Tom Herman. Kirby Smart. The Sugar Bowl.
Herman was the offensive coordinator for the Ohio State Buckeyes, while Smart was the defensive coordinator for the Alabama Crimson Tide for the 2015 Sugar Bowl, which served as the College Football Playoff semifinal.
During that contest, Herman got the best of Smart, as third-string quarterback Cardale Jones threw for 243 yards, Ezekiel Elliott ran for 230 yards, and the Buckeyes put up 42 points. Entering the game, Smart’s Crimson Tide defense had only given up more than 23 points once that season, ultimately finishing No. 7 in S&P+.
By the time the confetti settled on Ohio State as the national champions following an easy victory over Oregon, Herman had solidified his reputation as one of the game’s brightest young minds as he returned to Texas to take over the Houston program.
The loss certainly didn’t hurt Smart’s trajectory, but the game did bring the two bright young minds together and helped reshape Smart’s approach to playing defense against spread offenses.
“I’ve been good friends with Tom since our game with them against Ohio State,” Smart said during the Sugar Bowl coaches teleconference. “I’ve kept in touch. We’ve shared ideas and thoughts. And I also used him as a trusted friend and resource to use information.”
The flow of information has certainly changed Smart as a defensive mind. Even in the SEC, offenses like Alabama are now moving to more spread concepts, so defenses are getting lighter and changing their fronts and coverages in response.
In fact, Smart used the ties to Herman to query his defensive strategies after the Alabama defense was gashed by Ohio State — Smart visited Houston and met with current Texas defensive coordinator Todd Orlando, who was working with Herman for the first time after taking the job with the Cougars.
Eventually, Smart ended up combining the basics from the scheme he ran under Nick Saban at Alabama to incorporate aspects of the dime defense that has become the rage around the Big 12 and is now making its way around college football, from his fronts to his coverages on the back end.
One problem that Smart had against Herman in the Sugar Bowl was with the line calls for his front — in Smart’s four-down package, the nose tackle aligned to the passing strength, but in the three-down package, the nose tackle aligned to the field. Against tempo, that created issues, as the nose tackle had to wait for that defensive call.
Herman called it the “Palms up defense.”
Needless to say, that wasn’t particularly effective for Alabama, especially against Herman’s offense.
So Smart simplified things by putting the nose to the passing strength in three-down looks and adopting that as his base front against the spread, especially aligned in the tite front (4i-0-4i) that Orlando and many other defensive coordinators are using across college football.
As Orlando told Burnt Orange Nation when asked about changing his defensive fronts due to struggles against the run late in conference play, he likes the gap coverage provided by that front — the two defensive ends play in the B gaps, while the nose tackle accounts for the A gaps.
Smart thinks the same way now. He wants to control opposing spread running games by setting the nose to the running back because most running plays go the opposite direction. In aligning that way, the defense can control the B gaps and force plays outside so the inside linebackers can run free to the football.
Remember how Orlando also likes to say those inside linebackers are the key to his defense? The same philosophy applies for Smart as a result of running a similar front. A front that works even in the SEC.
On the back end, Smart now uses the high safety as a robber player reading the quarterback — once again, similar to the defenses run in the Big 12, including Orlando’s preferred quarters coverage.
In the Sugar Bowl rematch between the two former coordinators, Herman will face a defense that his own staff helped to mold into a spread-busting approach that still bears the fingerprints of Saban’s preferred base defense.
This time, however, Herman will have to go against Smart with a talent deficit.
Still, the Georgia defense is younger than the Alabama defense Herman faced — it’s just more prepared to have answers for what Herman wants to do. In that way, the tactics of defensive coordinators who face high-level spread offenses have filtered over to the nation’s most prestigious conference.
With Herman, there’s no public evidence of whatever impact the consultations with Smart and his staff have had on the Longhorns offense, but this isn’t quite the same attack that the Buckeyes rode to the national title.
And that isn’t about a change in philosophy for Herman — it’s about what this offense is capable of executing. Whereas the 2014 Ohio State offense was one of the most explosive attacks nationally, racking up four plays of 80 or more yards, this Texas offense is all about junior wide receivers Lil’Jordan Humphrey and Collin Johnson excelling individually and controlling the clock with an efficient offense.
The end result is that after forcing Smart to confront the limitations of Nick Saban’s preferred defensive strategy by beating Alabama with Ohio State’s high-powered spread in 2014, Herman and his staff helped the current Georgia head coach craft a modern defense.
So while that type of philosophical exchange between a current Big 12 defensive coordinator and a Saban disciple heading an SEC powerhouse may not fit with most national narratives, it was the result of that fateful Sugar Bowl and the friendship that grew out of it.