The Southeastern Conference has long been known as the epitome of blue blood college football success. Year in and year out we see the best and most-talented teams come out of the SEC after having beaten up on each other for the entire season. Sure, Clemson has a claim at being the best in the league every year, and yes, Ohio State and Oklahoma typically find themselves at the top of their respective leagues, and in the national conversation at the end of each season. But the SEC has the most depth and the strongest teams across the board every year.
Although the SEC is known for winning, it hasn’t always been known for its offense, specifically passing offense. The SEC is a conference where ground-and-pound football isn’t just a thing of the past, it’s still being used to this day. Nick Saban’s Alabama team has long been the face of run-heavy offense, and some of his assistants have been brought on at other SEC schools to try to mimic his success. Most notably Kirby Smart at Georgia, Jeremy Pruitt at Tennessee, and Will Muschamp at South Carolina.
This past offseason both SEC schools in Mississippi looked to some new hires to try to revitalize their football programs. At Mississippi State Mike Leach takes over as head coach and at Ole Miss Lane Kiffin gets the reins to the program. Neither of these guys fit into the typical description of SEC coaches, as they’re not afraid to abandon old school traditions and are not afraid of answering to the press.
Similarly, their offenses buck SEC tradition as well. Mike Leach brings an air raid offense to Miss St that generates insane numbers of passing yards, while Lane Kiffin employs a high-tempo offense that features twists on simple schemes. Both have a heritage deeply tied with intense pass-heavy offenses, and many people have wondered, can they have success in the SEC?
We have seen the spread offense succeed in the SEC in the past. Steve Spurrier introduced the run-and-gun offense while the head coach of Florida in 1990. Since then numerous teams have used it successfully with their offenses posting incredible passing yard statistics.
Texas A&M threw for 4,593 yards in 2013, and 4,114 in 2012 with Johnny Manziel at the helm of a Kevin Sumlin offense. Tim Couch piloted a Hal Mumme offense at Kentucky, amassing over 8,000 passing yards in 1997 and 1998. The offensive coordinator of that Kentucky scheme? Mike Leach. We have seen Urban Meyer win two national championships at Florida using the spread offense, and we have seen Gus Malzahn blend old-school with new-school and win a championship.
How did Kiffin and Leach fare in their debuts?
On Saturday we got our first look at Lane Kiffin’s Ole Miss Rebels as they lost to Florida 51-35. The Rebs looked great on offense, and it wasn’t just the powder blue uniforms. The offense is built to find seams in coverage and gash defenses up the middle. With OC Jeff Lebby calling the plays, Ole Miss utilized play action passes and a quarterback in Matt Corral who can move his feet to move the ball up the field.
Kiffin put his stamp on this game early when he dialed up a double pass in the first quarter. Corral tossed the ball to Dontario Drummond in the flat, who set his feet and delivered a throw to wide open Jerrion Ealy behind the secondary. The offense showed it can deliver in large quantities with Corral going 22/31 with 395 yards passing and 3 touchdowns to match 13 carries for 50 yards rushing. Jerrion Ealy carried the ball 16 times for 79 yards and 1 touchdown, and adding 3 receptions for 44 yards. Elijah Moore led all receivers with 227 yards on 10 catches.
Mike Leach was the real story of the nation on Saturday, as his Miss St Bulldogs went into Baton Rouge and upset the defending champion Louisiana State Tigers. It was the first time since 1998 that the defending champion fell in its season opener.
K.J. Costello, a grad transfer from Stanford, threw the ball 60 times, and connected on 36 passes for an SEC record 623 yards and 5 touchdowns. The receiving stats were equally bonkers. Running back Kylin Hill caught the ball 8 times for 158 yds and 1 touchdown, Osirus Mitchell caught the ball 7 times for 183 yards and 2 touchdowns, and JaVonta Payton added 6 catches for 122 yards. Austin Williams and Tyrell Shavers each also caught touchdowns.
The Miss St offense was relentless. They utilized the sidelines and open parts of the middle of the field for large chunks of yardage. K.J. Costello took advantage of a depleted LSU secondary by capitalizing on wide receiver separation while also managing to fit perfect throws into tight windows. The previous single game passing record at MSU was 508 yards by Dak Prescott. The previous SEC record was set by Georgia quarterback Eric Zeier in 1993 with 544 yards.
To put these two games into perspective, last year was LSU’s most prolific offense and they averaged 401.6 passing yards per game. Alabama averaged 342.2, while Florida came in third with 300.8 passing yards per game. Ole Miss, under Kiffin, threw for 395 on Saturday, while Miss St managed 623 yards.
Can Kiffin and Leach sustain their success?
Both of these coaches have experience running successful programs. While he was the co-offensive coordinator at USC, Lane Kiffin orchestrated a season that featured the first offense with two 1,000 yard rushers, a 3,000 yard passer, and a 1,000 yard receiver. He was instrumental in creating the wrinkles in the offense that allowed Reggie Bush & co to dominate their opponents.
While he was OC at Alabama, Kiffin oversaw offenses that featured Jake Coker throwing for over 3,000 yards and Derrick Henry rushing for over 2,000. In his final season at Bama he mentored a freshman Jalen Hurts, who led the Crimson Tide to a 13-1 record and an SEC title. Most recently, at Florida Atlantic University, he took a team that had won 9 total games combined over the 3 seasons preceding his arrival and led them to two 10-win seasons and two conference titles.
Mike Leach is known for his time at Texas Tech and at Washington State, but his first flash of success was in 1999 at the University of Oklahoma. The Sooner offense had been ranked 11th in the Big 12 in 1998, and Mike Leach needed only one season to get them ranked 1st in the conference.
While at Texas Tech his teams were known for historic offenses and come-from-behind victories. In 2004 the Red Raiders came back against TCU after being down 21-0 in the second quarter, eventually winning 70-35. In 2004 he beat Nebraska 70-10, and in 2005 Texas Tech beat Texas A&M 56-17. The Red Raiders ended 2008 11-1 including a win over #1 Texas.
His time at Washington State started slow, but every year they seemed to find more success. In 2018 Leach landed graduate transfer quarterback Gardner Minshew and the two of them won a WSU record 11 games including an Alamo Bowl win vs Iowa State.
These two coaches have shown before that they can win ball games and frustrate opponents. Their offensive schemes will give SEC defensive coordinators nightmares. Both of them are hungry and have something to prove. Expect them to continue lighting it up in the SEC for years to come, and expect the landscape of power in the SEC to shift as these two push its identity in a new direction.