There is little doubt that the spread offense has changed college football. At times, it has made the game more exciting, redefined the quarterback position and challenged defensive coaches all over the country.
But does the spread help build national champions? I say no.
The version of the spread offense that promotes, encourages, enables, schemes and welcomes the quarterback to be the team’s leading rusher is no more or no less than the modern-day wishbone formation disguised as a passing formation.
The simple fact is that this type of spread cannot beat a good opponent by passing any more than a wishbone team can beat a good opponent by passing. In fact, you could make the case that at least the wishbone helps its own defense by winning the time-of-possession battle.
The spread is an up-tempo offense trying to run 80 plays a game, resulting in putting its defense on the field an average of 10 more plays a game than a non-spread team. It’s also a fact that the spread and wishbone offenses are schemes that are based on the option, which is a great talent equalizer. The option attack is based on gaining a blocker because when you “read” or “option” a defender, you gain a blocker using double-teams to equalize the talent. Both spread and wishbone teams use this option scheme very effectively, but neither scheme will win a national championship any time soon.
Alabama's Jeff Rutledge (1975-78), Texas' James Street (1967-69) and former Oklahoma Sooner Jamelle Holieway (1985-88) were all great wishbone quarterbacks who won national championships. Conversely, Cam Newton, Auburn’s former standout quarterback, won the 2010 National Championship in the spread offense.
Is this a contradiction to my hypothesis? No, just a sidebar statement that when you have great players, especially at quarterback, anything is possible, including a national championship. All four of these quarterbacks were capable of winning a national championship in the wishbone, spread or any other offense they would have played in.
Now that we have the exception to my hypothesis behind us, let’s talk about the hypothesis in general.
If you’re a program that cannot recruit the elite high school prospects, then the wishbone or the spread may be the perfect offense for your program. In fact, one of the reasons most teams are presently running the spread is because they cannot successfully recruit the elite high school prospects.
But what about the wishbone? Why aren't more people using it?
The reason is because it’s considered a boring offense. It hurts season ticket sales and not many coaches want to be labeled wishbone coaches—except, of course, the academy coaches who understand their best chance to compete is to use the wishbone as a talent-equalizer and is based on execution and precision. The spread, on the other hand, has found its popularity in being a one-dimensional, run-orientated offense, much like the wishbone, but disguised as a passing formation that is still incapable of beating a good opponent by passing the ball.
So, if you’re part of the majority of college football and unable to recruit the elite talent, the spread may in fact be for you. But if you’re a program that can recruit the elite talent, then line up in a pro formation, have a running back who’s your leading rusher, a quarterback who will have a chance to make it in the NFL based on his throwing ability and play great defense.
In the 14 years of the BCS National Championship, only two have run spread attacks based on a running quarterback. The main thing the two had in common was a Heisman Trophy winner at quarterback, with Florida's Tim Tebow in 2008 and Cam Newton in 2010.
All of the others were teams that were not entirely reliant on the success of their quarterbacks running the ball. More importantly, the teams were not based on an offense that puts its QB at risk physically on almost every snap. Most spread teams that feature quarterbacks as the teams' leading rushers win most games when he plays well, but will not have enough other offensive weapons or a defense good enough to win the big game. And winning the big game is part of winning the national championship.
For at least the next three-to-five years, the spread offense will continue to dominate college football. But during that same span, the national championship will not be won by a quarterback-run-based spread team, unless, of course, they have a Heisman winner at the position.
To win the national championship, you need a team that can do it all, including an ability to run the ball on offense from the tailback position to go along with a quarterback who can throw it when you can’t run it. It needs to be an offense that has a good answer to running the ball from its own one-yard line, as well as being able to move the chains in short-yardage situations to keep possession. It must be a unit that can score touchdowns in goal-line situations when the field has shrunk. This gives the defense the advantage against the pass. What it comes down to is that an offense that trains its defense during the spring and fall camp will be able to defend all of these situations.
In order to win a national championship, you not only need to be able to do all those things, but you have to do it against the toughest competition in the nation.
The spread offense can do none of these things, and it's especially difficult to do it all against the nation's elite.