May 22, 2009

Mailbag: High-flying or well-grounded?

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When it comes to offensive football, the approaches taken by Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson and Texas Tech coach Mike Leach are as different as up and down.

Johnson prefers the ground-oriented triple option; Leach uses a pass-oriented version of the spread. Yet despite their differences, Johnson and Leach are eerily similar in their results.

In the past five seasons, Johnson's teams at Georgia Tech and Navy have ranked No. 1 in the country in rushing offense three times and no lower than fourth, and are a combined 44-19. In the past five seasons, Leach's Texas Tech program has led the nation in passing offense four times and ranked no lower than third, and is a combined 45-18.

Which offense is more troublesome to defensive coordinators? That's a question to be answered in this week's mailbag.

Air or ground

From Rob in Winfield, Kan.: In your opinion, which offense would most keep defensive coordinators awake at night Georgia Tech's triple option or Texas Tech's spread pass attack?

The easy and non-committal answer would be to say it depends on the defensive coordinator. If his defense is struggling against the pass, obviously he's going to stress more about facing Texas Tech. Conversely, the coordinator of a weak run defense will stress over facing Georgia Tech.

Personally, I'd say Texas Tech's because the Red Raiders have scored more frequently than Georgia Tech or Navy, and keeping the opposition out of the end zone is the defensive coordinator's objective.

But rather than speculate on the matter, I put the question to Kentucky's Steve Brown, one of the country's most underrated defensive coordinators. Brown can give an honest appraisal because the Wildcats don't play Georgia Tech or Texas Tech.

Brown admitted he thought hard about the question and didn't want to offend either offense, then said Georgia Tech posed more problems.

"You defend the pass more than you do the option. It's just familiarity," Brown said. "Both offenses are extremely tough. I think Texas Tech's offense is very hard to stop, especially when they have a good quarterback. The problem with Georgia Tech is you don't see that offense a lot. It takes more discipline to defend that and more time to defend.

"In my opinion, the triple option would be more difficult because you don't see it that much. You can't get prepared three days before the game to play that offense."

Brown did point out that if personnel was factored in, he might change his mind.

"If you have [former Texas Tech quarterback] Graham Harrell throwing the ball, the decision-making is so good," he said. "But you're still more familiar with the passing game. You go against different types of passing games all the time."

Alabama worries

From Jonathan in Bay Minette, Ala.: I am a fan of SEC football and would like to ask two questions. No. 1: Is USC ever going to get punished for paying players like O.J. Mayo and Reggie Bush? No. 2: Is Auburn ever going to be competitive against Alabama again?

No. 1, I think some NCAA sanctions are coming to USC, though who knows when. But there has been no evidence USC paid Reggie Bush anything. The issue is that while he was playing football at USC, Bush and his family allegedly accepted money and the use of a rental home from a sports agent.

As far as No. 2, is Alabama ever going to be competitive against Florida or Utah ? Yes, Auburn lost to Alabama last season but the Tigers had beaten the Tide the previous six seasons. There is no doubt Alabama has regained status as the state's dominant program, but to suggest Auburn isn't competitive comes off as extremely arrogant.

Alabama has a great program and a terrific coach in Nick Saban. But Auburn also has a traditionally strong program, although first-year coach Gene Chizik obviously has to prove himself.

Big game Bob?

From Brock in Shattuck, Okla.: Why is it Oklahoma struggles so bad when it gets to the big show? Every year they have a really talented team. Coach Bob Stoops does a wonderful job of reloading. Why is it when the championship is on the line, they don't perform?

You think maybe just maybe Oklahoma's struggles in BCS national championship games have had something to do with the opposition?

The bottom line is Oklahoma did not have better teams than LSU in'03, USC in '04 or Florida last season. Beating superior teams requires minimizing mistakes, forcing turnovers and/or capitalizing on all opportunities. OU didn't do that.

OU's flaws in '03 were exposed when Kansas State's Darren Sproles ran all over the Sooners in a 35-7 upset in the Big 12 championship game. OU shouldn't even have been in the national championship game, so why was it a surprise the Sooners lost? LSU had the nation's top-ranked defense and knee injuries had rendered OU quarterback Jason White immobile. LSU's 21-14 victory in New Orleans, no less was rather predictable.

