One of the biggest storylines and talking points this season in college football is for once, thankfully, not the College Football Playoff. Nor is it even a team at the FBS level of play, but rather, how the Presbyterian Blue Hose and their new coach are faring this season.
For those who are unaware, Presbyterian has played at the FCS level of football dating back to 2007, and in that time haven’t experienced much success, posting just two winning seasons (not counting a 4-3 COVID shortened spring 2020), going 6-5 in both of those years. In need of a spark, the Blue Hose this spring hired Kevin Kelley, who, for those unaware of his exploits, has sort of a cult following due to his unusual coaching philosophy.
To sum up Kelley’s ideas: He never punts, (almost) always goes for it on 4th down, doesn’t kick field goals, goes for two after every touchdown, and then attempts an onside kick following each score, doesn’t return punts and rarely returns kick-offs, instead opting to let the ball roll and take the touchback or wherever the ball stops on a punt. It led to quite a bit of success at the high school level in Arkansas, and ultimately his move to South Carolina and the head job at Presbyterian, because frankly, doing things the old way hadn’t been very successful for the program and it got people talking about the team.
Kelley had the college football world ablaze the first two weeks of the season, with his weird philosophy seeing Presbyterian pick up wins of 84-43 and 68-3, which looks impressive…until you find out that the first game was against an NAIA (three full levels below FCS) team that started in 2017 and has never been good, and then the next game was against a religious school in its first year of NCCAA (not a misprint, it’s an athletic association for small religious schools) play that might have around 300 students in the “school” and had maybe 50 players on the roster for their game against the Blue Hose. Needless to say, the first two victories were right to be taken with an enormous grain of salt.
Then last week happened.
Presbyterian went on the road to face its first actual team of the season in Campbell, a solid team who over the last six seasons of FCS play is one game under .500. So a fair test to see this Presbyterian coaching style against a real team, and not a pair of alphabet soup schools who may or may not exist after this season.
Campbell won 72-0. Just a complete destruction from start to finish in which the Camels forced seven turnovers, saw Presbyterian barely break 200 yards of total offense, were held to 2 of 9 on 4th down attempts, and gave up seven sacks. Meanwhile, Campbell racked up nearly 600 yards of offense, and from all indications, did all they could to run up the score and embarrass Kelley in the loss.
All of this leads me to what hit me last night: What if I played a season on NCAA Football 2007 for PlayStation 2 like Kelley and Presbyterian? And what might I learn about the positives and pitfalls of running such a bizarre system of football?
For this experiment, I couldn’t pick Presbyterian as my team, but wanted a challenge like they face, a program who hasn’t been good in a long time, and ended up selecting Duke, who was coming off a 1-10 season the year before NCAA 2007’s release. For this experiment, I played on All-American difficulty, did not alter the rosters, and did not make any changes to Duke’s schedule.
The first game was a ROUSING success…but much like Presbyterian’s first two games, it wasn’t exactly a fair contest, with my opening-game of the season coming against FCS Richmond, who, even as a decent FCS team currently, is still really bad on the game, even compared to a bad Duke team. Here’s a quick look at what happened in that win.
The offense was humming, getting almost 650 total yards, passing for nearly 400, and the rushing game getting another 250. In fact, the offense was so good, that I only faced one 4th down all game, hitting on a 4th and 7 while in Richmond territory, and going 6 of 8 on 2-point conversion attempts. The defense, against an admittedly bad Richmond team that ran the option, absolutely stuffed them all game long after giving up a touchdown on the first series.
In this game, one thing that stood out about running this style of offense was that it was fairly freeing when calling plays. I recall one situation I faced a 3rd and 11, which is normally an automatic pass play. But knowing I had two downs to get the first down, we ran a shotgun option play that picked up the first down. It was admittedly fun and somewhat relaxing to have that extra down in the pocket. But again, this all comes with the caveat of playing the NCAA 2007 equivalent of an NAIA team.
And there were cracks I could see in this plan. Despite holding Richmond to 110 total yards, they still found a way to score 10 points, even with no turnovers from my offense, mainly because every time Richmond got the ball, they were starting roughly on my 45, and even just one first down would put them in field goal range. What would an actual team do to my defense if my offense couldn’t move the ball, or if my defense didn’t force a three-and-out on almost every series?
