Everyone has different reasons for watching football. Some love the BBQ and tailgating. Some love being inside the stadium, win or lose. Others love winning, and little else, and will change teams often simply to feed the habit.
For me, I love the interactions within the competitive fabric of college football as a whole. The season, for me, begins in January as the coaching searches sort out and the recruiting battles solidify. It carries through the spring, when the staffs try to transform the schemes and the players. The END of the competitive year in football begins when the games kickoff in the fall.
This part of the game is my obsession. It fuels a year round love of the game for me that transcends the "twelve sacred Saturdays" of the season. So to that end, over the last number of months, I have been observing some changes to the competitive fabric of college football as a whole. I think many of these changes represent a very dynamic shift from even the game as it was known in ten years ago. For students of the competitive nature of the game, the playing field has shifted dramatically. The offseason has changed. The conferences have changed. The power brokers are changing. Old coaches have been run out of football, some of them having their bronze statues hidden under tarps.
I think the next few months will be as important of a time, as any, to consider Texas and its place in this fabric. And not just through the lens of raw emotion, but via a conversation that tries to place Texas in a very specific context of its position among its rivals--not just on the field, but in across football as a whole.
It's often dishonest to suggest that a single game in football (outside of the post season) really changes things dramatically for a program. That's just not the way football works. Fans may feel this way, but venting is really the productive boundary of those types of comments.
Last week against OU, I believe things changed. It's not that a loss to OU would have turned the weathervane on Mack Brown. It's that that loss to OU turned the weathervane. I've been as big of a Mack Brown supporter as any over the last few years, and yet I believe the loss to OU last week was written in ink. Even if this staff somehow turns this thing around, wins a BCS game, and wins a championship next season, the game with OU will be cited as a point of reference in that timeline.
Unfortunately, outside of of the rosy thoughts of a BCS game and a turnaround, the odds are much more in favor of this OU game portending the beginning of the endgame for Mack Brown. From this point on, chances are, the series of actions and decisions that are made will play out his final two minute drill as the head coach at Texas.
The big question that remains, then, is a bit of a dramatic one. Will Mack be able to summon the energy and creativity he occasionally tapped into over the period of 2004-2009? Or will he remain bedeviled by the lack of energy and toiling of 2010-2012?
And as this drama unfolds for Mack, what will become of Texas in the broader competitive picture of the sport as a whole? Which of these battles, both internal and external to the team, will ultimately determine our fate over the next decade?
OBSERVING THE CHANGES
Here are just a few things that I think are shifting within the competitive fabric of college football in 2012, and also for Texas' place within that world. No order of importance is implied, and these are more a sample of things observed and not an exhaustive list. I think there will be many such things to discuss over the next year or two, including the the back half of our current season.
I will say that I view plenty of competitive opportunities for Texas as a whole, but in general, the shifts we are seeing are eroding Texas' previous advantages, not strengthening them.
- "If there's one thing on this planet you don't look like it's a bunch of good luck walkin around.”
I think the pace and limited substitutions in CFB are leading to a lot more injuries, and things need to change. The answer seems to be to either allow substitutions for both sides at regular intervals, or allowing bigger rosters. In the meantime, teams must win even with injuries playing a greater and greater role both on the field and in the policies that are being offered as a response (adjustments to kickoffs, helmet rules, targeting penalties, etc). Obviously a huge part of football comes down to injuries, toughness, and a willingness to play through pain. So I don't mean to offer any rationalization for Texas' troubles over the last twelve months because a team must perform with and without injuries. Texas should have the talent and depth to do so.
But I am saying that I think all of these columns on Texas football would be reading very differently without the injuries.
Even more interesting is that it's not just Texas. Two of the best NFL teams in the league met head to head last week. Teams with elite strength and conditioning programs and mature athletes. By my casual count, the clock stopped six times that game for injured players, many of whom were injured enough to miss multiple plays if not the game.
While it may seem like a peripheral issue, the increasing injury picture in the sport is already changing everything from recruiting to scheming, and no one really knows what actual changes are ahead. Any more, coaches at major programs cannot site injuries as a viable reason for losing, and yet injuries are increasing.
