Alabama's offensive formation looked all wrong, like a scoop of chocolate ice cream on apple pie, before a crucial fourth-quarter snap against Florida last Saturday. Five wide receivers? An empty backfield behind quarterback Andrew Zow? Could this be the same program that was built on a bedrock of testosterone by Bear Bryant and carried on with only occasional variation since the Bear's retirement and death almost 16 years ago? It is. Zow threw a 14-yard touchdown pass to Antonio Carter in the back of the end zone. It was a key play in the Crimson Tide's 40-39 overtime victory, which ended Florida's 30-game home field winning streak and put Alabama alone atop the SEC West.
Almost a thousand miles to the north, another Neanderthal, Michigan, continued to shuck its roots by using four-wideout formations in a 38-12 spanking of Purdue, which lives by that look. In the first quarter the Wolverines scored on an 18-yard pass from Tom Brady to David Terrell while in the four-wideout spread.
In the last autumn of the century, evolution has taken Bronko Nagurski's game and turned it into something closer to Ultimate Frisbee. The latest turn in college football's strategy wheel has made a rage of the spread offense, a series of formations employing three, four or five wide receivers while leaving one or sometimes no back behind the quarterback. The spread is a creative answer to the eight-man defensive fronts that took over the game in the mid-1990s (SI, Oct. 28, 1996) and a quick fix for struggling programs unable to attract lots of talent. "Everywhere you look, you see wide-open styles," says Syracuse offensive coordinator George DeLeone.
Last Saturday the spread ruled. Both Alabama and Michigan rode their newly embraced formations to big victories. The Tide outpassed Florida 336 yards to 307, and Michigan almost did the same to Purdue (318 to the Boilermakers' 328). Florida State, which has been running a variation of the spread called the fast break since Charlie Ward was at the throttle in 1992, pounded Duke 51-23 to remain No. 1. Kentucky, which has been using the spread since coach Hal Mumme came in from Valdosta (Ga.) State four years ago, drilled Arkansas as Tim Couch's replacement at quarterback for the Wildcats, Dusty Bonner, threw four touchdown passes. Marshall and its quarterback, Chad Pennington, employed the spread to assume control of the Mid-American Conference with a 32-14 win over Miami of Ohio (page 112).
Even some teams that lost in big games last Saturday wouldn't have been involved in such heady competition had it not been for the spread. Purdue and quarterback Drew Brees brought the nation's longest winning streak, 10 games, to Ann Arbor. Oregon State and its coach, spread pioneer Dennis Erickson, were a surprise 3-0 before losing a 37-29 shootout to Southern Cal. Oklahoma, once home to Barry Switzer's brushfire wishbone, was 3-0 and leading the nation in passing—"You never thought you'd see that, did you?" cracked Brigham Young's pass-happy coach, LaVell Edwards—before losing 34-30 at Notre Dame. Without the spread, the Boilermakers, Beavers and Sooners wouldn't be on the radar screen. "I believe this is where offense is headed," says Alabama quarterbacks coach Charlie Stubbs. Correction: Offense is already there.
Nothing is new in football, including the spread, which was introduced in the college game in the mid-1970s, when Jack Elway was coach at Cal State-Northridge. Elway copied the offense that his son, John, was running at Granada Hills (Calif.) High under coach Jack Neumeier, who's the godfather of the formation. His team lacked speed and size, so Neumeier concocted a package that exploited the arm and decision-making skills of his toothy quarterback. "We used four wide receivers and called everything at the line of scrimmage," says Neumeier.
The elder Elway took the spread to San Jose State, where Erickson was his offensive coordinator. Erickson took it to Idaho, Wyoming, Washington State and Miami. Elway also taught the system to Mike Price, now the coach at Washington State. That was the ground floor: Elway, Erickson and Price. For many years, despite Erickson's two national titles at Miami, those three coaches were the sole practitioners of the spread. Price used to run what he called "a one-back camp" in Pullman, and it was a cozy gathering of fewer than 10 coaches. His last one, in 1998, pulled in coaches representing 30 staffs. Last spring's camp was held at Auburn, where coach Tommy Tuberville uses the spread.
Through the 1980s and early '90s, successful college programs were ground-oriented. Even as the wishbone and veer went out of favor, the I formation remained. In the mid-'90s, however, defenses underwent a sea change with the rise of the press, an attacking variation on Buddy Ryan's 46 defense, which had carried the Chicago Bears to a Super Bowl title in '86. Extreme versions of the press stuffed at least eight defenders in the box (an imaginary rectangle close to the line of scrimmage) to take away the run. Any team with two good cornerbacks capable of locking up in man-to-man coverage could shut down an opponent's ground game without fear of getting burned deep. Ohio State's defense in '96 ran the wildest press of the era, often sending nine men (including spry freshman linebacker Andy Katzenmoyer) to the line of scrimmage while relying on rotating cornerbacks Ty Howard, Shawn Springs and Antoine Win-field to cover receivers until the big guys could get to the opponent's quarterback. Florida won a national title when defensive coordinator Bob Stoops installed the press he had been using at Kansas State. Offenses had few answers.
The spread is one. Because it puts at least four wide receivers (or three wide-outs and a tight end) into a formation, defenses must decide whether to cover each receiver man-to-man (leaving only seven men in the box), drop into a zone (bailing out of the press altogether) or stick with the press and count on drilling the quarterback before he can deliver the ball to an uncovered receiver. In any of these options the defense reacts to the offense. "It absolutely spreads out a defense, to the point where it has to match your personnel," says Alabama-Birmingham coach Watson Brown. "You run it against a big old defense like Ohio State's, and you force it to change. You're dictating to your opponent."
Run properly, the spread not only assaults with passes but also creates wide alleys for running backs. Erickson's best Miami teams were terrific on the ground. Florida State's Warrick Dunn ran himself into the NFL out of the Seminoles' fast break. Alabama went to the spread in part to create more space for running back Shaun Alexander, who rushed for 106 yards against Florida on Saturday and could become a Heisman candidate because of it.