When you look around the collegiate landscape, there really are three variations of offense that have proven time and again to be nearly unstoppable. There is the passing variant of the spread-based offense, the running-focused spread and, of course, the pro-styled attack.
Whether your primary move is to run or throw the ball, there is an offense out there that suits that style and helps personnel create and exploit weaknesses in the defense.
As far as passing attacks are concerned, the Air Raid is what's drawing rave reviews currently. The offensive scheme has come a long way from its early days with Hal Mumme and Mike Leach at Kentucky—evolving during the Oklahoma years and transitioning as the coaching tree grows and guys like Dana Holgorsen and Art Briles add their own wrinkles.
This offense is predicated on getting the ball out quick, putting athletes in space and stretching defenses both horizontally and vertically. Every legitimate college football fan knows about "four verts," but the offense is so much more and has continually evolved, as Chris Brown at Smart Football has pointed out time and again.
The scheme here is largely plug-and-play. That's not a knock on the offense, rather a testament to the efficiency that the design gets out of the parts. This is how Mike Leach was able to produce big-stat passer after big-stat passer at Texas Tech.
The system works with lesser offensive line talent—the ball comes out quick, so elite blockers are not necessary to hold off defensive linemen. Wide receivers are a must to stretch the field. They don't have to be burners, but they need to be quick enough to get open.
What's truly dangerous about the Air Raid (and its offshoots) is what we're seeing more recently—elite players in the system. Robert Griffin III and Justin Blackmon. Now Tavon Austin, Stedman Bailey and Geno Smith for the Mountaineers. Upper-echelon players in a system designed to help level the playing field for less talented athletes is a recipe for offensive explosion, which we're seeing now.
The offense can be stopped. Just ask Texas Tech about playing Oklahoma during the Leach era. However, it requires defensive backs that can jam and disrupt timing and defensive linemen that can put pressure on a quarterback with just the front four.
That brings us to our next offensive system that's proven to be remarkably potent: the multiple rushing attack spread scheme. This isn't your daddy's triple option, folks. Rich Rodriguez and Chip Kelly stand out as the creators of this innovative system to stretch defenses sideways to create vertical running seams for their backs to exploit.
Before West Virginia was a gaudy Air Raid schemed passing stat monster, they were a fast-paced, zone-read, option football team. Now, in a little slice of football oddity, the Air Raid team of Arizona is transitioning into Rich Rod's run-based attack, while the Mountaineers are one of the poster-children for the Air Raid.
Like the Air Raid and passing spread variants, the rushing attack makes big moves without needing elite linemen. Instead of being asked to fire off and dominate the point of attack, the linemen are asked to get defensive linemen moving side to side, shielding them from the ball-carrier, opening up seams for the backs to slip through and often leaving a lineman unblocked for the read player to option off.
The big role players in this approach to offense are slippery ball-carriers. Guys who can accelerate, decelerate and re-accelerate at the drop of a hat. Players who can cut on a dime and get slip seams in a hurry. Guys like LaMichael James, De'Anthony Thomas, Pat White and Steve Slaton. That's who makes this offense go. You give them a seam and they'll bust the play wide open.
To stop this scheme, it takes beasts on the front line from a defensive standpoint. You also have to have corners and safeties who tackle well and linebackers who can flow to the football.
Having defensive linemen who can hold the edge and turn everything back inside to the linebackers and defensive tackles is a plus, as it chops down the amount of field to defend and puts the pressure on offense—especially if the interior players can not only fill their gaps, but interrupt the mesh point where handoffs, fakes and reads take place.
And last but not least, we've got the traditional offense. The pro-styled set that appears to be making a climb back toward the forefront of some of the power schools in college football. Alabama and LSU are at the forefront of the power set, but Stanford has risen doing the same, and Florida and Texas are building in that same vein.
Not a lot of slight of hand or stretching you sideways to get down the field in this system. Rather, the entire goal of the offense is to overwhelm the opponent at the point of attack and win the fistfight. Yes, there are wrinkles like play-action pass, weakside run and fullback away that create some deception. However, the main focus of the system is to dare people stop you and then allow your guys to out-muscle their guys.
Offensive line is the most critical part of making this type of attack work. Unlike throwing it around or running sideways to create seams, this entire offense can be rendered useless without a strong offensive line. Don't believe it? Just ask Wisconsin how their year started when they were struggling up front.
That said, if you can build a quality offensive line, then you can turn decent skill players into stars. A mauling offensive line will open holes that just about any running back can get through. A sound pass-blocking line will give your quarterback ample time to pick his spots as the wide receivers and tight ends get open downfield. Then, when you get quality players like Andrew Luck or Trent Richardson, you can make special things happen.
Unlike other offenses, where you can scheme to stop the more one-dimensional attack, if you have the personnel there is no scheme to truly neutralize a pro-styled, power-oriented attack. The way to stop it is to man up, grit your teeth and knock them out as they take swings at your squad. Here is where you attack individual deficiencies instead of schematic flaws to beat a squad.
Every school cannot play every system. If your region does not produce elite offensive linemen in big numbers, then odds are you shouldn't pin yourself to a power scheme that requires a sound offensive line. If getting speed to your school is a problem on a year-by-year basis, the ground-based running attack spread may not be where you want to lean.
The scheme is only as good as the athletes doing the work, and as long as you get the right athletes, your school has a shot to make things work.
Personally? I'm a power guy. Give me big old linemen pushing people out of the way and offset fullbacks to the strong side to blow up linebackers. Nothing screams unstoppable like lining up and everyone knowing you're running right, but there's nothing they can do to stop it because you're just too powerful.