Big changes are coming to Arkansas’ offense with the hiring of Chad Morris to replace Bret Bielema. Morris brings an up-tempo, spread-friendly system that’s likely to be a better fit to the recruitable talent in Arkansas and east Texas.
We’ve talked a lot about X’s and O’s since the hiring, and there’s more of that to come. But big changes are also coming to the overall aims of the offense as borne out by the statistical analysis. That’s what we’re looking at today.
The goals of Bielema’s offense
I’ve written about this extensively, since I believe it’s important to understand what an offense is trying to do before you can evaluate it.
Here’s just one of many times I’ve written about Bielema’s offensive strategy, from the 2017 South Carolina preview:
Arkansas’ offense under Dan Enos is based on cycling these three objectives:
On standard downs, an efficient run game
On standard downs, a balanced pass game
On passing downs, an efficient pass game
What’s missing is the word explosive. The Hogs occasionally take some standard downs shots in the passing game, usually on second down, but overall this is an on-schedule offense built to win without big plays.
What’s significant is that Bielema actually got all three of these. The Hogs finished top-15 nationally in Rushing Success Rate in 3 of his 5 years. The Hogs were 1st in overall Passing S&P+ in 2015, and from 2014 to 2016, the Hogs ranked 20th, 4th, and 24th in Passing Success Rate. The 2015 team led the NCAA in overall Success Rate+, ranking 2nd in rushing and 4th in passing.
And yet the Hogs went just 26-25 from 2014 to 2017. Part of that was a defense that was atrocious outside of one good season (2014). General badness in close games contributed as well. But I don’t think those explanations are enough to explain how Bielema was able to get so much of what he wanted on offense and still was so far away from breaking through in Fayetteville.
The changing landscape of college football
Most sports fans have seen the movie Moneyball, a dramatized version of how the 2002 Oakland A’s were able to rebuild their small-market roster and win 100 games using advanced methods of statistical analysis known as sabermetrics. Now, years later, the increasing influence of analytics in baseball led the New York Yankees to pay career .269 hitter Giancarlo Stanton $25 million to hit home runs and strike out at a record pace. I don’t mean to criticize Stanton: the numbers have definitely shown that the ability to hit the long ball outweighs every other concern, from the strikeouts to the mediocre batting average.
Football has not yet had a full statistically-driven revolution, partially because football is a far more complicated sport that cannot be captured by single statistics like on-base percentage or batting average. But statistics can track new trends as they happen, and help fan the flames of the changing game of football. The days of trying to eek out a 3-yard off-tackle rush, a 6-yard slant, and a 2-yard dive to keep the chains moving seem to be on their way out, just like the days of trying to string together a single, walk, bunt, and the RBI sac fly to plate a run have largely vanished from Major League Baseball. Now, we hit dingers.
Enter Chad Morris
Much of Morris’ offense can be called the Giancarlo Stanton offense. The up-tempo explosive spread offenses largely developed as a response to dominant defensive fronts that were the trademark of powerhouse programs in the 1990s and 2000s. It’s a trend that has continued into the 2010s. Stringing together several 10-play scoring drives against Alabama is nearly impossible these days, even with a good offense. Actually, forget Alabama, it’s hard to do against Auburn, LSU, and South Carolina, and those are the kinds of teams Arkansas has to move the ball against to stay out of the SEC cellar.
Arkansas’ longest play from scrimmage against Alabama in Bielema’s five years was A.J. Derby’s 54-yard catch-and-run on a drag route against the Tide in 2014. Yep, a 250-pound tight end was responsible for Arkansas’ most explosive play against Alabama. It just goes to show that while long drives are hard to muster, big plays can happen at any time, especially if you look for the opportunity.
Morris wants his offense to generate these big plays. Compare the strategy from the quoted article above to Morris’ offensive objectives:
- On standard downs, an explosive run game
- On standard downs, a balanced pass game
- On passing downs, an efficient pass game
Note that there’s actually only one difference: Morris wants his run game to focus on explosive plays as opposed to efficiency. In 2017, SMU ranked 15th in Standard Downs isoPPP (explosiveness) but still managed to rank 9th in Passing Downs Success Rate, indicating that “missing” on the big play attempt didn’t necessarily kill the drive.
Here’s a comparison of Arkansas and SMU’s offensive metrics from 2015 to 2017:
I’ve double-weighted each team’s best season. So for Arkansas, the 2015 season is double-weighted; for SMU, it’s 2017. My reasoning is that Arkansas’ 2015 offense was the closest to what Bret Bielema wanted, while the 2017 SMU offense was the closest to what Chad Morris wanted.
You can see that the run game priorities are perfectly switched. Both Arkansas and SMU were able to generate a decent amount of passing explosiveness. Arkansas was a little more efficient through the air, and keeping pass efficiency numbers in decent territory will be a big priority for Morris. His kind of offense can fall apart if the quarterback can’t make basic throws.
Looking at the run game, let’s take a close look at the running backs. We’ll use two stats: opportunity rate, or the percentage of run plays that gain at least 5 yards (that is, the “opportunity” for a big play), and bonus yards per opportunity, or the average number of yards gained beyond five on those opportunities. Opportunity rate is a decent measure of efficiency (consistently getting five yards is a nice goal for a running back), while bonus yards are better at measuring explosiveness.
Here’s Arkansas in 2017:
- Devwah Whaley: 36.2% opportunity, 4.1 bonus yards
- David Williams: 42.5% opportunity, 4.3 bonus yards
- Chase Hayden: 42.6% opportunity, 4.8 bonus yards
Hayden measures best here, albeit against weaker competition before his injury, while Whaley had a sophomore slump.
But compare those bonus yards numbers to SMU:
- Xavier Jones: 37.4% opportunity, 7.2 bonus yards
- Ke’Mon Freeman: 25.2% opportunity, 5.4 bonus yards
- Braedon West: 54.8% opportunity, 6.5 bonus yards
After weighting the numbers based on total carries, Arkansas’ three backs had a collective opportunity rate of 39.93%, but averaged just 4.33 bonus yards per opportunity (9.33 yards per rush on opportunity runs). Comparatively, SMU’s backs had a collective opportunity rate of just 36.55%, but averaged 6.58 bonus yards per opportunity (11.58 yards per rush). That means that SMU’s top three backs gained 42.47% of their total rushing yards on big runs, while Arkansas backs’ bonus yards made up just 34.42% of their total yards, despite having more chances. That’s not going to cut it against elite SEC defenses, where big plays can turn the tide of games.
In future articles, we’ll dig deeper into Morris’ SMU offense as we prepare for a new era of Razorback football.