The next season, OU faced a loaded USC team that featured one of the nation's most explosive offenses and one of the best defenses, which led the country in forced turnovers. Oklahoma had five turnovers, which led to a 55-19 blowout loss. The Sooners weren't as talented as USC, and if they had avoided turnovers, OU still probably would have lost.

Last season, Oklahoma's dynamic offense was lauded when it exceeded 60 points in five consecutive games. On the other hand, the fact that OU typically was allowing four touchdowns per game seemed to be ignored. Meanwhile, Florida also was rolling up gaudy point totals, but also was holding opponents to fewer than 20 points per game. To me, Florida clearly had a superior team. OU had a chance to pull the upset, but twice in the second quarter failed to capitalize after getting inside the Gators' 10.

Now, some might say OU didn't execute when Chris Brown was stopped on fourth-and-goal by Torrey Davis or when Sam Bradford's pass was intercepted by Ahmad Black. But maybe Florida's players just made great plays, which is what a championship team does.

Stout Dawgs

From Jeff in Columbus, Ga.: With Jeff Owens coming back to help anchor the Georgia defensive line, how do the Bulldogs rank among the nation's top defenses?

Owens' return from a knee injury will significantly upgrade Georgia's defense, which will have three NFL-caliber players in the tackle rotation with Owens, Geno Atkins and Kade Weston.

The Bulldogs also are strong at linebacker. But more production is needed at end and there could be some holes in the secondary.

Expect Georgia to be tough against the run, but the Bulldogs could be vulnerable to good passing teams. The Bulldogs ranked 22nd in the nation in total defense last season, but that stat was somewhat misleading. Georgia faced six opponents that ranked 97th or worse in total offense last season. Against those teams, the Bulldogs allowed an average of just 15.3 points per game. But Georgia allowed an average of 43.3 points against four teams that ranked 63rd or better in total offense. The Bulldogs were 1-3 in those games.

With Owens and six starters returning, the Bulldogs should be improved. They'd better be: Georgia opens the season against Oklahoma State, which will have one of the highest-scoring offenses in the country.

Feeling a bit blue

From Bryan in Kalamazoo, Mich.: How well do you think Michigan will do in Rich Rodriguez's second season as coach and with Tate Forcier running the offense?

Just as in his first season at Michigan, Rodriguez managed three victories in 2001, his first season at West Virginia. But in Rodriguez's second season, West Virginia posted nine victories. Michigan will be improved this season, but nine wins might be too much to expect.

The offensive line play should improve with four starters returning after a year in the system. Forcier will help, too. He'll be a much better fit in the spread-option offense than Steven Threet was. But freshmen quarterbacks often struggle, and Forcier probably won't be any different. Michigan needs more production from guys like Brandon Minor at running back, and the defense has to raise its performance level, too.

Overall, I'd guess the Wolverines will qualify for a bowl, but won't be a factor in the Big Ten championship race. Expect six or seven victories; eight or more would mean they had a tremendous season.

Thinking of ways to cheat

From Matt in Charleston, S.C.: I have always wondered why college athletes don't just get jobs as servers. I don't see how the NCAA would be able to challenge gratuities. Rush Limbaugh, for example, is known for leaving big tips. A booster could give an athlete thousands each week.

Seriously, find out Limbaugh's favorite restaurant and let me know. I'm going to put in an application.

Theoretically, college athletes could make big money as servers. In fact, a couple of years ago, USF quarterback Matt Grothe was working as a bartender near campus. Imagine a booster coming in, seeing Grothe behind the bar and leaving a C-note as a tip.

The NCAA certainly imagined it and "suggested" Grothe quit that job. He did.

To my knowledge, there currently are no NCAA rules that prevent athletes from working as servers. But the NCAA simply could mandate that athletes cannot work as servers, bartenders or in any other job that receives tips. The NCAA once ruled that athletes couldn't work at all, so setting limits for employment wouldn't be a problem.

Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com.
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