SB Nation college football writer Bill Connelly never understood why former Kansas football coach Turner Gill ran the type of offense that he did.
Because KU faces a talent discrepancy against nearly every program it faces in the Big 12, Connelly believes Gill would have been better suited with an offensive philosophy more creative — or at least something that would give Big 12 defenses a different look.
“The bottom line is if (Big 12 heavyweights) are well-coached and recruiting well, you can’t beat them just trying to push them around and staying conservative,” Connelly said. “You have to figure out ways to take chances.”
According to Connelly, that’s the continuing mission for second-year KU coach Charlie Weis, whose team will most likely be an underdog in each of the nine conference games it plays this season.
Connelly — his advanced college football metrics like S&P+ and PPP+ have been used by teams like Texas and Ohio to get a deeper understanding of their own strengths and weaknesses — devotes a chapter in his recently released book, “Study Hall: College Football, Its Stats, and Its Stories” to underdog tactics. In that section, Connelly examines strategies that less-talented teams should use to try to gain an edge.
It basically comes down to this: As an underdog, you want to increase the variance — or the number of possible outcomes — in a game.
“You might lose by more sometimes,” Connelly said, “but you’re more likely to steal a win here or there, too.”
Connelly says Weis is off to a good start already as far as risky strategies go. The coach has brought in more than 20 junior-college players this year while looking for a quick fix to KU’s talent woes.
“If it weren’t high risk, then everybody would be doing it. Everybody would just be recruiting half their class from jucos,” Connelly said. “So clearly there is a downside to it, and it could very much not pay off. But if you’ve got a situation like what Weis inherited, where Gill just didn’t recruit very well … (Weis) is trying to win quickly, and this is the path to that.”
So what are some other high-risk, high-reward strategies that Weis should consider to increase his chances of pulling off a Big 12 upset or two?
Give different looks
One way an underdog can get a slight edge is by giving opponents something completely different to prepare for in the span of a week.
A good example of this was Texas Tech’s “Air Raid” offense under former coach Mike Leach. The Red Raiders found their own niche with the offense and thrived by doing something that no one else was doing.
Connelly believes KU might already have some of that covered with the pro-style offense that Weis runs. The coach’s announcement that he was going to play Tony Pierson as both a running back and wide receiver — much like West Virginia’s Tavon Austin was used last year — also could give KU a new offensive wrinkle.
Connelly says there are other ways teams can succeed by being different. For example, Iowa State has been able to pull off some upsets in recent years with a run-based offense that works because instead of trying to get smaller and quicker, the Cyclones have focused on making their players bigger and stronger.
Defensively, Connelly says a team that plays a base formation out of the ordinary — like a 3-3-5 — can potentially gain an advantage by making opponents prepare for something they don’t normally see.
Go for it
Many statistical studies have said the same thing in recent years: Football coaches don’t go for it enough on fourth downs.
In many instances, the benefits outweigh the risks.
Connelly gives the example of fourth-and-goal at the opponent’s one-yard line.
“Really, not going for it is the risk,” Connelly said. “In those types of situations, the field position that you give your opponent if you don’t convert the fourth down, it’s still worth something.
“A lot of coaches play it safe to their own detriment, because it’s less risky to go for it at that stage, and a lot of people don’t look at it that way.”
Though there are situations when a field goal is the call on fourth-and-goal at the 1 — down two with three seconds left would be one — for the most part, teams are giving away potential points because of conventional coaching wisdom that actually isn’t beneficial. These types of fourth-down decisions aren’t limited to the red zone either. Connelly said once a team crosses the 50, going for it on fourth-and-short isn’t tremendously risky, and in fact, could pay off big.
One coach who believes in this is Bob Stitt, who has led Colorado School of Mines — a school with major recruiting obstacles because of its high academic standards — to 11 winning seasons in the last 13 years.
Stitt views a fourth-down conversion as a “turnover” for the offense. If his offense converts on fourth-and-3, then the opposing defense has to stay on the field after believing it had already accomplished its goal on third down.
“That’s a great situation to take advantage of a defense that might be more talented than you,” Connelly said.
Weis already appears to be a high-risk guy when it comes to fourth downs, as the Jayhawks’ 32 fourth-down conversion attempts in 2012 tied for the eighth-most in Division I.
Playing against tendencies
Connelly groaned every time he heard a TV announcer talk about how much Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez had improved his throwing mechanics in 2012.
Connelly knew from watching that wasn’t the case.
“His passing motion still was just awful to watch,” Connelly said, “but they were much more successful because they were passing at times that opponent really thought they would run.”
The Cornhuskers were putting Martinez in a position to thrive by passing on downs like first-and-10 and second- and third-and-short.
By being unpredictable, the Huskers allowed Martinez to complete a high number of short passes while also keeping themselves out of third-and-longs.
“They took advantage of defensive tendencies and defensive assumptions,” Connelly said, “and stole free yards via the air.”
In the end, Connelly says it comes down to doing whatever you can to keep a defense that might be bigger, stronger and faster than you from becoming comfortable.
So what can a high-risk, high-reward strategy do for a team?
Connelly says it’s a lot like a college basketball team shooting a lot of threes and pressing against a heavy favorite.
“It might fail miserably,” Connelly said, “but if it succeeds, you can actually pull an upset here or there.”
In college football, where wins are most important, a coach can be rewarded if he’s not afraid to “risk it up,” even if that means that a blowout loss is possible.
Connelly gives the example of going for it on fourth-and-4 from an opponent’s 40-yard line. Yes, an incomplete pass could give the opponent the ball near midfield.
But what would a conversion do for the underdog?
“You’re giving yourself a chance to win that you didn’t have before,” Connelly said. “ If you’re at a program that has hardly won any games over the past two years, why wouldn’t you do that?”