Mailbag: Riley, Oklahoma State, Huff, and why The Media missed on Jedd Fisch
It's Week 11. Let's answer a bunch of questions.
Split Zone Duo is a podcast. It will always be a podcast. But we’ve wanted for a while to use the written word around here, too. All three of us are writers by trade, and we’ve figured there’s no good reason we can’t sometimes answer questions or tell stories with text instead of audio. So here we are, with the first of many newsletters to come. Sometimes these will be columns or mini-columns. Other times, like this time, we’ll just answer a few audience questions. If a cute name arises at some point to replace “mailbag,” fantastic.
Thanks to everyone who submitted questions after Week 10 in our Substack Chat thread. We’ll keep distributing those calls for questions as we go forward. And a reminder for paying subscribers who were with us on Patreon: If you haven’t done so yet, you’ll need to add your payment information to stay subscribed beyond December 3. It takes just a few seconds, and you won’t be billed until December as long as you use the same email address you did before. Please let us know if you have questions. Speaking of questions …
Carmen C. asks: Why is Charles Huff seemingly the most bandied-about coaching name in the Sun Belt?
A few things are at play with Marshall’s head coach. One is that he’s a branch on some pretty well-regarded trees. He has the Nick Saban stamp, having spent a few years (one of them a national title season) as Nick’s assistant head coach and running backs guy. He was Penn State’s tailbacks coach during some very good Saquon Barkley/James Franklin years. And he’s been coaching college ball for a while; Huff is 40, and his first job was at Tennessee State in 2006, when he was all of 23. The “ready for the next step” bona fides are pretty strong.
Huff has also won some pretty notable games at Marshall, chiefly the upset of Notre Dame last year. That raises eyebrows, and so does Marshall having one of the best defenses in the country in 2022. That’s not Huff’s side of the ball, but it’s indicative of good program management when a team is great at something the head coach doesn’t major in. The fly in the ointment is that when Marshall hasn’t been giant-killing, Huff’s teams have been just OK. This season is a good example, as a win over Virginia Tech gave way two weeks later to the start of what’s currently a five-game losing streak. It’d be pretty incongruent if Huff parlayed this year into an ACC head coaching job. But the lack of consistent success is also part of the deal: Jon Sumrall at Troy would probably get a bit more buzz this cycle if he weren’t doing so well that he can afford to be very choosy about which next gig he takes. Huff may lack that luxury.
Ben asks: Beyond the usual Mike Gundy discourse ...what exactly has changed at OSU to mark this turnaround?
Three things stick out:
The defense isn’t great, but two disastrous games against South Alabama and Iowa State weren’t indicative of how things were going to be. There was a case of the Septembers happening there. The defense has also gotten lucky that the offense and kicking game have produced a lot of long fields for opposing offenses, so some big yards-per-play figures haven’t stung.
The offense stopped playing three QBs, one of whom shares a last name with the head man. The one who still plays, Alan Bowman, is the best one. He’s not a star, but he distributes the ball in the same good-enough tradition of [insert Gundy QB who went on to a nondescript but real NFL career].
They started giving Ollie Gordon the ball. That was a good idea. Gordon had 19 carries for 109 yards the first three weeks. He has 155 for 1,116 in the past six, and that’s included three games against teams with at least a pretty good idea of defense (Iowa State, Kansas State, and—incredibly—Oklahoma).
Dan asks: Can we get a refresher (at some point) on the current rules of bringing in transfers/roster management? Colorado is a good example because I believe they got basically an exemption to bring in/push out whomever because Sanders was 1st year HC but I thought they would not be able to do the same during this offseason (but I also feel like a new rule was passed that did away with head-counts per year)?
The NCAA passed a rule a few years ago that allows newly hired head coaches to run players off the roster as long as the university honors their scholarships. Lincoln Riley used the rule to ruthless effect when he got to USC, and Sanders at least used the threat of it at Colorado. (I don’t know how many of their runoffs are still taking classes in Boulder but not on the team.) That rule helps coaches quickly turn over their roster upon taking over, and it’s part of why I think “Year Zero” is a concept on its deathbed. Sanders will still benefit from the end of annual “initial counter” limits, which removed a major incentive to not overdo it in the transfer portal. But it will not be as straightforward for him to reshuffle the roster for 2024 as it was for 2023. The good news: He’ll be starting from a better place. Building on a 5-7 team is better than building on 1-11.
Shikhar asks: Is USC ACTUALLY just a slightly better DC away from being playoff-ready? Is it really just that simple and Lincoln Riley’s hubris in keeping Alex Grinch is what’s holding the team back? Or is it a deeper problem where the offense scheme is built in such a way that no good DC wants to be on the other side (similar to how DCs felt about Phil Longo)?
I don’t believe that Riley having good offenses is an impediment to his teams having good defenses. Riley is not a tempo coach, something that people occasionally get twisted in a world where “good offense” is sometimes thought to equal “fast offense.” USC does score pretty quickly and the defense does have to play a lot (13 possessions per game), but it’s not likely that the defense is gassed every time it’s on the field and struggling because. of the offense. Caleb Williams very rarely goes three-and-out on them. USC is bad at defense because Riley has staffed his defense badly and hasn’t recruited defense as well as he’s recruited offense. A lot of those players just aren’t the answer. So getting rid of Alex Grinch was necessary but not sufficient.
Josh P. asks: How likely is it that this is Lincoln Riley’s last year at USC? Seems like there have been some weird whispers out of LA the last couple weeks.