There was a lot of eye-rolling in the college football world the day North Carolina re-hired Mack Brown. Sure, he had an unprecedented run of success in Chapel Hill in the ‘90s and won a national championship at Texas, but he also stumbled through his final years in Austin and has spent the past five years in an announcers booth.
Rather than find a young innovator, North Carolina turned to a known—and, the argument goes, stale—commodity. SB Nation’s Bill Connelly sums it up this way:
Thirty years ago, UNC hired a charismatic 36-year-old named Mack Brown... an exciting recruiter who had just taken Tulane to its first bowl in seven years. Within six years, he’d unleash a run of success that UNC hadn’t seen in 50 years and hasn’t seen since.
Instead of finding the next Brown, though, UNC just decided to hire the old one again.
Of course, the North Carolina administration fully realizes that Brown, who will turn 68 before he retakes the sideline in Chapel Hill next season, isn’t a dynamic innovator. That’s not why they hired him. Like Herm Edwards at Arizona State, Brown will be employed as a CEO-coach—a recruiter and program manager who can surround himself with talented coordinators capable of handling in-game tactics.
On Tuesday, we learned that one of those coordinators will be Phil Longo, who spent the past two seasons coaching the Ole Miss offense. On the surface, it looks like just the hire Brown needed: a former FCS offensive guru whose uptempo, balanced Air Raid adaptation landed an SEC West team in the top 10 nationally in yards per game.
But hiring Longo is more of a risk than it might seem.
It’s hard to argue against the overall numbers Longo’s Ole Miss offenses accumulated: in 2018, the Rebels ranked fifth nationally in yards per pass, seventh in yards per play and 12th in offensive S&P+.
But a more nuanced look at the numbers reveals a concerning trend: during his two year tenure, Longo racked up yards and points against overmatched opponents but routinely underwhelmed against top defenses. In 15 games against teams ranked outside the top 60 in defensive S&P+, Longo’s offense poured on eight yards per play and over 41 points per contest; in eight games against defenses inside the top 30, those numbers plummet to 4.9 yards per play and about 15 points per game.
Sure, any offense’s production will dip against top competition, but a disparity that large is significant. Huge outputs against bad defenses—like 40 points* and 546 yards vs. Texas Tech or a 70-point, 826-yard explosion against Louisiana-Monroe—provide statistical cover for struggles against better conference teams.
*All scoring stats in this article exclude defensive and special teams touchdowns.
Longo’s system worked when his offense had a talent advantage. When it didn’t... not so much.
The bedrock principle of Longo’s offense is simplicity. He famously runs less than 30 plays, each of which include a plethora of individual post-snap options that allow players to adapt to what the defense gives them. By cutting down on memorization, he reasons, he frees his athletes to react.
That worked great against lesser defenses, when the loaded Ole Miss offense could lean on its athletic superiority. Years of Freeze’s recruiting handed Longo one of the most talent-rich offenses in school history: three Rebel wideouts will play in the NFL next year, including likely first-rounders A.J. Brown and D.K. Metcalf; Jordan Ta’amu, whose mobility and pinpoint deep-ball accuracy made him a perfect fit for Longo’s system, was one of the SEC’s best passers; JUCO transfer Scottie Phillips was a revelation at running back and he ran behind a sturdy line anchored by future first-rounder Greg Little and three other returning starters.
But against SEC teams with the talent to match up outside and apply pressure on Ta’amu, the offense faltered. In four games against Alabama, LSU, Auburn and Mississippi State (all of which rank near or above Ole Miss in the 247 Sports team talent composite), Ta’amu completed just 50 percent of his passes and averaged 181 yards per game (nearly 150 yards off his season average) while throwing more picks than touchdowns. Ole Miss averaged just 10.5 points in those games, getting pummeled by a combined score of 173-42.
There’s a thin line between simple and predictable. When the Rebel offense lacked a distinct talent advantage—when coaching and scheme gained importance—it floundered.
While Longo won’t face the same calibre of defense at North Carolina (just five teams in the entire ACC rank top 50 in defensive S&P+ this season; there are five such teams in the SEC West alone), he won’t have anywhere near the offensive talent he enjoyed in Oxford.
Longo lived and died with explosive plays at Ole Miss.
The combination of Ta’amu’s deep ball accuracy and the big-bodied, downfield receiving threats posed by Brown, Metcalf and senior DaMarkus Lodge gave Longo one of the best vertical attacks in the country. Ole Miss ranks second nationally in plays of 30-plus yards and eighth in Bill Connelly’s explosiveness rating.
But if Ole Miss wasn’t scoring from far out, it had trouble scoring at all. As the field shrank, so did the offense’s effectiveness: the Rebels rank 50th in points per trip inside opponents’ 40 yard line and just 59th in red zone scoring percentage. In the five games after Metcalf, the top deep threat, was lost to a season-ending injury, the offense’s points per trip inside the 40 dropped to just over a field goal: 3.3.
Without an elite cast of downfield playmakers, UNC fans have to wonder where Longo’s points will come from.
Not that Longo is doomed to failure in Chapel Hill.
Maybe he can make it work at the FBS level without talents like Ta’amu, Brown and Metcalf. Longo prides his system on its ability to adapt to the players within it. His offense is more balanced than that of a traditional Air Raid and his ability to generate an efficient rushing attack was one of the big reasons Freeze hired him out of the FCS ranks. Indeed, the turnaround he worked with the Rebels run game (59th in rushing S&P+ the year before Longo arrived, 15th this season) is probably his most impressive accomplishment in Oxford.
But Longo was hired to augment, not overhaul, an already successful system designed by Freeze. The pair spent seven months installing these tweaks before Freeze’s dramatic resignation in July of 2017.
It becomes difficult then, to judge how much of Longo’s success in Oxford is the result of Freeze’s system and players. With no prior FBS experience from which to draw evidence, Longo is still somewhat of an unknown, and therefore more of a risk than his gaudy Ole Miss numbers suggest.
Mack Brown is hoping the risk pays off.