Now that Mississippi State has been pointlessly scouted to death, Michigan fans have set to finding fans of every team Al Borges ever coordinated. Maize 'n' Brew put Cal up first despite the fact that Borges's tenure there consisted of a single star-crossed year; this is the view from the plains.
Many thanks to Jerry Hinnen of War Blog Eagle and CBS's generically named but excellent College Football Blog.
So, Al Borges. I won't bury the lede: after watching him for four years at Auburn, I don't think he's a particularly good fit for Michigan's current personnel, Denard Robinson most especially. He is as advertised: a veteran, pro-style, pass-first West Coast disciple. But there's a reason he's that veteran, namely that he's a whip-smart, clever, above-all solid offensive coordinator.
He might not be a Malzahn or Kelly-style miracle worker, but I can assure you he's not a Jeff Mullen or Steve Addazio or Patrick Nix, either. (No, I wouldn't expect the return of the Avalanche anytime soon.) Given the right tools to work with and a quality defense on the other side of the ball, there's no reason Borges couldn't be the coordinator for a championship-caliber Big Ten team.
Auburn fans would argue he proved that in 2004; it's a testament to how dominant that offense was (and how wretched it had been the year before*) that even after his final two teams finished 76th and 97th in total yardage, he remains universally respected and admired among the Tiger fanbase. Yeah, a well-trained sugar glider [ed: ?] could have turned Campbell, Williams, Brown, Marcus McNeill, etc. into a competent offense, but that 25th-place finish in total offense you mentioned doesn't come close to doing that unit justice. They finished fifth in yards-per-play, first in yards per-pass attempt (at 10.0 a pop), second in passing efficiency, all against an SEC schedule and all with Tuberville's Carr-like insistence on downshifting into clock-killing mode as soon as the lead hit two scores. (Which it did a lot that year.)
Before that year Campbell had been a head case who'd already gone through three coordinators in three seasons. Borges got his head on straight, deployed the two-headed monster of Williams and Brown to maximum efficiency, and even added in the occasional gimmick play to good effect. It really was a terrific coaching job, and a lot of Auburn fans will tell you his 2005 effort -- in which Auburn finished 24th in yards per-play and scored 27 or more points 9 times, despite replacing Campbell with Brandon Cox and and not discovering a running back until Kenny Irons emerged at midseason -- was even better. (They're exaggerating, but it was still awfully nice.)
So what happened after that? Certainly Tuberville's conservatism and the lack of help from the world's most mediocre set of position coaches (the same ones who eventually got Tony Franklin fired midseason) didn't help, but the principal problem IMHO was the collapse of the passing game. Cox's myasthenia gravis—a debilitating muscle disease—seriously reduced his effectiveness, a series of recruiting busts meant that there were no replacements for the two departed NFL receivers on the outside, and the loss of McNeill opened up huge problems in pass protection. For a coordinator who set up his running game with the threat of an efficient passing game (even in 2005, Cox threw 44 times against Ga. Tech, 40 times against LSU, 33 times vs. Wisconsin, huge numbers for a Tuberville team), this was DEATH.
So how much blame does Borges finally share for the downturn? Not that much; the lack of player development from the position coaches, Tubby's handcuffing, and plain old bad luck in Cox's downturn hurt more than anything Borges did. Nevertheless, he does share some blame for things getting as rocky as they got, there's some lessons for Michigan's expectations for Borges here:
- He needs the talent. Obviously, the array of tools at Borges' disposal in '06 and '07 wasn't nearly what it was in '04 and '05, but the cupboard wasn't as bare as to totally excuse the off-the-cliff plummet Auburn experienced. It may be fair to say that Borges is well-equipped to maximize a talent advantage over lesser opponents -- his success with a very talented SDSU offense by MWC standards this year would seem to be more evidence -- but isn't as effective "coaching up" lesser weapons. In the long term this is probably a good thing.
- He's not going to recruit that talent himself. Can't speak for what he's done at SDSU or his previous stops, but virtually any skill position player who truly shone at Auburn -- during his tenure or after -- was either recruited under his predecessors or after he'd departed.
