When to Pull the Plug: LSU decided, now Texas and Oregon face tough choices with flailing programs; Punt, Pass & Pork
Even among those who agreed that the Les Miles era had run its course at LSU, one thing stuck out about his firing last week. Why do it in September? Saturday, we saw why.
LSU still clung mainly to the power running game around which Miles built the offense, but the Tigers also took deep shots. They targeted the tight end. They mixed up formations. They basically did all the things the callers to Miles's radio show had begged Miles to do the past few years. The result was a 42–7 win against Missouri behind an offense that averaged 7.7 yards a play—without injured star Leonard Fournette—against a defense that entered the night allowing 4.6.
We don't point out these facts to praise early coach firings. The point is that every situation is unique, and neither some outdated notion of decorum nor a feeling that a program needs to be first in line for the next hot coach should sway decision makers in either direction. LSU leaders made their choice, and early returns suggest they made the correct one. The Tigers might wind up having a better season than they would have had Miles been retained. At worst, they'll have exactly the same season they would have had. That's the best short-term outcome a program can hope for when it fires a coach.
At Texas and Oregon, administrators must make similar evaluations. Things are not going as they had hoped, but they must determine whether the current staffs can fix the issues at hand.
Changing coaches isn't always the answer. Coaching churn can create as many problems as it fixes. Just ask Tennessee. The Volunteers fired Phillip Fulmer in 2008, and three head coaches later—Lane Kiffin left after one season for USC and Derek Dooley was fired after three seasons—Butch Jones finally has the Vols out of the hole and in position to win the SEC East again.
But sometimes changes must be made. Sometimes, a change can energize a program. Brady Hoke wasn't going to do any better with one more year at Michigan. Jim Harbaugh, meanwhile, has breathed life back into the program. The toughest part is figuring out exactly when a coach on the ropes passes the point where he can't possibly improve the program.
Let's examine the situation at Texas. We know Charlie Strong inherited a depleted roster from Mack Brown. We know Strong has recruited better players than Brown did at the end. We know that after two seasons of wheel-spinning, Strong hired coordinator Sterlin Gilbert, who brought a functional offense to Austin for the first time since 2009. We also know that after Saturday's 49–31 loss at Oklahoma State, Strong is 13–16 at a program that has nearly boundless resources and the ability to cherry pick some of the best recruits in a state that produces more Power Five players than any other. While the offense has improved dramatically, the defense allowed 6.6 yards per play and 48.7 points against Notre Dame, Cal and Oklahoma State. While going 4–7 against the Power Five and Notre Dame last season, the Longhorns allowed 5.7 yards a play and 30.5 points a game.
There is a game against Kansas on Nov. 19 to bring down this year's averages. The question is whether enough hope will remain by that point to keep Strong around after this season.
When the offense exploded for 50 points against Notre Dame, I assumed Strong would be safe. He's a defensive guy, and now that Texas had a working offense, the Longhorns' ascension back to the top of the Big 12 would be secure. But the defense has been the problem. Against Cal and Oklahoma State—which run offenses from the same Mike Leach-planted tree that produced seven of the nine Big 12 offenses Texas will face—Texas defenders looked perpetually out of position. As the head coach at Louisville and the defensive coordinator at Florida and South Carolina, Strong had a knack for creating suffocating defenses. The problem is Big 12 offenses can't be suffocated. The field is so wide and opponents throw to so many points on it that even the worst offenses have a puncher's chance at a big play if a defense blows a coverage or a defender misses an open-field tackle.
The best offenses, meanwhile, can dissect a defense. The only proven way to succeed defensively in the Big 12 is by pressuring the quarterback (to put the offense in a bad down-and-distance and take away the run-pass option) and by forcing turnovers that allow teams to break the opponent's serve, score quickly and bury an opponent with a momentum shift. The Longhorns have averaged three sacks a game against Notre Dame, Cal and Oklahoma State, so they are getting some pressure. But they've forced only one turnover all season, and a defense that doesn't force turnovers can't succeed in the Big 12.
The question is whether this is an anomaly or the sign of a deeper issue. Texas created 25 turnovers last season and 22 in Strong's first season, so perhaps the Longhorns can work out this particular problem. If they can, it should make everything else look better. If they can't, Texas will struggle to make the big picture any prettier. A coach simply should not be under .500 after three seasons at Texas—especially in what appears to be a down Big 12. Should Texas fire Strong immediately? No. Unlike with Miles at LSU, it's still unclear whether the Longhorns have plateaued under Strong. Shoring up the defense and winning a majority of Big 12 games would provide hope that Texas is on an upward trajectory. But more games like Saturday's will doom the Strong era at Texas.
