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The Challenge for the SEC's Two Newest Coaches

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The new coaching hires at Ole Miss and Texas A&M are notable in their similarities. Yes, it's true that they don't subscribe to the Neanderball offenses that the SEC is known for, but it's more than that. Both Hugh Freeze and Kevin Sumlin are adherents to the hurry up offense.

The SEC already has one fast offense guru: Auburn offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn, who literally wrote the book on using the hurry up all the time. Here is what's happened with these three coaches over the past four seasons in terms of offensive plays per game run:

Coach '08 Plays/G '09 Plays/G '10 Plays/G '11 Plays/G
Gus Malzahn 79.08 70.42 68.77 62.91
Hugh Freeze - - 62.82 71.25
Kevin Sumlin 77.75 83.00 76.27 77.33
SEC Avg. 64.81 65.82 66.51 65.75
National Avg. 67.61 67.71 68.43 69.77

Malzahn's 2008 Tulsa team (where he was co-OC with current Vanderbilt offensive line coach Herb Hand) ended up just shy of running 80 plays per game. That number is the goal that Malzahn sets for pace, and most other hurry up guys do as well. Sumlin averaged above that threshold in 2009 and was in the neighborhood in each of the other seasons noted here. Freeze wasn't able to average quite that much, but the pace jumped by 8.43 plays per game from when he was offensive coordinator to head coach at Arkansas State.

You can see with Malzahn that his pace has slowed since he got to Auburn. The SEC's standard slow pace (slower than the national average in each of these seasons) works like a boat anchor to anyone who wants to push the tempo. In 2010, the offense was good enough with Cam Newton running the show that pushing the pace to gain an advantage wasn't always necessary. Newton himself was the advantage, though the team did crank it up regularly while games were still in doubt.

Prior to this past season, Malzahn expressed interest in getting back to going fast all the time. However, he ended up with by far his lowest plays per game rate at AU. Part of that had to do with a defense that had trouble getting off the field, as the Tiger D ranked 110th in opponent third down conversions (no I-AA stats). Part of it also had to do with playing in the defense-heavy SEC West while also having to face the three best teams in the East. Part of it simply came down to the fact that Auburn's offense wasn't all that good, and pushing the pace when the offense isn't good won't get you terribly far.

That's the catch with the hurry up offense: it's not so much a power up as it is a multiplier.

If an offense is good, ratcheting up the pace will probably make it better. A team good enough to average seven yards per play will pick up an additional 105 yards every Saturday by running 80 plays a game instead of 65. If a team can sustain a drive at a fast pace, it can wear out the defense by not allowing the D to make as many substitutions as normal. Plus, it's an appeal to the law of large numbers: running as many plays as possible ensures that any short term struggles the offense has get smoothed out over time.

That sword cuts both ways, however. Turnovers aside, the only thing worse than a three-and-out is a fast three-and-out. The offense still didn't travel anywhere, but the defense didn't get any time to rest. That is an easy tell to figure out who really knows how the hurry up works and who is just speeding things up because other people do it. Case in point: that Malzahn fellow. Did you read that article I linked to above? If you didn't, note this passage:

That might change this season. Auburn will likely get back to the basics of Malzahn’s offense, trying to out-pace opponents to create confusion on defense.

"I think so," Malzahn said. "After we get an initial first down, that has been one of our positives and we’re trying to build upon that. There will be definitely times this year when we’ll need to be able to play fast."

"After we get an initial first down." I don't know if anyone keeps official stats on three-and-outs, but I'd bet they were up this year for Auburn given its low plays per game rate and its putrid third down conversion rate. Increasing the pace in a well-structured hurry up offense requires getting that initial first down. Because bad offenses have trouble getting that initial first down, the hurry up isn't doing a thing for them a lot of the time. If you try to push the pace anyway, your defense will just get worn out and you end up worse off.

Of the two SEC newbies, Sumlin will have the best chance at running his high octane attack. The reason is simple: A&M is in a much better state talent-wise than Ole Miss is. The Rebels have some nice pieces in Jeff Scott and Nickolas Brassell, but Houston Nutt did not bring aboard the depth and quality of players in Oxford that Mike Sherman did in College Station.

It will be interesting to see whether these two guys will be able to push the tempo as much as they want to or if the same thing will happen to them as has happened to Malzahn. SEC defenses have frustrated high tempo offenses in bowl games, like with the 2009 and 2011 BCS National Championship Games, but they themselves struggled with it in 2010 when Auburn cranked up the pace.

Ultimately, it's not even a question of pace. It's a question of whether Sumlin and Freeze can build good offenses at their new schools. The pace will take care of itself from there.