Ole Miss’ Climb

October 8, 2008

Head on over to SB Nation’s SEC blog Team Speed Kills for a piece I wrote on Ole Miss and it’s attempt to climb from the basement of the SEC West with Houston Nutt. It even comes with the Ed Orgeron Hummer ad, because the irony of a fired coach hawking a brand that GM can’t even give away at this point is thick and delicious.

What can I say? I’m a sucker for hilariously bad local commercials that SEC personalities inevitably get roped into doing.


An Analysis of Florida’s Offense Against Ole Miss

September 29, 2008

Urban Meyer likes to say that games are won and lost in the five minutes before and the five minutes after halftime. Florida’s game against Ole Miss was decided in large part thanks to the five minutes after halftime, proving his maxim true.

I went through all of UF’s 71 plays to find out more about the offense’s performance in their first loss of the year and to see what should have been done differently.

First Half

Florida had the game mostly under control. The Gators enjoyed a 17-7 lead and had all the momentum. Ole Miss head coach Houston Nutt was even visibly frustrated when he came out after halftime. The storyline for the game was following along the same way it had for the previous three games: Florida’s defense was holding its opponent down and the offense was doing enough to get by.

Before the break, 17 of the 33 plays were runs, and Florida scored on three of its six drives. Even Aaron Hernandez’s lost fumble was on a play that was on its way to gaining more than ten yards (before, of course, being called back for illegal formation).

Even so, the offense was not fully clicking. It only had more than two effective plays in a row on the sixth and final drive, when all five of its plays were effective. Prior to that, the Gators could only muster back-to-back effective plays at most before bad execution or a good play by the Rebel defense prevented a play from doing well.

Second Half

Florida passed a lot more in the second half because the sense of urgency grew. Six of the first eight plays after the break were runs, but only two were effective and two others produced lost fumbles. Most importantly, the fumbles allowed Ole Miss to tie up the game and it gave them a lot of confidence.

From that point on, the Gators ran the ball just seven more times. Five of them were on a touchdown drive (one of which was a scramble on a pass play) and two more were their final two plays of the game.

UF actually had eight distinct and meaningful drives in the second half, a remarkable stat considering that they had only six meaningful drives the whole game against Tennessee. The first two ended due to lost fumbles. The third was torpedoed by a third down penalty and a missed block on the same guy by both Phil Trautwein and Marcus Gilbert.

The fourth drive was done in by a first down sack that was followed by a catch out of bounds and Tebow being hit as he threw. The fifth drive was when the offense finally found a rhythm, making six effective plays in a row despite the linebackers dropping into coverage only once in that span. It ended in a touchdown. The first play of the sixth drive was also effective, but a sack the second play could not be overcome thanks in part to a drop by Carl Moore.

Five of the six plays on the seventh drive were effective, with the other one being an overthrow on a 20-yard fade route. It ended in a touchdown. The final drive of the second half as we know ended because of a failed Tebow smash play, but two more overthrows on first and second down were counter productive.

A Word on the Rebel Defense

Houston Nutt may seem a little crazy from time to time, but he is not stupid. He took a look at Florida’s three games so far. He probably tossed out the Hawai’i game because of the talent differential, and stuck with the Miami and Tennessee games.

Miami blitzed most of the game and held the Florida offense to just a touchdown in the first three quarters. Tennessee dropped its linebackers into coverage most of the game and allowed UF to score on five of its six meaningful drives. You can probably imagine which approach Nutt took.

Ole Miss blitzed much of the game, and most of the rest of the plays the linebackers stayed up close to add pressure. All but one of the times Ole Miss brought a Gator down behind the line of scrimmage came on a blitz.

The Rebels dropped the linebackers into coverage just 17 times. Only one of those times did they get genuine pressure on Tim Tebow. Only four other plays were not effective, and two of those were drops, one was a pass that was caught out of bounds, and the other was a dump off pass on third-and-17. When the linebackers dropped back and gave Tebow plenty of time to throw, Florida moved the ball with ease.

Following the lead of LSU and others, Ole Miss almost universally blitzed the Gators when they went with an empty set, except on third and a mile and late in the fourth quarter. All three of the Rebels’ sacks came against an empty set, and twice a linebacker came through untouched.

Florida’s Play Calling

On the Gator message boards, the people are ready to run offensive coordinator Dan Mullen out of town. To be fair they’ve wanted to do that almost since he arrived 2005, even during the 2006 national championship run and during 2007’s campaign that led the SEC in scoring. Was it as bad as they say?

