Spread offense changing college football landscape
By John Harris
Published: Saturday, Aug. 24, 2013, 11:57 p.m.
Alabama coach Nick Saban isn't pleased, which means the rest of college football should rejoice.
Spread offenses are the great equalizer, an increasingly popular way for teams with lesser talent to compete against teams with more talent.
It's how Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel led an upset of a more-talented Alabama team in winning the Heisman Trophy last season. It's how Baylor quarterback Robert Griffin III won the Heisman Trophy the previous season, and it's how West Virginia receiver Tavon Austin ran past defenders and became the eighth overall selection in the NFL Draft.
“High-tempo and spread offenses have been the single thing that's created parity in college football,” Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy said.
Oklahoma State ranked seventh nationally in passing offense in 2012 and annually ranks among the nation's top passing attacks.
“In the late '70s and '80s, you had your top 15 tradition-rich teams in the country that were going to be that way in the first polls that came out, and it would end that way,” said Gundy, whose team ranks No. 14 in this year's preseason poll. “That now has gone to the top 40 or 45 teams in the country that have a chance to win on any given Saturday.”
Using the spread offense and experiencing success raises the profile of programs that aren't elite and allows them to recruit better players and upset teams such as Alabama, which has won two consecutive BCS championships and three titles in four years utilizing defense and a power running game.
“When I was at Middle Tennessee State, they were (an FCS) program, and we were going to have (FCS) athletes playing (FBS) athletes,” second-year North Carolina coach Larry Fedora said. “When I got there, it was, ‘Hey, we're either going to ... run the option, or we're going to spread it out and go no-huddle, change the tempo, do what we have to do to be successful.' That was the route we chose to go, and we've stuck with it ever since.”
North Carolina ranked No. 18 nationally in passing offense in Fedora's first season.
“You're spreading the field 53 yards wide, and when you spread them out, there are seams in the defense,” Fedora said. “If the man with the ball makes that one man miss, it's not three yards and a cloud of dust anymore. Now it's 15, 20, 25 yards. The big deal now for defenses is you have to be able to tackle in space. You have to be able to make those one-on-one tackles.”
To offset Alabama's top-ranked defense last season, Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin put the ball in Manziel's hands and spread the field. The game plan kept Alabama off balance, produced 418 yards against a defense that yielded only 250 per game and resulted in a 29-24 upset win in Tuscaloosa, Ala.
If it were up to Saban, rules would be put in place to slow no-huddle spread offenses to lessen the chance for injury. That Saban — whose recruiting classes annually rank among the best — addressed spread offenses speaks to how effective the strategy has become.
“They play like 64 plays in the NFL. We play over 80 in college. The up-tempo teams play even more. Is there any safety issue in that?” Saban said.
Countered West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen, whose spread offense finished in the top 10 nationally his first two years in Morgantown: “ I'd tell him to get over it because it's not going to change. It's going into the NFL, for crying out loud. So you'd better learn to adapt.”
Gundy and Holgorsen coach in the country's best passing conference. Five Big 12 teams ranked in the top 10 in passing.
Compare that with the other power conferences: The Big Ten, ACC and Saban's SEC didn't place any teams in the top 10 in passing offense last season; two teams each from the ACC (Clemson and North Carolina State) and Pac-12 (Washington State and Oregon State) and one team from the Big Ten (Indiana) ranked among the top 20 in passing offense.
Holgorsen honed his craft as Mike Leach's assistant at Texas Tech from 2000-07.
“There weren't a whole lot of teams in the Big 12 that were doing that style of offense at that point in time, whereas now, there's a lot of teams doing that,” Holgorsen said.
Leach now coaches at Washington State, which finished No. 9 in passing last season.
“It's trickled down to the high school ranks. It's changing coast to coast,” Holgorsen said. “It's not just limited to the Big 12. You look across the country, there's a lot of teams that are doing what we're doing offensively. ... I don't think it's going to change anytime soon.”
To Holgorsen's point, 21 teams averaged 300 or more yards passing per game in 2012. The numbers have risen during the past decade. In 2011, 13 teams averaged 300 or more yards passing. In 2000 — Holgorsen's first year at Texas Tech — nine teams averaged 300 or more passing yards.
“I do think that the offenses in the Big 12 are the most difficult to defend,” Texas coach Mack Brown said. “We have the best offensive teams in America.”
Conversely, the Big Ten and SEC dominated the national leaders in rushing last season. There were three Big Ten teams (Nebraska, Wisconsin and Northwestern) and two SEC teams (Texas A&M and Alabama) among the top 20 in rushing.
One ACC team (Georgia Tech) and one Big 12 team (Baylor) ranked among the top 20 in rushing.
Michigan coach Brady Hoke remains committed to a power running game. However, Hoke will use the spread to take advantage of quarterback Devin Gardner's ability to run and pass.
Michigan ranked No. 41 nationally in rushing last season but did not finish among the top 50 in passing.
“I'm an old defensive line coach. I'm of the feeling that playing physical football (is good),” Hoke said. “I think also with Devin at quarterback, you still have an opportunity to do some of the things out of the spread that may be there.”
Other teams are altering their offensive philosophy this season. Veteran Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer hired Auburn coordinator Scott Loeffler to work with senior quarterback Logan Thomas.
Loeffler, who is at his third school in three seasons, will continue running Beamer's pro-set offense, but he will add his own touches that include no-huddle looks and elements of the West Coast passing game.
“I felt like we needed something different,” said Beamer, who is entering his 27th season at Virginia Tech. “I don't think there's one exact way to be successful.
“When you've been doing things a long time, it tends to be a little monotonous. Change is good.”
Even at West Virginia, where the spread has deep roots under Holgorsen, change is possible.
With the departures of quarterback Geno Smith and receivers Austin and Stedman Bailey to the NFL, the Mountaineers could emphasize the run more often.
“If the passing game doesn't work out, we definitely can fall back on the run game. It's definitely something we practiced a little bit more,” WVU senior offensive lineman Curtis Feight said. “It'll be fun showing everybody we can be a run team instead of going out there and just pass.”
John Harris is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @jharris_trib.
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