"Teams that have enough time to prepare for this offense can usually beat it." Where have you heard that comment before?
How about this one. "Their offensive line is too light and their finesse approach always get manhandled by more physical defensive lines."
That's right. These comments were all made about Oregon and their vaunted spread option offense. After the jump we will look at conventional wisdom, bowl preparation and what it takes for Tech to win a bowl game.Let me admit right up front that I am a Chip Kelly fan. With an insane 846. winning percentage he ranks ahead of all time greats like Bud Wilkinson and Barry Switzer at Oklahoma, Tom Osborne and Bob Devany at Nebraska, and way ahead of Paul Bear Bryant at Alabama. Among contemporary coaches only Urban Meyer has any reasonable chance of catching up to Kelly's record and only then if he doesn't take more than half a year to rebuild Ohio State.
But the knock against Kelly is that he has yet to win a major bowl game. As soon as the Bowl pairings were announced talking heads on ESPN began going on about how much trouble his team has when opposing teams have weeks to prepare. There is no proof of this but if you say it with confidence it begins to sound like gospel.
I bring up Oregon and Chip Kelly for the obvious reason that another Tech loss will bring the same "experts' and talking heads out of the closet to say that Coach Johnson's offense is always going to come up short against teams with extra preparation time. Further down in the comment gallery will be complaints from fans that Tech does not recruit enough burly linemen. You know the drill.
Teams lose football games for a variety of reasons and these rarely have anything to do with offensive and defensive schemes. I am going on record right now and say that if Tech loses to Utah it will not be because the Ute defense had extra time to prepare for the Tech offense. Neither will it be because we have dainty linemen. It will however have something to do with preparation.
Likewise, should Oregon lose it will not be because of their diminutive offense or an offensive scheme that teams "solve" with enough time. It will be because of something else. Candor compels me to share at this point that I have picked Oregon to lose in the "office pool" but not because I think they are the inferior team, and not because I think Wisconsin will "figure them out," and certainly, Lord knows, not because I won't be pulling for them like the dickens. It is more complicated than that.
Besides the fact that one team may just be better than another team, there are special factors that come into play where bowl games are concerned. Coaches have to find a balance between getting their team prepared and allowing their team to rest and have fun. Lean too far in either direction and it can spell disaster. Joe Paterno, who had a 24-12-1 bowl record, stressed making sure players did not get hurt and had plenty of rest. His comments from past years reminded me of what Coach Johnson said when he was asked about his preparation for Iowa in the Orange Bowl. He said, "We are practicing as hard as we can without killing anyone."
The problem, says Dana Holgorsen of West Virginia, is getting your timing down. That becomes an especially critical challenge for teams running spread option offenses. Some analysts also argue that bowl games are most likely to be lost by special teams since these are the hardest part of team play to simulate after a lay off, as well as the area most sensitive to getting the timing out of synch.
As a matter of fact, every coach I have heard talk about bowl preparation over the last 40 years has said timing was the key issue to work on in all phases of the game. Some have even suggested that if you give the team too much time off between the last game of the season and the bowl game you end up having spring training all over again, albeit with a shorter turn around time.
At the same time most coaches agree that one of the primary goals of a bowl trip is to have fun. Make it too grueling, they say, and your players will not want to ever go to a bowl game again and you will lose that as a motivation factor in the following season. The goal should be to have fun, not embarrass the school either on the field or through extra curricular activities, and to leave the players with good memories and the desire to do it all over again next year. Every coach wants to win but a surprising number say that bowl games are especially dependent on the attitude of the players, something they cannot control.
If Tech and Oregon are to have a problem based on timing then something former Arizona Coach Dick Tomey said may cause both teams some concern. Going up against Nebraska's option offense in a bowl, Coach Tomey has said that Nebraska's practices had to be at least one hour longer than his were each day, suggesting that certain types of offenses are more timing sensitive. He also said that for an option team their two most difficult games are the first game of the season and the bowl game.
Both he and former Georgia Coach Jim Donnan suggest between the lines that the key in a bowl game is to make sure your team is prepared while being better rested than the opposing team.
Recently Craig James began to hedge his bets in his public comments about the Rose Bowl. Originally he said that Wisconsin lacked lateral speed and would be no match for Oregon. Since then he has suggested that Wisconsin may in fact be just fast enough. Perhaps peer pressure has insinuated itself into his thinking and he now questions whether Oregon can match up as well with a team that has had plenty of preparation time. Or perhaps Dick Tomey's wisdom about an option team's hardest games being "their first and their bowl game" is in the back of his mind. Oregon's first game this year was LSU so it is hard to say whether that loss was due more to early season lack of offensive timing or just due to a crushing defense. It is also hard to tell since defenses always progress faster than offenses between spring training and the first game of the season.
Legendary Coach Bobby Dodd won 69% of his bowl games making him one of history's experts on Bowl preparation. It is also important to point out that Dodd's teams ran their own version of the option called "the belly series," revolutionizing football and changing it forever. Based on reading the defensive lineman, the quarterback must make a split second decision on whether to let the fullback keep the ball, pull it out, run it or pitch it. Blocking assignments also changed based on the decision
So how did Dodd balance the need for his team to be rested, have fun so that they would want to go bowling again, and get down the critical timing of his offense? If you are a Tech fan you know the answer. He invited girlfriends and wives of the players to join them on the trip and they would often cut practice short and play coed volleyball. Dodd was often criticized by opposing coaches, as well as by Tech fans who did not know any better, for being too soft and running "picnics" instead of football practice. Perhaps what Dodd knew, as his winning percentage suggests, is that you can over think bowl preparation as the reason why one team shows up and another one doesn't. He knew that most of what goes into a bowl win is found in the inscrutable and unsearchable inner recesses of a college kid's psyche. He just wanted to make sure that whatever was going on down there was as happy as possible.
Tech will win their bowl game if they play mistake free ball, play with intensity and get the breaks. This is of course the cliche of why any team wins any game but it is especially true of Tech. Being a young team, and not loaded with an overwhelming amount of pure athleticism, this team can not overcome imperfect or lackadaisical play. Some teams are good enough they can win when having an off day. Not Tech. The margin for error is too small.
Do not worry about Tech's offensive scheme, however, victory will depend on whether the players are in their happy place before the game.