Strong now finds himself in a situation he remembers all too well. He ran the defense for Ron Zook at Florida in 2004. Zook also was a great recruiter who was beloved by his players. But for various reasons, he couldn't string together enough wins. Strong remained Florida's defensive coordinator—sharing the title with Greg Mattison—when Urban Meyer took over and won a national title two years later. For the second consecutive season, Strong goes into the Red River Rivalry needing desperately to beat Oklahoma to avoid becoming the Zook in this analogy. Unlike last season, simply beating the Sooners probably won't be enough. The Longhorns will have to show steady improvement the rest of the way.
Meanwhile, Mark Helfrich faces an entirely different scenario at Oregon. Helfrich inherited a supremely healthy program from Chip Kelly in 2013. In his second season, Helfrich helped quarterback Marcus Mariota win the Heisman Trophy and guided the Ducks to the national title game. Since then, Oregon has steadily slipped. The worst came this past Saturday, when the Ducks lost 55–31 at Washington State. Oregon has lost three in a row and now must face Washington on Saturday in Eugene.
The Huskies pounded Stanford 44–6 on Friday in what felt like a changing-of-the-guard game in the Pac-12. Washington hasn't beaten Oregon since 2003, but the programs appear to be passing one another while headed in opposite directions.
The first major problem to rear its head at Oregon was an inability to develop a quarterback recruited out of high school in the post-Mariota era. (Before he was a head coach, Helfrich was a quarterbacks coach.) In consecutive seasons, Oregon had to dip into the FCS to find an experienced quarterback willing to transfer. Before the Ducks got Vernon Adams from Eastern Washington in 2015, they tried to get Braxton Miller from Ohio State. Miller opted to shift to receiver and keep playing for the Buckeyes. When Adams was healthy, he made the Ducks' offense dynamic. But Dakota Prukop, who came from Montana State, has not enjoyed the same success.
That isn't entirely Prukop's fault. Like last year, the defense has been porous. After Don Pellum was demoted and Brady Hoke was hired as the new coordinator, the Ducks were supposed to slow down opposing offenses. They have not. Against Power 5 opponents, Oregon's defense has allowed 6.2 yards per play. In losses to Colorado and Washington State to open Pac-12 competition, the Ducks allowed 7.1 yards per play. The Cougars, who barely bother to run the ball against most opponents, ran 40 times and averaged seven yards per carry.
Oregon clearly is on a downward trajectory. A look at the schedule suggests that without dramatic improvement, the best the Ducks can hope for is a 5–7 season. Meanwhile, nothing Helfrich has done in the past two seasons suggests there is a plan to pull out of this dive.
But the decision to make a change at Oregon is more complex than it would be at most programs. Unless Chip Kelly decides that he didn't translate to the NFL as well as he'd hoped, a change at Oregon would mean blowing up a culture that has been in place for decades. Strength coach Jim Radcliffe has held his position for 30 years. Running backs coach Gary Campbell joined the staff in 1983. Offensive line coach Steve Greatwood has worked for Rich Brooks, Mike Bellotti, Kelly and Helfrich. Pellum is in his 24th season on the staff. That group has been quite successful for much of that time, so a decision to change cannot be made lightly. It's still possible this staff can find some answers, but time is running short.
Because there is no Kelly coaching tree of which to speak beyond Central Florida coach Scott Frost, who is on track to have a successful first season in Orlando, the most likely outcome of a firing is the hiring of a coach who will change just about everything. That may be a positive outcome; sometimes things get stale. But the administration at Oregon takes great pride in the culture the Ducks have built, and it will not be tossed aside without careful consideration. That said, if Oregon keeps losing the way it has, athletic director Rob Mullens and sugar daddy Phil Knight may have no choice but to look outside the walled garden they've built in Eugene.
Neither of the choices we examined above will be easy. Miles made LSU's decision simple by ignoring the instruction to put a more evolved offense on the field in 2016. Texas and Oregon have to weigh the possibility that making a change might set their programs back even further against the possibility that someone else may be able to produce better results with similar raw materials.
