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The Kiffin Record: Let's Talk Offensive Philosophy

Before the A-Day game, we wrap up our examination of Kiffin's offense, specifically its philosophy.

Damn, I've got to read the comments?!
Damn, I've got to read the comments?!
Christian Petersen

A few weeks ago, if you recall, we began our three-part peek at Lane Kiffin's Vols teams and what we can expect in the Fall. This final edition was delayed somewhat owing to Spring Practice starting and other things hitting the wire -unions, Gym Tide, Bama Baseball, malfeasance, etc. The first edition looked at the recruiting front -which we agree did not exactly yield a great class when the smoke cleared. The second part examined the raw offensive output for the 2009 Vols. Today, we'll tease out the advanced numbers, and look at an offensive philosophy that is coherent, consistent, and, for those afraid of change, not terribly different than what we've seen before. While I focus primarily on the Vols, I've added some additional stuff from Kiffin's USC offense (as a head coach). [Again, lots of numbers ahead. Refresh your beverage.]

2009 Volunteers Drive- and Opponent-Adjusted Statistics

Here's what we'll be using to check our work

OFEI: Offensive FEI, the opponent-adjusted efficiency of the given team's offense.

  • OE: Offensive Efficiency, the raw unadjusted efficiency of the given team's offense, a measure of its actual drive success against expected drive success based on field position.

  • FD: First Down rate, the percentage of offensive drives that result in at least one first down or touchdown.

  • AY: Available Yards, yards earned by the offense divided by the total number of yards available based on starting field position.

  • Ex: Explosive Drives, the percentage of each offense's drives that average at least 10 yards per play.

  • Me: Methodical Drives, the percentage of each offense's drives that run 10 or more plays.

  • Va: Value Drives, the percentage of each offense's drives beginning on its own side of the field that reach at least the opponent's 30-yard line.

  • OSOS: Offensive Strength of Schedule, the likelihood that an elite offense (two standard deviations better than average) would have an above-average OE rating against each of the defenses faced by the given team.

In 2009, the Volunteers fared much better than you'd expect with so very little talent from which to draw. Not only did the Vols do pretty well offensively, they dramatically improved upon every single offensive category from 2008. In fact, the Vol offense was reasonably comparable to their 10-win 2007 SEC East Championship season. (For giggles, I've bracketed the Vols' offensive numbers from 2008, 2007 respectively)

  • OFEI Rank: 38th [96, 18]

  • OE Rank: 39th [112, 29]

  • FD: 72.7%, 47th [49.2%, 118; 68.1%, 43]

  • Ex. Rank 40th [105, 39]

  • Me. Rank 75th [81, 50]

  • Va. Rank 52nd [102, 27]

  • OSOS Rank: 3rd [26, 19]

The value drives and methodical drives are lower, as you'd expect with one running back and an offensive line starting two freshmen. It is more difficult to execute long, soul-crushing drives under those circumstances. However, the Vols still moved the ball well, with half of all drives resulting in moving the chains or an outright score. Of particular note is that the Vols offense, though not really built to grind, got huge chunks of yards and explosive plays. (Saban has repeatedly emphasized a need for explosive plays, a category which Alabama finished first last season). And, at the end of the day, adjusted for opponents' defenses, Kiffin and staff did about all that could be done -finishing 3rd in the country in offensive output...Alabama, in case you're curious, was 4th in the latter category in 2009. With a crappy and young offensive line, no real running game of which to speak, one season to get the system in place, Crompton at QB, and youth all over the place, the 2009 result is nothing short of a miracle.

Perhaps one final comparison is in order. Close your eyes, and repeat this sentence over and over again: "[2009] Tennessee ranked ninth in the country on Standard Downs S&P+ last season despite an only decent running game, suggesting that, among other things, the play calling was quite good." Feeling better? No? Okay. How about this: Last season, Alabama was 8th in S&P+ , 10th in Standard Downs efficiency, 10th in Drive Efficiency -good for 3rd overall. Want the drive based efficiency numbers? Again, Alabama was ranked 3rd overall, 9th when adjusted for opponent. This output was with the school's deepest WR corps ever, a down-ish SEC, a Heisman-runner up/Maxwell-winning QB, the most athletic TE in the conference, and a ridiculous stable of blue chip running backs -advantages Kiffin did not have at Tennessee.