As I said, the first half scheme matched what had been going on before. No surprises there. Over the three previous weeks some wondered whether the Gators had used the whole playbook, and if when the pressure was on if they could execute when that time came.

Only three of the eight second half drives ended in punts solely because of poor execution. The first two were turnovers of course, and one was bad execution and one was a good play by the defense. That bad execution fumble was on a read option play, however, something Tebow has run thousands of times in games and in practice. It was not related to that extended playbook.

The plays that Florida ran in this game that it didn’t in the previous ones mainly were intermediate to long pass plays. The ones that were quick worked fine. The ones that were not quick ended in sacks or scrambles. It also did not help that Tebow overthrew every pass that had to travel in the air more than about 12 yards beyond the line of scrimmage.

Florida actually did pretty well beating the blitz with quick passes over the middle and option plays. Only three throws over the middle didn’t work; two were drops and the third was a low throw. The other 15 short or medium throws over the middle were effective. The read option plays in the center of the line didn’t work very well, but the standard option left or option right plays did a great job at beating the blitz.

The killers were slow developing pass plays from an empty set. All three sacks came on such a scenario, and most of the hurries did too. Thanks to Ole Miss blitzing on nearly all of them, the numbers just didn’t allow that kind of play to do what it was supposed to do.

That’s where I am upset with the play calling. I understand that there’s a need for variety to keep the defense guessing, but there was no reason at all that supported anything other than fast passes from a five-wide set. Ole Miss made its intentions to blitz very clear from the beginning, so those plays should have been scrapped instead of appearing in the second half.

Florida was getting everything it needed on medium-length quick hitters and options. The Rebels couldn’t do a thing to stop Percy Harvin running or catching. Tebow was overthrowing all of his longer passes anyway. Slow developing pass plays from the empty set have been failing against the blitz since the LSU game in 2005. Why they keep getting sent down from the booth in 2008 is beyond me.

The final set of downs was not a failure of play calling, by the way. There were short routes by the sideline that were open on first and second down; Tebow chose to throw to the lone long route both times.

I was fine with the throw to Murphy since it was first down and there was a lot of separation there. The throw to Harvin on second down was not a good decision in any way. The option on third down nearly worked, and on fourth down Florida’s offensive line simply got dominated. The Tebow smash had worked all three other times they used it, so there wasn’t a whole lot of reason to think it wouldn’t the fourth time.

Injuries

Florida missed Jim Tartt, who went out after the first drive. He is a fifth-year senior and a mauler on the line. Even so, Ole Miss’ front four rarely got much pressure when they weren’t assisted by a blitzer.

The bigger loss was probably Emmanuel Moody, who had three very hard and productive runs before going out. All three of his plays were effective, and he also picked up Florida’s only third down conversion.

The Takeaway

Ole Miss didn’t have to make many plays to win. It gained over half of its offensive yards on four plays (two of which were touchdowns) and its three sacks put the Gators in second-and-20, second-and-17, and second-and-19 (all three of which led to punts).

My final diagnosis is that the two turnovers to start the second half did the Gators in. For as flat as they played and for all the big plays that went against them, those turnovers ended up the deciding factor.

They gave the Rebels 10 quick points to tie up the game, and the two teams were basically even from there on out. They were not even in the first half, however, showing that those giveaways by Florida reversed momentum and gave Ole Miss some actual confidence.

Even if Florida punts on those drives instead of fumbling, the Rebels would not have gotten 10 points that fast or probably at all given how the teams were playing at that point. Minus the shot of adrenaline to the Ole Miss sideline, Florida probably would have ground out another nondescript win.

Ultimately, this game leaves plenty to think about and work on for both players and coaches. We’ll find out how much they got from it when LSU comes to Gainesville in two weeks.


Gators Go Through Looking Glass in Loss to Ole Miss

September 28, 2008

Nearly everything about Florida’s game against Ole Miss was the polar opposite of what happened through the first three games of the year. I have not gone through my recording for a full analysis; ideally that will come tomorrow. For now though, just consider these things.

Third Downs

Florida entered the game first in the SEC in third down conversions, at 53.85 percent. Against Ole Miss, they were just 1-11 on third downs.

Turnovers

Florida came into the game +9 in turnover margin and had yet to turn the ball over. While Tim Tebow’s school record streak of pass attempts without an interception is still alive, the Gators fumbled five times, losing three, and finished -2 in turnover margin against the Rebels.

