Tommy Tuberville and Charles Darwin: Bringing the Adapt or Die Mentality to Cincinnati's Offense

In the world of college football nothing epitomizes a successful coach like the phrase “survival of the fittest”  made famous by Charles Darwin. Or for those of you who didn’t take 7th grade science, you might be more familiar with the quote “adapt or die” by Brad Pitt in the movie Moneyball. Regardless of the source, the best coaches in the country and the ones who stick around to coach for 3 – 5 – 10 years or more continuously tweak their system and stay ahead of the curve to continue their winning ways.

On the smallest scale this means constantly making adjustments play to play given what coverage the defense or formation the offense shows. It also means making halftime adjustments and subbing in the correct personnel depending upon what the coach thinks will or won’t work. And the best coaches know how to make these changes on the fly that usually lead to big swings in momentum for their team.

On a macro level for coaches to avoid the unemployment line they have to assure they can ride the waves of program-wide change such as assistants leaving, upheaval in the athletic department, and conference realignment. In addition they must constantly adapt to their changing personnel given there is turnover at key positions every couple of years. This is far different from the NFL where good quarterbacks, for example, are locked in for a full decade or more, sometimes. This is the primary aspect of Tommy Tuberville’s recent career that has been the biggest challenge to him and perhaps allowed him to avoid the unemployment line himself for a long period of time.

In just over 6 years he will have adjusted from operating a more traditional run-first offense to the air raid and now potentially the read option. They are three drastically different schemes and each can be extremely difficult to implement. But once operated correctly they can be a nightmare for defenses to stop and despite the change he’s been very successful in his previous two stops running wildly different offenses.

While at Auburn Tuberville had excellent runningbacks in Cadillac Williams, Ronnie Brown, and Kenny Irons. He also boasted large offensive lines as prominent in the SEC and especially at a top tier program like the Tigers. As such he emphasized the running game that controlled the tempo of the game and kept his defense fresh. After all, Tuberville is a man who loves his defense and wanted the protect it the best he could. The strong rushing attack led him far, including an undefeated record and a Sugar Bowl victory in 2004. But by 2007 opposing coaches began wising up to his schemes and he had to try something different. So he hired a spread guru in Tony Franklin to guide the new high-powered attack.

Tuberville loved the new offense at first but as he continued to experiment with the pass-first version of the spread it became an utter disaster for the Tigers.  Perhaps no game illustrated just how out of whack Auburn’s new offense was than a 3 – 2 victory over the Mississippi State Bulldogs. Again, in football. Quarterback Chris Todd passed for just 154 yards in perhaps the most boring college football game of the past decade. A perennial BCS bowl participant, Auburn limped to a 5 – 7 final record. It was the exact opposite of what Tigers fans had expected.

The problem was that Tuberville dabbled in in the spread, never going all in. It was theorized by those who followed Auburn closely that he never trusted it enough to implement it fully. As a result the Tiger offense never developed an identity throughout the season, they struggled to move the ball, and ultimately it cost Tuberville his job.

But when he was hired at Texas Tech he implemented the Air Raid version of the spread almost out of necessity. The Red Raiders had just fired Mike Leach and possessed a roster full of players hand picked to run his pass-happy offense. Tuberville had no other choice but to go all in with the Air Raid. To smooth the transition he hired Troy offensive coordinator Neal Brown who studied the high flying offensive attack under Leach during their time at Kentucky. It was an excellent choice and was even smarter one consider Tuberville was more hands off with the offense this time around. He essentially gave Brown the keys to the offense letting him manage it as he saw fit.

Embracing the Air Raid and hiring Brown not only proved Tuberville’s adaptability but most importantly continued Texas Tech’s dangerous passing attack. During his three years as head coach, the Red Raiders finished at or near the top of the Big 12 in passing yards and touchdowns. For a conference with teams that always put up gaudy numbers on offense that says a lot.

Now Tuberville is coming to Cincinnati that while operating the spread formation under Butch Jones, emphasized a run heavy attack a la Rich Rod at West Virginia. Even more so it forced quarterbacks to be extremely intelligent in not only the passing game but the running game. Of course when they’re asked to sling it, QB’s must read defenses pre- and post-snap then work their way through their progressions. But in Jones’ system they are a vital part of the running game unlike in other offenses where coaches are constantly telling them before each play whether they will pass the ball, run it themselves, or hand it off to the runningback.

Under Jones the quarterback must read a crashing defensive end after the snap much like they read coverage when passing the ball. It can be difficult to learn and taxing on a player if he’s not used to being so involved in the running game. But Cincinnati’s quarterbacks have spent 3 years understanding the intricacies of a system that won Jones two Big East Championships with the Bearcats.

As such there’s a strong possibility, given the success UC has had operating this system, Tuberville might be inclined to bring in an offensive coordinator who understands the read option. I originally assumed given where he came from that Tuberville would install the Air Raid that made Texas Tech so dangerous. However given his history of repeatedly changing his offense to find the right system to win football games he might stick with the read option at UC. This could be especially true with Neal Brown returning the Air Raid to Kentucky.

Remember, Tuberville is a defensive minded coach who wants to protect his players on that side of the ball first and foremost. I’m of the belief that the main reason he kept using the Air Raid at Texas Tech was to prevent a monumental shakeup that would cost the Red Raiders games. He knew his personnel was made for a pass-happy system and if he installed a more balanced offense or, God forbid the I-formation, it would take years for Texas Tech to bring in the right players to run it. Unfortunately his defense suffered mightily as they generally do on teams whose offense is built to score quickly.

The Bearcats however found a happy medium in a spread offense that lined up multiple receivers on the field and operated out of the shotgun but ran the ball and ate up the clock. But it was also uptempo and had the ability to produce big runs or pass the ball all over the field if it wanted to. So by keeping the read option Tuberville could protect his defense but also score points in bunches.

When it comes to the coaching search he could go a number of different routes. Ideally I’d like him to shell out some cash and bring Mike Bajakian back. The man knows the read option inside and out plus garners instant credibility with UC’s players. But he and Butch Jones are attached at the hip and could use his coordinator job at Tennessee to catapult him into a head coaching position a few years from now. If that doesn’t work out and Tuberville opted to maintain these schemes he should focus his search on those assistants around the country who have worked with Rich Rodriguez or Chip Kelly.

But it’s clear that Tuberville isn’t in danger of being fired by Cincinnati anytime in the near future. He knows he can survive the lumps of a disappointing 2013 season if there are growing pains adjusting to a new system. While Tuberville focuses on defense and will want to protect it, I think he’ll still continue the Bearcats’ trend of operating out of the spread. It just makes the most sense right now. Whether that means Air Raid, read option, or West coast remains to be seen but I have all the confidence in the world in him hiring the right man to lead this offense.

Afterall the man has adjusted mightily over the years and continues to be one of the most well regarded coaches in the game.

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