Not to mention, and this may be a flaw of the game and not really the coaching philosophy, we went 0-for-9 attempting onside kicks. There were a couple that were close but ultimately Richmond got, a couple that turned into squibs as I tried anything and everything to make one work. It was fine against Richmond, but again, if a real team gets nine drives starting in my territory throughout the game, that probably isn’t going to bode well for the defense.
For comparison’s sake, over the past six season of real college football, the kicking team recovers an onside kick about 24% of the time, so theoretically we should have had 2-3 extra possessions, but that’s not how the game worked out.
And so, we moved on to Wake Forest.
Wake Forest on NCAA 2007, much like Campbell in Presbyterian’s season, would be a better test of how this might work. They’re certainly not a loaded juggernaut, but they’re an average squad who hovers around .500, and boasts an actual defense (rated B+ on the game) that would make me work more than Richmond did.
It went poorly.
We outgained Wake Forest by 175 yards…and lost by 20. The turnovers were tied 2-2 in the game, with one of their forced turnovers going for a fumble and a touchdown, so my defense gave up 27 points despite giving up just 193 yards of offense.
Against an actual defense (Duke has a C+ offense on the game), we were screwed. We couldn’t run the ball at all, receivers couldn’t consistently get open, and as a result, we went 2 of 8 on 4th down attempts, many of them coming inside our own 40, and a couple coming in Wake Forest territory that would have been field goals for a normal offense. Couple that with three onside kick attempts that failed (bringing our total to 0 for 12 on the season) and the Demon Deacons offense got 27 points, three touchdowns and two field goals with under 200 yards, and 13 of them coming directly off turnovers deep in our own territory.
I won’t make a blanket statement after two games of this (and three in real life), or pretend this is real football, but coaching a team this way even on a video game, it immediately raised a number of red flags with a team having to play an entire game this way, especially if they are an underdog, like Presbyterian will be in pretty much every game from here on out.
The most obvious one, and one that rang true both in my game and the real game against Campbell: If you do not have a decided advantage on offense over the defense, you’re in big trouble. Essentially, because we gifted them 13 free points because of turnovers on downs deep in our territory, while not kicking field goals on two drives in their territory, we put ourselves in a 19-point hole. Add my six presumed points, and let’s say take away two field goals from them, and it’s a 28-20 game in the fourth quarter, possibly closer, and suddenly a very winnable game. Instead, because we were unable to swing field position with a punt and possibly get a stop of our own to force their punt, Wake Forest could essentially take three knees, and still put points on the board.
That’s not exactly a recipe for winning games.
And again, we gave them three onside kicks too. So even after you score a touchdown, your opponent is pretty much instantly in scoring range, making your touchdowns worth -1, 1, 3, or 5 depending on if you convert the two, and hold them to a touchdown or a field goal. Your only hope on defense is that you create a bunch of turnovers with them starting nearly every drive in your territory, or that you can somehow score 40+ points every game. Who knows how many points Wake Forest might have scored had we kicked off more than three times.
Not to mention, on three punts that we didn’t field (I went for all-out block while bringing the returner up to the line), the ball rolled inside my 15, putting even more pressure on the offense to get a couple first downs so your defense doesn’t start in the shadow of their own goalposts.
The early conclusion I’ve come to coaching this way: Unless you are certain you can move the ball and consistently get first downs, this offense and its line of thinking is going to screw you in close games. What could have been a one-score game, was instead a three-score rout where we were behind the 8-ball on almost every possession, offensively and defensively. Three drives started inside our own 15 due to punts, another inside the 10 because the kick didn’t go through the end zone, and then every other drive starting at the 20 because of touchbacks.
Who do you think is going to win a football game, even if one team holds a 175 yard advantage, the one who starts every drive inside their own 20, or the one who starts their drives around the opponent’s 40? You’re both hoping for a field goal or turnover on defense, while simultaneously needing to drive the length of the field to score your own points on offense. It makes no sense, and a 34-14 loss to an average Wake Forest team, or a 72-0 pantsing to Campbell is the result.
Again, this is extremely early in my NCAA Dynasty and in real life for Presbyterian, but even five games in, this doesn’t look promising. I’ll be sure to update you as my season goes along, for better or worse.