Offense: Speed, Power, or Hybrid?
"If the rule you followed brought you to this, of what use was the rule?"
I like what Harsin is trying to do. I think that running an offense from the trenches-out, based in powerful football concepts, and then planning surprise and leveraging speed for explosive plays is the right kind of football for the modern game. I love systems like the Oregon Spread and the Air Raid, but ultimately, those who win at the biggest levels build their teams and their games from the trenches.
As a league, the SEC is built from the trenches and it is hard to argue with their results over the last 10 years. So the premise is sound; however, this does not mean to suggest Harsin doesn't need to improve. There is an explosive energy that he has only sporadically tapped into so far. Overall, this is a somewhat expected tradeoff with younger coaches who are still developing their individual identities. It must change, though.
So this shift toward hybrid offenses, built from the trenches but relentlessly leveraging speed players, is one that may play into Texas' favor with guys like Harsin. No, these offenses are not completely new and I'm not suggesting that anyone is quite reinventing football. But there do seem to be a lot of concepts and applications emerging that were not being utilized even 10 years ago, much less 50.
Can Manny Diaz Adapt To the Big 12?
"It's a mess, aint it Sheriff?
If it aint it'll do till a mess gets here."
I am a defensive guy. I love watching defenses more than offenses, and I get much more upset watching a missed tackle than a dropped pass. And I've studied the defenses of guys like Diaz and Muschamp and Saban and others. I love studying schemes and how they evolve and, generally, fizzle out.
So in that context, I actually really like the philosophy behind Diaz's defense, and I think the inexperience in the middle of the field has compromised the system as a whole, in ways that we cannot attribute to his base scheme.
However, there is also the possibility that while his base concept may be good, that Diaz struggles to teach it to young players. And this is not a little problem. Many defensive coaches have failed to perform over time because they can only really install with older and more mature players. One of Saban's hallmarks is that he can take a very complex defense and, somehow, get younger players to hold their own in it. Muschamp is proving he has similar chops.
So for me, Diaz is definitely on the clock, but not for the reasons that many have been ranting about. I don't think he's incapable of building a good defense in the Big12. In fact, I suspect that he can be very good. But I want to see him run his base, evolve it, and then tune it for his league with YOUNG players, or inexperienced players, and not just players for whom the game has slowed down.
If he cannot do this, his philosophy does not matter. He will be one of those coaches who jumps from job to job, performing well with mature teams and under-performing the rest of the time. Which has long been one of the complaints against NFL coaches who try to transition to the college game.
It would seem the shift in the game we are facing with Diaz is one that is tied to the question of injuries as well as to recruiting: how do we create elite defenses at Texas, and do so with a predictable stream of young or immature players? Good players are leaving after only a few years, and many recruits are needing early playing time as a promise of their recruitment. The days of championship defenses being loaded from top to bottom with seniors have probably already expired for the most part.
Unrealized Opportunities Are Up for Grabs
- "All the time you spend tryin to get back what's been took from you there's more goin out the door. After a while you just try and get a tourniquet on it."
In that vein, I think that college football has to look at coaches like Nick Saban and Chip Kelley, and what they've contributed to modern offenses and defenses, and wonder what would happen if these two philosophies could collaborate together on a single sideline. Not executed by the men themselves, but the longer they stay in the game the more their coaching trees grow and branch and the more likely it becomes to merge these (and other) concepts.
The point of this is that there are some exciting philosophies out there, right now, that have been proven with both young and mature teams, but that have yet to be knitted together within the same staff. For any program with resources and potential transitions ahead of them, they cannot close their eyes to this. Such momentum is not just for the field, either, as Alabama and Oregon have been winning battles for attention and resources during the off seasons as well. I like that Texas went after young coordinators with creative schemes, and think this is the right approach all in all. And our current configuration may yet pay off for Texas. Someone, though, will get creative enough to bring the best of these modern schemes under a single roof, and that team will rewrite the books for a few years.
Texas does not want to be on the wrong side of that kind of transformation and must use their resources to stay ahead of it. Should one of our direct rivals or a new player in our recruiting region tap into this opportunity before us, it could create deeper disruptions in the architecture of our program than we've seen in the BCS era.
