A kindler, gentler Kiffin watch

Now this is nothing if not weird.  Yesterday I was pondering a post about Junior – yeah, I know, that’s not weird for GTP – but one that would be stripped of any references to his last two months’ worth of antics or snarky comments about his body of work with the Ray-dahs.  In other words, I wanted to see what kind of substance there was to Kiffin’s days at USC when he ran the Trojan offense and to determine what sort of scheme he might be bringing to Knoxville.  I even mosied over to the invaluable Trojan Football Analysis site to see what I could dig up there.

So imagine my surprise and pleasure when I came across this post by Chris at Smart Football, who started with the same interest I had, but would up doing a far better job of putting the picture together than I ever could.  God bless the Internets.  I say that he does a better job because he also takes the time to incorporate what Jim Chaney, UT’s offensive coordinator, did in the same role at Purdue.  The whole thing is insightful and well worth your time.

Here’s Chris’ early upshot as to what he thinks we’ll see on the field from Tennessee.

… don’t expect an Urban Meyer or Rich Rodriguez style spread offense, but neither should you expect the old West Coast Offense either. The formations will likely be basic one-back ones, though with a mixture of four- and five-wide, but with the ability to “get big” with tight-ends and fullbacks when the situation allows. In other words, they will be multiple.

Okay, that’s fine, but will it work?  That’s where things get a bit dicier, at least from a predictive standpoint.  Chris is inclined to give Kiffin and Cheney the benefit of the doubt – two guys who succeeded at the college level, at least – when he writes

… other than his stint in Oakland (where offense goes to die, just ask Randy Moss) Kiffin sports some some fairly impressive offensive credentials, i.e. his years at Southern Cal first under Norm Chow and later as co-offensive coordinator with Steve Sarkisian. To aid him in bringing potency to the offense is the Vols’ new OC, Jim Chaney, who is best known as the offensive whiz who brought basketball-on-grass to Purdue (along with Joe Tiller and Drew Brees). Chaney is most recently of the St. Louis Rams with Scott Linehan, but, much like Kiffin’s time in Oakland, the less said about that the better.

On the other hand, HeismanPundit has a much lower opinion of Kiffin’s abilities as a coordinator.

… he will bring a complicated pro-style offense to Tennessee that the players will struggle to learn.  He hangs his hat on his work with the 2005 USC offense, but that offense was built by Norm Chow and comprised of players who were already developed.   A close look at that season reveals a lot of unnecessary struggles and some questionable calls, including the decision to keep Reggie Bush on the bench for the crucial 4th and 2 against Texas.  And ultimately, that team could not win a title despite having maybe the greatest offensive talent ever.  The 2006 USC offense was inconsistent and anemic despite being loaded with talent.

I thought I’d take a look at some the numbers the Southern Cal offense generated from 2004 (the last year that Chow was the offensive coordinator) through 2006 (the two years that Kiffin ran the offense) to see if any patterns emerged that might shed some light on Kiffin’s ability.  I looked at points per game, total yardage and yards per play, the numbers as well as the national ranking for each, and here’s what I came up with.

Year PPG Ntl. Rank Tot. Yards Ntl. Rank YPP Ntl. Rank
2004 38.2 6 5838 9 6.3 6
2005 49.1 2 7537 1 7.5 1
2006 30.5 18 5094 24 5.9 26

Those 2005 numbers are pretty hellacious, aren’t they?  But that drop off in 2006 is noticeable, as well.  My feeling is that’s what happens when your starting backfield, including two Heisman Trophy winners, depart.  (I’ve seen some mention of the fact that a large part of the blame for the decline in ’06 was due to the injuries that were racked up at the fullback position, but in light of Chris’ comments about the reliance on a lot of one back sets in Kiffin’s formations, I tend to discount that a good bit.)  Nobody looks as smart when the talent level drops.

It’s probably not fair, but HP’s comment about the disjointed nature of the playcalling in the MNC game against Texas brings to mind an unfortunate comparison to the surgical precision Chow brought to the title game the year before – with that same backfield that ran up those great numbers under Kiffin.

