Three years into joining college football's premier league, Texas A&M - a former .500ish Big 12 team, now revived under new management - is still skewering SEC assumptions and its implicit agreements about space and pace. Auburn has also gotten in on the act with their version of the run-based HUNH when Gus Malzahn elevated a laughingstock Tiger program from 3-9 to the national title game exploiting similar SEC coaching stubbornness.
When will SEC coaches learn that denial isn't a defense?
Otherwise, Alabama's bowl game against Oklahoma will keep happening. While the Big 12 limps along at a comparative (and inarguable) talent deficit vis a vis the the loaded SEC, astute Big 12 fans can only shrug and laugh when they watch A&M and Auburn light up "a defensive league where that stuff won't fly." Of course it works. Big 12 defensive coordinators have been forced to teach their defenses to actually think since 2008. With varying degrees of success, I might add. But the days of 11 defensive marionettes looking to the sideline for a brain transplant every thirty seconds are over. The HUNH won't allow it.
Yet fans and media are still struggling to try to piece together what happened last night after Texas A&M rampaged through South Carolina like Nat Turner at a Lawrence Welk concert. You can see the struggle for narrative to explain this mystery. The 52-28 score doesn't capture the full range of A&M's offensive dominance. They racked up 680 yards of total offense - the most allowed in Gamecock history - and smart, poised Aggie QB Kenny Hill (a product of a sophisticated HUNH spread system since he was a tween - now seemingly the default offense of Texas high school football) amassed 511 yards throwing to mostly wide open receivers in the middle of the field. Frankly, it looked like a skeleton drill.
What the hell happened? Wasn't South Carolina supposed to be good?
That remains to be seen. Even if we pretend that the SEC East has significant responsibility for the larger SEC brand (it hasn't meaningfully since 2008) it's quite possible that South Carolina might not be very good. They lost their three best DL and the best parts of their secondary. Their replacements did not shine. The offense was built largely around hoping A&M's defensive backs would lose their minds in coverage. But the bigger realization could be that maybe they are pretty good - so long as their opponent will agree to play the game "properly."
The old SEC way.
For years, the SEC has had a roughly agreed upon style of play that allowed coaches to focus on amassing excellent talent and then provide 30 second brain transplants from the sideline between each play so that this talent could line up correctly. While the league is inarguably college football's most talented and passionate, it is not its best coached or most innovative. And they're getting a wake-up call.
Watching many SEC defenses incapable of lining up properly against an unbalanced line in every Auburn game last year was curious - in fact, how is that even possible? It's JV level stuff. Why did South Carolina's safeties keep looking to the sideline, imploring their coaches for guidance like a flopping Italian striker seeking a penalty kick?
The answer is simple: Auburn and A&M's pace denies their opponents the opportunity for brain transplants and their formations create uncertainty and hesitancy. The players don't have a clue what to do because they're not taught to cope, think or adapt on their own. They should be running their own HUNH defense. But they're stuck in 1997.
A conventional SEC suits Nick Saban well. He's a master of program-building and optimization and his New England Patriot style jumbo 3-4 is a fantastic starting template for destroying relatively crude traditional college level NFL-style offenses. Destroy the run early. Handle the same 3-4 passing formations you see in practice daily with fairly complex disguised coverages relayed and coached up between each snap. Get input from the coaches if anything deviates while the opposition huddles or stands at the LOS as they get their own instructions because who could possibly trust their QB to run the game? And do it fast, to boot.
Texas A&M's Kevin Sumlin - like Auburn's Gus Malzahan - isn't very interested in honoring that implicit SEC agreement. Nick Saban doesn't want to recruit pass rushers and simplify his defense to cope - he wants to change the rules to punish their insolence. That's not the right instinct. Not very Process, Nick.
A&M's offensive success wasn't just about Johnny Manziel. While his talents were undeniable, Kenny Hill is going to put up similar system passing (not rushing) numbers because that's what good systems managed by good quarterbacks standing behind good OLs do when they face defenses that can't line up properly.
If the HUNH spread is the perfect enabler of basketball on grass, imagine a basketball defense that stares at the sideline mouthing,"It's not fair!" every time the opponent decides to fast break. Identifying the stupidity of this and the coach's inability to impart defensive principles rather than heavy-handed play-by-play instruction should be glaringly obvious.
Yet most of the SEC continues on, pretending it's not happening.
While the conference has certainly flirted with the spread or the no-huddle for some time, most of its forms were crude or those teams have not possessed the offensive talent or the schematic efficiency of the Texas high school bred, Sumlin-run version or Gus Malzahn's masterful ability to pick apart schematic tendencies with simple alignment shifts. It's about reps, decision-making and proficiency. There's no doubt Hugh Freeze at Ole Miss wants to operate similarly, but the quality of the Rebel talent and the decision-making at QB is a natural governor on that engine. For now.
A fawning hometown SEC press is probably the greatest enabler as it can't see past conference national title dominance (fostered largely by talent disparities and favorable match-ups) and still imagines that Steve Spurrier is schematically relevant for his run of dominance in the 1990s. Never mind that he hasn't been X&O relevant for a decade and a half after the NFL tousled his hair and dismissed him back to college - trips left and timed fade routes - oh my God, how will we ever adjust to this incredible innovator?
Spurrier broke out of the doldrums of perennial 7-5 Gamecock seasons by - wait for it - recruiting really, really well. The SEC media confused that breakthrough with coaching proficiency. Last night, Gamecock coaching was laid bare. And it got him a 52-28 caning at home. Don't worry, Steve. Some future SEC opponent will agree to play you "correctly" and then you can get a rousing upset win later in the season.
This post isn't about the HUNH's utter supremacy. It has its pluses and minuses like any offense, but no offense flourishes more against a clueless opposition. The examples of its failure are many and obvious. In fact, some of the game plans executed against its best practitioners were done adeptly by SEC teams (Florida vs. OU, 2008). But by and large, the current SEC coaches still don't have a clue. And those that do - like Nick Saban - want to change the rules instead of adapt their precious model.
So here's a bone, SEC coaches: start with some LSU film. The Tiger roster isn't exactly overrun with Rhodes Scholars, but John Chavis understands that complexity and pace is best dealt with stressing simplicity and assignment clarity. Tackling improves, aggression is unleashed, turnovers get forced, long plays over the top don't happen. Stressing broad applicable principles over specific play calls with good athletes is vastly preferable to a confused secondary staring to the sideline begging for their accustomed 30 second brain transplant and the perfect play call...that they won't be able to execute in time.
Denial isn't a defense. How long does it continue?