The Leach, Air Raid Trajectory in Year 3

MIKE LEACH’S coaching tree is extensive enough that we can garner a lot about the performance tendencies of his Air Raid system by examining other programs which have implemented them. And in particular, there are compelling trend lines between WSU and another school in particular headed into Year 3.

While his results at Cal remain to be seen, Sonny Dykes' head coaching career began when he inherited a 4-8 program at Louisiana Tech in 2010 (much as Mike Leach did at WSU in 2012). Dyke’s first year yielded a modest 5-7 record, in which the offense actually scored fewer points than the year before (321 vs 350). Year Two saw substantial improvement, with the Bulldogs going 8-5, making a bowl, and scoring 391 points on the year. But the real explosion occurred in the third season. LA Tech went 9-3, scoring a NCAA-best 691 points in the process.

Dana Holgerson's results are a little harder to compare because he did not have to undertake a rebuild. The West Virginia program he took over in 2010 had enjoyed six straight seasons of 9 wins or more. Additionally, the Moutaineers took a significant jump in competition with their move to the Big 12 in 2011. Offensively, the Air Raid was potent right out of the gate scoring 489 points (up from 327 under Bill Stewart), and improving to 513 in Year Two. Holgerson's team won the Big East in his first year, but have since struggled to compete in the Big 12, particularly defensively.

By far, the most compelling analysis comes from looking at Art Briles and Baylor. Briles took over a Bear program that was at an all-time low in 2008. Baylor had not had a winning season since 1995, and were trying in vain to overcome a significant talent gap against their conference rivals. Briles went 4-8 in his first year, but it was clear a new offensive foundation was being laid. Most Cougar fans will recall those Bears whipping WSU in Waco 45-17 in what was also Paul Wulff's first season.

Briles’ second season was a disappointment after quarterback Robert Griffin III suffered a season ending knee injury in Week 3. The Bears would limp to another 4-8 record and score a mere 249 points. But then it got interesting.

Despite a tough, road-heavy schedule in Briles’ third season, Baylor finally got over the top. They won four conference games, scored 405 points (note: WSU scored 403 points this past year), and made their first bowl game since 1994. Although they would lose their bowl game, Baylor would win three road games that season, highlighted by a dramatic narrow victory at traditional powerhouse Texas -- their first such win in over a decade.

Is this starting to sound familiar?

Although the Bears returned most of their offensive talent in 2011, most preseason publications predicted Baylor to regress and finish somewhere in the bottom half of the conference. They were dead wrong. Baylor rode an offensive explosion (589 points) which more than made up for a vulnerable defense, on their way to a 10-3 season.

Although the Bears still suffered a few lopsided losses, they enjoyed a highly favorable schedule that year which featured five conference home games against many of their toughest opponents (Texas, Oklahoma, Missouri, Iowa State, and Texas Tech). The Bears swept the lot. Texas in particular was predicted to exact some revenge late in the season for the previous year's debacle, but instead got whipped to the tune of 48-24.

While no comparisons are perfect, the similarities between where WSU is positioned now and where Baylor was headed into 2011 are striking:

Baylor 2010
Record: 7-6 (previous year 4-8)
Qualified for first bowl game in 16 years (lost)
Conference Record: 4-4
Road Record: 3-2
Offensive Points: 405
Defensive Points: 396
Total Offense: 475 per game
Total Defense: 435 per game

WSU 2013
Record: 6-7 (previous year 3-9)
Qualified for first bowl game in 10 years (lost)
Conference Record: 4-5
Road Record: 3-3
Offensive Points: 403
Defensive Points: 423
Total Offense: 422 per game
Total Defense: 458 per game

Baylor 2011 (W-L: 10-3)
Returning Offensive Starters: 8 (QB and top 5 receivers returning)
Returning Defensive Staters: 5 (only one defensive back)

WSU 2014 (W-L: ???)
Returning Offensive Starters: 8 (QB and top 8 receivers returning)
Returning Defensive Starters: 6 (only one defensive back)

There obviously is no guarantee that WSU is on the eve of similar offensive explosion, but a close examination reveals a fundamental truth: it is extremely dangerous to underestimate the potential of an aggressive Air Raid-style offense when it is being run by talented veterans.

It is also eye-catching that Leach has generated such similar initial results to Briles, but in one less season, in an arguably tougher conference, and without the assistance of a Heisman-level quarterback like RG3.

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