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Offensive philosophy: run ‘em up or fill ‘em in

Mario Cristobal came to Coral Gables to fill ‘em in, but he was forced to (and failed) at running running ‘em up, too. So which offensive philosophy works best?

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 26 Pitt at Miami Photo by Doug Murray/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

In the 2022 college football season there were two kinds of teams- teams that could run ‘em up, and teams that could fill ‘em in. The College Football Playoff National Champion Georgia Bulldogs were the lone squad that could truly do both.

UGA finished the ‘22 season 14th in rushing, 13th in passing, and 4th in points per play (PPP). The Dawgs were 1st overall in SP+, 11th on offense and 3rd on defense. The top-rated offense per SP+ was the USC Trojans. USC was quarterbacked by Oklahoma transfer turned Heisman Trophy winner Caleb Williams.

Per the SP+ offensive metrics: the Tennessee offense was 2nd, UCLA 3rd, Ohio State 4th, TCU 5th, Oregon 6th, Alabama 7th, Michigan 15th, Clemson 39th, and Miami was 77th in FBS of 131 teams.

UGA was clearly the lone team that could run ‘em up (REU- score a lot of points) and fill ‘em in (FEI- ground out the game and rely on your defense) week in and week out.

Will the Tide be high in ‘23?

In the past, the Alabama Crimson Tide could also do both- REU and FEI. But former OC Bill O’Brien’s (back with the New England Patriots) offense left a lot to be desired. He had Bryce Young at QB and Jahmyr Gibbs at running back but managed just 30th in rushing yards per game (RY) and 17th in passing yards per game (PY).

Bama’s offense was 7th per the SP+- so very efficient, and they did come in 3rd in PPP. It just lumbered at times, and felt like BOB was calling NFL games instead of college games. He forgot that he was at Bama and had more talent than anyone in the nation- not relatively equal talent on the field like in the NFL.

I’m not sure who will be the Alabama OC in ‘23, but that person will have Jalen Milroe behind center. Milroe is big, stocky, and fast. He could be a Tim Tebow with more speed for the Tide offense. I would think that means Nick Saban hires either Jeff Lebby or Dan Mullen to run the offense for two years with Milroe as their QB.

We back vs. we arrived

Then there’s the Clemson Tigers. Dabo Swinney hasn’t utilized (or even really used) the transfer portal for a few big pieces like Nick Saban at Bama, or for a whole damn roster (he doesn’t need to) like Lincoln Riley at USC.

For the first time since being named the head coach of the Tigers, Swinney has fired someone- his offensive coordinator Brandon Streeter. And Streeter’s replacement is Garrett Riley, the guy who just guided (along with head coach Sonny Dykes) the TCU offense to the CFP National Championship Game and a 5th ranking per the offensive SP+ compared to Clemson’s 39th.

Mike Norvell’s Florida State Seminoles think they’ve arrived offensively to REU and FEI. FSU’s offense was only 33rd per the SP+ in 2022, but with Jordan Travis returning the ‘Noles believe they’ve arrived. FSU hit the transfer portal hard and will have a veteran group to make a run at knocking Clemson off the top of the ACC. In ‘22, the Travis averaged 9.1 yards per attempt and four different ‘Noles rushed for five or more TD’s.

For Clemson, it was really obvious that the offense was stale and DJ Uiagalelei wasn’t the answer. Streeter is out, Riley is in, and former five-star Cade Klubnik is clearly the answer to their QB dilemma.

Run ‘em up

The top REU team in college football in ‘22 was clearly USC. Lincoln Riley brought his DC, Alex Grinch, with him from Oklahoma. Grinch was once the savior of the Washington State Cougars defense under Mike Leach. But at this point USC’s lack of ability to “finish,” to pursue the football and tackle (they did intercept a lot of balls, however), is atrocious. USC finished 3rd in PY, 10th in PPP, 1st in SP+ offense, but 51st in RY.

The UNC Tar Heels were 10th in PY with Drake Maye at QB and Phil Longo at OC. Longo would prefer to run the football but UNC just hasn’t had their run game in the right form since demolishing Miami with over 500 yards on the ground in 2020. UNC’s rushing attack was only 73rd in RY last year. The Heels even tried to slow it down and were 39th in PPP.

Pass happy squads that also ran well were Ohio State and Tennessee. OSU finished 1st in PPP, 12th in PY, and 27th in RY. The Buckeyes were 4th in SP+ offense last year, while the Volunteers were 2nd. The Vols were 20th in RY and 9th in PY.

Fill ‘em in

UCLA, Michigan, and TCU were some of the most efficient FEI squads at the FBS level. Ole Miss under Lane Kiffin was actually the top FBS squad for RY, produced the 19th best offense per the SP+. Kiffin loves to go up tempo, no huddle RPO and it showed. Along with TCU and UCLA- the Rebels didn’t throw as much as you’d think.

TCU hit their screens and some big throws but for an “Air Raid” offense, they only 47th in PY while 25th in RY. Chip Kelly’s UCLA team played really fast. The Bruins finished 5th in RY and top 10 in PPP. Kelly’s offense was the 3rd best in FBS per the SP+.

