Boise State offensive coordinator Chris Peterson was watching his quarterback line up under center for a routine passing drill this spring when an unusual thought crossed his mind. "I was wondering if, in five or 10 years, it's going to look really weird if someone's under center taking a snap -- kind of like how strange it would look now if someone lined up in the single wing," said Peterson. "If someone lines up under center, will people be like, 'What is that?'"
The "I-formation," where a quarterback lines up under center with a tailback and fullback behind him, has been the central tenet of college offenses for more than half a century. Had you flipped around the TV dial on a random Saturday last season, however, you would have seen nearly as many different offensive variations as there were teams. You would have witnessed quarterbacks lined up in the shotgun for nearly the entire game. You would have observed teams sending out five receivers on one play, and three tight ends on the next. You would have caught sight of receivers motioning into the backfield, and running backs shifting out wide. And you would have noticed teams running the option out of four- or five-receiver formations.
There's an offensive revolution afoot in college football. Of the top 11 teams in the country in total offense last season, eight ran some variation of the modern "spread offense," where teams line up with one or no running backs and as many as four or five receivers. The spread was once viewed almost exclusively as a passing scheme, but a new generation of coaches is now using spread principles in the running game as well to create dangerous, balanced attacks. Another trendy style, the "West Coast offense," uses more conventional formations but employs a professionalized, precision-based passing style far more advanced than the traditional college playbook.
"The hot offenses are the West Coast and the spread," said new Florida coach Urban Meyer, who went undefeated at Utah last season while lining up almost entirely in shotgun, spread formations. "There's a bunch of different styles of each, but the one common theme is you want to force the defense to defend the entire field, as opposed to the I-formation, where a lot of times you have to defend a much smaller area of the field."
It's no longer enough, though, just to be a "spread team," an "option team," a "West Coast" team or a "pro-style" team. A cast of young, creative coaching minds is finding ways to incorporate multiple offensive styles into the same playbook.
The top four teams in the country in total offense last season -- Louisville, Bowling Green, Utah and Boise State -- showcased some of the sport's most groundbreaking schemes while combining for a 43-5 record. Louisville coach Bobby Petrino, whose team averaged nearly 50 points per game, molded his personnel to be proficient in both the spread and traditional power-I football. Then Utah coach Meyer dazzled the profession with a shotgun, one-back spread offense that also incorporated old-school option football; Bowling Green, where Meyer coached from 2001-02, ran virtually the same system but with more emphasis on passing. And Peterson's Broncos, despite losing eight offensive starters from the year before, produced a school-record 48.9 points per game in '04 with a West Coast-based system that included a dizzying array of trickery, wacky formations and seemingly endless substitutions.