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Weighing the Odds: Can Bryan Brown Succeed at Louisville?

Louisville’s Defensive Coordinator still faces stiff challenges ahead as he enters Year 2 of rebuild

Sam Upshaw Jr./Courier-Journal

HI there, I’m Conor Shea and I’m new here. I’m beyond excited to be the newest member of the Chron (I’ve been told I can’t call it that) and I can’t wait to get to know you all much better. For those of you who are familiar with my work, I’m sorry. For those of you who aren’t, you’ll find that I write about pretty much anything ranging from advanced analytics, to the Curse of Bill Murray, to the #thiccness of offensive linemen. I can’t think of a better audience who will both simultaneously appreciate and hate what I write than the Chronicloids. Thank you all for having me.

Now let’s talk some football.

Louisville Defensive Coordinator Bryan Brown is in uncharted territory.

On December 12th, 2018 Brown took over arguably one of the worst Power 5 defenses in the history of the sport. The defense, as many of you unfortunately are aware of, was so bad they became the first P5 team to give up 50 or more points in five consecutive games. They also ranked 128th out of 130th in points allowed per game (44.1!), 127th in rushing yards allowed, 99th in SP+, and were the country’s worst team against the spread at 1-11. And due to a severe imbalance in recruiting, as Keith Wynne so eloquently explained, the defense barely had enough talent to fill the two-deep last fall.

Brown also became Louisville’s fourth different defensive coordinator in as many years, which is something I’ve never heard of nor something I want to spend the time researching to see if it’s happened anywhere else before.

And while I think most of us would agree that based on the eye test the defense was much improved in it’s first year of being rebuilt from whatever the hell BVG did to it, on paper the defense wasn’t much better and actually finished one spot below its 2018 defensive SP+ ranking at 100th in the country.

This is where things go off the map for Coach Brown.

In the entire history of Bill Connelly’s SP+ (2005-present), Brown is just one of 18 first-year defensive coordinators to have his defense finish 100th or worse in the defensive SP+ ratings. Of the other 17 first-year defensive coordinators, including 2019’s D.J. Elliot (Kansas) and Tyson Summers (Colorado), only nine of those first-year coaches even got a second season to try to improve things. And of the nine that survived, only three thus far have coached more than three seasons at their respective schools.

*Mike Ekeler left for USC after Year 2 and was replaced by William Inge **Mike Smith was told prior to season that he would be fired at the end of 2015 season regardless ***Perry was fired after Les Miles took over in 2019 but Clint Bowen was retained as Safeties Coach

Out of those three first-year defensive coordinators (two of which were groups of co-coordinators) that survived long enough to see their first recruiting class play as seniors, only one of them, Baylor’s Phil Bennett aka “The Unicorn,” was not eventually fired for poor performance or at least a member of an entire staff that was canned for poor performance.

Side note: If you ever become a head football coach, please for the love of all things good and holy do not assign co-defensive coordinators. It never works. For obvious reasons.

That last statistic is what scares me most for Bryan Brown. Based on everything we saw last season the defense did look markedly better in all facets of the game. We saw the effort was there, the execution was there, and the unit showed improvement across the board. However, those glimpses of what this defense could become usually only lasted for the first two quarters of a game before fatigue and lack of depth took over. There were also the Kentucky, Wake Forest, Miami games where the defense never had a chance.

Now that’s not to say that I can’t see Bryan Brown getting the job done. What we saw in the Virginia game and in the first halves against the likes of Clemson and Notre Dame, all of whom had great offenses in 2019, are huge reasons for optimism. But when you run down the shortlist of coaches who have sort of been in Brown’s shoes before, you can’t help but be concerned.

The hope is obviously for Brown to follow a similar trajectory that Phi Bennett had at Baylor. In his second season at Baylor, Bennett pulled his team up to a sub-par, but not horrendous level at 86th in defensive SP+, while the offense finished 4th in the country in SP+. Baylor finished with an 8-5 record that year and played six ranked opponents. If Louisville’s defense can take a similar step forward in Brown’s second season at the helm, then it should be enough for the Cardinals to post at least another 8-win season with the firepower that’s coming back on offense.

But again, based on the history of first-year coaches who have gotten off to slow starts, the depth issues, the constant turnover of coordinators at UofL, and everything in between, the odds are stacked heavily against Coach Brown.

But you already knew that before you even knew who would be Brian VanGorder’s successor.

And so did Bryan Brown.