With the press of a computer key, the film begins to roll, and images from last season's Fiesta Bowl flicker on the screen. Sitting in the darkness of the Tennessee film room, Randy Sanders is looking for one particular play from that cool desert night, the one play Florida State's defense could not consistently stop. For five minutes the Volunteers' offensive coordinator searches. Finally, after hitting a few more keys on the computer, Sanders finds what he's looking for. He pauses the grainy image, then carefully guides his laser pointer until its red dot sits squarely between the 2 and the 5 on the burnt-orange Jersey of tailback Travis Stephens, his image frozen just as he is lining up.
"Here's our counter-gap running play," says the 33-year-old Sanders as he hits another key, setting the play in motion on the screen. "Travis hits the hole hard, gets a beautiful block from [right guard] Cosey Coleman, who makes the block because of the great angle he has, and Travis is off into the secondary. This is just how we practice it."
"There were a few occasions in the game when the counter gap bailed us out," adds coach Phillip Fulmer. "Once, late in the game, it got us away from our goal line. Another time it sustained a key drive. It's not a complicated play, but all year that play was one of our best."
One play. That's often the difference between winning and losing, and in 1999 it will most likely determine who ends up No. 1. In a season in which the race for the national championship is as wide open as the Dakotas—"Any of the top 20 could sneak in there and win the national title," says Florida State coach Bobby Bowden—one play could mean the difference between dancing in New Orleans on Jan. 4 and a berth in the Alamo Bowl. There's no doubt that one play saved Tennessee's season last year, and we're not talking about the gift from god that came in the form of a fumble by Arkansas quarterback Clint Stoerner late in the fourth quarter on Nov. 14. The play that propelled the Volunteers to the national tide was the counter gap, a quick-hitting misdirection play that keeps defenses honest and often produces long runs. In the Fiesta Bowl alone Tennessee ran the play 12 times the most of any of the 195 offensive plays in its playbook. On those 12 counter gaps, the Volunteers' netted 51 yards against the nation's top-ranked defense. "Big plays don't come about because of luck," says Sanders. "They happen because of practice."
Indeed, every good team has a play that it practices more often and works on more intently than any of the others, spending extra time every day trying to get it as exquisitely tuned as a Stradivarius. On Saturdays this play, when run to perfection, can change a game and can even transform a decent team into a tide contender.
Here's a peek into the playbooks of several contenders and an examination of a bread-and-butter play from each. If you watch these teams this fall, you'll see these plays. And because these schools are as likely as anybody to win it all this season, don't be surprised to see at least one of these plays again on Jan. 4.
TEXAS A&M'S 54 BLOOD BLUE
Over the last 15 years Texas A&M has had more linebackers selected in the NFL draft (18) than any other school. This is no accident. Almost every year one or two of the nation's top high school linebackers sign with the Aggies, for one main reason: A&M's aggressive defensive scheme allows linebackers to run, roam and run some more. "Our 3-4 defense succeeds or fails based on our linebackers' ability to make plays," says Aggies defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz.
Because of its great speed at the position, A&M, which finished 10th in the country last season in total defense (289.3 yards allowed per game), blitzes with ruthless efficiency. The Aggies' most successful blitz is called 54 Blood Blue. With all four linebackers rushing, the only ways an offense can beat this play is if the quarterback can get rid of the ball in less than two seconds or if—and this is a monumental if—the line and the backs can somehow pick up all the blitzers. "The quarterback has to make a quick read and release, and throw accurately," says Hankwitz. "If we disguise it well, it's very difficult to defend because our linebackers are so tough to block."
Texas A&M has been running 54 Blood Blue ever since R.C. Slocum became coach in 1989. The Aggies will employ it four or five times a game, mainly in passing situations. According to A&M, in the last two years quarterbacks have completed just 27% of their attempts against this blitz, and last season the Aggies achieved what Hankwitz calls a "desirable outcome" 75% of the time when they ran 54 Blood Blue. "We set goals on how many yards we can give up on a given play, based on the situation, and still consider it a success," says Hankwitz. "To have a play be successful three out of four times is very rare."