Some Basic Principles On The Gang Of Six

There seems to be a lot of confusion over who should belong in the Gang of Six.

It can be encapsulated by this comment down below by a Michigan Blogger:

You did not in your article on the Gang of Six state a single characteristic that leads to success that was not evident in the Michigan State or Memphis offenses. So why isn’t it a Gang of 8?

Not a bad question on the surface. In short, it can be answered by saying that our Gang of Five last year went 55-2 against the rest of college football. In other words, they were incredibly successful.

Memphis went 8-4. Michigan State went 5-7. That alone disqualifies them as being a member of that group. But again, that’s just a surface point. It goes much deeper than that.

Here are the criteria that we looked at for belonging in that group, based on the 2004 season:

1. You must have exhibited offensive dominance, reflected in blowout wins becoming routine occurrences
That was certainly the case for USC, Boise State, Louisville, Utah and Cal last year

2. You must never have been shut down by an opposing team’s defense–unless it too was a member of the Gang.
After all, a member of the Gang would have some familiarity with sophisticated offenses, as they would see it every day in practice.

3. You must have a very efficient passer
Every quarterback in the Gang of Five finished in the top 13 of the passing efficiency rankings, with Jared Zabransky being the lowest rated at 147.0. Lefors of Louisville and Smith of Utah were 1-2.

4. You must be able to run the ball with success when the other team knows you will be running.
This is an example of how output (yards rushing) does not necessarily relate to input (the emphasis a team places on running). The great Houston offenses of the late 1980s had a back named Chuck Weatherspoon who was a 1,000 yard rusher while averaging almost 10 yards per carry. The reason he had yards was that every time Houston ran the ball, it was a complete shock to the defense. If the defense knew Houston was running Weatherspoon, he would get nothing. The casual observer would think “Oh, Houston has a running game.” Nope. That’s why stats can fool you. Houston couldn’t run when it needed to. Texas Tech is the same way, which is why you see shotgun empty backfield formations inside the opponent’s five. A Gang of Five offense can line up and get four yards when it needs to.

5. You must be able to pass the ball with success when the other team knows you will be passing.
You can look no further than the Wishbone teams of the 1980s. Their receivers would average 25 yards per catch with regularity. But the reason for that was that every time they passed the ball, it was a surprise. A Gang of Five offense will produce an open receiver in almost any situation.

These previous two points can basically be boiled down to this: a team can not be one dimensional.

6. You must throw to your tight ends or running backs with regularity and from your base formation.
That means that you don’t completely betray your intentions by bringing in packages for certain situations, much the way that Oklahoma would bring in Kejuan Jones as a third-down back, for example. About 95% of the time, his presence meant a pass. This was a very important point in the Orange Bowl and worthy of a brief digression:

The guy on defense whose primariy responsibility is to cover the tight end is the strong safety. The defender whose primary responsibility is to cover running backs out of the backfield is the outside linebacker, usually the weakside backer. That’s Football 101. When I looked at the matchups before the Orange Bowl, I realized that Oklahoma doesn’t throw to its tight end very much and doesn’t throw to Adrian Peterson out of the backfield (AD had all of four catches in ’04, I believe). Logically, I posited that that flaw in Oklahoma’s scheme would have the effect of freeing up USC’s strong safety and outside linebackers to cheat up and play the run, thus effectively neutralizing Adrian Peterson. That meant that all USC had to do from there was get a pass rush with its front four and force White to make plays. As it turns out, USC’s strong safety (Darnell Bing) made a season-high 10 tackles, while the weakside backer (Matt Grootegoed) not only had 7 tackles, but also was able to float around in coverage against receivers and grab an interception. To wit, it would not have been possible for these two players to have been this successful in this game had they been burdened with the usual responsibilities of their positions.

