These teams defined fun football in the ‘90s and ‘80s, respectively, but 2017 looks like another drab year of offense for both.
Certain teams have a Platonic form, the ideal version of a playing style that they should strive to attain.
USC should be led by a strong-armed quarterback from Southern California. Wisconsin and Iowa should have beefy linemen who have been in strength programs for years before they become road-grading starters. Auburn and Georgia should be led by superstar tailbacks. Alabama should have a ferocious, hard-hitting defense to make Barry Krauss proud.
This does not mean programs should be completely wedded to their past and ignore advances. Nebraska does not need to go back to the Tom Osborne offense and start running the option as its base.
However, there is value in a program playing to its type.
Some of that value lies in acknowledging limits in recruiting, that certain parts of the country are good at producing players to play one style. (See, for instance, Texas high schools and the air raid.) There is also value in being able to sell a brand in recruiting. “Come be the next Bo Jackson” can be potent.
And that brings us to BYU and Florida, a pair of programs that have betrayed their roots.
BYU came into prominence via an innovative passing game, one that produced a string of successful quarterbacks, including Marc Wilson, Jim McMahon, Steve Young, national champion Robbie Bosco, and Heisman winner Ty Detmer.
BYU would just be another small Western program, mostly indistinguishable from UNLV or UTEP, if not for the offense that LaVell Edwards and Norm Chow created.
And as rivals like to note, Florida football essentially started in 1990. The Gators had spurts of success, but they had not won an official SEC championship until the hiring of Steve Spurrier, who ran roughshod over the SEC for 12 years with the Fun ‘n’ Gun offense.
Later, Florida hired Urban Meyer, whose run-based spread added a pair of conference and national titles. Those offenses were advanced enough to garner Heisman Trophies for Danny Wuerffel and Tim Tebow, despite neither quarterback having NFL-level passing skills.
With those traditions, it is painful to see what BYU and Florida have become on offense.
BYU has ranked better than No. 40 in scoring just once since 2009. This season looks like it will be more of the same. BYU started 2017 at home by eking out 20 points and 13 first downs against FCS Portland State. The Cougars then dishonored the legacy of Edwards and Chow by getting shut out in the Superdome by LSU, never crossing midfield, before scoring only 13 points against Utah. It’s hard to tell what BYU is trying to accomplish on offense, but it is a far cry from the scheme that terrified opposing coaches for the better part of two decades.
A few hours before BYU’s defenestration, Florida was putting on its own show in Arlington. Against a Michigan whose 2016 defensive starters are now mostly in the NFL, the Gators managed three points on offense. They gained nine first downs and 192 yards. Florida trotted out a pair of quarterbacks who were four-star recruits, Feleipe Franks and Malik Zaire, and yet once Michigan recovered from throwing a pair of pick sixes, the Gators had no chance. Take it away, Spencer:
This is a second-rank, formerly first-rank, program with a third-rank ability to develop talent, a failson granted an inheritance it squandered on bad hiring and unimaginative strategies. When it faces top-flight teams, it folds; when it faces middling teams, it usually wins and advances to the Capital One or Outback Bowl or something like that. It’s a comfortable decline. It’s been one for a long while now.
And it is not a shock that BYU and Florida would struggle on offense in light of the backgrounds of their head coaches.
Kalani Sitake played fullback at BYU, but he became the Cougars’ head coach after serving as a defensive coordinator for Utah and Oregon State. While it’s unfair to assume defensive coaches will be dismissive towards offensive innovation (see, for instance, Bob Stoops), Sitake has not shown much appetite for offense. He handed the reins of the offense over to Detmer, who was a high school coach (and a small private school at that). BYU finished 64th in offensive S&P+ last year (90th in passing) and looks worse this year.
Unlike Sitake, Jim McElwain had a background as an offensive coach. However, that consisted of one year at Fresno State, four at Alabama, and three at Colorado State. At Alabama, McElwain was able to overwhelm his opponents with superior talent. At Colorado State, McElwain achieved his greatest success in 2014, leaning on Dee Hart, a former five-star recruit who’d transferred from … Alabama. And that 2014 offense was the only one of McElwain’s three CSU teams that was in the top 60 in offensive S&P+.
His decision to hire Doug Nussmeier as Florida offensive coordinator compounded the problem, as Nussmeier was coming off of a disastrous year at Michigan. As could be expected, McElwain’s Gators have finished 73rd and 88th in offensive S&P+, despite a long history of top-10 recruiting that now appears to be slipping.
It’s possible for BYU and Florida to succeed under their current coaches.
BYU was a respectable 37th in S&P+ last year against a difficult schedule that featured games against teams from four of the Power 5 conferences. Florida has finished 30th and 15th in S&P+ in McElwain’s two seasons, rankings that would be higher if not for the combination of Will Grier’s suspension/transfer and the fallow depth chart at quarterback that Will Muschamp left behind.
However, it’s an uphill climb to try to take a different path to winning than Edwards took at BYU and Spurrier took at Florida.
And even if Sitake and McElwain get there, they’ll have served up an uninteresting product to fan bases that are used to being entertained.
The Cougars and Gators should be selling recruits on images of footballs flying through the air and opposing coaches tearing out their hair trying to stop clever attacks. Instead, prospective players are left to imagine opposing defensive coordinators smirking to themselves.
The Gators literally have lost their O and D https://t.co/8D9CzodELU
— SB Nation CFB (@SBNationCFB) September 12, 2017