"High Octane" Backyard Brawl?: A Very Early Preview Of WVU-Pitt 2011

I need to come clean about something.  I spent the weekend in Pittsburgh. Trust me, it wasn't my first choice.  But it was a convenient place to meet, watch some baseball and play some golf, so I went along with it.  And after less than 72 hours in the town, I felt dirty.  A general sense of malaise had set in, fueled by the ever-present grunge on the streets and the grey clouds that envelop the city.  If there was anything good that came out of it, though, my hatred for the University of Pittsburgh burns anew.  

Being that football is literally right around the corner (unless you're Rutgers and can never actually turn that corner), my competitive juices are already flowing.  But they've been focused on our little brother to the south...on Marshall, and the multi-touchdown beating that WVU is about to lay on them in less than two weeks.  Pitt has been almost an afterthought, only running through my mind when someone sings "Sweet Caroline" at karaoke night and I join fellow mountaineers in the "EAT SHIT PITT!" chant during the chorus.  

I know they got a new coach, and that the new coach (and several assistants) used to coach at WVU.  I get that the guy's teams have been known for putting up video game numbers...in Conference USA.  But it's hard to really, really care about Pitt when their entire off-season was spent in obscurity save for an epically botched coaching search that ended in the hiring and firing of Mike Haywood within a week and the subsequent hiring of Tulsa's Todd Graham. Well, hard to really care at least until I was visually bombarded the Pitt football billboards plastered around the city that screamed hatred at me with every turn.

These billboards and even the ribbon boards at Heinz Field are hyping Todd Graham's new "High Octane Football" campaign.  The campaign that seemingly touts Graham's history as an offensive guru, bent on bringing excitement and points to a Big East stadium near you this coming fall.  With Tino Sunseri (he of the sparkling career 2:1 TD to INT ratio) back in the shotgun, mind you.  But they're certainly touting the phrase because if anything, it at least sounds exciting, which is more than you can say for the phrase "Wannstache."

You'll have to take my word about the billboards.  I was going to take a picture with my phone, but the Pennsylvania State Police trooper following me with his lights on probably wouldn't have appreciated that.  They do have a website, though (www.highoctanefootball.com), and t-shirts:


via www.thefightingwannstaches.com

So at least someone is trying to get someone to care about Pitt football.  And those shirts!  If the first word into your head after seeing that shirt isn't "JAZZY!", you may want to make an appointment with your cardiologist.  But I suppose, if you look at the stats, Graham's teams have had a reputation for lighting up the scoreboard, if not the Tulsa student section.

Here is what Graham has to say about his brand:

"We want to be fast, we want to be efficient and we are going to be explosive. I want people who come to Heinz Field to not sit down in their seats. That's the type of football we're going to play."

I'd say if there is anything Pitt fans are good at, it's not sitting in the seats at Heinz field.  They've certainly proven that over the last decade or so.  So, at least Graham's tenure at Pitt is bound to get off to a smashing start in that regard.

But other than using the phrase a questionable (at best) ad campaign, can Pitt---or, more specifically, Todd Graham---lay claim to High Octane Football?  More importantly, will it matter?

Since Graham took over as the head coach at  Tulsa in 2007, here is how Graham has fared:

Year Record Offensive Coordinator Total Offense Rank PPG
2007 10-4 Gus Malzahn 543.9 1st 41.1
2008 11-3 Gus Malzahn 569.9 1st 47.2
2009 5-7 Herb Hand 410.1 35th 29.3
2010 10-3 Chad Morris 505.6 5th 41.4

And for comparison's sake, here is how Dana Holgorsen has fared as an offensive coordinator:

Year Record School Total Offense Rank PPG
2007 9-4 Texas Tech 529.6 2nd 40.9
2008 8-5 Houston 562.8 2nd 40.6
2009 10-4 Houston 563.4 1st 42.2
2010 11-2 Oklahoma State 520.2 3rd 44.2

It seems to me, from looking at these stats, that there is a a common thread among all of Dana Holgorsen's seasons in which he failed to finish worse than 3rd in the country in total offense.  That common thread, running through 3 different schools and 3 different head coaches, has one result: points.  Well, okay, technically yards and points.  And wins, at least to a certain extent.  So that's three results, all of them good.  We know Holgorsen's penchant for producing offense, and there is nothing to suggest that we won't see more of the same.

Compare that to Graham, who is now on his fourth offensive coordinator (Calvin Magee) in five years.  Two of those coordinators, Malzahn (Auburn) and Morris (Clemson) were unequivocally awesome and parlayed their successful stints in Tulsa to positions at bigger, better schools.  Malzahn took two years and Cam Newton to turn Auburn into a national championship offense.  Before landing at Tulsa, he steered a potent Arkansas attack with Darren McFadden and Felix Jones after a long and successful stint as a high school coach.  He's proven.  The jury is still out on Morris, but the promotion to Clemson and his track record at the high school level certainly lend credibility.

Compare seasons with them at the helm to 2009, when Herb Hand was the offensive coordinator.  I don't know if it'd call 5-7 and unmitigated failure, but it sure stands out.  Hand is now an assistant at Vanderbilt, by the way, if that tells you anything.  Think there might be a connection?  Like maybe Graham can't win without the services of a great offensive mind to put up points?

So who's responsible for Graham's prolific offenses?  Is he the offensive genius, or does he just know how to hire a quality assistant?  That being the case, how will Calvin Magee fare without being chained to Rich Rodriguez? Magee has been following Rodriguez around for years, and if we know anything about Rodriguez, it's that he's a control freak.  So you can bet Magee didn't have total freedom, or responsibility depending on how you look at it, to run his own offense.  Sure, we caught a glimpse of what could be at the 2008 Fiesta Bowl, but those were Rich Rod's plays and players; Magee just got to push the buttons. What will Magee do now that the reins are fully off? Does he have what it takes to replicate what Malzahn and Morris accomplished under Graham?  If not, can Pitt achieve to the level they want?  Or will the "High Octane Football" result in a fourteen car pile up coming out of the first turn?

Given these comparative track records, it's hard to make too much of a prediction about this year's Backyard Brawl. The histories of the coaches involved certainly inspire thoughts of offensive fireworks all night at Mountaineer Field. The pundits expect the same, but that 2009 anomaly coupled with Magee's inexperience gives me pause about whether Pitt can uphold its end of that bargain.  So when I go to forecast the outcome of the game, there's only one thing that comes to mind when I picture Graham bringing his "High Octane Football" to Morgantown this fall:


via www.funtimecolleges.com

Because yeah, octane makes great fuel for a couch fire.  EAT SHIT PITT!

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