Ten trends that will define this decade (cont.)
Texas' decision to remain in the Big 12 turned what could have been a revolutionary restructuring of the college landscape into a more modest real-estate shuffle, with only four schools (Nebraska, Colorado, Utah and Boise State) changing addresses.
However, as Pac-10 commissioner Scott said last month, "The level of excitement and interest that happened around the superconference idea -- the positive feedback I still get from TV networks and others -- suggests to me that at some point in the future the superconference will emerge and we'll be having the discussion again. But I can't predict when that will be."
One logical date: 2016. That's when ABC/ESPN's current deals with the Big Ten and Big 12 expire. By then, the Big Ten Network and soon-to-be-forthcoming Pac-10 Network will be well established, and Texas, Oklahoma, et al., may be compelled to reevaluate their options. The Pac-10 and Big 12 could merge, the Big Ten could get even bigger, or perhaps a brand new league will emerge.
In any case, Notre Dame may be down to its last days of independence. With at least three major conferences (Big Ten, Big 12 and Pac-10) embracing nine-game conference schedules, the Irish may find it harder to land non-conference dates with BCS-conference opponents. Plus, the amount of television money generated in the Big Ten's next deal may be too staggering to pass up. Notre Dame alumni remain resolute in their desire to maintain the Irish's independent heritage, but at some point school administrators will make the prudent business decision and join one of the budding superconferences.
College offenses constantly go in and out of vogue, which means the spread-offense craze is bound to plateau (if it hasn't already). Last season, the spread still thrived for teams like Pac-10 champion Oregon, Big East champion Cincinnati and 13-1 Florida. However, Alabama won the national championship with a more traditional, pro-style offense, Stanford defied the trend of recent upstarts by utilizing an old-school, smash-mouth offense and Nebraska's disruptive defense showed it's possible to shut down a wide-open attack like Texas'.
So will the recent influx of NFL-influenced coaches like Washington's Steve Sarkisian and USC's Kiffin kill the spread? Not exactly. Spread gurus like Notre Dame's Brian Kelly and Mississippi State's Dan Mullen keep importing it at new locations, and Arizona State's Dennis Erickson -- a veteran of both levels -- is one of several coaches implementing a version of former Texas Tech coach Mike Leach's Air Raid attack this season.
Instead, the future is likely a hybrid of both systems.
"The great thing would be the combination of both -- spread it out and throw it, then be able to do it with two tight ends and run the ball with some power," said Erickson. "It's just the evolution of football. I really believe if you can have a combination of all that stuff and confuse [defenses] with different personnel groups, that's what it's all about."
Oklahoma provided a glimpse into the future with its prolific 2008 attack that averaged 51.1 points per game and produced both a 4,720-yard passer (Sam Bradford) and two 1,000-yard rushers (Chris Brown and DeMarco Murray). While those Sooners were grouped in with the Big 12's many other spread attacks, they actually utilized a diverse playbook in which Bradford lined up both in the shotgun and under center, in five-wide and two-tight end sets -- all while operating in hurry-up mode the entire game.
In a sign of the times, many of the modern techniques that were once viewed as "gimmicky" will be showing up throughout the high-minded SEC this season, at schools like Arkansas (where Bobby Petrino will complement pro-style quarterback Ryan Mallett with the "Pistol" running game), Auburn (where coordinator Gus Malzahn uses the hurry-up exclusively) and South Carolina (where old-school play-action proponent Steve Spurrier is incorporating the new age zone-read fake).
The future won't belong solely to the pro/spread hybrid. As the spread flourished this past decade, defenses adjusted. More teams adopted a 3-4, allowing more flexibility to spy a quarterback who might double as a fullback.
That shift in defensive philosophy means it's time for a new-old offensive fad. And since bell-bottoms and platform shoes have already enjoyed minor renaissances, it seems only fair that coaches bring back that staple of the '70s football experience: the option. We're not talking about the occasional pitch play. We're talking about the holy trinity of the dive back, quarterback keeper or pitch.
Paul Johnson, who probably has leisure suits and tearaway jerseys in his closet, has proven at Navy and Georgia Tech that the option still works. How well? In Johnson's second season at Tech, he won the ACC title.
Most people think the option is a boring, grind-it-out scheme. Not true, said Tom Osborne, an option aficionado who coached Nebraska to national titles in 1994, 1995 and 1997. "Most of the zone plays you see now, if you block things perfectly, you may make seven, eight, nine yards," Osborne said. "If somebody misses a tackle, you might go a long way. In option football, if you execute correctly, you've got enough people to block everybody and theoretically score a touchdown on most every option play."
The option could be the answer for teams that recruit great defenses but struggle to assemble great offenses -- we're looking at you, Nebraska and North Carolina. Had Nebraska run the option last year, the Cornhuskers probably would have won the Big 12 title.
The three rarest specimens on the recruiting trail are, in order, elite defensive tackles, strong-armed quarterbacks and large, athletic offensive linemen. Nebraska already recruits elite defensive tackles, so that's not an issue. Running the option eliminates the need for the other two. Teams wanted former Cornhuskers quarterback Tommie Frazier as a safety, and he won two national titles running the option. Meanwhile, there is an ample supply of athletic, 6-foot-3, 280-pound linemen -- ideal for the trapping and cutting required by the option -- being ignored by most big-time programs. So what's the holdup? Johnson already has proven the option can work in a BCS conference. It's time to bring it back on a grand scale.
Once the NCAA tires of chasing agents, the next big scandal could come from the world of grassroots football. Elite seven-on-seven tournaments have exploded in popularity in the past three years, and -- at least for skill-position players -- travel football is starting to look an awful lot like travel basketball.
Tournaments take place on college campuses. In many states, high school coaches are forbidden by state associations from participating, leaving others -- who may not all have altruistic motives -- to supervise large groups of sought-after recruits. Really, what could go wrong?
On the other hand, the tournaments do offer exposure for under-the-radar players in a more football-like setting than the camps and combines that only measure 40-yard dash times and vertical jumps. There are positives and negatives, but the NCAA will have to keep a watchful eye on the tournaments. Football recruiting has its share of issues, but it isn't as bad as basketball recruiting. Yet.