Things Are Not As They Were
- "When I came into your life your life was over. It had a beginning, a middle, and an end. This is the end."
The world has changed for Texas, both internally and externally. A&M is doing much better than any of us wanted. They'll surely lose a few more games this season, but their effort has been respectable. We must face this rationally and honestly as a program and as a fan base, or else we face looking at a world through a lens that will leave us continually upset and surprised.
Recruiting has changed. Baylor, TCU, Texas Tech, and A&M are now attractive alternatives to Texas that are requiring fewer and fewer tradeoffs by recruits, especially when compared with some perceived turmoil within the Texas program. The SEC is leveraging their resources heavily to break open the state of Texas in recruiting, and a kind of "perfect storm" of combined factors the last three years has been just the sort of thing they needed. There used to be a pitch you would read about from Texas to recruits. The irresponsibly simplified version of it goes something like, "just come to Texas, give us a top recruiting class, and we'll run for an MNC and play in the BCS." And I think that pitch was a good one, in general. It leveraged the benefit of the doubt that Texas had with players over teams like A&M, Baylor, Oregon, and etc.
The problem is, for the last three years this hasn't played out. The effect of this has yet to be realized, but we may be on the edge of watching it play out something along the lines of recruits thinking "joining a top class of Texas doesn't mean I'll play in the BCS--there are other things I must consider". And it puts factors like coaching, program trajectory, and benefit of the doubt in a harsh light that Texas hasn't had to face since the late 1990s.
There is nothing about this change that says Texas must cede ground to rivals and be permanently disfigured by their failures over the last three seasons. It simply suggests that the prevailing winds have shifted, and that there are fewer fair winds for Texas as we look into the future.
- "I always thought when I got older that God would sort of come into my life in some way. He didn't."
Right now in college football, outside influences are at an all time high. The coaching staff doesn't interact with recruits and players in a pure way anymore. Sure, boosters have always been involved with program decisions and will continue to be. But with media coverage and NFL opportunities being what they are in 2012, influences like ESPN and street agents are changing the competitive fabric in unpredictable ways.
Everything that happens to a program happens with constant threat of the shower curtain being pulled back. Every win or loss has a much greater magnitude than it used to. The reality is a much more unforgiving environment for recruits, players, and coaching staffs. The rewards are as weighted as the risks. Players that perform at a high level can have their brand driven into more homes and outlets than ever before. Successful programs will have every good thing they do discussed in 24 hour cycles.
The entire picture of alignment, realignment, and the shifting post season is bigger than any one coach, staff, or athletic department. Even those as influential as the boardroom in Belmont. I have yet to decide if the LHN is a good move against this changing reality of not. If it is an attempt by Texas to embrace this change and play an early hand, it may be good. If the LHN is their attempt try and control and manipulate this new reality on their own terms, I cannot help but feel the effort may backfire, regardless of the quality of the programming.
WHAT DOES ALL THIS MEAN?
- "The point is there ain't no point."
The unfortunate answer is, no one really knows yet even though the fate of our program is intimately connected with these changes. Just ask Tennessee, Ohio State, Florida State, Miami, USC, or Penn State. All of these teams, and many others, faced similar situations to ours in the last few years. All of them dealt with it differently, and the results are similarly varied. Soon, it will be our turn.
In fact, in some ways, it is already upon us.
For the Rationals, I think it may mean that we must collectively amend some of our dearest and most beloved assumptions:
We cannot assume that Texas will remain ahead of Texas A&M with respect to program respect or velocity. Or Baylor. Or TCU.
We cannot assume our recruiting territory will remain as fertile for the program as it has been over the last decade or two.
We cannot assume that we can function at an elite level in college football without a powerful infusion of creative and productive energy into our program.
We cannot assume that older and more mature players will comprise our team, from year to year, regardless of what the rosters suggest.
We cannot assume that our rivals will not meaningfully pull ahead of us simply because of the resources we have at our disposal.
And finally, we must not assume that our current resources will continue to replenish without engaging these shifting winds.
Certainly, this is no country for old theories on program building.
Or old coaches.
- "How does a man decide in what order to abandon his life?"
Mack Brown is about to find out.