The No. 1 question looming over South Carolina and first-year coach Will Muschamp as their first began practice Tuesday morning was, “How will Muschamp adapt his offense to make his second stint as a head coach better than his first?”
He’s offered few clues beyond the predictable platitudes, but there might be a valuable predictive lesson to be learned by examining the evolution of one of Muschamp’s mentors in coaching.
Alabama coach Nick Saban has long been on the record about his distaste for the breakneck pace of college football’s most cutting-edge offenses. That’s obscured the fact Saban joined them as a means of beating them.
The Crimson Tide were 116th in the nation in plays per game (65.9) in 2013. The next year, Saban hired Lane Kiffin as his offensive coordinator. Last season, Alabama was 49th in the nation in plays per game (75.2).
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“That was something that we did philosophically because of the issues that it created for us defensively,” Saban said. “I don’t necessarily agree with the illegal man down field rule that a guy should be able to go seven yards down field on a pass play. But it is a part of our game. It is the rule. So, for us to not use those plays is a disadvantage for us. So even though we may not philosophically agree that this is the way football was meant to be played or should be played, if it creates issues for the other team and for the defense, and pace of play has been something that I think has done that, so have all of these run pass option plays that people run, then we need to use those things, too, or we’re creating a disadvantage for ourselves.”
Muschamp hasn’t talked to Saban about his evolution, but he’s certainly noticed it.
“What Nick has done and what we tried to do, not as successfully, obviously, is adjust to what our players can do,” Muschamp said. “He really did a great job this past year adjusting to putting in more open sets, because it fit his personnel and what they needed to do to be successful and still keep the hard-edge mentality that you’ve got to have in our league.”
The key in Muschamp’s mind is to be able to make those adjustments while staying attached to what he views as the foundation of offense in the SEC.
“At the end of the day, in order to stop the run, you got to be able to run the ball, and vice versa,” Muschamp said. “Obviously, depending on the talent level, but those are things that are really important. You’ve got to continue to evolve. Our game changes a little bit every year, but you can’t get away from the base philosophical ideas that you have. And certainly he has not strayed from that.”
Muschamp has hinted at offensive adjustments. During his four years at Florida (2011-14), the Gators never finished higher than 10th in the SEC in plays per game.
“We need to play better on offense,” he said. “Whether it was staff or scheme or whatever, it falls on my shoulders. Let’s do a better job. I think we have hired an offensive staff that is competent enough to do that.”
Muschamp hired Kurt Roper, his offensive coordinator during his final year at Florida, to run South Carolina’s offense. The Gators were 12th in the SEC in total offense in Roper’s season in charge, but Muschamp believes Roper’s the right man for the Gamecocks. South Carolina senior quarterback Perry Orth described Roper’s offense as “very up-tempo.”
“We did some things last year that were fast-paced, but I think we’re going to do more of it, catch people off-guard, get the ball out in space, throw a little bit more quick screens and bubble screens, things like that to get our playmakers in space,” Orth said.
Under former coach Steve Spurrier, the Gamecocks were 89th in the nation in pace of play last year, according to College Football Matrix’s analysis. Missouri’s the only team in the SEC that ran fewer plays than South Carolina’s 774 in 2015.
Offensive tackle Mason Zandi believes that will change significantly.
“We’re going to be fast,” he said, declining to offer details on how that’ll be accomplished. “We’re going to be fast.”
The Gamecocks want an offense that goes fast. Whether they can get there fast has yet to be seen.
“It’s been a work in progress for us to learn how to do that,” Saban said. “Our coaching staff has done a fantastic job sort of developing a system that has been very effective for us in terms of what we’ve been able to do. So it’s the issues and problems that it creates that made us move in that direction, and that’s what we will continue to do.”