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Scot Loeffler And SEC Football's Creeping Sabanization

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As opposed to struggling to conceive of a defined opinion of the Falcons' hiring of Dirk Koetter and Mike Nolan, I did not have to try hard to have thoughts on Auburn hiring Scot Loeffler as their offensive coordinator. During the Lloyd Carr era, Michigan fans had fairly consistent opinions on the members of the coaching staff. Michigan fans did not like offensive coordinator Mike Debord, seeing him as a conservative extension of Carr who would run the ball or die trying. In contrast, Loeffler was seen as a progressive element, a guy who was pushing the program to move into the 21st century with greater emphasis on the passing offense.

Loeffler was also popular because he was the quarterbacks coach and Michigan was churning out quality quarterbacks on an assembly line. As a graduate assistant, Loeffler worked with Brian Griese and Tom Brady. Loeffler remains close with Brady, who has often given Loeffler credit as being one of the coaches who turned Brady into the Super Bowl-winning, supermodel-marrying star that he is today. As a full-time position coach, Loeffler did outstanding work with the two starters for whom he was responsible. Under Loeffler's tutelage, John Navarre progressed from a disaster who could barely complete a pass in the second half of the 2001 season to a quality starter in 2002 and then first team All Big Ten in 2003. Navarre was a middling recruit - Michigan stole him away from Northwestern and many schools were recruiting him as a defensive end instead of a quarterback - so he stands as a counter to the argument that Loeffler has simply been blessed to coach blue chip quarterbacks who would do well under most coaches. Loeffler then coached Chad Henne and did a good enough job that Henne led Michigan to the Rose Bowl as a true freshman. By the end of Henne's career, he was a second-round pick and he has been and off-and-on starter in the NFL. Additionally, Loeffler is credited fro recruiting Henne, which was no small feat because Henne was seen as a Penn State-lean in high school and faced local pressure to go play for Joe Paterno. (As it turned out, playing for Jay Paterno was an issue and rightly so.) In short, Loeffler was very popular among Michigan fans because his area of responsibility was the best spot of Carr's teams.

The fact that Loeffler did not experience great success in his two years at Florida did not change the opinions of Michigan fans. Loeffler was famously brought to Gainesville to perform the same magic on Tim Tebow that he performed on Griese, Brady, Navarre, and Henne, but that experiment was the equivalent of trying to graft a scorpion's tail on a shark. Urban Meyer's offense works a certain way, so it did not make much sense to bring in a pro-style quarterback coach - one whose teaching involves marrying footwork to progressions reading a defense - and then expect him to have an effect in the shotgun-based, spread-to-run offense that Meyer favors. Additionally, Loeffler was coming in to work with a rising senior in Tebow who had been taught for three years to play in a different way. As Brian Cook put it, "[a] specialized cadre of NFL experts still can't get Tebow to throw more accurately than Joe Bauserman. If Loeffler secretly chafed under Lloydball he'll be a fine hire for Chizik and his tire-fire defense."

Unfortunately for Auburn fans, Loeffler's second appearance in the SEC also entails joining an offense that has run the spread 'n' shred for the past several years. Auburn has recruited well under Gene Chizik, but it's strategy has been to find players who fit in Gus Malzahn's offense. Most notably, the heir apparent at quarterback is Kiehl Frazier, a perfect fit for the run-based spread, but a likely liability in an offense that prioritizes complicated reads and then throwing accurately into small windows. Frazier might be able to master such a system eventually, but the evidence of his first season on the Plains is that he will need to use his legs as a threat to make the passing game easier. Unless Loeffler has learned a brand new skill-set in terms of teaching an offense (and his year at Temple suggests that he is still a pro-style guy), then Frazier is not a good fit. In addition, Loeffler's offense may very well entail a different style of blocking, so the year of experience that Auburn's young offensive line gained in 2011 could be thrown away. Auburn fans may have to be patient with Loeffler and hope that Brian VanGorder's immediate returns are good enough to cover for an offense that will suffer transition pains.

Auburn's transition from the run-based spread to a pro-style attack* brings up a somewhat disturbing trend in the SEC: Creeping Sabanization. When Saban joined the conference, the mix of offenses was fairly diverse. Florida was running the spread. LSU was running something with spread elements. Arkansas was relying healvily on the Wildcat. Within two years, Auburn and Mississippi state were also running the spread. Two national titles for Saban later, everyone is trying to copy him, but not necessarily in good ways. Florida is running a pro-style offense under a Saban disciple. Ditto for Tennessee. LSU is attempting a modern-day imitation of the Bo Schembechler offense. Now, Auburn is eschewing the offense that was a significant factor in the Tigers winning their first national title in 53 years.** Mississippi State is left as the only run-based spread team in the league (and no one is running the Air Raid that played a role in Clemson, West Virginia, and Oklahoma State all making BCS bowls). Chris Brown asks whether the age of the spread is in decline. The answer is clearly "yes" in the SEC.

* - At this stage, how much of a difference is there between the pro-style offense and the pass-based spread? If Loeffler has in mind the style of offense run by Oklahoma on the college level or Green Bay and New England on the pro level, then we are still talking about multiple receivers and shotgun formations as the base set. Part of the thinking among Michigan fans was that Loeffler wanted that style as the base offense, but Carr and Debord wanted a more traditional approach. As a result, Michigan would only bring out the pass-to-run sets when losing or facing an opponent whose offense scared Lloyd. Thus, one of the reactions to the offensive outburst against Florida in the 2007 Capital One Bowl (Carr's last game) was "where has this offense been for the past decade?"

** - Yes, Cam Newton's individual talent played a rather large role, as well, but would he have put up the same numbers in a pro-style offense? Newton and the Malzahn offense were both necessary, but not sufficient by themselves.

The problem with the entire league imitating Nick Saban's style is that it is hard to replicate what Saban does. Saban is an epic recruiter. The characterization of him in The Blind Side turned out to be accurate. Programs that try to imitate his method will typically find themselves doing so with less talent. Additionally, Saban is an outstanding defensive coach, so his teams don't need an offense to put up big numbers. In sum, Saban's style of conservative risk minimization works with a talent advantage and a dominant defense. Without those two factors, the other programs in the SEC won't be able to do what Saban's team can. Thus, even though a well-coached pro-style offense can work (and Loeffler is as good a candidate as anyone to run that offense well), the rest of the SEC looking up to Alabama could still stand to use the basic premise of the run-based spread, which is to use the quarterback as a runner to create either a numerical advantage in the box of favorable throwing conditions down the field. If you want a succinct scenario for the end of SEC dominance, it's the possibility of the rest of the conference taking the wrong lessons from Alabama's success.

Photographs by coka_koehler used in background montage under Creative Commons. Thank you.