Why College Football Offenses Are More Sophisticated Than Ever

Michael Felder@InTheBleachersNational CFB Lead WriterOctober 3, 2012

Yesterday, we talked about unstoppable offensive systems as well as the lack of quality corners in college football today here at "Your Best 11." As we took a step back and looked at the landscape as a whole, one thing became remarkably clear: Sophistication in offensive systems is at the highest we've ever seen.

Offenses are operating with complexities that older, formerly unstoppable systems, never dreamed would come to fruition on the collegiate landscape.

These uniquities are more than just mere wrinkles in the offensive scheme. Rather, they are amalgamations of offensive theory designed to pull together the best of various schemes and render defenses paralyzed by the threats. And as we sit right now, defenses are still struggling to play catch-up for a myriad of reasons.

In the annals of football history, we've seen dominant offensive systems. The wishbone was a monster for Oklahoma. Steve Spurrier's Fun 'n' Gun style of play truly took the SEC by storm. The Delaware and Bay City variants of Wing-T football are still employed by teams to gain a schematic advantage and capitalize on deception.

There have been dominant offenses throughout the history of college football. Some rooted in power, others rooted in deception, while still others make their hay by spreading you out and taxing your players' ability to respond to matchups.

The difference between now and then is the dynamism that teams bring to the table. The sharing between coaches is more advanced, both directly and indirectly. The film work done to assess weaknesses and strengths of defenses is more thorough. The caliber of athlete is higher than ever. AND coaches are more willing to "just try it" on the offensive side of the ball.

Sure, coaches have their primary offensive systems. However, unlike those running the Wishbone or the Air Raid of old, the modern coach is incredibly willing to evolve. Guys like Rich Rodriguez, Dana Holgorsen and even Jim McElwaine are willing to adopt principles from foreign systems in order to maximize what they can get out of their own athletes.

One need only look as far as Alabama's 2009 SEC championship win over Florida to see the Tide take on simple spread passing principles in order to catch Florida off-guard and build an early lead.

Note that this passing attack was made possible—much like Alabama's approach to the 2011 BCS title game—by self-scouting. Modern film work is light years ahead of where it was just a decade ago. Self-scouting, identifying your own tendencies and then doing the opposite to exploit a team's preparation makes for gaping holes and massive opportunities.

The dynamism goes beyond merely adopting wrinkles from other offenses. We're also seeing plays that are more complex than in years past. Teams going to the line with a run-and-pass or a weak- and strong-side play call is nothing new. Quarterbacks get to the line, assess the defense, make a color call to signify which play they're using, and then proceed from there.

Now, we're seeing teams take that next step in packaged plays. Teams like Florida State, Clemson and West Virginia are combining the option with the packaged play as a means of stretching a defense to their limits. Here's a breakdown of what I mean:

Clemson starts out with no deep back, only a shallow tight end, flex-type player.

We see Andre Ellington, their running back, start in motion. It could be a jet sweep, which Clemson has hurt teams with plenty in the last few seasons.

Ellington ends up in the backfield for the zone-read with Tajh Boyd. The quarterback can give it or keep it depending upon his read. 

Boyd keeps the ball here as the Florida State defensive end (95) crashes down toward Ellington.

Except wait, as the safety (20) and linebacker (7) recognize Boyd's keeping it, they come hard for Boyd.

And Boyd throws it to Sammy Watkins, waiting behind the line with two blockers out in front.

Which turns into a 20-yard gain for the Tigers.

That play itself is a very acute example of why defenses are having a hard time playing catch-up. No run threats turns into a zone-read look, becomes a quarterback running and then again transforms into a quick screen to one of college football's most dangerous wideouts. Defending all of those things is not easy, and yet defenses are called upon to do just that on a play-in and play-out basis.

On a more macro level, defenses are battling schemes that require them to be better than ever while battling a talent drain on that side of the football. So many "would-be" defensive players are going to the other side of the ball and getting their shine on in the high-powered offensive systems. "Would-be" linebackers and defensive ends are playing tight end, flex and H-back. "Would-be" defensive backs are playing running back, receiver and even quarterback for teams that ply them from other schools with the allure of being a point producer.

While some coaches are able to field first-rate defenses with elite talent, there are others who are clearly operating with guys who are a notch or two below their offensive counterparts on their own team. Certainly, that was the case in the Baylor-WVU game that Joe Fan sat in awe of as an "awesome offensive showing" this past Saturday.

Simply put, when you're asking less talented players to do more than ever, that's a recipe for disaster. Defense is truly a collective, and while some teams have good parts, if you're only working with an elite DB or an elite LB for example, then your overall unit cannot truly compete. It is a lot more difficult to hide your flaws on the defensive side of the ball, because regardless of how you scheme, one player cannot play the entire 53.3. You can't scheme him to make every tackle or cover every receiver or make all the plays.

Especially not the way an offense can isolate their stud wide receiver or running back, or let their quarterback eat up a defense.

There is hope though, as defenses slowly figure out the newer schemes. The beauty of the new atmosphere of coaching—the sharing and the wealth of knowledge—is that it happens on defense too. There are more eyeballs on these systems than ever before, and great defensive minds are all working on solutions to the fast-break offensive philosophy.

As we can see here, scoring is most certainly up through the start of the 2010s as a decade. However, as defenses catch up, expect the numbers to fall closer in line with years past. Each distinct offensive style—wishbone, I-form option, Fun 'n' Gun and Oklahoma's blending of the Air Raid and pro style—saw both highs and lows depending upon both talent and defensive preparation.

Through four games, Oklahoma State is averaging 55-plus points in 2012; but the season's long, and it is unlikely that they top the 2008 Sooners' average of 51.1 points per game, or the '83 Cornhuskers' number of 50.3.

The game of cat and mouse that we're seeing now is the same one we've watched throughout football. Offenses do something new, defenses scramble to adjust and shut it down. It won't be an easy task, but watching it happen should be interesting. As it stands, offenses now are truly more sophisticated than we have ever seen. 


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