Chavis is best-known for his ability to get to the quarterback. His teams always have exotic blitzes and stunts, which is a concern for Arkansas’ somewhat unstable offensive line. The Aggies are weakest, as they’ve been for a few years now, at stopping inside power running, something Arkansas will have to do well.
Rushing Defense (Success Rate: 39.3%, 64th nationally; isoPPP: 0.97, 41st nationally)
Passing Defense (Success Rate: 32.7%, 26th nationally; isoPPP: 1.35, 42nd nationally)
- Daeshon Hall, DE, 6’6, 270, 11.0 tackles, 4.0 TFL, 0 sacks
- Myles Garrett, DE, 6’5, 270, 6.0 tackles, 4.0 TFL, 3.0 sacks
- Kingsley Keke, DT, 6’4, 310, 5.0 tackles, 1.0 TFL, 1.0 sacks
- Daylon Mack, DT, 6’1, 320, 2.5 tackles, 0.5 TFL, 0 sacks
The Texas A&M defensive line is very good and is probably the best unit on the team.That said, it’s less active than you might think. Jeremiah Ledbetter (12.5 tackles), Deatrich Wise (8.5), Tevin Beanum (5.0), and Taiwan Johnson (4.0) – Arkansas’ four starters – have 4.5 more tackles and 1.5 more sacks than A&M’s starters.
Dealing with Hall and Garrett off the edge is going to be a huge challenge. Auburn decided the best way to play them was to leave them unblocked and try to “read” them with the option (spoiler alert: it failed spectacularly). Hall may be a little more versatile against the run, while Garrett almost always goes wide. Running right at him (behind Dan Skipper) is probably the best strategy: he’s already not a great run defender (in his defense, teams often run away from him), and it will wear him out faster. On passing plays, Austin Allen has to have a great mental clock, be able to get the ball out quickly, and step up in the pocket. The Razorbacks are also set to start Brian Wallace at right tackle in place of Colton Jackson, who has struggled with edge rushers this season. The Hogs will also use tight end Jeremy Sprinkle to “chip” the end on his side before heading out on his route.
- Shaan Washington, WLB, 6’3, 240, 15.5 tackles, 2.0 TFL, 1.0 sacks, 5 pass break-ups
- Claude George, MLB, 6’2, 240, 11.0 tackles, 3.0 TFL, 2.0 sacks, 1 pass break-up
- Richard Moore, SLB, 6’1, 218, 3.5 tackles, 1.0 TFL, 1.0 sacks, 0 pass break-ups
The linebackers are also less active than Arkansas’: these three players don’t have nearly as many tackles as Brooks Ellis and Dre Greenlaw’s combined 36.0. But as the sack numbers indicate, the Aggies like to blitz a lot more than the Hogs. Linebacker has been a weakness for the Aggies for some time, and Arkansas may find success running right up the middle, especially if Allen can check out of Aggie run blitzes.
- Justin Evans, SS, 6’1, 200, 20.5 tackles, 1.0 TFL, 2 Int, 3 pass break-ups
- Nick Harvey, CB, 5’10, 185, 18.5 tackles, 1.5 TFL, 0 Int, 2 pass break-ups
- Armani Watts, FS, 5’11, 200, 11.0 tackles, 2.0 TFL, 0 Int, 1 pass break-up
- Priest Willis, CB, 6’2, 200, 6.0 tackles, 0 TFL, 1 Int, 2 pass break-ups
Ahh, here’s the activity! While Arkansas’ safeties typically play on their heels, the Aggies are very aggressive, and Evans and Watts are extremely active (along with Harvey from his corner spot) and constitute one of the top safety duos in the SEC. These guys can play both the run and the pass, so the Hogs have to watch out for them.
The cornerbacks are a different story. Both starters from last year are gone: Harvey was a reserve last season, while Willis is a UCLA transfer. For the fourth straight game to open the year, Arkansas will face a team with deficient cornerback play. That means, once again, that Keon Hatcher and Drew Morgan should have ample opportunities to get open against single coverage… which they should see a lot of, since A&M will theoretically have to bring a safety into the box to slow down the run.
Three to watch
- Christian Kirk. Here we go again. Everything I said about Turpin from the TCU preview applies here. If Arkansas has improved its coverage of slot receivers, I like most of the defense’s other matchups.
- Myles Garrett. The SEC likes freak defensive ends, and he’s the latest. Devastating against the dropback pass, the Hogs have to keep him blocked. I recommend running right at him and double-teaming him when you have to throw. Don’t ignore Daeshon Hall on the other side; he’s pretty good, too.
- Justin Evans. This stud strong safety can impact the game as both a run defender and a pass defender. Arkansas’ playcalling needs to make sure he’s in the wrong spot most of the time.
Keys to the game
- Stay on schedule. Now more than ever, staying out of third-and-long matters. That means no penalties or early-down sacks. It means every run play needs to get at least three yards, and at least half need to get more than that.
- Win turnovers. I made this a key for the TCU game, and the Hogs went plus-2. So let’s try this again. Arkansas’ offense isn’t explosive enough to survive lost possessions. If the Hogs go plus-2 again, I like their chances.
- Shut down the run. Any offense is more dangerous when it is balanced. Taking away the run game, including the quarterback scramble, is on the table for Arkansas’ defense. Do that and a barely 50% passer is going to have a hard time keeping drives moving.