As defenses home in on spread, offenses still one step ahead
As teams try to stop the spread, offenses need to evolve into pro-spread hybrids
Defending Tom Osborne's exclusion from my list of top five legendary coaches
Great college road trips, Miami's elite status, WVU's prospects, Crush news, more
At the start of the decade, you could have counted on one hand the number of programs around the country running the spread offense. Nine years later, the craze has spread through nearly the entire Big Ten and Big 12, other BCS programs and nearly every successful mid-major. Last year's BCS title game (Florida versus Oklahoma) was the first to pit two shotgun-spread teams against each other.
Through history, offensive trends have largely been cyclical, with a new craze eventually supplanting the last. Usually, though, change occurs because defenses catch up. So far, that hasn't come close to happening with the spread, as all those video-game performances in the Big 12 last year showed.
But when, for the second time in three weeks, I took to Twitter to solicit more Mailbag questions, an interesting one emerged.
Will teams "overreact" to defending the spread and be exposed badly against the run and power elements in the next few years?
That could absolutely happen. Across the sport, we haven't seen a whole lot of massive schematic movements by defensive coordinators to counter the spread. The same basic philosophy applies whether you're facing Florida, Oklahoma, Texas Tech or Oregon: You have to get to the quarterback. Give Tim Tebow or Sam Bradford time to operate and they'll pick you apart; you have to get pressure, and then you have to contain their speedy little running backs if they dump it off. To that end, defensive coaches are placing more and more emphasis on speed, from their line to their safeties.
It would stand to reason that as defensive personnel grow increasingly more nimble, they'll become susceptible to more traditional offenses that can run it up the gut. However, as of now, there are only a handful of programs fit to run that type of offense. There's a reason teams like USC, LSU, Georgia and Ohio State continue to be successful with traditional offenses: They have the best players. To run a productive, I-formation offense, a team needs big, bulky linemen, a true tight end, a couple of power runners and, preferably, a 6-foot-5 drop-back quarterback -- all of which are becoming increasingly scarce at the high-school level.
That's why the move toward the spread has been far more beneficial for mid-level teams looking to gain an "edge" against opponents with similar or greater talent. With the spread, a team just needs a few 5-8 burners who can get free in space and a QB who can get the ball to them. But now, we've reached the point where a team like Missouri -- which achieved great success with the spread the past few years -- plays nearly all its games against fellow spread teams. What, then, can a mid-level team do now to gain back that "edge?" Why not go back to a power offense?
It only takes one to break the cycle. We saw that last year when Paul Johnson installed his version of the old triple-option at Georgia Tech. The Jackets weren't overly talented, but they ran over several foes mostly because the defenses weren't accustomed to seeing that system. As a result, I fully expect to see some other teams follow Johnson's lead in the near future. And I fully expect someone in one of the more wide-open leagues to achieve similar results by switching back to power football -- or better yet, mixing power football in with the spread.
Keep an eye on Bobby Petrino at Arkansas. I always admired his offenses at Louisville because of the way he managed to incorporate such disparate styles. One minute Brian Brohm would be throwing to four receivers; the next, Michael Bush would be gashing it behind a fullback. Heading into this second year in Fayetteville, Petrino has his strong-armed QB (6-7 Michigan transfer Ryan Mallett), his elusive scatback (5-7, 165-pound Michael Smith, a 1,000-yard rusher last season) and a nice stable of receivers. Look for the Razorbacks to cause problems for SEC defensive coordinators this year.
Re: All-Time Coaching Legends. Tom Osborne is off your list of all time coaching legends because his personality is bland? Anyone with half a mind would take a "bland" Tom Osborne over a Woody Hayes or Paterno any day of the week, and twice on Saturday. The numbers (Osborne's .836 winning percentage compared with Woody's .761 and Paterno's .747) don't lie.
And unless you're trying to be an aspiring shock-jock twit, Osborne's philanthropic endeavors off the field sure help establish him as a quality person. And if being a good person on and off the field is "bland," then our society is certainly a dismal failure in the grand scope of humanity's history.
Yowzers. Osborne's exclusion -- in particular the "bland" remark -- drew far more angry e-mails than that of any other coach, though Matt was the only Husker fan to view Dr. Tom's snub as a referendum on humanity. However, as I stated right at the top, it was not an attempt to rank the "best" or "greatest" on-field coaches. The topic was coaching "legends," and the coaches who achieve that rare, iconic status are usually the ones who bring a little bit more to the table. Like it or not, oftentimes it's the "villains" who capture our imagination. Woody Hayes won games and possessed an unforgettable personality, even if that personality included a bad temper that led him to punch a player.
Interestingly, it seems some Nebraska fans viewed Osborne's exclusion as doubly insulting, not only because they believe he belongs on any top five list, but also because of Hayes' presence there instead. No fan base in the country places more emphasis on character and integrity, so for Nebraskans, it's unfathomable some could view Osborne's personality as a negative. (In Hayes' defense, he was a pretty upstanding citizen himself, constantly hounding his players about academics and their postgraduate ambitions and donating his time to myriad charitable causes.) However, as other readers pointed out, one could argue Osborne was not even the most iconic Big 8 coach of his era. That would be the even-more villainous Barry Switzer.
Beyond that, there was actually far less griping about the list than I expected. Mostly, fans just wanted recognition -- even if just a "mention" -- of their schools' own respective legends, namely (in no particular order) Darrell Royal, Gen. Robert Neyland, John McKay, Frank Leahy, Fielding Yost, Bobby Dodd, Frank Cush, LaVell Edwards and Larry Keheres.
Do you think some of today's younger coaches -- namely Pete Carroll, Urban Meyer and Jim Tressel -- have the potential to one day wind up on your list?
Today's coaches will have a hard time achieving "legendary" status because few stay at the same place for as extended a period as coaches of the past. Meyer may "not be going to Notre Dame, ever," but I still can't envision him being the head coach at Florida for 20 years. And while he may not admit it, Carroll's ego will eventually lead him back to the NFL. I'd put better odds on Tressel and Bob Stoops, both of whom seem happily entrenched where they are. Even so, each will need to add at least one more national title to be mentioned in the same breath as my top five.
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