Preventing Big Plays

You can question the competencies of the offenses UF had faced so far, but the Gator D had been doing well in preventing big plays. The longest pass play allowed to Hawai’i, Miami, and Tennessee was 26 yards, and the longest run play was 16 yards.

Ole Miss gained 169 of its 325 yards on four plays. One of those four plays was a 40-yard touchdown run by Dexter McCluster and another was Jevan Snead’s 86-yard touchdown pass to Shay Hodge. Both of those plays came within 16 minutes of the end of the game.

On the Rebels’ 59 other plays, they managed just 156 yards, or 2.64 yards per play.

Tebow’s Production

Coming into the game, Tim Tebow had played a relatively limited role in the offense compared to 2007. His 311 total yards against Miami were by far his highest, and 256 of those were passing. He had yet to score a rushing touchdown.

Against Ole Miss he had 319 yards of passing alone, and he had two rushing touchdowns.

Harvin’s Production

Partially due to injuries, Percy Harvin had played a very limited role in the first three games of the year. His largest involvement was against Tennessee, where he had eight touches for 80 yards.

Against Ole Miss, he surpassed that mark in both rushing and receiving. He had 10 rushes for 82 yards, and 13 catches for 186 yards. He was far and away the best player on the field.

Taking a Lead

Florida had not trailed in a game yet this season. Ole Miss scored first, ending that streak with 3:12 to go in the first quarter. UF would take the lead back with 12:26 to go in the first half, but the Gators would lose the lead for good with 10:32 to go in the third quarter when Ole Miss tied the game 17-17.

Special Teams

Brandon James was largely held in check thanks to some occasionally suspect blocking by Florida but mainly good kick and punt coverage by Ole Miss. Saturday’s game was also the first game of the year in which the Gators’ special teams did not score.

The final margin of the game was made possible by Ole Miss’ special teams, who blocked Florida’s final extra point attempt.

Overall

“We didn’t play Florida football.”

Those words from Urban Meyer in his postgame press conference basically sum up the game. I am still going to do the analysis pieces, but the whole game can be summed up in that phrase.

It was like a combination of some of the worst parts of 2006 with some of the worst parts of 2007.

They had a third quarter meltdown, an infamous recurring nightmare of 2006’s run. They also had the offense making mistakes and hoping the defense could bail them out, a storyline taken directly from the script of two seasons ago.

They also had critical breakdowns, like Snead’s 86-yard pass, and some bad tackling, like on McCluster’s 40-yard run. The offense basically ended up the Tebow and Harvin show as well. Those bits are vintage 2007 Gators.

The critical thing from here on out is figuring out this team’s identity. The identity it had tried to forge in the first three games was completely reversed. Bad habits from the past couple seasons reemerged.

All is not lost since it’s still September and because Georgia was administered a beatdown by Alabama. Arkansas, Florida’s next opponent, has looked so positively putrid this season that they present a great opportunity to get the house back in order.

Florida came out flat, didn’t do a thing that brought them success in the three games prior, and they only lost by one point (a freak margin at that, considering how few PATs ever get blocked). It was also to a rapidly improving Ole Miss team, whose new coach Houston Nutt always pulls off an upset or two every season.

There are worse ways to take your first loss, and there was enough good in it to build on that the Gators can still accomplish every goal they have for the season.


SEC Power Poll Ballot: Preseason

August 19, 2008

The preseason SEC Power Poll this year (conducted by Garnet and Black Attack) is not a ranking of the teams, but a ranking of the coaches. Specifically, it is a ranking of coaching ability.

My ballot is based on who is good now, and it is slanted towards performance in this decade. No lifetime achievement awards are being handed out here.

Here’s my list and the explanations.

1. Urban Meyer

Call it a homer pick if you want, but he’s done well everywhere he’s gone. He turned in an undefeated season at Utah, becoming the first BCS Buster ever. Let’s also not forget that he did it before the BCS expanded to five games.

At Florida he won a national and conference championship and got a quarterback a Heisman. He proved the spread could work in the SEC and did it so convincingly that other coaches in the league are going to install some spread-style goodness of their own in 2008. Add to that his ace recruiting abilities, and you have my vote for top SEC coach.

2. Tommy Tuberville

I should specify that this is a vote for the Tuberville of 2004 and on and not for the Tuberville of 2003 and prior. There is a difference, and I outlined it here.

