Ranking college football's new offenses, from LSU to Michigan

ByBill Connelly via ESPN logo
Monday, September 9, 2019

It was jarring to realize that, nursing a shrunken lead on Saturday at No. 9 Texas, LSU really was going to live or die with the forward pass.

This was LSU, after all. The defense and field-position prototype. The team that was still grinding out yards between the tackles well into the spread offense revolution.

But there was quarterback Joe Burrow, attempting 11 fourth-quarter passes (to only three LSU rushes) while the Tigers clung to a 37-31 lead with less than four minutes remaining and looking to pass once more to clinch the game.

It almost backfired. Terrace Marshall Jr. nearly fumbled on an 11-yard catch to start the clinching drive, and after another first down, Burrow threw an incompletion (which stopped the clock), then took a huge sack to set up third-and-17. With 2 minutes, 38 seconds remaining, Texas was about to get the ball with a chance to win against an exhausted LSU defense.

The LSU of old would have run a draw play to keep the clock moving and steal a few yards for the defense. But now, the brain trust of offensive coordinator Steve Ensminger and passing-game coordinator Joe Brady elected to ride with what had gotten the Tigers the lead in the first place. Burrow narrowly avoided pressure in the pocket and found Justin Jefferson dragging toward the left sideline about 18 yards downfield. Jefferson stiff-armed a tackler around the 30 and raced to the end zone, victory in hand.

Burrow's production -- 749 yards, nine touchdowns and a 219.1 passer rating in two games -- has been revelatory. So has the offense Brady has brought to town. LSU talked all offseason about a new identity, but we couldn't completely believe our ears. We had to see it with our eyes. And now that we have? It's beautiful.

What about the other good teams with new identities?

Here are the teams that came into 2019 with certain expectations -- we'll define that as having a Caesars win total of at least seven in late August -- and either a new offensive coordinator, an announced identity change or both. How are things going so far?

Promising early returns


The change: Ed Orgeron brought in Brady -- a young assistant with experience under both Joe Moorhead and Sean Payton -- to serve as Ensminger's Rasputin, someone to complete the modernization process Orgeron initially hoped Lane Kiffin (his original coordinator choice before he took the FAU head job) or Matt Canada would initiate.

The early returns: LSU has indeed shown a commitment to a new identity that other teams (cough Michigan cough) haven't thus far. That was almost as encouraging as the result itself. Two years ago, Orgeron seemed to rebel against some of the changes Canada wanted to install, and it was hard for an offense to live up to its potential with the head coach pushing back against the playcaller. But if Orgeron had any remaining qualms in 2019, the play of Burrow and an incredible receiving corps certainly tamped them down.

Offensive SP+ ranking:Second (17th in preseason)

The next big test: If Texas couldn't keep LSU in check, odds are the next three opponents (Northwestern State, Vanderbilt, Utah State) can't either. So maybe the Tigers get to dial things back a bit before the four-game gauntlet (Florida, at Mississippi State, Auburn, at Alabama) that will define the season.

Florida State

The change: After going 5-7 and averaging barely 20 points per game against FBS competition, Willie Taggart hired offensive coordinator Kendal Briles and his trusty offensive line coach, Randy Clements, to reinvigorate the Noles' attack.

The early returns: FSU has scored 76 points and already has as many 30-point games against FBS teams as it did all of last season. That's something -- and it's reflected in the Seminoles' massive early jump in offensive SP+ -- even if it has come against Group of 5 defenses (a potentially awesome Boise State and a less-than-awesome Louisiana Monroe). But the Seminoles have been sloppy, fumbling five times, going 11-for-31 on third downs and falling into second-half funks in both games. It has been a "two steps forward, one step back" kind of rise thus far.

Defense is the major issue in Tallahassee right now -- after all, it wasn't the offense giving up 44 points to ULM in a narrow victory -- but the offense isn't fully on track yet either. It's enticing to think of what might happen when it is, though.

Offensive SP+ ranking:Ninth (83rd in preseason)

The next big test: Next up is a trip to Charlottesville to face a confident and aggressive Virginia team. Sloppiness won't cut it.

Appalachian State

The change: The immensely successful Scott Satterfield took the Louisville head coaching position and was replaced by former NC State offensive coordinator Eliah Drinkwitz. Drinkwitz elected to serve as his own playcaller in Boone, North Carolina. Nowhere to go but down?

The early returns: App State still looks like App State, only better. The Mountaineers scored 98 points, rushed for an App State-like 553 yards and averaged 7.2 yards per play in wins over East Tennessee State and Charlotte. The defense, which gave up 41 points to Charlotte, is the bigger issue at the moment.

Offensive SP+ ranking:11th (49th in preseason)

The next big test: After a bye, the Mountaineers head to Chapel Hill to face a rejuvenated North Carolina and its tricky defensive coordinator, Jay Bateman. We'll learn a lot then.


