We now take a brief interruption from my breakdown of every Big 12 recruiting class (only one to go, Baylor) so that I can highlight something fun I just posted up at SB Nation.
I ranked the undefeated teams and another squad that I think would have been the most likely to win in the playoffs if, hypothetically, the playoffs had existed and they’d been allowed to compete. Check it out here.
Something that really stood out from researching all of these teams is how they tended to come in waves. I’ve identified a few key reasons for that:
1. Mid-major teams don’t often hang on to top coaches.
Urban Meyer’s 2004 Utah team was shockingly talented both in terms of the players they accumulated on their roster and the talent on the coaching staff. Well, that didn’t last very long before the roster and staff were pillaged, most notably by Florida who hired Meyer away. Utah was able to hang on to Kyle Whittingham but haven’t been near as talented in their offensive staff room since then.
Similarly Boise State eventually lost much of their brilliant staff which has included Chris Petersen (now HC at Washington), Justin Wilcox (now HC at Cal), Pete Kwiatkowski (now DC at Washington), and Bryan Harsin (now HC at Boise State).
2. Dominant mid-majors are often early adopters of innovative schemes
TCU wasn’t the only team to be early on the 4-2-5 base nickel defense, Boise was also employing the scheme for their more dominant stretch in the late 2000’s. Both teams figured out that the breakthrough of the Miami 4-3 Over defenses of the 80’s was in emphasizing speed over size and consequently being able to get numbers to the ball. If the point is to have speed over size, then why not use a nickel defense?
Of course now Patterson is somewhat hesitant to take the next step in playing dime but he’s getting there with smaller sam LBs like Travin Howard and apexing them out of the box more.
TCU was also ahead in utilizing the spread offense under Justin Fuente while Boise State was ahead of the curve on using multiple TE sets to create matchups for both the run game and pass game that made them pretty dang hard to defend even for programs with NFL talent on defense. Watch Jim Harbaugh’s offenses now, which are still ahead of the curve on some of this, and you’ll see things that Boise has been doing for years now.
Utah was one of the teams ahead of the curve on zone blitzes and obviously Urban Meyer’s spread offense was groundbreaking. Eventually these teams’ tactics and coaches get poached and it all proliferates to the bigger schools.
UCF was pushing some of the better spread-option tactics in the game last year while utilizing “best practices” on defense. Naturally their coach was then hired away by Nebraska.
The bigger schools are de-incentivized to be early adopters because they run college football like a cartel and fight to keep these mid-majors from doing real damage in a postseason tournament. If a school like UCONN figures something new out and goes 12-1 in the coming years the worst that will happen is that they’ll embarrass someone in a bowl game and then their head coach will be hired away.
3. Mid-majors often capitalize on market inefficiencies in the personnel market
Boise State has always been really good at snatching up “jack of all trades” type football players and building around their ability to put defenders in binds. I’ve noted repeatedly that Patterson has a knack for finding top athletes and then teaching them to play fast in his schemes at positions they didn’t play in high school.
I might be wrong but I have a suspicion that Utah’s 2004 roster included a greater percentage of Polynesians than was normal at that time for Western teams. Nowadays everyone has figured out that despite their relatively small populations, the Pacific Islands produce more than their share of great football players. Perhaps because enough of them have dominated at the highest levels, or maybe because there are enough Polynesians on the continent now dominating at every level that it’s plain that they are guys worth chasing in recruiting.
But the devastating 2005 USC team had multiple Polynesians so I may be wrong that Utah was much further ahead than anyone else out west in building connections to recruit Islanders.
Most of the teams I ranked were teams that had really talented and successful QBs. The only “exception” was Kellen Moore, who is the all-time winningest college QB in history and stuck around in the NFL for a decent length of time before being named as the QB coach for the Dallas Cowboys just this year.
The market inefficiency of QB doesn’t appear to be something that will change anytime soon because everyone keeps treating QB play as though it were something that can be sussed out and determined with various physical traits or mechanical insights rather than being largely a mental eval. Read Urban Meyer or the Boise guys talking about how they choose QBs and you find that for them, the mental eval is supreme. Or you have guys like Mike Leach or Art Briles that have systems for developing effective college QBs from raw materials without needing to be particularly precise in their evals.
Anyways, this is one of my favorite topics and I’m sure we’ll revisit some of this in future articles.