Washington State coach Mike Leach crushed SEC football offenses last week with statements in a story about new Ole Miss offensive coordinator Phil Longo.
“This is a great time to be in the SEC, everybody’s got the same offense: run right, right left, play action,” Leach told the Clarion-Ledger. “And they tease themselves and say we threw it four more times a game this year than we did last year.”
Granted, Leach is a little late on this assessment. Several SEC teams quickly moved past that style, including some of the more notable teams in the conference.
Several schools fit this outdated model. Georgia stuck with a traditional offense when Kirby Smart was hired. South Carolina is similar with Will Muschamp. Florida and Vanderbilt both run pro-style systems. It’s no surprise, those are the 4 worst teams in terms of offensive S&P+ per Football Outsiders. LSU was blessed with one of the best running back prospects in conference history, but Les Miles’ reliance on that system led to his firing.
“[People] say oh, [air raid] is a system, suggesting that people who don’t do it that way, who just run it up the middle, stick all your asses together so one hand grenade can kill everybody, that’s the right way to do it,” Leach said. “Since they do it the right way, they’re OK with the fact they lost.”
Numerous SEC fans criticized Leach, pointing to Washington State’s 17-12 loss to Minnesota in the Holiday Bowl. It’s an easy target. However, history shows Leach overachieved at his coaching destinations. Leach is the third coach in Washington State history to win 8 or more games in consecutive years. Before Leach came Mike Price. Before that, it was O.E. Hollingberry in 1930. Leach also turned Texas Tech into a national title contender with his dynamic offense.
Washington State can’t recruit top talent because of intrinsic disadvantages. For one, its campus in Pullman, Wash., is not a desired destination among Pac-12 schools. Wazzu is not supposed to win at the highest level.
The SEC has some of the best defenses in college football, but offensive innovation has been proven to help. Hugh Freeze and Dan Mullen opened up the offenses at Mississippi schools. Ole Miss should continue to improve as Phil Longo takes over — he engineered Sam Houston State to the best offense at the FCS level. Texas A&M notably added a “Big 12 offense” to the conference. Even Alabama and Auburn show tremendous innovation.
Perhaps more importantly the rest of college football is catching up. SEC teams went 6-7 in bowl games. Clemson, Oklahoma and UCF all notably tore up SEC defenses with spread-based offenses. The SEC might have fallen all the way to No. 3 in the list of best college football conferences after the season. Almost all of the hottest coaching commodities are young, offensive minds.
The SEC recruits the best talent in the nation, on offense and defense. In 2016 alone, 14 of the top 25 recruits enrolled at SEC schools. Nine conference schools rank among the top 25 in recruiting rankings. It’s baffling how talented pieces like Nick Chubb and Antonio Callaway manage to be so startlingly ineffective.
Talent is good enough to cover many flaws, but the SEC will not reach its full potential without innovation. Programs that refuse to do so will continue to get left behind by the new wave of college football.