The fact that most SEC offenses–save Auburn–do not throw to their tight ends or backs creatively or with regularity out of their base formations lends us to believe that teams like Georgia would be at a distinct disadvantage against a team like Boise State. The point is granted by many that Boise may be able to move the ball at least somewhat on Georgia. What many then point out is that Boise will not be able to stop Georgia, since Boise is not known for its defense. But, we believe that the disadvantage to UGA from seeing the system thrown at them by Boise’s offense will be greater than the disadvantage thrown at the Boise defense by UGA’s rather vanilla offense. In other words, Boise’s defense won’t be seeing anything it hasn’t seen, while Georgia will be seeing things for the first time. This should enable Boise to control the tempo of the game, especially early on. The only remaining question is this: Is UGA’s talent advantage so overwhelming that Boise can’t overcome it with its scheme? Given Boise’s performances against teams like Oregon State and Louisville–teams with pretty good talent–and Georgia’s trouble with teams like Ga. Southern and Marshall–teams with less talent than Boise–I would answer that question in the negative. Throw in an erratic D.J. Shockley in his first start and Georgia may be playing things even more conservative than usual, which of course will play right into Boise’s hands.

7. You must have offensive formations and plays that regularly confuse the other team’s defense
This is understood by just watching the games. Again, going back to the Orange Bowl, all one has to do is see Oklahoma in a run defense while USC is in an empty backfield with five wide to see that the Sooners, despite a ton of talent, were overmatched by the Trojans’ scheme. Watching Utah all year was amazing, as their stuff routinely gave defenses fits. Miami’s great secondary looked silly against Louisville.

8. You must have a modicum of talent.
This seems to be the area that confuses people the most about the Gang of Six. While scheme is a great equalizer for teams that lack talent–look at the BYU team of 1990 that beat Miami–to be truly outstanding you at least need good talent in the skill positions to go with that scheme. USC is a good example of a team that has superior talent and scheme, a combination which we hold to be the main reason for their current dominance. Teams like California have good talent all around, while Louisville is closing fast to that level. Boise and Utah offset talent gaps–compared to the others of the group–with the best schemes out of the Gang of Five. And now Florida is set to join USC as a team with both outstanding talent and scheme, which is why we believe the Gators will be the next great power in college football and the primary challengers to USC.

So, a great scheme is not a complete substitute for lack of talent. You must have some talent to succeed. And of course there are always going to be cases where too much talent overwhelms a decent scheme. But solid talent with a great scheme should almost always beat out great talent with a lousy scheme. And that’s why we pick Boise to beat Georgia.

9. You must use the entire field.
So many ‘conventional’ teams are content to play ball control and field position, running safe off-tackle plays and the occasional simple dump off to the running back. The Gang of Five forces linebackers to cover running backs and for corners to match up with tight ends. They spread the field and go short, or bunch things up and go long. They send tight ends on streaks and fullbacks on wheel routes, utilizing motion and exotic formations to free their talent into space. Above all, you would never label them ‘conventional.’

10. It is sophisticated, not complicated
The Gang of Five does not run the traditional West Coast Offense, which is a very complicated system that has rarely worked in college (see Paul Hackett, Bill Callahan and soon to be Charlie Weis). The WCO as we know it comes primarily from Bill Walsh and the 49ers (though some would argue with that, and I wouldn’t necessarily object). The styles exhibited by the Gang of Five–all different from each other in a few ways, but all related by philosophy–come from the lineage of Don Coryell and Norm Chow–the two wide-open offense gurus of the early 1980s. Whereas in the WCO, the quarterback and the receiver must both make reads and adjustments from a playbook the size of a phone book–a dicey proposition for most 19-year-old college players–most of the adjustments in the Gang of Five offenses are made by either the quarterback alone or the receiver alone from a few basic formations. In other words, the implementation is simple. Hence, the execution bears more fruit.

We hope this further explains why Memphis and Michigan State are not a member of this group.

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Chris Huston, A.K.A. ‘The Heisman Pundit‘, is a Heisman voter and the creator and publisher of, a site dedicated to analysis of the Heisman Trophy and college football. Dubbed “the foremost authority on the Heisman” by Sports Illustrated, HP is regularly quoted or cited during football season in newspapers across the country. He is also a regular contributor on sports talk radio and television.

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