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Ole Miss has all 5 elements of the optimal college football offense

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Longo Ball was lights out last season. Can it keep the Rebels afloat again in 2018?

Vanderbilt v Mississippi Photo by Michael Chang/Getty Images

Football Study Hall recently postulated that there are five elements that make an optimal college football offense: quarterback as a run threat, optionality, simplicity, space, and pace.

Combining these principles create synergies that actually lead to more significant advantages, both at the tactical and strategic level. None of the core principles are going to be new to anybody who is familiar with offensive football, but the view of how they fit together and stack up into new advantages might be.

Despite losing its head coach two months before the season and its star quarterback midway through, the Ole Miss offense finished 9th in offensive S&P+ in 2018, gobbling up over 462 yards and 33 points per game. With an experienced O-line, a proven QB, and the best wide receiver corps in the country, it’s expected to be even better during offensive coordinator Phil Longo’s second season.

That’s because the Rebel offense has all five elements identified by Football Study Hall.

1. QB as a run threat

“Establishing the QB as a running threat forces the defense to account for the QB in the running game, whether he keeps the ball or not,” notes Study Hall. “That shifts the defense’s advantage from two unblocked men to one.”

Red Cup’s Will Gates recently applied this to Ole Miss quarterback Jordan Ta’amu.

His emergence as a running threat proved critical to opening up the passing game by creating a numbers advantage and forcing defenses to maintain a presence in the box. Among the team’s returning rushers, Ta’amu leads with 6.3 yards per carry last season, and despite starting in only games, he ran the ball 16 more times than Shea Patterson did (4.3 yards per carry).

That running threat has a direct correlation to big plays through the air: according to Pro Football Focus, Ta’amu led the nation in yards per attempt off play-action passes.

While Ta’amu’s numbers on the ground seem fairly pedestrian, (57 attempts for 165 yards and 4 touchdowns) the threat he presents to defenses is what makes him the most dangerous. Furthermore, with sacks out of the equation, J.T. ran for 247 yards, good for 4.3 yards per carry. What is even more impressive, is Ta’amu netted 181 more rushing yards than his predecessor, in two fewer games.

Ta’amu may not have the athleticism of Matt Jones or Michael Vick, but in a system as multiple and simple as Longo’s, the threat is all that’s needed.

2. Optionality

As college football fans, we typically think of the word option in terms of a specific play call: the old option pitch of the early 2000’s or the more modern read-option or run-pass option. But, the element of optionality as defined by Study Hall could be anything from “reading a defender in the run game, incorporating option routes in the passing game, utilizing pre-snap hot reads based on tags, utilizing RPO’s, or simply allowing the QB to change the play at the line of scrimmage.”

“Each of these... share one common theme: they are designed to punish a defense for its choices by attacking it at a vulnerable spot.”

That sentence is the core tenet of Longo’s offense, which is constructed top to bottom to take what the defense allows. His offense operates on pre-snap reads, option routes, and the ability of the quarterback, as well as receivers, to adjust on the fly. Ta’amu’s athleticism and the introduction of the read-option and RPO (run-pass option) into this hot route heaven makes things that much tougher for the defense.

Mississippi v Alabama
D.K. Metcalf might be Ole Miss’ most terrifying option.
Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

3. Simplicity

We’ve all heard the jokes about how Longoball’s offense consists of just 11 plays. Or was it seven?

But, maybe Longo is onto something. College players are notoriously overworked. They get up early for weightlifting, attend class, practice in the afternoon, and after all of that attend mandatory tutoring in the evenings. Learning a playbook the size of Atlas Shrugged just isn’t possible.

Forcing a complex offense onto a team of 18-22 year-olds means more time for studying the playbook and thinking about their assignments which can in turn leads to even more mistakes on the field.

That simple offense helped make the transition easier for Jordan Ta’amu when he was thrown into the fire last season. It should also allow true freshman Matt Corral to be brought along quickly in case of an injury, or at the very least be ready to take over as QB1 in 2019.

4. Space

A.J. Brown, D.K. Metcalf, DaMarkus Lodge, Dawson Knox and the rest of Ole Miss’ loaded receiving corps do more than just make big plays through the air. They also open up space for the ground attack.

Last season, Ole Miss running backs accounted for 1,463 yards of offense and finished 29th in rushing S&P+, up from just 1,220 yards and a ranking of 59th in 2016.

Getting senior running back Jordan Wilkins back on the team was a big boost in 2017. And with that, Longo was able to spread the field wide which gave his running backs and quarterbacks space by taking away key defenders. The 2016 team ranked 65th in IsoPPP (a measure of big plays on successful attempts) while the 2017 team was 25th nationally.

A lot of that success can be attributed to defenses focusing on the wide receiving corps and leaving the middle of the field a bit more open. You need more blockers than the defense has tacklers, but according to Josh Hermsmeyer of AirYards.com, the key to a more successful offense is much more correlated with taking defenders out of the equation rather than adding blockers.

Arkansas v Mississippi
Keep it simple, Jordan, we beg of you.
Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

5. Pace

When we talk about pace, we’re not just referring to running a hurry-up, no-huddle with the gas pushed to the floor. Shifting pace can be used in different ways: speeding things up can keep a defense off balance and unable to sub fresh bodies, while slowing things down can help control the game and protect a lead.

Here’s how Longo’s pace changed in different scenarios:

Tempo by Situation: Ole Miss Offense, 2017

Possessions Winning/Losing By Avg. # of Plays Avg. Time of Possession (Seconds) Time between Plays
Possessions Winning/Losing By Avg. # of Plays Avg. Time of Possession (Seconds) Time between Plays
Down 3+ 4.5 111 24.7
Down 2 6.9 123 17.8
Down 1 6.6 112 19.9
Tied 5.2 98 19.1
Up 1 5 113 22.5
Up 2 4 83 20.8
Up 3+ 5.6 103 18.5
Garbage time is excluded.

This season’s pace will more than likely be dictated by the JUCO transfer running back Scottie Phillips, who will run behind an O-line that returns four of its five starters from a year ago.

We all know about the warts on the defensive side of the ball. But with a balanced, explosive offense that possesses all five elements, the Rebels should find themselves in plenty of games.