In the offseason, Dana Holgorsen went swimming with sharks. They were not, he admitted (during a recent podcast with Fox Sports' Bruce Feldman), sharks of the oversized man-eating variety, but the blatant and ham-fisted symbolism holds nonetheless. On every offseason list of coaches in danger of losing their jobs in 2014 (including this website's very own), you'll find Holgorsen, a mulleted, Red Bull-guzzling iconoclast who evolved from Hal Mumme and Mike Leach's go-go Air Raid coaching tree and now seems to be on the verge of withering on the vine in his fourth year as head coach at West Virginia. Which is a shame if, like me, you happen to enjoy your college football as ballsy and weird as humanly possible.
Of all the idiosyncratic tales of spread-offense acolytes, Holgorsen's tale may be the strangest. A few days before his 40th birthday, he ascended to his first head coaching job through a bizarre power struggle straight out of Westeros. Holgorsen has skydived, and he's gone bear-hunting, and he is risk-prone and impatient and unapologetically offensive-minded, which might explain why his defenses at WVU, up to this point, have been epically terrible. The concern when Holgorsen took the job was that maybe he was too quirky to be a head coach, and while that hasn't been the primary problem for the Mountaineers as they've nose-dived from 10-3 to 7-6 to 4-8 in three years under Holgorsen, it does raise larger questions about the gospel of the spread offense, and whether Holgorsen's tenure at WVU might wind up representing the worst-case scenario, and might even scare other programs away from hiring coaches who don't fit the mold.
I am not wishing for this. I sincerely hope this is not the case. If there is one program I selfishly hope turns it around in 2014 -- starting, preferably, with their opening game against Alabama, on Aug. 30 in Atlanta -- it is the Mountaineers. Holgorsen is a genuine character, and college football needs more genuine characters as coaches, and not less, in order to further offset its straight-edged mainstream. One of the most entertaining football games I have ever watched in person took place two years in Morgantown, when West Virginia defeated Baylor 70-63. The events of that afternoon were so much like a video game that I kept looking down at my arms and expecting them to morph into pixelated Lego appendages. I enjoyed it tremendously, and at the time, I thought perhaps Holgorsen's West Virginia team -- then 4-0, and coming off a 70-33 thrashing of Clemson in the Orange Bowl the previous year -- would validate the Air Raid, would further stretch the possibilities of what football could become. But, alas, that was not the case, and that was not the case not just because WVU fell apart down the stretch in 2012, losing six of its final eight games. That was not the case because the team on the other side of the ball wound up doing exactly what I thought West Virginia might be on the verge of doing.
Long ago, Holgorsen and Baylor's Art Briles shared a cubicle while coaching under Mike Leach at Texas Tech. They both departed for further apprenticeships, and if you'd asked most people three years ago which man had accepted the most promising job, they would have said Holgorsen. West Virginia at least had a tradition of winning teams under longtime coach Don Nehlen; West Virginia could pull players from Western Pennsylvania and from Ohio, while Baylor, as the only private Christian school in its conference until TCU joined, would have to wrestle every other school in Texas in order to make a name for itself in the Big 12. When Robert Griffin III flashed through Waco and walked away with the Heisman and a catchy nickname, it felt more anomalous than auspicious. And yet Baylor has proven the more consistent program, plugging two additional quarterbacks post-RGIII into its system and scoring even more points, while also steadily improving on defense.
I mean there are numbers, and there are numbers: In two games since the Mountaineers joined the Big 12, West Virginia and Baylor have put up a combined 248 points (that's an average of 62 points per team); and they've put up 2,773 total yards, with 1,909 of those coming through the air. Last year, the Bears won 73-42. More important, last year Baylor went 11-1 (and finished first in the country, by a wide margin, in total offense) before losing a shootout to Central Florida in the Fiesta Bowl; West Virginia went 4-8 (and finished 75th in the country in total offense), losing to both Kansas and Iowa State in the same month to make the ultimate Big 12 walk of shame. And so, two years after either one of these programs seemed on the verge of breaking through, it's impossible not to set them side by side and wonder what happened to the one that, ever so briefly, showed the most promise.
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The obvious answer is at quarterback: Last year, Holgorsen -- whose offense relies on a signal-caller who can make quick decisions -- was forced to tinker, especially after Florida State transfer Clint Trickett hurt his shoulder during the high point of the Mountaineers' otherwise dismal season, a 30-21 win over Oklahoma State. In all, three quarterbacks accumulated playing time, and none of them were consistent, and Holgorsen's impatience became a liability. His team, he admitted during Feldman's podcast, completely lost any confidence it had, and an offense like Holgorsen's traffics on an undercurrent of confidence, on the notion that it can potentially score at any time, on any play, from any spot on the field. Trickett had surgery in the offseason, and while his health is still a question, he is the favorite to win the job in the fall (if not, he may have a career as a country-music lyricist to fall back upon.) But the larger question is whether there are certain nuances within the Baylor system that aren't translating with the same resonance in Morgantown. The larger question is whether West Virginia, with a continued failure to connect offensively, might reinforce some of the worst stereotypes about the spread.
Here's what I mean: They say that time of possession is a meaningless statistic in offenses like the ones Briles and Holgorsen run. In Baylor's case (112th in TOP) this was demonstrably true, but here is how TOP becomes meaningful within the Air Raid offense, when things are going poorly: Last year, West Virginia put up 26.3 points per game, which was 79th in the country; it was 101st in the country in time of possession; and it was 99th in scoring defense. It's not a difficult equation: If you don't actually score points in a quick-strike offense, then your defense is on the field more, and devoid of the buffer that permits it to allow more points. And if your defense is not particularly good in the first place, the whole thing starts to feel pretty futile.
And so Holgorsen is tinkering on defense, too. He promoted Tony Gibson, a longtime Rich Rodriguez assistant, to be his fourth defensive coordinator in four years, and he hired Tom Bradley, the longtime defensive coordinator under Joe Paterno at Penn State, to work with the defensive line and serve as a "senior associate head coach."
I don't know if it's going to work out, and I don't think Holgorsen knows, either. The leeway he once had from athletic director Oliver Luck is gone. West Virginia hasn't gone two seasons without playing in a bowl game since the early 1990s. After the opener against Alabama, the Mountaineers play Towson (which made the FCS championship game last season), and then at a Maryland team that beat them 37-0 last year, and then host Oklahoma, a preseason top-five team. Most of the early-publication magazines have the Mountaineers finishing somewhere near the bottom of the Big 12, and Baylor somewhere near the top. They play each other on Oct. 18, and by that time they may feel like eight verticals crossing in the night, an Air Raid program with a boundless future and an Air Raid program that could serve as a cautionary tale to all the conservative athletic directors looking to hire a coach in the near future. Sometimes, you eat the bear, and sometimes the Bear eats you.