A random ranking
Things aren't going great for Florida State at the moment, but that doesn't mean we can't honor a former Seminoles football player. Reader Nate has requested a ranking of the best characters played by Burt Reynolds—who turned down chances to play James Bond and Han Solo.
how about best Burt Reynolds characters. Not the movies/shows, the characters.— Nate (@nate_boulder) October 2, 2016
1. Bo Danville (aka The Bandit), Smokey and the Bandit
2. Jack Horner, Boogie Nights
3. Paul Crewe, The Longest Yard
4. Lewis Medlock, Deliverance
5. Burt Reynolds, Archer
1. Ohio State
The Buckeyes continue to rip through all comers. Saturday, eight different Buckeyes scored touchdowns and quarterback J.T. Barrett broke the school record for career touchdown passes during a 58–0 win against Rutgers. Ohio State's defense also forced a punt on every Rutgers possession. Given what we saw from Wisconsin's defense against Michigan on Saturday, it should be fun to see how the Buckeyes match up when they play in Madison on Oct. 15. But first, Ohio State faces an Indiana team that just beat Michigan State in overtime.
The Crimson Tide started slow but wound up pounding Kentucky 34–6. Freshman quarterback Jalen Hurts continues to improve, and the Tide will need his best against Arkansas in Fayetteville on Saturday. The departure of backup quarterback Blake Barnett could make things interesting if Hurts—who is frequently called upon to run—gets injured. If that happens, it's Cooper Bateman's show.
The way Clemson won Saturday against Louisville probably was the best thing for the ACC. If Clemson and Louisville each win out—and if Houston is undefeated when Louisville arrives on Nov. 17—it might offer the best chance any league has had to get two teams into the playoff in the same season. A lot must happen for that scenario to play out, but it's not impossible. Clemson proved Saturday that it has the most freakish defensive line in college football. Given Clemson's remaining schedule, few teams will be able to move the ball on the Tigers the rest of the way.
When your front four can whip an opponent's five offensive linemen, it's the most prohibitive advantage in today's game. We saw that play out Friday during the Huskies' 44–6 pounding of Stanford. And while this certainly isn't Stanford's best offensive line of the past few years, it's better than a lot of the lines remaining on Washington's schedule. Up next for the Huskies is a trip to Eugene. Washington hasn't beaten Oregon since 2003, but this feels like the year that streak is broken.
Big Ugly of the Week
Lamar Jackson might have put up much bigger numbers—and led Louisville to a win instead of a narrow loss—if not for one of the players setting the edge for Clemson's defense. At 6' 4" and 310 pounds, Christian Wilkins is supposed to be playing defensive tackle. But because of the emergence of 340-pound freshman Dexter Lawrence and an injury to end Austin Bryant, Wilkins is playing outside. No other player his size in college football has the speed/strength combination to do what Wilkins did Saturday. He could set that edge, but he was also fast enough to chase down Jackson when necessary. He finished with 1.5 tackles for loss, two hurries and one pass break-up, but Wilkins did so much to help contain Jackson that doesn't show up on the stat sheet. His ability to force the action back inside probably saved the Tigers from giving up several more long runs. The problem for anyone else that will face Louisville this season? None has a Wilkins.
1. Kudos to Houston Kress for naming Saturday's Tennessee win at Georgia the DobbNail Boot game, because it really did feel like the time-compressed mirror image of the wild finish between the Volunteers and Bulldogs 15 years ago in Neyland Stadium. That game became known as the Hobnail Boot game thanks to Georgia play-by-play man Larry Munson's classic call of Georgia's final touchdown.
In the Hobnail Boot game, Tennessee looked beaten until Travis Stephens took a Casey Clausen dumpoff and turned it into a 62-yard touchdown with 44 seconds remaining. In the DobbNail Boot game, Georgia looked beat until Jacob Eason found Riley Ridley with a 47-yard bomb with 10 seconds remaining. In the Hobnail Boot game, Tennessee made the schematic choice to kick short after the Stephens touchdown. In the DobbNail Boot game, Georgia had to kick short after the Ridley touchdown because the Bulldogs were penalized after a Georgia player ran onto the field without his helmet on to celebrate. Each resulted in disaster for the kicking team. In the Hobnail Boot game, Georgia coach Mark Richt called plays that allowed the Bulldogs to quickly march down the field. The Bulldogs won after quarterback David Greene executed a beautiful fake handoff and then threw a strike to wide-open fullback Verron Haynes in the end zone. In the DobbNail Boot game, Evan Berry returned the kickoff to the Georgia 48-yard line, and an offsides penalty on the Bulldogs moved the ball to the 43 with four seconds remaining. Tennessee quarterback Josh Dobbs then hit Jauan Jennings on a Hail Mary to win the game.