The post-2003 Tuberville has been one of the best coaches in the country in that span, though the fact he’s only parlayed that into one conference title is the reason why he’s second on the list. He also gets points for abandoning his old, conservative offense and actually giving former outcast/spread guru Tony Franklin the shot at major college coaching that he deserves.

3. Mark Richt

Richt is on pace for becoming the most successful head coach in Georgia history. He has two conference titles and a 13-1 season that wins him a national title in nearly any other year than the 2002 season in which he did it. He also lost to Vandy in 2006, something that a top league coach shouldn’t do six years into his tenure despite the strides the Commodores have made under Bobby Johnson.

He ended up third in the league on my ballot. That is still nothing to sneeze at in the best coaching conference in the country. How he does with the heaps of expectations on him this year will help to sort out his place in the hierarchy as well as help to define his legacy as a head coach.

4. Nick Saban

I know some people will be upset seeing him this high, especially given the loss to Louisiana-Monroe last season. It’s difficult to blame him too much for the negative goings on last season though given that his predecessor was Mike Shula, a guy who never should have been given a head coaching position.

Despite that fact, all six of the losses were by eight points or less so the Tide was competitive in every one of them. He had a blowout win over the SEC East champ Tennessee. Let’s also not forget the BCS championship he won at LSU and the incredible amount of talent he left there when he bolted to the Dolphins.

5. Les Miles

I decided that the first five guys on the ballot had to be guys who have won the national title in this decade, or at least have done enough to win one in a normal year. Since Miles won his national title with two losses while Meyer’s and Saban’s came with one loss (and Tuber ville had an undefeated season and Richt had a 13-1 year), he ended up fifth.

Yes it’s true that he walked into a treasure trove of talent at LSU. It’s also true that he has gone 11-2 each of the past three seasons with two blowout wins in BCS bowls and a Peach Bowl win that ended Miami football as we knew it. He also doesn’t get nearly enough credit for keeping the LSU team together after the Hurricane Katrina disaster just days before the start of his first season in Baton Rouge. He’s colorful, but he can coach.

6. Bobby Petrino

I’m going to throw out his time with the Falcons, which was spent under conditions that pretty much no one could succeed under. Instead, I’m looking more at his time at Louisville where he turned it into one of the country’s best teams, nearly made the national title game, and helped save the Big East.

The immediate drop off after his departure should highlight how good of a coach he was. He still did win his BCS game as the Big East champ though, which unfortunately doesn’t mean a whole lot, and it was over surprise ACC champ Wake Forest, which makes it matter even less. He’s still got a bright offensive mind and knows how to build a winner, so he goes here.

7. Phil Fulmer

You could make a case for him being higher or lower on the list, but he’s listed here thanks to being the final guy who has won a division championship at his current school. His East Division title last season helped some, but the fact remains that he has not won a conference title since 1998 and none of his teams has truly been elite without David Cutcliffe.

He gets some points for hiring Dave Clawson but nothing big until we find out if the Clawfense can succeed long term in the conference. Fulmer didn’t really manage his staff as well as he could/should have in the time between the Cutcliffe stints, but maybe this is a step forward. He will have to win the conference again to move higher on my list though.

8. Steve Spurrier

It pains me a little to put him this low, but there’s not a lot he’s done at South Carolina to support putting him higher. The Orange Bowl win in his final year at Florida was this decade so it does count some, but not being able to break past seven wins at South Carolina hurts his ability to go higher on my list.

Now, he did go to two bowls in a row in 2005-06, which ties the longest bowl appearance streak in school history. Lou Holtz also left the school on probation and in questionable shape. However, I can’t ignore the epic collapse last season after climbing to #6 in the country. His upward mobility will be determined in large part by whether he can win the division.

9. Houston Nutt

This could be a little low, but we’re talking about ability to perform the duties of head coach with this list. He won the SEC West twice this decade, but with Matt Jones and Darren McFadden on those teams, you’d expect that to happen.

In recent years, his ability to be a head coach has appeared to decline. His regime at Arkansas had increasingly been marked by scandal, and last season there was precious little offensive talent behind the McFadden-Felix Jones combination. The cupboards at Ole Miss appear to be relatively full, so he’s going to need to produce quickly in Oxford.

10. Sylvester Croom

Mississippi State was a toxic waste dump of a program when he arrived, and he got it to eight wins and a bowl just four years later despite having no dominant offensive players. Even in Croom’s rebuilding years, he scored upsets over Florida in ’04 and Alabama in ’06 despite them being in better shape.