The change: With his job on the line after a 5-7 campaign, coach Clay Helton hired Kliff Kingsbury as his new offensive coordinator in hopes of bringing things such as "fun" and "points" back to Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. When Kingsbury quickly moved on to the NFL, Helton hired the younger version of Kingsbury: North Texas OC Graham Harrell.

The early returns: Harrell was dealt an awfully tricky hand, with starting quarterback JT Daniels tearing up his knee in the first half of the first game of the season. True freshman Kedon Slovis took over, and his first nine possessions (six against Fresno State, three against Stanford) produced three points.

Early in the second quarter against Stanford, however, Slovis ignited. USC scored touchdowns on six of seven drives, pulling off a 42-3 run to crush the Cardinal. Slovis finished an incredible 28-for-33 for 377 yards and three touchdowns, and just like that, the Trojans might -- might -- have a dynamite offense again.

Offensive SP+ ranking:16th (27th in preseason)

The next big test: Having passed one test with flying colors, the Harrell-Slovis tandem faces four more in a row: at BYU, Utah, at Washington, at Notre Dame. Go 2-2 in that stretch, and the Trojans are in line for a lovely season. But they'll have to be a pretty strong and consistent team to go 2-2 in that stretch.

No massive changes yet


The change: Nick Saban replaced new Maryland head coach Mike Locksley with a familiar face: Steve Sarkisian, who spent two years with the Atlanta Falcons after leaving his position as an analyst (and one-game offensive coordinator) in Tuscaloosa. The primary task was to bring an extra hint of diversity to an offense that set regular-season records in 2018 but faltered in the national title game.

The early returns: The Tide scored 104 points and averaged 7.8 yards per play against overwhelmed Duke and New Mexico State defenses, and Tua Tagovailoa's passer rating is above 200, just as it was early last season.

Offensive SP+ ranking:Fifth (second in preseason)

The next big test: We won't know what we need to know for a while. On Oct. 12, the Tide face a Texas A&M defense that managed to hold Clemson under 30 points, but the tests will likely come from LSU on Nov. 9, Georgia in a potential SEC title game matchup on Dec. 7 and whomever the Tide might face in the College Football Playoff.


The change: Kirby Smart allowed Jim Chaney to leave for Tennessee and promoted quarterbacks coach and co-coordinator James Coley to the playcaller's chair.

The early returns: The Bulldogs scored 93 points, totaled 592 rushing yards and averaged 8.1 yards per play in easy victories over Vanderbilt and Murray State. Of course they did.

Offensive SP+ ranking:Eighth (fourth in preseason)

The next big test: Notre Dame visits Athens on Sept. 21, and that will provide a solid barometer. But the Dawgs might not face a truly elite defense until November, and that's only if Florida (maybe), Texas A&M (maybe) or Auburn (most likely) qualifies.

Oklahoma State

The change: Offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich left to become Ohio State's passing-game coordinator, and Mike Gundy replaced him with creative young Princeton offensive coordinator Sean Gleeson.

The early returns: Same old, same old. Fifty-two points and 555 yards (7.3 per play) against Oregon State, 56 points and 580 yards (7.6 per play) against McNeese. Redshirt freshman Spencer Sanders has a 74% completion rate and 211.6 passer rating.

Change in offensive SP+ ranking:13th (seventh in preseason)

The next big test: The Pokes head to Austin in two weeks to face a Texas team they've beaten four straight times. That'll be Sanders' first taste of a truly hostile crowd and a defense with blue-chip athletes (albeit athletes who just got torched by LSU).


The change: Former West Virginia head man Dana Holgorsen replaced the fired Major Applewhite, naming former WVU running backs coach Marquel Blackwell and former Texas Tech offensive line coach Brandon Jones his co-coordinators.

The early returns: The Cougars put up 31 points against Oklahoma in a shootout loss, and they scored 34 first-half points against Prairie View on Saturday before going into a second-half shell. There have been some funks, which have resulted in a drop in offensive S&P+, but I'm not concerned just yet.

Change in offensive SP+ ranking:37th (11th in preseason)

The next big test: The Coogs meet Washington State at NRG Stadium on Friday, and they will likely need to score 40-plus to take home a win. Six days later, they head to New Orleans to face a potentially outstanding Tulane defense.


The change: Offensive coordinator Troy Taylor took the Sacramento State head coaching position, and Kyle Whittingham replaced him with an old friend: former Utah OC (2005-08) Andy Ludwig, most recently of Wisconsin and Vanderbilt.

The early returns: The Utes look awfully Utah-ish thus far. They pulled away in the second half against both BYU and Northern Illinois, riding a heavy dose of short passes from Tyler Huntley and punishing runs from Zack Moss, who's on pace for 300-plus carries and 1,700-plus yards.

Change in offensive SP+ ranking:39th (30th in preseason)

The next big test: The Week 4 trip to USC might tell us more about the Utah defense than the offense, but we'll learn about the Utes' ability to define a game against an up-tempo opponent.

