When Oklahoma meets Georgia in the College Football Playoff semifinal at the Rose Bowl Game Presented by Northwestern Mutual on Monday, it will be a “styles make fights” battle in the truest sense. There’s Georgia, with its elite defense and run-heavy, pro-style offense, against the Sooners, running a version of the offense that Hal Mumme and Mike Leach once cooked up at Iowa Wesleyan and Valdosta State.
As the Air Raid’s prevalence grew in college football over the past two decades, its champions were positioned opposite its share of critics, who pointed to its effect on its teams’ defenses, the lesser frequency at which such teams ran the football and, ultimately, the difficulty winning titles at the FBS levels by teams that used it.
Oklahoma — the one team that has accomplished the feat — is in the College Football Playoff for the second time in three years running the scheme, and what has made the offense championship-caliber are three things: Baker Mayfield, the pure talent the Sooners have and taking the “air” out of the Air Raid. In other words, evolving the run game enough to strike the balance many coaches deem necessary to win the big prize.
The mastery of wunderkind head coach Lincoln Riley — who learned the offense under Leach more than a decade ago at Texas Tech — has pitted his idealized version of the offense on a large stage, a case study in whether this iteration of the scheme can win the big one.
“There’s no question who I’m rooting for,” Mumme said.
The Air Raid, as Mumme puts it today, “has always been an attitude more than it has been a playbook.” The ideas behind it were simple: take the two-minute offense that teams seem to run so successfully at the end of a half or a game and run it the whole time. Toss out the inches-thick playbooks and run a small handful of concepts over and over until it becomes second nature. And most of all, throw it all over the yard and have some fun.
Its uniqueness in its infancy was designed to build a better mousetrap: when you don’t have the most talent and you can’t go through the other team, go around them. At its heart, it was a scheme for programs that weren’t traditional powers and didn’t top recruiting rankings.
Two decades ago, Mumme and Leach famously crashed the SEC at Kentucky with the offense, then Bob Stoops hired Leach to bring it to Oklahoma. After a year of success and Leach’s departure to take the Texas Tech head coaching job, Stoops and then-offensive coordinator Mark Mangino won a national title with it in 2000.
Following that and Leach’s unprecedented success in Lubbock, it hatched a national curiosity as well as a tree of coaches whose branches continue to grow today. For example, the 2007 Texas Tech coaching staff included Leach, offensive coordinator Dana Holgorsen, running backs coach Seth Littrell and receivers coach Lincoln Riley. Holgorsen (West Virginia), Littrell (North Texas) and Riley are all head coaches now. Those teams all run it, as do countless high schools across the country.
Every coach’s goal in the offense is the same: score points at all costs.
“What I want the most is I wanna lead in first downs,” said Leach, now the coach at Washington State. “I wanna lead in third-down conversions. And I want to lead in number of plays … the most important thing, above all things, is points.”
The offense has done that successfully, year after year. A team running the scheme has ranked in the top five nationally in scoring offense each of the past 10 years and led the country four times. (Oklahoma, this season, is fourth, averaging 44.9 points per game).
Under Riley, the Sooners have remained true to the core tenets of the offense, running many of the base passing concepts. Leach said of all the coaches running the system now, “Lincoln is probably the closest to me.”
“You can turn on the film every week and the same plays we ran in 1999, those plays will be there each week,” said Littrell, who played for the Sooners under Leach and on the 2000 national title team.
Said Chris Brown, editor of SmartFootball.com and author of “The Art of Smart Football”: “The bones of the offense are really similar … how the offense is constructed, the allocation of responsibility among the playcaller, the quarterback, the offensive line, the center to identify fronts, how they practice it, the emphasis, the route structures.”
And yet, Riley — like most Air Raid disciples — has elements that also look quite a bit different, too.
The Sooners who have a Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback, led the Big 12 in rushing this year, averaging 215 yards per game. How have the Sooners done it? For starters, they have good running backs and a great offensive line but have evolved beyond just the inside zone and outside zone running plays that were the primary staples of the offense in its early days.