He has not been perfect; he initially wanted to run a West Coast scheme despite not having nearly the talent or practice time to pull it off. However he’s built a winner, and he built it the right way. If he can sustain it, he can move up.

11. Rich Brooks

Brooks has taken Kentucky to two consecutive bowls, and that should win him some sort of award. I mean, this is a school that used its newly-hired basketball coach to sell football tickets last fall despite having gone to a bowl the previous season.

I have a feeling though that any of the other guys on the list could have done that with the personnel Brooks had. I also suspect that many of them would have done it faster than he did. For that reason, he’s behind the rest.

12. Bobby Johnson

I actually like Bobby Johnson, so I don’t like ranking him last. He has made Vanderbilt a competitive team week in and week out, and he has defeated Tennessee and Georgia in recent years. That’s really good for a school that doesn’t even have an athletics director.

At the same time, he’s not yet made a bowl so I can’t put him ahead of guys who have. His 2005 team with Jay Cutler was his best chance to get eligible, but they lost late in the season to 3-8 Kentucky. As far as I know, Vanderbilt is happy with him so he’s not going anywhere, but I’d like to see him get a shot at a school with more resources.


Coaches’ Contracts: Houston Nutt

April 10, 2008

The parade of SEC coach contracts as found at the USA Today continues with Houston Nutt’s old deal with Arkansas.

Image CC by Flickr user TipsterHog.

As I mentioned before, the USA Today hasn’t updated the contract database yet, so it’s still just Houston Nutt’s old contract for Arkansas and not Bobby Petrino‘s new deal scribed using a dead falcon’s feathers as a pen and its blood for the ink. The university calls itself UAF through the contract, short for University of Arkansas, Fayetteville.

Amazingly, his is about the most concise contract in the conference, clocking in at just 14 pages. That ties him with Phil Fulmer for shortest contract in the league. What separates his contract from Phil’s though is the 16 pages of amendments and addenda that balloon the count up to 30 pages total. Notably, a fax of a form called “Procedures for Dismissal of Head Coach for Cause” dated December 29, 2004 was added to the file. Interesting, since Arkansas went 5-6 in 2004; it suggests that the university may have been starting to build a paper trail to get rid of him.

What do you mean a paper trail means they want me to go away? Image CC by Flickr user TipsterHog.

Nutt was one of the few in the country without explicit performance incentives. The contract states that he was eligible to receive them in accordance with the policy of university’s board of trustees and state law, but he was at the mercy of the athletic department when it came to actually receiving those bonuses. To show how things change over time, his original 1997 contract said he could request a car “of a make and model comparable with that provided to the highest officials at UAF,” but a decade later he got two complimentary cars without even having to ask. The two car deal is pretty universal at this point.

His largest source of income was not actually coaching football, which got him a salary of $329,644. It was actually his coach’s show that paid him the most at $600,000. Perhaps he should have gone into the talk show business if he could make that much for a seasonal show with only 12 or 13 half hour episodes a year.

Selected Quotes:

“Coach shall have the duty and responsibility for… making a good faith effort… in meeting academic requirements by student athletes which shall include achieving goals for graduation of student athletes as established by the Athletic Director annually.”

So, if his team doesn’t meet academic requirements, it’s no problem. As long as he made a “good faith effort” it’s fine if the kids didn’t graduate enough. It doesn’t mention a goal for graduating every player that comes through the program either. This is by far the least restrictive clause of any I’ve seen regarding academic progress by the players.

“Coach shall be entitled to… tuition reduction for himself and his dependents.”

So if he wants to take classes on the side while he coaches, he still has to pay up, just at a reduced rate.

“Coach acknowledges that the University will commit substantial financial resources to the success of its football program…”

This is from the part that legitimizes a buyout since his leaving for another job would cause damages to the program. You’d think that the school’s “substantial” commitment to football success would be implicit in the huge salary that it agreed to pay its coach. Every coach has to agree that his leaving would cause damages, but only this contract makes reference to the university’s commitment to success as part of the reason for damages occurring.

Better coach ‘em up better in Oxford, Houston. Image CC by Flickr user TipsterHog.

Note: This post has been published used by WordPress’s new feature allowing you to set a time in the future for publication rather than have it go up immediately. This is the first time I’ve tried it, so if anything goes weird I blame it on that.


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