In short, Alabama is getting an excellent play-caller who did a comparable job with a helluva lot less than the now-departed $830,000 Michigan Man. My job isn't to pump sunshine in the general direction of your ischeal tuberosity, or to ornament you with crimson-colored glasses. If the numbers don't convince you -and they should, then nothing I write will, nor will Kiffin's players, who rightly call him a "guru."

One-Back Offense -with a few twists.

Nick Saban is, and has always been, a one-back, pro-set guy -along with Jim McElwain, Dennis Erickson, Bobby Petrino and J.L. Smith, - a torch-bearer for zone-blocking schemes, multiple TE sets and multiple ways to throw the ball from simple sets.

It should come as no surprise, then, that Lane Kiffin also hails from this school of thought. For the seven 2009 games I examined closely, and tracked, Tennessee was in a plain-Jane, single-back, under center formation 68% of the time. I randomly picked seven Alabama games each for Nussmeier and McElwain (and I can list those below, if y'all are that bored). The comparisons are striking: 54% and 64%, respectively for those guys. That's right: Kiffin's Vols were actually in more one-back run-pass "power" sets than McElwain's teams -teams that included 2008 and 2009's promiscuous rushing numbers.

Where Kiffin's offense seems to vary is in three important respects: First, the guy loves mixing up run-pass out of two-back, offset-I formations -and, he used those much more than you'd think (a shade under 14% of the time), and passed as often out of those formations as he called runs. This means, when Fowler (who has moved to H-Back) is in the game, he's just as likely to catch a swing in the flat as he is to be an up-back on a 32 or be a pass blocker on play-action. Second, say farewell to the all-or-nothing deep ball, which we grew really accustomed to the past 2-3 years. That's just not in the cards. The Kiffin offense is not predicated on 45-yard heaves off play-action. Instead, the receivers get more targets on intermediate routes, especially after clearouts and on designed routes, than on nine routes going down the sideline. I'm not sure this is necessarily a bad thing; feast or famine, with an uncertain line and a new quarterback isn't conducive to cosplaying as the '72 Raiders. Finally, the offense is markedly different in how it motions. Yes, McElwain and Nussmeier used motion -primarily with the H-backs for blocking position. What we have here is an entirely different critter with motion all over the place. And, and it is clearly part of the scheme to get the ball to backs and tight ends -to exploit matchups in the passing game with secondary receivers. We've frankly not seen this much under Saban. The offense doesn't have the crossing-routes and RB quick-curl checkdowns as under McElwain, nor the tunnel screen/bubble screens we saw under Nussmeier (although they are part of the offense). No, the motion is to either put secondary guys in position to make explosive plays against outmanned backers and safeties, or to divert the defense as WRs get space. And, you never really know what the tight end is going to do in this offense. Suffice it to say, Alabama's wealth of talent at the position will cause dyspepsia for the next few years.

As an example, I've included a clip below of the 2009 Auburn-Tennessee game, where Kiffin plainly tried to exploit the Auburn secondary. There, he used a lot of 3-wide, single-back motion plays to feel out the defense. The play-calling was all over the place (in a well-ordered sense), and -for an Alabama offense that frankly got stale with its predictability in formation, this is a breath of fresh air. I'm not going to break down every offensive play, but -trust me- the balance, the motion, the shifts to different looks, the unpredictable run-pass out of similar formation- it is beautiful when it works. Better for Alabama, the Tide have the tools to make it work.

This is just the first few drives, but I suspect you'll agree the only predictable part is the unpredictability:

  • Wildcat run.
  • Single back, 3-wide, TE, slot to strong side. Bubble screen to F.
  • Same formation. Shift in motion -Hardesty to strong side Y. TE shifts offset. Goes empty from center with 5-wide look. Catchable 1D slant dropped.
  • Shallow shotgun, three-wide look. Hardesty in backfield, TE XY. Y in motion for tight set to strong side. Slant-Stick pass.
  • Strong side-3WR. Singleback. Weakside run off tackle.
  • Right Twin-Over from shotgun.
  • Weakside side, 3-WR. Y in motion. Strongside pass to boundary.

You get the point by now, hopefully. This will be a fun offense that moves the ball in the middle of the field, tests the boundaries, changes to a variety of looks out of a few simple formations, and -above all- generates explosive plays. Kiffin rides the hot hand, wants to platoon the backs, and really wants to hit guys in the seams. In short, it's not an offense to make mistakes against: one busted assignment will kill you. At the same time, it does represent a philosophical shift in the sense that the big plays are assignment-based or exploitation plays, and not necessarily the drawn-up home run balls we've seen in the past (especially in the passing game).