The loss in the Hobnail Boot game didn't keep the 2001 Tennessee team from winning the SEC East, but the DobbNail boot game may have crushed a golden opportunity for the Bulldogs in Kirby Smart's first season. Tennessee now has head-to-head wins against Florida and Georgia, giving the Vols a prohibitive advantage in the East race.
2. Saturday's final play in Athens produced this photo.
3. Some awful people scheduled their wedding during that Tennessee-Georgia instant classic. This hero would not be denied.
4. Clemson linebacker Ben Boulware apologized Saturday for a post-play moment that sure looked like Boulware put Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson in a sleeper hold. "I was just trying to pull him down. If he thought it was a dirty play, I definitely apologize," Boulware told ESPN.com's David Hale. "I was just trying to get him down." Boulware also heaped praise upon Jackson, who certainly didn't hurt his Heisman chances even in a loss. "Lamar Jackson's a damn good player," Boulware told Yahoo! writer Pat Forde. "He's the best player I've ever played against. His arm, his legs, his knowledge of the game—he's a freak."
5. Let's all marvel one more time at the interception that Jourdan Lewis made to seal Michigan's 14–7 win against Wisconsin.
6. North Carolina kicker Nick Weiler tomahawk chopped his way down the field to celebrate a 54-yard field goal to beat Florida State in Tallahassee on Saturday.
7. The Oregonian asked readers to describe the Ducks' loss to Washington State in five words or less. The results did not disappoint. Click here and scroll to the comments to read them all, but here's a sample:
justsaynotounis: Wishing 49ers fire their coach.
Fire Helfrich Yesterday: What more evidence is needed?
8. Have you bought yours yet?
9. South Alabama, which opened the season with a win at Mississippi State and followed that with losses to Georgia Southern and Louisiana-Lafayette, won another shocker Saturday. The Jaguars got the first win against a ranked team in program history when they downed No. 19 San Diego State 42–24. The Aztecs' Donnell Pumphrey became the 21st player in NCAA history to eclipse the 5,000 rushing yard mark for his career, but Pumphrey's 151 rushing yards weren't enough to carry San Diego State.
10. That "big exhale" from James Franklin at the 27-second mark sure looked like a sigh of relief after Penn State's 29–26 win against Minnesota.
I learned last week that my podcast cohost Lindsay Schnell is too scared to watch ET. This revelation came during a conversation with Texas Tech coach Kliff Kingsbury about Stranger Things. Want to hear Kingsbury's TV picks? Listen here.
What's Andy Eating
Billy Liucci insisted. "You've got to try this soup," said Liucci, the proprietor of TexAgs.com and unofficial guide to all things College Station. That Liucci got so excited about soup wouldn't have seemed odd but for the fact that we were eating in a steakhouse. Huge cuts of beef waited in the kitchen to be thrown on the grill. All manner of whiskeys lined the walls. And we were talking about soup?
So I ordered The Republic's smoked pork Posole, because a soup that gets people more excited than steak and/or whiskey is a soup worth trying. Liucci wasn't wrong, either. Out came a bowl filled with smoked pork loin, hominy, Chimayo red chile, lime zest crema and cilantro-infused salsa. The smoky broth made the perfect precursor for a steak, and the chunks of pork melted on the tongue. That this was a soup with a history didn't hurt, either. As I slurped my soup, executive chef/owner Wade Barkman came over to say hello. Then he offered a history lesson.
"You know that used to be made with people, right?" he asked.
According to some historians, the Aztecs—who invented Posole (or Pozole)—would, on special occasions, use the meat of recently sacrificed people in the soup. This remains the subject of scholarly debate, but it makes for one hell of a soup story. STEAKHOUSE SOUP WAS PEOPLE. At any rate, the Aztecs switched to pork, and that concoction is a great way to prepare the palate for 24-ounce bone-in ribeye The Republic serves.
That steak was excellent as well. I always order a steak rare, and anyone who orders one cooked longer than medium rare should be forced to write a letter to the cow's family members and apologize for wasting their relative's sacrifice. The folks in the kitchen at The Republic nailed rare (cool, red center), and all that beef washed down some quality soup.
Soup which was made with pig. Not people.