Comment Of The Month

I’ve been very happy with the level of commentary I’m getting here lately. I know the summer doldrums can be a killer, but fret not–the start of training camp is just three weeks away and there will soon be plenty to talk about.

One comment I particularly enjoyed recently was by ‘Tom’, who responded to my Barry Switzer entry below. Just in case you missed it, I thought I’d repost it here.

In general, it is an articulate, well-thought-out comment. In particular, it neatly sums up much of what I’ve been postulating when it comes to some of the current trends in college football:

My two cents (after reading your blog for some time and thinking about it. Heavy theory here…)

Seems to me that offense rules in college football more so than in the NFL because of one overarching principle – less predictability. In fact, I believe predictability is the main reason (outside of talent) a defense wins over offense or conversely, if a defense does NOT know what is coming, the offense has the edge and will score at will.

College offenses are less predictable because of the variations in schemes and talent. Contrast that with the NFL, where offensive schemes are limited and there are a lot less teams. Thus, not only the wishbone, but if I believe if you use an offensive scheme that the defense has not seen regularly, the defense will not know how to react and the offense will prevail.

Here’s the theory part… A while back, I think a year ago, I was reading your post about the spread offenses that are taking hold of college football. One person commented that it’s all about execution. You rebutted by saying that it’s not all about execution because what happens if the offense and defense both execute perfectly? Who wins? My theory is that if the defense does execute perfectly, it wins. And by executing perfectly, it means that the defense has read the offense correctly and knows how to defend it.

Here’s why I think so – the rules of the game and the game itself. On offense, there are a multitude of rules preventing alignment and position of players. There’s no such rule against the defense. On offense, the players cannot move (except the one person in motion) after setting and before the snap. There’s no such rule against the defense (except that they cannot go offsides of course). The defenders are able to move freely before the snap. The defense is occupying the space of the field that the offense is trying to reach; thus it has a positional advantage.

Lastly, the offense has an extra burden of handling the football. It has to handoff, toss, throw and/or catch the football, all of which requires extra skills that the defense need not worry about. Basically, it has the burden of an oddly shaped ball. Thus, with all these advantages, IF it knows what the offense is likely to do or do exactly, I posit that the defense wins.

Take a simple play of the sweep. If the defense knows what is coming (and the talent is equal), perfect execution of the defense means the ball carrier meets a tackler at the line of scrimmage (or maybe even behind it) because the defense will position itself in the right places. This has to be so because the quarterback is not used after the hand off, thereby giving the defense one extra player, and there should be two players available to tackle the ball carrier. Even if the quarterback is the one that runs, there should be one defensive player there to tackle him. Execution of the tackle means the defense wins.

So how do you overcome the defense’s advantage? The answer: (1) talent and/or (2) unpredictable plays.

For talent, see the dominant teams who used a scheme or a set of plays the defense knows is coming but cannot stop regardless. This is what you’ve been saying all along: that talent and scheme are the two biggest factors that determine who wins.

Unpredictability is scheme implementation and play calling. What is the perfect offense? It’s one that the defense does not know what is coming; one that, as the ball is snapped, keeps the linebackers and safeties guessing. Imagine if the quarterback and the receiver can talk to each other as a play is happening. Instead of running a predefined route, the QB can tell the receiver where to run as the QB sees an opening in the defense and deliver him the ball. The DBs cannot know where the receiver is going because that’s not a route he knows of. It’s not even a route.

Of course, that’s not possible to do in real life. I think the Colts came closest to this in the NFL last year when Manning would come up to the line of scrimmage, see what the defense is doing and then call the play. And if my understanding of the Urban Meyer spread is correct, it takes the idea one step further by deciding on what to do AFTER the snap of the football and as the play develops.

But the point is that when the defense doesn’t know what’s going on, the offense has erased the advantages the defense had. But this may not just happen with a crazy, off the wall, new age scheme; it can happen when the defense misreads a simple, old school running play as well.

You pointed this out many times when talking about the wishbone: “high school players now enter college with hardly any knowledge of how to defend this type of option attack.”

Exactly. But I’m trying to broaden the scope by saying that it’s not just the wishbone, it’s basically ANYTHING that the defensive player has no knowledge of how to defend. It’s the unpredictability element of the wishbone, not the play design of the wishbone itself, that will make it work right now. The infusion of the West Coast offense by Auburn’s OC (Al Borges) into the SEC comes to mind.

I haven’t done any data analysis to back me up here, but it seems to me that you see a lot of this happening when teams play each other in the bowl games. (Right now, that Auburn – Wisconsin game comes to mind). After spending the previous 3 months playing against teams in your conference, whom you’ve played year after year and whose schemes you are used to, you all of a sudden possibly see a completely different kind of offense. Defensive players have to do something they’re not completely comfortable with, have little knowledge of, or not trained to do. And like you said, this goes all the way back to their high school days and the offenses they’ve gone up against. Conversely, the team that has defended USC the best over their dynasty period has been Cal, a fellow Pac 10 team.

Familiarity leads to more predictability, no matter how new or old the scheme is, and the edge swings in favor of the defense.

I really don’t have much more to add to this, as it is pretty spot on.

Keep commenting, Tom. You know your college football.

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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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