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BYU Football: In defense of GFGH and other underdog tactics

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There seems to be some skepticism about the wisdom of Go Fast Go Hard, and other tactics BYU uses. Let's remember why they are employed in the first place.

Gene Sweeney Jr.

After back to back lackluster offensive performances, I've seen more and more skepticism about Go Fast Go Hard (GFGH) from BYU fans, not just from the Alex Jones-infused Cougarboard crowd, but from others who have a reputation for being intelligent and reasonable. Given the frustration with the coaching staff, and with another season's postseason destination already booked in early October, perhaps now is a good time to revisit the thinking behind BYU's schematic and recruiting philosophy, as we once again are forced to evaluate how BYU fits into the college football landscape, and how they can be successful.

The guiding principle of GFGH, unsurprisingly enough, is tempo. In a perfect world, BYU is sustaining drives, snapping the ball quickly and running as many plays as possible. When it works correctly, this prevents the defense from substituting effectively, puts major pressure on their conditioning, and creates mismatches. This potential advantage is compounded for BYU since Provo isn't exactly at sea level. Pushing the tempo could really make defenses uncomfortable.

Of course, such a philosophy is not without risks. A team that snaps the ball very quickly but struggles with efficiency will have some drives that end in 45 seconds. That's going to put significant pressure on your defense. Effectively running a GFGH offense also requires depth from your own offensive line, a unit that hasn't been BYU's strength over the past few seasons. Finally, running more plays typically means more possessions, and a longer game. If you're playing a team that has a talent superiority (say, UCLA or Nebraska next season), that gives your opponent's athletes more time to exercise their strength.

So why do this at all? Because BYU is an underdog, and if underdogs are going to win at a national, Top 25 caliber level, you need to embrace Underdog Tactics on some level.

Why BYU would be considered an "underdog" program probably doesn't need to be rehashed again, but for the sake of being thorough, let's quickly recap. BYU doesn't have the advantage of conference affiliation to provide guaranteed major games to Provo, and will have to play an unbalanced (competitively, anyway) schedule. BYU shares their state with another major program, and Utah doesn't produce very many FBS caliber football players, putting the program at a recruiting disadvantage. BYU's academic requirements, religious affiliation, honor code, and coaching staff further limit the players the team can go after in the recruiting process.

The list goes on and on, but the principle is the same. Now that BYU isn't in the Mountain West, or at least plays fewer games each season against MWC caliber schools, the Cougars can't rely on having superior talent to win games. If the team wants to reach their aspirational program goals, they have to embrace some Underdog Tactics.

Tempo is one of those tactics. A quick look at the teams running the most plays per game this season includes plenty of programs that need to embrace their inner underdog. At the top of the list last season is Texas Tech, a program located in the middle of nowhere that historically has struggled to beat Oklahoma and Texas for kids, but still needs to find ways to beat them on the field. This year, Baylor and Arizona are at the top, but the top 15 includes perennial underdogs like Tulsa, Hawaii, Western Kentucky, Colorado and Arkansas State. After finishing 2nd in plays per game last season, BYU is currently 16th, at 81.7 a game.

Cranking the pace to 100 MPH isn't the only way for an underdog to take advantage of tempo though. A team could also go in the other direction, and limit the number of possessions. Navy, with their triple-option offense, is famous for this, as they take a long time to snap the ball, and focus on long, clock-milking drives. Minnesota and Stanford do this as well. The fewer possessions in the game, after all, the fewer chances for a team with superior athletes to take over. If you're going to play Baylor, for example, do you want the game to have 12 possessions, or 22?

Adjusting tempo isn't the only way underdogs try to make up ground. Scheme is probably the most familiar to fans, as certain offenses and defenses lend themselves better to overcoming talent mismatches. The Air Raid, employed by the BYU squads of old and now popularized in many different incarnations across football, is one of the more famous, and has been successful, although it requires specific personnel. The service academies and Georgia Tech run option based offenses, which can negate disadvantages along the offensive line and at wideout. Any scheme that focuses on getting players out of their comfort zone and attacking space can be successful, including what BYU is currently running, which springs out of veer options and smashed people when Hill was healthy. BYU can't line up in a pro-set and try to out Alabama-anybody, but the beauty of college football is that they don't have to.

As an underdog, you're not just making up ground on the field though. The most important battles, in recruiting, are off the field, and also require creativity.

Recruiting starts matter, despite the cries of message board fans, and over time, teams that have more highly regarded recruits are going to win more games than teams, like BYU right now, that don't. That doesn't mean that there aren't exceptions to this principle, only that they are rare. Mississippi State, after all, is the number one team in the polls, despite having a blue chip recruit ratio *far* below their SEC peers. Why are they succeeding? MSU seems particularly adept at finding recruits who may be in areas underserved by recruiting services (highly rural), are underrated because they aren't big enough (and thus back on that size in college), and are benefiting from an exceptionally experienced roster.

There are other possible shortcuts, from being active in the transfer market (like BYU was last year), to hitting Junior Colleges, (most famously by Kansas State), to recruiting kids and changing their positions, to finding ways to open new recruiting territories. You can't do what everybody else is doing to be successful if you don't have the same tools everybody else does.

I think BYU understands this thinking. Their scheme was set to take advantage of the once in a generation type player they had in Hill, and to give themselves advantages on offense. They are expanding their recruiting pool to new states (Texas), and brought in multiple transfers. While risky, I think the general principle behind GFGH is a smart one. It's exactly the sort of thing BYU ought to embrace if they want to crack the Top 25 and sniff bigger bowls on a regular basis.

So what's going wrong? If the principles are sound, why hasn't BYU broken through?

For this year, the obvious answer is injuries. Poor roster management and poor luck left the Cougars with essentially a stable of walk-ons at QB after Hill left, and building the sort of depth across multiple positions to sustain the level of injuries the team has is almost impossible for an underdog team. The best gameplan in the world can't help you when nearly every one of your playmakers is out for the game, or longer

But systemically, the issues go beyond Tayson Hill's leg. There are concerns about what's happening on the field, particularly with penalties. BYU doesn't have the same margin for error as other programs, but yet the team has been one of the most penalized in the country not just this season, but last year as well. The program has also struggled with efficiency, as they aren't in the top 50 in 3rd down conversion percentage OR 4th down conversion percentage. They have a neutral turnover margin. That won't help you execute GFGH or win big games.

The other concern remains recruiting. If they program is going to schedule multiple games a year against good P5 competition, and continues to set the Top 25 as a program goal, they need better players, full stop. Despite looking into other states and building up their recruiting infrastructure, BYU is on their way to another recruiting class outside the Top 50, per the 247 composite rankings, with only a smattering of P5 schools behind them.

There isn't a consensus four-star player currently signed (Mika Tafua is the closest), and the program has only signed four since 2012, and for what it's worth, Tanner Magnum hasn't played a snap yet. The program has done a poor job retaining the best talent in the state of Utah, and outside of their linebacking corps (which has had some players overperform), there aren't many units that look to be in excellent shape beyond next season.

This program isn't in bad shape, but there are concerns that need to be addressed if they want to march towards bigger goals than the Miami Beach Bowl. A change at the head coach position isn't one of them, and a wholesale philosophical change probably isn't either.

The plan is probably fine. Better players and better execution would lead to better results.