In 2015, after the Sooners averaged less than four yards per carry in four of their first five games primarily running only inside zone and outside zone, it became clear that they needed to expand. Riley and offensive line coach Bill Bedenbaugh, developed new concepts that the Sooners added to their scheme and the Sooners now use the counter run as well. As a result, the Sooners have also installed pass plays off of those run concepts that have made the offense more diverse.
“Once they started to do that, and added RPOs (run-pass options), that’s when the offense exploded,” Brown said. “And Baker came into his own.”
And it’s not always a one-back, four wide-receiver set anymore — which most associate as the purest version of the offense, the formation that Leach popularized — that the Sooners are running now. The Sooners used two running backs — something Mumme used to do at Kentucky — 22.7 percent of the time (202 of 898 offensive snaps). They used one running back and four receivers 33 percent of the time (297 snaps).
“They have a really creative staff,” said Troy coach Neal Brown, an Air Raid disciple who played for Mumme and coached with fellow acolyte Tony Franklin. “They continue to do, what I think are a lot of cutting-edge things.”
Holgorsen, who helped usher in an emphasis on the run game in his time at Houston as Kevin Sumlin’s offensive coordinator, is someone several Air Raid coaches point to as one who advanced that part of the offense, as well as accelerating the tempo and adding shifts and motions to it. Riley, who had Joe Mixon and Samaje Perine the past two years, and Rodney Anderson, Trey Sermon and Abdul Adams this year, has seemingly evolved the running schemes in the offense even further.
Why was such an emphasis necessary to an offense that was born to throw the football?
“I think it gives you an opportunity to win,” Neal Brown said. “There’s a lot less that can go wrong on a running play sometimes, you know what I mean?”
Said Littrell: “It puts a lot of pressure on the O-line when you’re sitting back, throwing it 50-60 times a game. If that’s what you have to do to win a game, we’ve got to do it. … But there’s going to be a point in the season, and it always happens — I don’t care how good your quarterback is — where that quarterback is slightly off. You’re not going to be perfect for 12-14 weeks in a row.”
That brings us back to Monday night in Pasadena. For all the points the offense generates, one other common thread is that those team’s defenses typically aren’t elite. The Sooners fall into that category this year. The four playoff teams rank as follows in scoring defense: first (Alabama), second (Clemson), third (Georgia) and 52nd (Oklahoma).
Since 2000, the only team to rank worse than 50th in scoring defense and win a national championship was Auburn, in 2010, quarterbacked by another Heisman Trophy winner, Cam Newton. Only three other champions have ranked outside the top 10 in that statistic, meaning 13 of the past 17 national champions — 2000 Oklahoma included — have sported top-10 defenses.
The coaches who are proponents of the offense, predictably, reject the notion that it handicaps your ability to win a title. Leach cites the 2000 Oklahoma team, the current one, as well as Division II national champion Texas A&M-Commerce and NFL teams, such as the New England Patriots, which Leach said runs an offense “very, very, very, very similar.”
Maybe even more than defense, championships in college football are about talent. The teams running this usually don’t have the talent that the bluebloods do. Oklahoma is the best shot. It’s the best marriage of the system and the type of recruiting needed to make a national title run.
“I think it’s a criticism the Air Raid will face until it produces a few championships,” Chris Brown said. “I don’t know that it’s an entirely fair criticism. I think the No. 1 driver of what wins a national championship is what your recruiting rankings look like. There’s a small universe of teams that have those kinds of players.
“To point to a Texas Tech, a Washington State, Houston or West Virginia and say ‘the Air Raid doesn’t win national championships’ well, no kidding. Nothing else has won national championships at those places either.”
The Sooners do have those kinds of players. So, can they do it?
“Absolutely,” Neal Brown said. “And if they don’t win it, it won’t be because they’re a so-called ‘Air Raid’ school. That’ll have zero to do with it.”