Can Lanning Learn From Smart’s Mistakes?

Joshua Whitted Editorials

Kirby Smart is one of the best coaches in college football.

He not only understands that championship programs are built by acquiring elite talent, but he also recruits better than just about anybody in the country, even rivaling Nick Saban. As a defensive mind, he’s second to none. His defenses are improving by the year, while just about every other team’s defense is trending the opposite direction. Smart’s 2021 unit is his best yet, holding opposing offenses to historically low numbers.

Dan Lanning is fortunate to have learned under someone as accomplished and successful as Smart. If he can implement a recruiting strategy and defensive philosophy at Oregon that are even remotely close to the ones Smart has implemented at Georgia, the Ducks will be a consistent College Football Playoff contender.

But Rob Mullens didn’t hire Lanning to just make the CFP. He hired him to win a National Championship. And for Lanning to do that, he’ll have to deviate from his former boss in one critical area.

Offensive Explosion Is a Necessity

To win a National Championship in today’s day and age, a team must have an explosive and aggressive offense. This hasn’t always been the case historically, but it is now, primarily due to the overall improvement of quarterback play and general offensive advancement at every level of football. Even the best defenses will struggle at some point during a season — especially against elite offenses down the stretch. Every championship-caliber team has to have an offense that can win a game on its own.

Elite offenses win championships.

Smart is still living in the past, when it was possible for a team to win a title with nothing more than an elite defense. A decade ago, an offense could sit on its hands and play mistake-free football, so long as it had a dominant defense backing it up.

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But apparently Smart wasn’t paying attention to what happened shortly thereafter. Johnny Manziel, Deshaun Watson and others proved that every defense — even historic ones — can be picked apart by a top-tier quarterback and a well-crafted offensive approach. A great defense can carry a team most of the way, but it can’t single-handedly win a team a championship anymore.

Smart hasn’t come to grips with this reality yet, continuing to field an offense that is predicated on protecting the football and avoiding negative plays. Georgia has been content to throw the ball as little as possible all year and rely on a methodical rushing attack to “not mess things up” and avoid putting its defense in a bad spot.

Georgia prioritizes mistake-free football.

Admittedly, playing offense in this manner has worked out well for the Bulldogs most of the time. Their defense is so good that it really doesn’t matter what type of offense they trot out against most of their competition. But it hasn’t worked all of the time. In the SEC Championship Game, Georgia met a team that had an offense with the capability of exploiting its seemingly impenetrable defense (which will happen to every title-contending team at some point during its season), and its own conservative, risk-averse offense was overmatched and incapable of keeping pace.

Lanning has to understand that, although Smart’s offensive style can still lead to a lot of wins if it’s teamed with a stellar defense, it will never be productive enough to win a National Championship. Oregon has to have an explosive, attacking offense in order to win it all. This isn’t about brand or image. It’s simply how championship teams are formed nowadays.

Oregon needs to utilize its offensive playmakers.

Fortunately, from his comments during his introductory press conference, it seems Lanning has a clear understanding of this, saying:

“The number one indicator right now in college football of wins and losses is explosive plays. So, we’re going to be a team that’s built off explosive plays in offense, defense and special teams … You have to be able to push the ball down the field. You have to be able to attack in the air and on the ground. That’s definitely going to be part of our approach here.”

If Lanning stays true to his word and prioritizes an offense that is committed to stressing defenses at each level and generating explosive plays, then the sky’s the limit for the Oregon Ducks. But if he fails to learn from Smart’s stubbornness, then he is doomed to face a similar fate and will fall short of his championship aspirations.

Joshua Whitted 
Morgantown, West Virginia
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