One of the fascinating and enjoyable aspects of bowl season comes when teams from different conferences with different styles are thrown together. Sometimes the results of those clashes are pretty predictable, such as in the 2004 Holiday Bowl.
Aaron Rodgers had just ripped Mack Brown for politicking Texas over Cal to the Rose Bowl as the QB led his team against one of Mike Leach's Texas Tech teams. The Bears were ill-prepared to handle the spread passing offense, still considered a gimmick, and Tech QB Sonny Cumbie threw for 520 yards and three TDs in a 45-31 victory over future All-Pro Rodgers.
Now the QB coach and co-OC of the TCU Horned Frogs, Cumbie didn't draw so favorable a matchup in the Peach Bowl against Hugh Freeze's Ole Miss Rebels. Since Freeze's hire in 2012, he has been attacking the SEC with his unique brand of spread offensive tactics and has a speedy D to match, loaded up with athletic and undersized players. They will not be caught off guard as the Bears were years ago.
Assuming each team views this as an opportunity to make a final statement about 2014 rather than just a chance to go on a fun trip and eat chicken, both will have challenging matchups unlike what they face within their own conferences.
Spread too thin?
Quarterback Trevone Boykin proved to be a fantastic fit for Doug Meacham and Cumbie's air raid, thanks to his great running ability and the difference that makes for a spread running game. TCU's best run game concepts were running speed option and zone read, both of which involved Boykin in a major way.
When a team with four receivers on the field has an immobile QB, it becomes difficult to run the ball. The defense can usually get a sixth defender in the box without much schematic difficulty and fill all the gaps. Add the QB option game in, and the offensive linemen can leave a defender unblocked and come at that sixth defender with a favorable angle.
Against the Ole Miss defense, which ranks No. 3 in Defensive F/+, that's a different proposition. The Rebels' scheme and team speed allow them to get punishing tacklers to the point of attack quickly. Here's how their defense handled speed option against Dak Prescott and Mississippi State:
Ole Miss' defense had several returning starters and has a mastery of two main base coverages, cover 3 and two-read, as well as an arsenal of stunts and fire zones to mix in.
Here, they rotated into cover 3 to get a safety down over the receivers. The Bulldogs were able to block the nearby defenders, but field corner Mike Hilton (the left C below) came down in run support like a bolt of lightning and cut down Josh Robinson within three yards.
The beauty of speed option is that it allows the offense to avoid blocking good players. MSU avoided the weakside linebacker and the playside defensive end. However, the Rebels' abundance of heat-seeking missiles in the secondary forced the ball into the alley, where the cornerback made a big tackle.
TCU might struggle to spread out the Rebels enough to negate that ability to shrink the field.
Another problem inherent to all spread teams is that when you take big bodies off the field and replace them with receivers, you put more pressure on your OL to block without help. Spread teams will use tempo, option, and quick throws to keep a great pass rush from killing them.
The problem against Ole Miss is that the Rebels have athletes on the interior as well, with nose tackle Issac Gross and three-technique tackle Robert Nkemdiche. These two get a lot of penetration and are devastating when slanting and stunting in the Rebels' fire zone blitzes. Teams often devote extra blockers to them, only to allow the Rebels' linebackers to dart behind to create mayhem.
This has been a problem for Big 12 teams when trying to spread out SEC foes. SEC defenses are often loaded with big, fast tackles that most Big 12 teams don't have access to. Offensive coaches lack the experience to deal with them.
One area where TCU might be able to find some advantages is on the outside, matching up 6'4 WR Josh Doctson with 5'9 All-America corner Senquez Golson. Most teams have avoided Golson, but Doctson roasted similarly height-challenged Texas cornerback Quandre Diggs with four catches of 20 yards or more, many of them jump balls. On each, Diggs was well-positioned but unable to handle Doctson's reach and Boykin's ball placement.
If TCU can force Rebel safeties to assist against Doctson rather than race downhill, Ole Miss' system comes apart.
Trying to create stress points against TCU's D
The Rebels face a similar dilemma against TCU, who rank No. 6 in Defensive F/+ and are no strangers to the spread shenanigans that Ole Miss employs to the consternation of the SEC. Perhaps their biggest challenge will be attacking the TCU coverages that fill short passing windows with excellent zone-matching defense.
The star of the Frog defense is "strong safety" (nickel, in most defenses) Sam Carter, who has four picks and five pass deflections. The 6'1, 215-pounder is great at baiting QBs and matching big or small slot receivers. He's problematic for Ole Miss, which gets a lot of mileage out of big Evan Engram.
While many spread teams thrive on making quick reads off zone defenders, the Frogs don't drop their underneath defenders into zone. They actively match and disrupt receivers.
People assume that the answer to attacking the TCU defense is with the running game. This is a miscalculation, particularly for a team like Ole Miss that can't put big personnel sets on the field like some of their SEC brethren can.
TCU's three-safety defense is versatile for stopping the run and excels at bringing extra numbers from all directions. Its front is active and equipped with endless blitzes and stunts to frustrate run schemes.
Their DL and LBs are all laterally quick, spilling the ball wide, where those three safeties can chase it down.
In what might be a low-scoring game, Ole Miss will have to rely on Freeze's guile with trick plays and some spread-I play-action shots to get big plays.
WIth play-action from zone or power-read, which you expect Dr. Bo will run several times, Ole Miss can suck in two-thirds of the Frog safety trio and get Engram
or Vince Sanders isolated deep, where TCU hasn't been as strong on defense.
TCU and Ole Miss have looked like two of the strongest teams in the nation. But both have flaws that they were unfortunate to have exposed by their schedule. The Rebels struggle to run the ball against better fronts. TCU is vulnerable to teams that can take the top off of their aggressive defensive (Baylor dropped 782 yards).
For one to find an edge will require that both teams are fully invested in this game and that each coaching staff does due diligence to scouting out weaknesses. One Boykin scramble and deep bomb to Doctson or a well-timed trick play from Freeze could be the difference.