In 2010, the BYU offense was bad. How bad? According to Football Outsiders' advanced metrics (which account for, among other things, strength of schedule), the Cougars were the 80th best offense in the FBS, 86th against the pass. Since Bronco Mendenhall took over in 2005, the offense under then-offensive coordinator Robert Anae had never ranked worse than 18th, and that was in Bronco's first season (2005). The offense had been a machine, churning out big numbers and delivering two QBs (John Beck and Max Hall) to the NFL.
But you didn't need an advanced degree in math to see the offense was lousy in 2010. They averaged less than 200 yards passing per game. Think about that. Even the Gary Crowton awful offenses averaged more than 200 yards per game. The offense was historically bad by BYU standards, and it was no surprise* that BYU fired offensive coordinator Robert Anae and moved on. The offense had become predictable and unreliable against good defenses.
* I disagreed with the move at the time and still wonder if BYU made the right move to get rid of Anae. His offenses had been top 15 in the country (according to Football Outsiders) for four straight years before laying that major egg in 2010.
Enter former BYU QB Brandon Doman. Quick confession: loved Brandon Doman as a player. When I covered the team in 1999, he was a back-up and was one of the nicest guys I talked to, as well as extremely intelligent. When he took over as the starter in 2000, I was rooting for him to succeed because of my experiences with him. He was awesome in 2001, leading the Cougars to a 12-2 record and helming a prolific offense, and I was really happy for him. I ranked his 2001 as the 7th best QB season in BYU history.
So with him coming in as OC, I was overly optimistic about his chances to succeed and thrive as a first-year OC. I still root really hard for the guy.
Doman's offense started out the season in pretty rough fashion. With sophomore QB Jake Heaps at the helm, the offense sputtered during the Cougars' 2-2 start, averaging just 291 yards of total offense (111th in the country). The run game was particularly anemic, averaging only 68 yards per game and less than 2 yards per carry.
Things changed for the Cougars after that, and I think there were three main factors.
First, during the Utah State game, Heaps was replaced by Riley Nelson. He led the team to victory and became the starter (except for missing a game because of injury). Nelson instantly made the offense more efficient, and he took risks downfield, particularly on passes to Cody Hoffman, something that Heaps refused to do. He also finished third on the team with 392 yards rushing. He helped make a slow, tired offense look dynamic. He played, both anecdotallly and statistically, a ton better than Heaps did. Don't believe me? Just look at the numbers.
Second, a rushing game developed. Nelson's emergence helped open lanes, and Michael Alisa emerged as the team's best rushing option, leading the team in YPC at 5.4.
Third, the schedule got easier. According to Football Outsiders, Texas and Utah both finished as top 20 defenses, and the Longhorns were 4th in the country against the run. The rest of the schedule, with the exception of TCU, were below average defensively (and some were plain out putrid). This helped the Cougars find a rhythm, and it hid some of Nelson's diffencincies.
How much credit can we give Doman for the transformation? I don't know. Certainly he had nothing to do with the schedule getting easier. He had a hand in making the QB change, which was absolutely the right call. And they did vary the rushing attack as the season progressed, and he started calling Alisa's number more and more.
I think his best decision was moving into the booth. I am a firm believer that coordinators should run their respective units, and that the other coaches should coach. It's very difficult to do both at a high level, and the emotion of sideline should not affect offensive play calling.
But I can't grade Doman as any better than a C in his firm season as the OC, and that might be too generous. Yes, the offense improved, but it finished outside of the top 50, and the 6.9 YPA passing number was the second worst at BYU in a decade (behind 2010). The offense did not put up a consistent, good effort against a good defense. Good defenses exploited the weaknesses of the two QBs, stuffed the Cougar rushing attack, and forced the BYU defense and special team units into having to make a lot of big plays in order to keep the team in the game (see Utah State and Tulsa).
If you ask me today if I think Doman can be an elite offensive coordinator in the FBS, my answer is: I don't know. This was not a great first season, and his offense was vanilla and not innovative by modern standards. And it took him too long to identify Alisa as the best between the tackles rusher.
But the Cougars played some elite defenses, and there was improvement over the season, even if it was against the likes of San Jose State and New Mexico. And, at the risk of firing up both the pro-Heaps and pro-Riley camps, Doman isn't working with the quality of QB Anae had with Beck and Hall. Progression from Nelson or a better QB in 2013 may make Doman offense look at lot better than it did in 2011.
So the jury is still out on Doman. With another offseason and a potentially more stable QB situation, I am optimistic that he can mold the Cougars into a top 20 offense in 2012. But there's a long way to go.