As we stand right now, the term "spread" has been so overused and bastardized in college football that it has almost no meaning. It's a term used to describe a formation that has grown to be a catch-all for everything from the Air Raid to the shotgun zone-read and even packaged plays. Similar to the "wildcat" just being kicked around for anything direct snap, spread has been overused.
For today's purposes, we're going to take a look at one of the most potent offensive innovations that we've seen in the last decade plus of football: Rich Rodriguez's spread-to-run philosophy. Currently the team ranked third in the BCS Standings and fifth in the AP Poll are employing much of Rich Rodriguez's philosophy. Arizona, the team Rodriguez currently coaches, is just a few weeks removed from exposing the USC defense before Oregon got to do the same.
Rich Rod is the nexus for all of this greatness on the offensive side of things. His work on this offense, a unique system designed to get the ball into the playmaker's hands, put pressure on the defense and force defenders to play in space, ultimately landed him the job as Tulane's offensive coordinator under Tommy Bowden. There, Bowden and Rich Rod would go undefeated in their second year and take their show on the road to Clemson.
In Tiger Town, things continued to look up, as they took advantage of ACC foes using the likes of Woody Dantzler to put up big offensive numbers.
One coach who took notice of this success? Chip Kelly. The offensive coordinator at New Hampshire took a trip down to Clemson, learned from Rich Rodriguez and started working on using this offense to find success. Find it he did, ultimately cashing in his success at New Hampshire for an offensive coordinator gig at Oregon.
As Rich Rodriguez moved on from Clemson to West Virginia, another coach noticed the success, Urban Meyer. Meyer spent some time looking over how Rodriguez had constructed the offense, how the scheme worked and incorporated the techniques into his own attacks. The move served Meyer well, as he went from Bowling Green to Utah, going undefeated in Salt Lake City, to Florida for two titles and now Ohio State with an undefeated record.
From Glenville State to now, there have been wrinkles, new coaches borrowing and adding to the philosophy and tweaks made to make the scheme even more difficult to defend. Each scheme is similar, all predicated on using formations to create space and the zone-read to give freedom in decision-making, but each edition of the scheme includes its own unique qualities.
That uniqueness is part of why the scheme works. Sure the central, and common, theme to this offense being successful is putting defenders in bad positions, capitalizing on mistakes in an instant and, at the root, playing 11-on-11 football.
With a quarterback running the ball as an option, but still capable of passing too, the defense is now forced to account for an extra player that it doesn't traditionally have to worry about. When you play against a quarterback like Matt Barkley or Zach Mettenberger, you have 11 defenders to work against 10 offensive players. Quarterbacks don't actually count; might as well be a Juggs machine.
Until you put a guy like Braxton Miller or Marcus Mariota under center. Then, you have a guy who can hand it off, keep it or throw it all on the same play. Every play of the game. That's a lot of pressure that the offense is applying to the defense on a play-in and play-out basis.
The pressure, and why this offense works, is more than just the theory and the threat of the run. The actual formations and plays used create pressure situations on every snap.
First and foremost, the formation. If you spread people out, by simple alignment, you can get bodies out of the box and make it more difficult for defenders. Take a linebacker out of the box and make him have to kick out to take away an easy slant against a split out slot receiver, and he's less comfortable in space and there is one less body to block in the run game.
The pressure picks up when the ball is snapped. Defenses understand where they are most vulnerable, and in a situation where you've pulled the defender outside of the box, they understand they're a man down in run defense.
Which brings us to the read option.
It's a great play because your offensive line is only blocking for one thing. They come out and do the same exact thing on a play-in and play-out basis. That helps them perfect what you're asking them to do. In the case of some teams, it's the zone read where they are zone blocking and allowing the quarterback to option off of the defensive end. Oregon has a great wrinkle in its midline read where it options off an interior defender. Both work very well.
The old-school Wishbone, or I-formation, option puts pressure on defenses to be perfect. So does this scheme, except now they're giving players more time to see the field, more time to develop the play and more options to choose from.
In the old option attack, it was give, keep or pitch. In the new, more sophisticated approach out of the shotgun, you have more time to develop blocking schemes and better players at the quarterback position. We're talking about running quarterback power with an option-read to go backside if the end crashes to the quarterback. We're also talking packaged plays that have read-option principles; plus, if those are occupied, a pass option for the quarterback to throw.
And folks, I implore you to remember one thing where all of these options and forced defensive decisions are concerned: College football players aren't that good. When you force them to make choices, they mess up. When you force them to make a decision between a two-way go, they hesitate.
That missed assignment or the hesitation is all these schemes need to get out the gate.
Another interesting element that puts pressure on the opposition is the tempo. We all remember the injury faking by the Cal Bears from a couple seasons ago. People laughed and talked conditioning, which is part of it. However, the real issue is not just conditioning; the bigger issue is the ability to substitute. What good are fresh bodies if you can't get them into the game because the opposition is pushing the tempo too fast for your packages to work themselves in?
Tempo is a big thing. You look at the high and low tempos of Rich Rodriguez, Chip Kelly and Urban Meyer, and you'll notice something else unique.
While in the SEC, Meyer slowed his tempo considerably, only pushing 70 plays once: in his first year, where they just hit the 70 plays per game mark. His national title teams both averaged 62 players per game, his lowest mark as a head coach.
After averaging over 70 plays a game at Bowling Green and Utah, Meyer slowed the pace down in the SEC. He had to. It rests his defense and his attack was less about the tempo of the game and more about imposing their physical will on teams while capitalizing on getting bodies in space.
For Rich Rodriguez, as you can see, his tempo is faster now than it has ever been. He's pushing Arizona to move the ball quickly, and that is a big part of how it is being so productive on offense. The Wildcats don't let their opponents get ready and are benefiting from that practice. Rich Rod's best teams, the 2006 and 2007 Mountaineers, fall on the low end of his tempo spectrum at 63 and 69 players per game, respectively.
As for the Oregon Ducks, things are interesting for Chip Kelly. This 2012 team might be his best, and it is pushing 82 plays a game currently. That's 9.5 plays per game more than his 2011 squad and just three more plays per game than the BCS Championship-qualifying 2010 edition. After slowing it down in 2011, the Ducks are pushing the pace to tax teams and force the issue.
So who does it better?
The easy answer is Oregon. Arizona and Ohio State are in year one of the transition, and they don't have the players that Meyer and Rodriguez should be stockpiling in the coming seasons. Arizona, like Oregon, is going to capitalize on selling players on the allure of playing quarterback and offense as opposed to wide receiver or defense elsewhere.
While Oregon's the clear answer now, what's more intriguing will be who runs it best in the coming years. Chip Kelly is being rumored for NFL circles. Urban Meyer is recruiting his behind off and, like at Florida, he can get the elite players up front that Oregon has struggled to obtain.