The Clemson Tigers are the biggest surprise of the first half of the 2011 college football season. The Tigers were unranked in the AP preseason poll. They didn't even register a single vote. Twenty-three teams outside of the Top 25 even got one vote, including Maryland, N.C. State and Miami.
Entering the season, Clemson coach Dabo Swinney was on the hot seat. In what what a rather bold move, Swinney handed the keys to his offense over to Chad Morris, a 42-year-old long-time Texas high school coach, who had all of one season of college experience, at Tulsa. To say the new Tigers offensive coordinator has had a huge impact would be an understatement. The 6-0 Tigers are 19th in total offense and 31st in scoring, up from 88th and 86th, which helps explain why they've already matched last season's win total. So for the latest installment of Stats That Matter, I figured it was a great time to find out what number Chad Morris really puts a premium on.
"Total snaps," Morris said without any hesitation as soon as I began to explain the concept of the column. "We want 80 or more. If can snap the ball 80 times or more, we've only lost one time since we put this offense in, back in 2004 and that one loss was in the first year of the system. We snapped it 99 times and got beat."
Morris' Stephenville High School team in Texas lost to Wichita Falls Rider High 63-56, he said.
"We feel like like it does a lot of things for us," Morris said. "By getting 80 or more, it tells us that we've had great tempo through the course of the game. We have a chance to wear down a defense. Obviously if you've had 80 snaps, you're having success because you look at your average scoring and it's about one out of every 15 to 18 snaps. Your conversion rates go up. All of that stuff. Everything works hand-in-hand. It's just something we target. We chart it every day. I know at halftime if we have 44 snaps, you double it, and I know we're on track."
The hand-in-hand part goes like this: The added pace that enables Morris' offense to get into a rhythm also takes a physical and emotional toll on the defense, which ups the frequency of the Tigers hitting more big plays as the game wears on. Defenders wilt, becoming more prone to busted assignments and just having trouble getting lined up before the ball is snapped and end up caught out of position. "There's no question about that," he says. "We've doubled the output of big plays in six games from what they had this time last year just because of what we're doing tempo wise."
Even though the Tigers seem to be thriving, they are technically about one snap per game on average below Morris' magic number. "We're averaging 79.1 snaps a game," he says. "We're pretty close to what we want."
In the Tigers first two games, the players, especially first-time starting QB Tajh Boyd, were still getting up to speed, literally. They ran off 72 snaps in each. But they followed up that by rolling up 92 snaps against FSU and Auburn. At Virginia Tech, they fell back to 67.
"Well, 'OK, why didn't we get 80?'" asks Morris, who actually has a bachelor's degree in mathematics and a minor in statistics. "Then the next stat we look at is the number of three-and-outs. For every three-and-out that you get, you take three snaps away that we figure you probably would've gotten at a minimum. So at Virginia Tech, we had seven three-and-outs, which is 21 snaps for the game that we figure we didn't get. Or let's just say we cut that down to three three-and-outs instead of seven, that's 12 more snaps you pick up, which basically puts us at our number.
"We talk to our players about this stuff religiously. It's 'Tempo! Tempo!' every day. We always talk to our quarterback and our center because they're the ones who control the tempo of the game."
Factored into Morris' math are plays that may not officially count because they get nullified by a penalty, but the coach still adds them to the tab.
Morris developed his system after spending time about a decade ago learning from another wildly successful coach in the Southwest, Gus Malzahn. "Eighty snaps is the targeted number that both Gus and I have talked about. It's something we've worked together on. He's been using it, and obviously he shared with me."
Other up-tempo guys may focus on a different key number. Former West Virginia and Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez's barometer for his offense was first downs, and his target number was 25, because, he told me Tuesday, if you don't get those first downs, you can't ramp up tempo.
Asked what the biggest difference are between what Morris is doing and what Malzahn does now, the Clemson coach said: I think there's a little bit of difference with what we do. Right now, he's running a little bit of more gap-scheme than we are. We're more of a zone-scheme. They run more counter and power. But the next year you may change it because that's the old high school coach in you because you have to adapt to what you've got."
In Clemson's case, it helps in their zone scheme to have a dynamic running back like 190-pound Andre Ellington, who is very suited to what they're doing. "It doesn't require you to have guys that just blow people off the ball up front," Morris said of the zone scheme.
The comparisons between Malzahn and Morris, who clearly has benefitted from the path the Auburn coach has paved, are obvious. Of course, having the personnel to make things sizzle is key. Without Cam Newton and an experienced O-line, Auburn is ranked 80th in total offense and 64th in scoring, down from seventh in both in 2010. Morris, meanwhile, inherited a pretty gifted triggerman when he got to Clemson in sophomore Tajh Boyd, a 6-1, 225-pound former blue-chip recruit with good feet and a very quick release.
"He's a pleaser," Morris said. "Tajh is learning this system and having fun in it. He's flourishing in it and it fits him to a T. He's not having to think a whole lot. He's just going to play."
But there were some growing pains. "It was pretty difficult because it changes his thought process," Morris said of his QB, who is completed 63 percent of his passes with a 15-2 TD-INT ratio. "He was trying to think every play when he first started in this system instead of letting the system dictate itself. That's one thing I always stress to our players: 'I don't want you thinking. I want you reacting.' And right now he's doing a great job of just managing the game as far as when to move the chains with his feet, when to throw a ball away. He's also done a great job of not putting a ball in jeopardy."
The Tigers did have a big scare last week when Boyd went down awkwardly against Boston College. What initially looked like it could be a gruesome knee injury, proved to be a sprained hip that probably won't keep him out of this week's game against Maryland.
"I was hoping it wasn't his knee," Morris said. "I didn't have a whole lot of thinking to do other than having my next guy calm and ready to go."
After all, being in a hurry is something Morris knows plenty about.