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Can Missouri Pull a Clemson? Part 3: Between the Lines

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Games aren’t played on paper, man.

Troy v Clemson
To catch up with a high-octane offense, Clemson had to go find a defensive coordinator that was used to working under such conditions: Brent Venables.
Photo by Tyler Smith/Getty Images

In the first two parts of this series, we’ve painted a pretty bleak picture of Missouri’s odds of following the blueprint Clemson laid out for rising from also-ran to national champion in just eight short years.

First, we told you that Missouri isn’t in as advantageous a financial situation as Clemson is and probably never will be. Then, we told you that Missouri is incapable (mostly through no fault of its own) of bringing in the quantity and quality of recruits that Clemson does, and probably never will be able to.

But now we come to the great equalizer. The thing that allowed Gary Pinkel and his staff to produce two top-5 teams in the span of seven years out of middling recruiting classes and financial perks: coaching ‘em up.

Part of Dabo Swinney’s genius as Clemson’s head coach has been his ability to identify elite coordinators and get the administration to pony up to keep them around once he’s gotten them in.

The story of Clemson’s rise has, largely, been the story of two coordinators: Chad Morris on the offensive side, Brent Venables on defense.

They had different pedigrees coming in. Morris was a risk, only one year removed from being a high school coach in Texas and with only 13 insanely successful games’ worth of playcalling resume at Tulsa before he came to Clemson in 2011. Swinney managed to keep him around for four years, with his salary ballooning to $1.3 million a pop, before SMU lured Morris away.

Below is a chart with some important Clemson offensive measurables from 2008 (the year in which Swinney took over midstream) to 2016, courtesy of CFBStats.com. The bolded years are the ones in which Morris was offensive coordinator.

Clemson’s offense responded with two years of exponential growth under Morris, with points per game going up 71 percent and yards per game up 53 percent from 2010 to 2012.

He did this, in big part, because he got Clemson to go fast. By Morris’ second year, the Tigers were running 81.7 plays per game. By his third, they were running 2.92 plays per minute.

At Missouri, Josh Heupel’s getting off to a good start in those departments. He severely sped up the Tigers’ offense this past season and the results showed, with points per game going up 131 percent and yards per game going up 78 percent.

With 10 offensive starters set to return, the future looks bright as well. So if Barry Odom can convince Heupel to stick around for four years and really embed his system — as Swinney did Morris — that would be a good start.

At Clemson, Morris built the foundation so thoroughly that, once co-coordinators Jeff Scott and Tony Elliott took over, it can basically run itself with a capable quarterback like Deshaun Watson in charge. Heupel needs to get Missouri’s offense to a point of easily replicable success even as circumstances change, as Morris did for Clemson.

He’s also got to work on a couple of areas the Morris offenses had that Missouri lacked last year: taking care of the ball and clock control.

If you’ll notice the 2014 offense, it was by far the worst of Morris’ four years. Except in two categories: time of possession and plays per turnover.

Morris didn’t have a gamechanging quarterback in Cole Stoudt, and Watson (a freshman) wasn’t ready to be a Heisman contender yet. He could also see that Venables’ Clemson defense (in its third year) was really starting to round into form.

So he slowed down. He helped the Tigers enjoy a time of possession advantage. His players took care of the football, only turning it over once every 55 offensive plays.

As a result — even though production dipped precipitously — Venables’ defense picked up the slack and the Tigers went 10-3 and drubbed Oklahoma in the Russell Athletic Bowl.

That set things up for 2015, when offense and defense were both perfectly primed to be performing at the tops of their games.

For all of the success Heupel’s offense enjoyed last year...it really didn’t do DeMontie Cross’ defense many favors as it was struggling to find its identity.

Time of possession went down 10 percent, leaving the defense on the field for nearly 60 percent of games. Plays per turnover went down nine percent, meaning the defense had to deal with quick change more often.

It’s hard to ask an offense to stop doing the thing that’s making it so successful until the defense catches up...but it’s not that difficult to ask for the offense to come up with a change-up if the defense needs a little more clock control. Morris and Clemson developed that.

Look at the Clemson defensive chart. The bolded years are the ones in which Venables has been in charge. You’ll notice that in Morris’ first year of fastball offense (not so coincidentally, Kevin Steele’s last calling the defense), points per game allowed went up 56 percent, yards per game up 23, yards per play up 16, pass attempts per sack up 43 percent and plays per tackle for loss up 56 percent.

Steele’s defense had a hard time adjusting to the pace of Morris’ offense. Just like Cross and Heupel at Missouri.

So Clemson parted with Steele and reached for Venables, a guy who was used to calling defense opposite a high-speed offense from his experience with Bob Stoops (and, um, Heupel) at Oklahoma.

And Swinney paid a pretty penny for Venables: $800,000, a 78-percent raise from his final Oklahoma salary, which made him the seventh-highest paid assistant in the nation according to USA Today.

That salary has since risen to $1.425 million. Again, you’ve got to pony up to keep the good ones.

And boy, has Venables been good for Clemson. From Steele’s last year to 2016, the Tigers’ points per game allowed is down 39 percent, yards per game down 21 percent, yards per play down 17 percent, pass attempts per sack up (as in fewer pass attempts per sack) 41 percent, plays per tackle for loss (ditto) up 44 percent, plays per turnover (ditto) up 13 percent and third down percentage allowed down 32 percent.

As you can see, in 2012 — the first year of Venables and Morris -- Clemson didn’t make huge defensive improvements. It improved gradually in some areas and plateaued in others.

But the Tigers didn’t get worse. And that laid the groundwork for the masterpiece of a defensive season that was 2014. Which, as I’ve said, laid the groundwork for both units working in tandem so devastatingly for the past two years.

So Heupel needs to keep the offense performing at a high level while also factoring the defense into his pace equation every now and then. And Cross and Odom need to get the defense to a place where it can compete opposite this Heupel offense without springing leaks every other drive.

It took Morris and Venables three years to get to that level, then Venables and Scott and Elliott another two more to win that national championship.

2016 wasn’t nearly as auspicious a beginning for Heupel and Cross as Venables and Morris had in 2012, but Clemson was also working from a place of more strength, with a head coach who had been in place for more than four seasons.

It’s not out of the question. If Heupel can maintain the offense at near this level and Cross and Odom can catch the defense up, maybe we’re looking at a confluence of forces similar to 2014 Clemson for Missouri in 2018?

And maybe a national championship in 2020? Odom promised one on signing day, after all.