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A statistical evaluation of Rich Rodriguez’s Arizona offenses

The new Ole Miss offensive coordinator’s days in Tucson hint at what we’ll see in Oxford.

NCAA Football: UCLA at Arizona Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

After hiring two former national Coach of the Year winners as coordinators this offseason, it’s pretty clear that Matt Luke wants to fill the staff with proven commodities rather than undervalued up-and-comers. While Mike MacIntyre was generally seen as a solid hire amid the recent defensive ineptitude in Oxford, picking up Rich Rodriguez to helm the offense was inarguably the splashier one.

Since 2005, Rodriguez has produced seven top-30 offenses according to S&P+, including four in the top 12, so the hype is at least somewhat warranted. But considering his most consistently dominant groups came out of Morgantown more than a decade ago, it’s not overly cynical to think his best days are behind him. What was once an innovative offensive style is now the norm in college football, a reality he’s become fully aware of in recent years.

Regardless, it’s hardly ever a bad thing to acquire the guy who pioneered the zone read and hurry-up offense, and his experience at both the NAIA and FBS level should manifest itself in a more adaptive, sophisticated game plan week-to-week.

When trying to forecast how he’ll adjust at Ole Miss, his recent stint as the head coach of Arizona (2012-17) might be more relevant than anything else.

Rich Rod’s Arizona offenses were all about the big play.

Here’s how his last four offenses fared from a high-level perspective.

Arizona Offensive S&P+: 2014-2017

Year Offensive S&P+ Rank Efficiency (Success Rate) Rank Explosiveness (IsoPPP) Rank
Year Offensive S&P+ Rank Efficiency (Success Rate) Rank Explosiveness (IsoPPP) Rank
2014 32 40.4% 79 0.88 46
2015 28 42.9% 49 1.39 17
2016 61 39.5% 102 1.40 14
2017 8 44.5% 33 1.40 8

While his offenses at Arizona didn’t finish every year as a prolific unit, one pattern held constant: they always relied on chunk plays over down-to-down efficiency. Arguing whether or not that’s a good or bad thing isn’t a productive exercise, but one way of interpreting it is that when they found success, they capitalized on it more than most teams. A less rosy view is that being this inconsistent moving the ball against Pac-12 defenses doesn’t bode well for a transition to the SEC.

It is worth noting how much uncertainty at quarterback (partly through injuries) Rodriguez dealt with his last few years in Tucson, and as chaotic as the Ole Miss program appears on most fronts, he should be be entering a situation of relative stability at the position. Once Khalil Tate became the guy at Arizona, the offense was humming. Provided Matt Corral is a good fit, which he should be, this unit could have a pretty high floor.

What’s perhaps most unique about Rodriguez’s offense is just how much its explosiveness was reliant on the ground game — at least in some years — given that big plays tend to happen more through the air for most teams. Of the top 10 offenses in IsoPPP from 2017, Arizona’s was the only one to have an adjusted run rate of more than 60 percent. Essentially, they were able to mitigate turnover risk by sticking to the ground more without sacrificing big play potential. Tate led all FBS players with 10.7 yards per carry (excluding sacks) that year, and the Wildcats ranked third in rushing IsoPPP.

That’s another good mesh point with the current Ole Miss roster: Scottie Phillips ranked fourth among SEC players in runs of 20 or more yards.

Rodriguez likes to run the dang ball.

The run rates of his Arizona offense rose steadily from 2014 to 2017, maxing out at over 64 percent in his final season.

Arizona Offensive Footprint: 2014-2017

Year Adjusted Run Rate Rank Adjusted Pace Rank
Year Adjusted Run Rate Rank Adjusted Pace Rank
2014 45.3% 103 -4.9 2
2015 45.5% 105 -4.4 23
2016 58.6% 22 2.5 87
2017 64.1% 15 -3 13
Adjusted Run Rate measures the intent of play-calling by looking at standard downs and passing downs run rates and calibrating so that every team has the same amount of each type of down. Adjusted Pace compares a team’s tempo to its expected tempo (based on run-pass rates) and is measured in actual vs. expected time between plays.

It’s no secret that some of Rodriguez’s best offenses were run-first, dating back to his pre-West Virginia days. Every year since 2005, they’ve ranked higher nationally in rushing S&P+ than passing. Understandably, concerns about an abrupt shift from the air raid to a run-heavy scheme may come up, but a dramatic identity change isn’t necessarily in the cards.

Of course, his offensive blueprint is primarily rooted in his own contributions to the zone read, but even just his stint at Arizona proved he can adapt to personnel. With an explosive runner in Tate, the Wildcats were run-heavy, but he maximized his throws, posting the 10th best yards per attempt (8.9) among QB’s with 15 or more passes per game in 2017. With a more loaded receiving corps a few years prior, they were quite the opposite, ranking outside the top 100 in adjusted run rate but had two quarterbacks who could run, each putting up more than 10 highlight yards per opportunity in 2015.

Ole Miss will be be fielding a lot of new starters on this side of the ball in 2019, but what we do know about the mix of talent in Oxford suggests there’s no reason to not take a more balanced approach than the previous two seasons under Phil Longo.

What won’t feel like as much of a change will be Rodriguez’s up-tempo style, as he’s been as much an innovator at leveraging pace as he has with the read option. Ever since Hugh Freeze’s arrival seven years ago, the no-huddle has been a staple of the Rebel offense, but the highest Ole Miss has ever ranked in adjusted pace is 27th in 2018, so this will be a new gear for them.

In a sense, the spread principles Rich Rod is bringing shouldn’t be seen as anything new to Rebel fans, but perhaps the way they’re executed will be. He is most definitely going to be overhyped before a down of football is played, but there’s reason to be at least cautiously optimistic.