To honor the book that’s being released in September about Hal Mumme, Mike Leach, and their Air Raid system I thought I would take a quick refresher of how impactful they were coming to Kentucky in 1997.
Hal Mumme and Mike Leach came to the University of Kentucky in 1997 after coaching at Valdosta State from 1992 – 1996 where they had gone 40-17-1 behind a revolutionary passing attack nicknamed the Air Raid during their time at Kentucky.
Quarterback Tim Couch had been highly touted coming out of high school and joined a Kentucky football team that was still running the option under head coach Bill Curry. Couch played just 7 games in 1997, struggling as he completed just 38.1% of his passes and had negative rushing yards on 24 carries although it’s worth noting that NCAA includes sacked yards lost in rushing yards. The Kentucky program had largely been in a rut since the 1993 season finishing: 6-6, 1-10, 4-7, and 4-7 up through the 1996 season before Hal Mumme and Mike Leach came aboard.
As far as passing attacks, the Run and Shoot offense had started dwindling by the 1996 season at the collegiate and professional levels leaving what Hal Mumme and Mike Leach were doing as even more revolutionary in hindsight. Lavell Edwards was still coaching over at Brigham Young during this era with success including featuring future college coach Steve Sarkisian as his starting quarterback in 1995 and 1996. Edwards largely implemented the system that was the backbone and ground work for the Air Raid system.
The State of the SEC Passing Game
At Georgia, Ray Goff had quietly started making an impact through the air with Eric Zeier who would pass for over 3,500 yards in 1993 and over 3,300 yards in 1994. Zeier was so ahead of the curve that he threw 1,200 and 1,100 yards more than the 2nd highest quarterback in the SEC those years. Largely because of the lack of wins that came with the aerial assault, Goff quickly moved back to the more traditional pro style emphasis on the running game in 1995 before Jim Donnan was hired to take over for him as head coach.
Steve Spurrier at Florida was implementing a deadly passing attack by 1995 but his Fun N’ Gun system was far more balanced than most realize instead relying on a committee at the running back position to churn out yards. What Spurrier was bringing to the table was a polished, pro style downfield passing attack that was mirroring what was going on at Tennessee with Peyton Manning at quarterback under Phillip Fulmer.
The conference itself was largely stuck in the traditional pro heavy emphasis on the running game with only 4 quarterbacks throwing for more than 2,500 yards in 1995. In 1996, the passing assaults were even more stymied as just Danny Wuerffel and Peyton Manning threw for more than 2,500 yards and neither quarterback threw more than 380 pass attempts during the year.
Hal Mumme and Mike Leach Upend the SEC
Tim Couch set the SEC on notice in his first game against Louisville throwing for almost 400 yards in a season where Kentucky’s quarterback would finish with a mind-boggling 363 completions, 547 pass attempts, and 37 touchdowns. What made Kentucky’s offense stand out even more was the polished running attack as Anthony White and Derek Homer combined to run for 1,225 yards.
Kentucky, once an also-ran that struggled to score in 1996 with 8 games of 14 points or less immediately challenged their SEC competition on the scoreboard despite losing in 1997. They put up 27 points against Mississippi State, 28 points against a Florida team that would finish 10-2, beat Alabama while scoring 40 points, 28 points against LSU which would finish 9-3, and 31 points against Tennessee.
The 1998 season saw Couch and Kentucky going even more extreme through the air. Couch completed 400 passes for 4,275 yards. By comparison, only 2 other quarterbacks in the entire SEC threw the ball more than 300 times. Kentucky also improved in the win column from a 5-6 record in 1997 to 7-5 in 1998. That season also saw points continue to be scored in bunches as Kentucky scored 35 against Florida, beat South Carolina while scoring 33 points, and knocked off LSU while scoring 39 points. They also nearly beat Georgia in a 26-28 loss.
Despite the loss of Tim Couch to the NFL, Dusty Bonner entered the picture and took hold of the SEC throwing for 3,266 yards on 303 completions and 465 pass attempts. The next most pass happy quarterback came from Georgia in Quincy Carter, who threw almost 100 fewer passes in the course of the season. It’s also worth noting that Mike Leach as hired as offensive coordinator at Oklahoma in 1999 and proceeded to lay waste to the Big 12 in much the same fashion with future college coach Josh Heupel throwing 500 passes for 3,460 yards and 30 touchdowns.
The Aftermath In the SEC
It took a little while but the SEC has had multiple seasons with quarterbacks throwing for over 350 times a season. Despite the Air Raid at Kentucky and the marginal success under Hal Mumme and Mike Leach, the SEC has largely remained steadfast in its ode to running the ball downhill to win the ball game. It’s still worth mentioning that just Dak Prescott and Chad Kelly threw over 450 times last year. By comparison the Big 12 had 5 players throw over 395 times during the season with the conference largely influenced by Mike Leach’s Air Raid reign in his time at Texas Tech.