- He's not super-flexible. Borges' schemes didn't change a whole lot as Cox's effectiveness decreased and his receiving corps began sucking. It was still the same array of mostly off-tackle and iso runs, play-action passes (yes, waggles!), and occasional pro-style passing concepts. They just stopped working. Borges made some offseason comments to the effect that Auburn would do more to get the running backs and tight ends involved in the passing game (as they had been in 2004), but that never really seemed to develop.
To that same point, Borges did precious little work at Auburn with a "dual-threat" quarterback, but what little he did wouldn't be very encouraging where Denard is concerned. That work came with Kodi Burns, who came to Auburn as a true freshman in 2007. Cox began that season completely out of sorts and Burns was brought off the bench in Weeks 2-4 to stop the bleeding. It didn't seem like Borges had made much of an effort to teach Burns the offense or develop a functional package to put his running skills to use; Burns seemed to mostly just take the snap and run around. A true freshman Kodi Burns might not have been able to do much more than that, but it still just didn't seem like Borges had much of an idea about what to do with him at that stage. Obviously Robinson is miles and miles ahead of where Burns was (or ever got to) as a quarterback, but maybe it's something to keep in mind all the same.
Again, none of that is to say Borges can't succeed at Michigan ... but the current situation just isn't in his wheelhouse. Based on the last half of 2005 (when Cox, Irons, and the AU receivers were at the height of their powers) and what he's done at SDSU this season with the Lindley-Hillman-senior wideouts package, I'd say the prototypical Borges offense is one with an accurate (and not necessarily strong-armed) pocket passer, big NFL-type receivers on the outside to stretch the field, and a single stud running back as a home run threat out of the backfield. It seems like aside from Darryl Stonum, Michigan doesn't have any of those things.
What's ironic, says Alanis, is that Michigan used to have those things in bunches. Give Borges Henne, Hart, Long, and Manningham/Arrington, and you're going to have one of the best offenses in the country, hands-down. And maybe he can work some magic with Denard (or Gardner), and Hopkins, and Stonum/Miller/Jackson/whoever. But I can't shake the feeling that Borges is the right guy in the right place at the wrong time.
*[Since you asked, sort of, and because it shows how deeply, deeply flawed Tuberville's understanding of offense is, in 2003 Auburn used co-offensive coordinators: quarterbacks coach Steve Ensminger and offensive line coach Hugh Nall. Tuberville asked them to operate the identical scheme run by Bobby Petrino in 2002, but with a twist: he would ask them for either a running play or a passing play as the situation demanded, and then Nall would make the playcall if Tubby had requested a running play, and Ensminger the playcall in the event of a pass. (I don't think this has been officially confirmed, but it's a matter of general understanding amongst Auburn fans.) And that is how you take Campbell, Williams, Brown, and like four other NFL players and wind up with a lousy offense. Nall wound up as a trucking company executive when he left Auburn; Ensminger's next job was as an assistant coach with a local high school.]
Jerry walked back what pessimism existed in the above—there but under the "this guy is pretty good" bit—in a brief addendum:
So I read back over what I wrote yesterday and it's too far on the negative side, I think. I don't mean to imply Borges can't/won't succeed at Michigan, I'm just worried it's going to take a couple of seasons for
1. Hoke and Co. to recruit the missing pieces for the offense (especially a load-carrying RB)
2. Borges to coach up the pieces he's got, like (hopefully) Gardner.
Given the state of the defense, I wonder if he'd really be given the necessary slack to survive a Rodriguez-like transition period. But Mattison ought to help. If he's Hoke's Malzahn, there's no question Borges can be his Ted Roof.
I think Borges will be all but forced to adapt when there turn out to be things that work with Denard and things that don't. In the Cox case above criticisms about not adapting to the situation might overlook the fact that there's no adaptation that turns suck into not suck. See Michigan's 2008 offense—when you don't have anything you can adapt all you want and you're still going to be hilariously bad.