Filling ‘em in doesn’t have to look like Kirk Ferentz’s Iowa or Paul Chryst’s Wisconsin. Michigan, for instance, uses a spread-to-run philosophy under OC Sherrone Moore and former co-OC Matt Weiss. The Wolverines were 7th in RY and 79th in PY. That put them at 15th offensively per the SP+, even with a former five-star QB in JJ McCarthy.

The surprise team of ‘23, after TCU of course, was Tulane. The Green Wave and head coach Willie Fritz were reeling after a 2-10 season in ‘21. Tulane beating USC 46-45 in the Cotton Bowl Classic was probably a national surprise; unless you know how much of a positive impact Kurt Hester can have on a program and how cancerous former OC Chip Long can be to a program.

The Green Wave were 15th in RY, 72nd in PY but 12th in PPP. Tulane’s offense finished 37th in SP+ offense, compared to 74th in 2021. It’s almost how comically bad some OC’s can be to an offense. Think of Enos, Dan for Manny Diaz’s Miami Hurricanes in 2019, and Gattis, Josh to Mario Cristobal’s ‘Canes offense in ‘22.

What about defense, kicking, and penalties?

Points are fun, but in the end, the best overall programs win championships on a consistent basis (sorry LSU in 2019, but that was a one-off for now).

Let’s start off with the UGA Bulldogs. The Dawgs had the SP+’s 3rd best defense, 8th best kicking game, and 15th in penalties. They aren’t just talented- they’re damn well coached in all facets of the game. Todd Monken might head back to the NFL and Glenn Schumann could opt to separate himself from Kirby Smart and Will Muschamp- but it’s Kirby’s baby.

Alabama finished ‘22 with the 11th ranked defense and 10th ranked kicking game, but the Tide were uncharacteristically sloppy in the penalty department. Bama finished 129th in penalties per game!

Our two wanna-be-both squads, Clemson and FSU had varying success. Clemson was ‘cleaner’ overall with the 25th ranked defense, 32nd ranked kicking game, and 42nd in penalties. Norvell will have to clean up some issues at FSU before becoming a true contender in ‘23. FSU had the 35th ranked defense but were an abysmal 113th in kicking and 96th in penalties.

Run ‘em uppers

Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl - Ohio State v Georgia Photo by Todd Kirkland/Getty Images

The OSU Buckeyes were the REU squad that broke the mold. OSU is uber-talented and came in 23rd on defense and ninth in kicking. Ryan Day isn’t a know strict disciplinarian, and OSU was 50th in penalties.

The Vols were 30th in defense, 56th in kicking and 121st in penalties. The Trojans were 87th on defense, 115th in kicking and 77th in penalties. The Tar Heels finished 105th on defense, 42nd in kicking and 74th in penalties.

Fill ‘em inners

Vrbo Fiesta Bowl - Michigan v TCU Photo by Chris Coduto/Getty Images

Because of how the SP+ adjusts for opponent, tempo and garbage time- the FEU teams aren’t that much better on defense than the REU squads. Michigan was 9th on defense and 3rd in kicking while 8th in penalties. Jim Harbaugh has put together quite the program the last two seasons in the Big Ten.

TCU was 52nd on defense and 30th in kicking while 26th in penalties. Ole Miss’s defense struggled without DJ Durkin at DC and have now moved on to Pete Golding in that role. The Rebels were 50th in defense, 33rd in kicking and 90th in penalties. I’m not surprised a loose guy like Lane Kiffin has a penalized program.

Surprise team Tulane finished 32nd on defense, only 63rd in kicking, but 6th in the nation in penalty yards per game. If you want to steal some wins- don’t make stupid mistakes! It doesn’t hurt to have Tyjae Spears as an all purpose weapon on offense, either.

So, what about Miami?

Mario Cristobal clearly wants to become a fill ‘em in program at Miami. His Oregon teams were of the FEI variety, even with Justin Herbert at QB. Miami’s issues are that FEI offensive squads clearly have more success with a better defense and more disciplined play.

Miami finished 106th in rushing yards and 58th in passing yards. The ‘Canes were a miserable 117th in PPP in ‘22. The Miami offense was 77th per the SP+. Cristobal and Gattis tried to force a REU team from 2021 into being a FEI team in ‘22, unsuccessfully. When Tyler Van Dyke was healthy and in a more spread and up-tempo system, Miami played better.

Rhett Lashlee had built a true REU type of scoring offense at Miami, and now is doing it again at SMU. That’s his style of football. The Cristobal-Gattis switch was too drastic for everyone involved. It also hurt that the defense was 74th per SP+ and Miami was the 108th worst team in penalties per game.

Essentially Miami wasted a 4th ranked kicking game on a bad offense, defense, and overall program. And the program was backwards at the start of the season, and only sort of started to make sense later in the year before Van Dyke was injured and trying to play injured.

Virginia v Miami Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images

The ‘Canes have tried to re-up their offensive line, which is the start of a FEI offense. Francis Mauigoa and Samson Okunlola in the mix with Jalen Rivers, Anez Cooper, Zion Nelson, Javion Cohen and Matt Lee should help Miami get there.

Can the backs stay healthy? Will a RB take over a game for Miami? Will Tyler Van Dyke be healthy and have someone to throw to?

Also- who will even call the plays on offense? I’m not sure just yet, but one thing I do know for sure- Cristobal will want someone that will try to fill ‘em in. So Miami needs to improve on defense, and in discipline- today.