All of which indicates to me that his is a system that’s talent-dependent.  Not that there’s anything wrong with that.  Kiffin’s certainly brought in the horses to go out and get skilled players.  But Knoxville this year ain’t the Los Angeles of 2005; the Vols are woefully short at quarterback, offensive line and wide receiver at present.  Nor is that the kind of thing that gets fixed rapidly, as Tennessee fans will find out next year when it looks likely that Kiffin will be starting a true freshman at quarterback.

So you’d think that down the road if the recruiting is as special as it’s costing, there’ll be an uptick.  There are two things to keep in mind, though:   how patient are they in Knoxville and how much more formidable are SEC defenses than those in the Pac-10?

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7 Comments

Filed under Don't Mess With Lane Kiffin, Strategery And Mechanics, The Blogosphere

7 responses to “A kindler, gentler Kiffin watch

  1. Pingback: Morning Newspaper: End of Season Edition | MrSEC.com

  2. Pingback: EDSBS » Archive » CURIOUS INDEX, 3/26/2009

  3. Senator,

    Good post. I do agree that the Sarkiffin two-headed monster that called plays in 2005-06 was often muddled (i.e. compare the two Nat’l title games), but is that a question of system or play-calling? And we know that Chaney will be calling the plays, and he has many years of experience with that. Again, how this will cut is anybody’s guess, but it’s at least notably that playcalling seemed to be the biggest knock on Kiffin (rather than the system) and that’s the part of the offense Kiffin will probably (maybe?) be least involved with.

  4. Just because I have a long memory, here is HeismanPundit in December 2005 disputing the notion that USC was successful on offense because of talent as opposed to Kiffin running the offense in a clever way:

    http://bravesandbirds.blogspot.com/2005/12/interesting-nugget-on-usc.html

    Kiffin represented a significant step back from Chow and this step back was evident once the 2005 USC offense graduated. Whether Kiffin’s problem was play-calling as opposed to scheme is an open question. I am somewhat skeptical about Tennessee going after Chaney, whose offense had been thoroughly figured out by the three major teams in the Big Ten. I like Tennessee’s defensive staff a lot more than their offensive staff, which is pretty much status quo for most of the Fulmer era.

  5. J.R.

    As a UT fan I, and most of the rest of us, don’t expect the Vols to come out and blow people away this year. We are coming off one of the worst offensive season of all time in Knoxville, so things can’t get much worse. I don’t know why people think the Vols will be a force to be reckoned with in 2009. It’s not going to happen. On the other hand, I think people will see a team that is actually motivated, tough, and more disciplined than they were last year.

    Only time will tell if Kiffin and Co. can bring the Vols back to their once powerhouse status, but I think they are headed in the right direction.

    As Kiffin said in his first press conference, “We’re gonna do it right, not fast.”

    So, here’s hoping for a better season, many more to come in the future, and continued SEC dominance.

    GO VOLS!!!

    - J.R.

    P.S. I liked the article and I’ll be back for some more soon. Good work.

  6. Heismanpundit

    Couple things:

    1. I was wrong to include USC in the Gang of Six in 2005. I assumed that Kiffin would (prudently) run the same scheme as Chow and go with what worked. Turns out he did not and I did not look closely enough. Live and learn.

    2. My point in USC’s case back then was that talent plus scheme (Chow’s) was what made them so dominant. Overwhelming talent plus lack of a good scheme (Kiffin) made them leave 20 points on the field against Texas when it counted.

    3. Kiffin changed USC to a read and audible offense and introduced a lot more pro-style elements to the scheme, which worked fine with a 5th year guy like Leinart at the helm, but even then caused some issues (hence Leinart’s call after that ’05 ND game to ‘get back to Chow’s offense’). The combination of changing the scheme to one that was a bit more NFL-based and Kiffin’s propensity to think that talent can overcome his inherent predictability (and Carroll’s NFL-bred conservatism), came home to roost in ’06 and that approach continued after he left and revealed a great amount of inconsistency on offense for USC.

    4. One last point about the Gang of Six, which had a main purpose of pointing out how offenses using contrarian principles were set to take over the college game (with the Six being the schools I thought were, at that point, doing it best). I pointed out that by Meyer going to Florida, it would transform the SEC and that Florida would dominate the league. Well, a few years later, something like 10 of the 12 teams have shifted to more unconventional styles and Florida has two titles under its belt. I think that my general point was correct, even if some of my individual arguments may have been flawed.