Who Has the Juice: Ranking Power Five Head Coaches by Passing Game Influence
Earlier this week, Optimum Scouting wrote the case for former Texas Tech head coach Kliff Kingsbury as an NFL offensive coordinator. One of the main points was how tangibly valuable his offenses are from an Adjusted Yards per Attempt (AY/A) standpoint.
So if we isolate Kingsbury’s offensive passing production, his specialty, we can measure his impact in the air at all of his stops at the college level, which is really what the NFL is looking for league-wide.
The best way to do this, in my opinion, is by tracking the Adjusted Yards per Attempt (AY/A) Value at stops when he was either a passing game coordinator, offensive coordinator or head coach.
Adjusted Yards per Attempt: (Passing Yards + (Passing Touchdowns *20) - (Interceptions * 45)) / Pass Attempts
Adjusted Yards per Attempt Value: (Team AY/A - FBS Average AY/A) * Pass Attempts
This will give us a value, in yards, of how well his team has performed on the relative scale of the rest of college football.
This prompted a slew of questions about where Coach X, Coach Y and Coach Z ranked on this relative scale of value. So, here is the AY/A Value of every current head coach in the Power Five when they were in the roles of a coordinator or head coach, specific to the side of the ball that is their specialty:
This ranking is not perfect, but you are legally obligated to read the three blurbs below, mostly explaining the oddities/limitations of this ranking system or explaining why they do not match up with common narratives, before you @ me on Twitter.
Nick Saban, Alabama
I know the first question I am going to get when I post this is “Nick Saban is not number one, so this stat is trash.” You need to understand two things here: 1) what this stat is actually measuring and 2) the difference between how easy it is to develop consistently valuable passing offenses compared to consistently valuable passing defenses.
This stat does not account for the fact that Alabama under Saban has put together quality staffs that not only produce well on the defensive end but also recruit and produce well on the offensive side of the ball. When you measure just one side of the ball, that gets lost in context. This is only measuring the influence that Saban has in his specialty, defense, and is contextless outside of that. To say the least, what Saban has set up for his offense is very different from what third-ranked coach Dana Holgorsen has set up for West Virginia's defense. Another factor in this is that since 2002, the limits for College Football Reference's school game finder, Saban has taken a trip to the NFL, limiting the years that he was producing at the college level. The cutoff of 2002 hurts Saban’s career resume, too, since he was a defensive coordinator at the FBS level for five years and a head coach for eight years before then. Trust me, I get that Saban is great at his job. I also have a functioning pair of eyes. The good news is that the vast majority of college football head coaches do not have the extensive history that Saban does.
Now onto offense versus defense. There is a substantial drop off from number six (Oklahoma State’s Mike Gundy) to number seven (South Carolina’s Will Muschamp) on this list. I think it is fair to call the top six coaches in this ranking a clear tier of value, of which Saban is the only defensive member. The most impressive thing about Saban? Damn near every other difference-making defensive mind has some sort of affiliation with him. The second-most-valuable defensive minded coach, Muschamp, was his defensive coordinator from 2002-2004 at LSU. The third-most-valuable defensive-minded coach, Georgia’s Kirby Smart, was his defensive coordinator from 2008-2015 at Alabama. The sixth-most-valuable defensive-minded coach, Michigan State’s Mark Dantonio, was his defensive backs coach from 1995 to 2000 at Michigan State. The seventh-most-valuable defensive-minded coach, Tennessee’s Jeremy Pruitt, was his defensive coordinator from 2016-2017 at Alabama.
If you look at the top-20 most-valuable coaches in the passing game, there are only two defensive-minded head coaches (California’s Justin Wilcox and TCU’s Gary Patterson) with no Saban affiliation. That shows you how much harder it is for a defensive-minded head coach like Saban to make a consistent difference compared to his offensive peers, before you even bring up the fact that he spent some time in the NFL, the fact that he had pre-2002 contributions and the fact that he has consistently put his offense in a position to succeed, too.
Kevin Sumlin, Arizona
Yes, Sumlin is in the top tier of coaches here. No, it has not been because of recent performance, though that is probably better than you are giving it credit for. Here is the year-by-year look at Sumlin’s numbers when he has held a qualifying role at the FBS level:
That 2015-2017 stretch at Texas A&M left us with a bad taste in our mouth, but Sumlin’s overall resume is still amazing, which is why he did not have to wait long before a Power Five team came calling for him. His first year at Arizona, while squeezing the square peg of dual-threat quarterback Khalil Tate into the round hole of his pass-heavy offense, yielded similar results to the 2006 Oklahoma offense the year before they finished the season fourth in value in 2007 and the 2010 Houston offense the year before they finished the season first in value in 2011.
Unless you think that Sumlin has completely lost his magic, to a point which we really have no precedent for, he and Arizona are probably going to get this thing cranking up sooner rather than later.
James Franklin, Penn State and Willie Taggart, Florida State
These are two of the biggest names in the sport right now, mostly because of their program construction. James Franklin was rumored as a potential architect for the USC Trojans before they came out and said they were sticking with Clay Helton. Willie Taggart brought modern recruiting pushes to Oregon in his only season there.
With that being said, they are both offensive-minded head coaches who have been places where their passing offenses have not really performed well overall. There is just no way around that fact.
Here is what Franklin’s resume looks like:
The big worry here is that the 2016-2017 seasons that have largely developed the picture of him in the mind of most college football fans may have been more Joe Moorhead, the former Penn State offensive coordinator and current Mississippi State head coach, and less Franklin. In the 11 seasons when Franklin has held a coordinator or head coaching position without Moorhead, his passing offenses have only had a top-50 finish twice.
If your offensive-minded head coach cannot consistently finish in the top-50 in passing value every year, you have a problem on your hands. With quarterback Trace McSorley (the quarterback who has landed Franklin two of his four top-50 finishes) graduating, 2019 will be a very important temperature check for Franklin.
Here is what Taggart’s resume looks like:
Taggart’s motto is strike when the iron is hot. In nine years as a head coach, he’s had four top-60 finishes in passing value. He left for a new job immediately after a top-60 finish three times out of four, working his way up from Western Kentucky to South Florida to Oregon and finally Florida State. The bad news? The other five seasons had him finishing 90th, 94th, 119th, 92nd and 95th in passing value.
Taggart’s passing offenses have started off slow at every one of his head coaching stops, so 2018 Florida State should not have been much of a surprise, but it will be interesting to see if his two top-30 finishes in 2015 and 2016 at South Florida were more of a fluke or a trend of what his offense does when it is finally settled in.