NC State

The change: With Drinkwitz down the road at App State, Dave Doeren replaced him with in-house promotions: running backs coach Des Kitchings and receivers coach George McDonald are now co-coordinators.

The early returns: Seventy-five points and 6.7 yards per play against a pair of directional Carolinas (East and Western). Doeren's quick passing game appears firmly in place, but a young RB corps has been lively thus far.

Offensive SP+ ranking:58th (62nd in preseason)

The next big test: Trips to West Virginia and Florida State loom, but those might not test the O much. The Pack have a chance to find a nice offensive rhythm before Clemson comes to town in November.


The change: Neal Brown left to replace Holgorsen at West Virginia, and the Trojans brought in former Auburn OC Chip Lindsey as head coach.

The early returns: The Trojans torched Campbell in Week 1 (43 points, 527 yards), then took a Week 2 bye, so we know almost nothing so far.

Change in offensive SP+ ranking:84th (101st in preseason)

The next big test: The Oct. 5 trip to Missouri will give us a good idea of what upside quarterback Kaleb Barker, receivers Reggie Todd and Kaylon Geiger & Co. possess in Lindsey's system.

A bumpy road so far


The change: New head coach Manny Diaz brought in Dan Enos -- formerly Central Michigan head coach, Arkansas offensive coordinator and Alabama QBs coach -- to liven up an offense in desperate need of energy and optimism.

The early returns: Redshirt freshman quarterback Jarren Williams has already endured a season's worth of ups and downs. He has taken 14 sacks (really bad) while completing 71% of his passes (really good), and after a late Week 0 comeback attempt against Florida fell short, he succeeded in bringing the Canes back against North Carolina ... only to watch the defense blow it.

Change in offensive SP+ ranking:43rd (57th in preseason)

The next big test: The 0-2 Canes get a couple of tune-ups before huge home games against Virginia and Virginia Tech.


The change: With an offense that was mostly solid but frequently staid, Jim Harbaugh hired former Penn State passing-game coordinator and Alabama co-coordinator Josh Gattis to modernize with fewer huddles and more run-pass options.

The early returns: On one hand, things are at least OK. The Wolverines scored 40 points on Middle Tennessee, and though they nearly lost to Army on Saturday, Oklahoma nearly lost to Army last season, and it still made the CFP. The Wolverines outgained Army by 97 yards and went to overtime only because of fumbles and fourth-quarter, fourth-and-short failures, neither of which are necessarily sustainable.

On the other hand, those fourth-and-shorts were awfully telling. Everyone in the stadium knew what Michigan was going to do (hand off to the running back between the tackles), and Army sent the house and made two stops. Michigan seems stuck between identities at the moment.

Also, the fumbles might be sustainable, given that the Wolverines have eight of them so far.

Change in offensive SP+ ranking:54th (20th in preseason)

The next big test: Gattis and Harbaugh get a bye week to figure some things out, and then they go to, gulp, Wisconsin. The Badgers have pitched two shutouts to start the season.

Michigan State

The change: After dreadful production in 2018 (even by State's conservative standards), Mark Dantonio elected to make all of his changes in-house, giving a bunch of assistants new job titles and naming quarterbacks coach Brad Salem the new coordinator.

The early returns: Two games have told two completely different stories. The Spartans' offense was lifeless in a 28-7 victory over Tulsa, averaging just 3.9 yards per play. Against Western Michigan in Week 2, though? Hope! Sparty scored 50 points for the first time since the 2015 CFP run and gained nearly 600 yards in the process. That's one three-pitch strikeout and one home run. The Spartans' offensive SP+ ranking leaped this weekend, but we'll see if they can sustain it.

Change in offensive SP+ ranking:67th (97th in preseason)

The next big test: Week 3 opponent Arizona State has allowed 14 points total in two games and gave up just 13 in an upset of Michigan State last season. With ASU's offense providing mixed results, expect a conservative slog until proven otherwise.

San Diego State

The change: With an LSU-like, run-heavy offense having grown stodgy, head coach Rocky Long tasked longtime coordinator Jeff Horton with spreading things out a bit while retaining a mostly physical identity.

The early returns: It's all about setting a clearable bar. After averaging just 3.3 yards per play in a gross 6-0 win over Weber State, SDSU looked downright invigorated in Week 2, averaging nearly 5 yards per play -- progress! -- in a 23-14 victory over UCLA. Still, the run game is lifeless (SDSU backs are averaging 2.8 yards per carry), and though quarterback Ryan Agnew was excellent against UCLA, the Aztecs might be stuck between identities at the moment.

Change in offensive SP+ ranking:126th (87th in preseason)

The next big test: We'll learn if San Diego State is capable of a conference title run soon enough: Utah State comes to town Sept. 21, and Wyoming follows suit Oct. 12. The Aztecs don't have to be great offensively, but they probably can't afford to be wretched.

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