Spread ‘Em

About a month after Stewart Mandel talked about it, CBS Sportsline’s Dennis Dodd weighs in with his take on the spread revolution.

“You see people all over the country (doing it) …” said Michigan State coach John L. Smith, who helped “invent” the scheme. “You see everybody do part of it. The day of the dinosaur is over.”

I’m sure Smith meant to use the word ‘cavemen’, but whatever.

As many of you could probably tell, I’ve become fascinated by the evolution of football systems and schemes.

Growing up, the I-formation was the main scheme I saw college and pro teams use. Tom Nugent invented it back in the 1950s, but it was John McKay of USC who popularized it. It had the benefit of bringing the tight end into the modern offense and making the tailback the most important and glorified position in the game. But mostly, teams with talent could run right at other teams and dominate, while still having a semblance of a passing attack.

What set the I apart from the T and many of the other formations of the early days of football is that it lent itself to a versatile offensive attack. That versatility is still valuable in the modern game.

And so the I-formation dominated for a long time. There were other schemes that also did amazingly well–like the Wishbone, which was invented in 1968 by Emory Bullard while he was coaching football in West Texas. He was then hired at Texas, which soon adopted his offense. The Longhorns tied their first game with it, lost their second and then won 30-straight. Then Oklahoma adopted it and we know what happened there.

These systems enjoyed success over a long period of time because they were very hard to defend. They allowed talented teams to become dominant and untalented teams to become competitive–and hence to attract more talent. Every other team had to incorporate elements of these offenses or get left behind.

Things all changed in the 1980s. The two seminal moments where the tailback-centered I-formation offense and the option-based offense died on the field came in successive years, both in games involving teams from Florida. In 1982, USC lost to Florida and, for the first time, a Trojan tailback was dragged down by a linebacker from the backside of the field (that linebacker was Wilber Marshall). The ‘Student Body Right’ sweep was suddenly too slow-developing for the new breed of smallish, speedy linebackers. Meanwhile, the option-based offense took a hit in 1983 when Miami slowed down Nebraska with a smaller, quicker defense. For the next 10 years or so, it was defenses that set the tone for how the game was played.

One reason the defenses changed so much was by pure fluke. At the end of the 1970s, the three main Florida schools–FSU, Florida and Miami–were not among the national elite. If you look at the rosters of teams like Oklahoma, Michigan and USC during that time, the prototype linebacker was 6-4 and 235 pounds. The cornerbacks were nothing more than glorified safeties, used mainly in run support. The focus of recruiting was to find players who could be used to matchup against the physical style that was in vogue at the time. Since all the elite schools were gobbling up these type of prospects, the Florida schools were left with scraps. But, though their rosters featured smaller players, they were also quicker. Corners were made into safeties, safeties became linebackers, linebackers became ends and ends became tackles. And the best athletes were put at corner. As a result, the defenses were very quick–so quick that they rendered once unstoppable offenses like USC’s I and Oklahoma’s Wishbone obsolete.

At the same time, schools like Miami and Florida State installed pro-style offenses that confounded the elite programs, since their rosters were filled with bigger, slower players recruited to stop running teams. The result was that the Hurricanes and the Seminoles dominated the latter part of the 1980s and the early part of the 1990s without having elite, nationally ranked recruiting classes. Much of their talent was unheralded and homegrown. In the meantime, the traditional powers–Notre Dame, USC, Ohio State, Oklahoma, etc.–had to play catchup. Some did it quicker than others, some experienced dips in the road and some never made it back.

There were only a few offenses that showed the ability to confound these new defenses. One was the BYU-style passing attack. Despite having very few athletes, the Cougars won the national title in 1984 and produced a Heisman Trophy winner in 1990. However, few of the elite teams adopted the style, or elements of it, viewing it as a gimmick.

It wasn’t until the early 1990s that the wide-open style of offense as a counter to quick, attacking defenses began to be utilized. The Washington and Arizona defenses of that era created havoc in the Pac-10, forcing schools in that league to go to a more multi-dimensional attack. By 1992 and 1993, Mike Riley was tutoring a 3,000-yard passer at once-run-happy USC and Washington State was spreading the field with Drew Bledsoe.

By the mid-1990s, many of the offensive innovators we see today were beginning to craft their philosophies. Jeff Tedford was helping the Oregon Ducks get on their run, while Bobby Petrino was helping Jake Plummer lead ASU to the brink of a national title. Teams that ran wide-open, sophisticated offenses were beginning to make smaller, quicker defenses defend the entire field, mostly by creating mismatches and spreading them out.

It wasn’t until 2001 that the offense of BYU was utilized by a team that had a lot of talent at its disposal. At that point, USC installed the Norm Chow system which went on to be the key to the Trojans’ dominant 4-year run of 2002-2005. Defenses have yet to find a way to effectively shut down the USC scheme, though some have been successful at slowing it down at times.

This is why I’ve thought for a while now that the introduction of the Urban Meyer spread option to Florida will have a profound effect on the SEC and hence college football. The spread option has, until now, not been run by a team with a lot of talent. Like BYU’s system, it was very effective at a Mountain West Conference school. Now, it will be run with all the talent at Florida’s disposal, which makes one wonder if it will eventually have the same effect that Norm Chow’s offense had at USC (with the understanding, of course, that Chow’s offense didn’t really kick into high gear until about his 16th game with the Trojans).

What’s more interesting is how the SEC will respond if the Meyer system turns out to be a hit. The SEC has the best athletes in college football. As good as the elite teams in the SEC are now with those athletes, how good would they be with multi-faceted, multi-pronged offenses showcasing that talent?

Even more interesting is: What kind of defenses will be devised to counter these new offenses?

You can expect new wrinkles, because the pendulum always swings back the other way. At some point, the spread offenses will be solved. Then the cycle will begin anew.

Execution, talent, attitude, emotion…those are all important facets in college football.

But there is no doubt that plays scrawled quickly on cocktail napkins during happy hour also played a big part in changing the way the game is played.

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Chris Huston, A.K.A. ‘The Heisman Pundit‘, is a Heisman voter and the creator and publisher of Heismanpundit.com, 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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