7 Most Creative Offensive Schemes in College Football
College football offenses are often a dime a dozen. There are just so many programs in the nation that run offenses that can best be described as variations on a theme; there's no real fundamental difference. But with ever-increasing pressure to succeed, several coaches have engineered innovative schemes designed to confound opposing defenses each and every week.
There probably isn't anything as creative as the invention of the forward pass on our list, but that doesn't mean the current crop of football innovators don't deserve a great deal of credit for incrementally changing the momentum of college football. Here's our rundown of the seven most creative offensive schemes in the game today.
Auburn Hurry Up
Gene Chizik is out at Auburn, and taking over is Gus Malzahn. Even though Malzahn has just one year of head coaching experience (9-3 in 2012 at Arkansas State), Malzahn spent three seasons as the offensive coordinator at Auburn, helping to engineer the relentless offensive attack that led the Tigers to a 2011 BCS National Championship Game victory.
Any Malzahn-led offense is going to closely follow his own tried and true offensive philosophy. The hurry-up isn't just another gimmick for Malzahn; he's actually published a book on the subject, and you can bet Auburn fans will flock to Amazon.com to pick up a copy.
Malzahn certainly has some work to do in rebuilding Auburn into an SEC power, but with some top-notch recruiting skills, don't count on the Tigers being anyone's doormat for long.
Okay, so it may not be the most innovative system in the world, and it has been met with admittedly little success over the past several years, but you have to hand it to the coaching staff at West Point for sticking with a system that went out of style about 90 years ago.
If you're a fan of the run, Army is the team for you. In 2012, the Black Knights ranked 124th—dead last—in passing offense in the FBS. Army was 51-of-115 for 797 yards, three touchdowns and two interceptions. For the entire season. For comparison's sake, take West Virginia's Geno Smith's performance last season against Baylor. In just that one game, Smith completed nearly as many passes (45) as Army did all season. Smith also came within 141 passing yards of matching Army's season total. He also nearly tripled Army's season passing touchdown mark in this one game with eight TD tosses.
Conversely, Army led the nation in rushing. The cadets racked up 4,438 yards, and Army was the only team to eclipse 320 ground yards per game (369.8).
Unfortunately, one-dimensional offenses typically lead to lop-sided losing records, and Army's 2-10 finish to 2012—which included its umpteenth consecutive loss to Navy—only reinforces that point.
Washington State Daylight Bombing
Love him or hate him, you can't deny that Mike Leach is one of the most entertaining characters in college football today. During his days at Texas Tech, his gruff—and at times odd—behavior was only matched by his unusual offensive game plan that called for airing it out early and often, regardless of opponent.
Nicknamed the “Air Raid,” Leach's Red Raiders were fairly successful over his 10 seasons in Lubbock, finishing with a record of 84-43 and never missing a bowl trip. Now at Washington State, Leach is continuing his aerial attacks, only this time with limited success. That's why we've termed his offense at Wazzu “Daylight Bombing.”
During World War II, the Royal Air Force and US Army Air Forces were having trouble finding their bombing targets in the dark of night. The US Army thought daylight bombing was the way to go, but the RAF had its doubts. The USAAF suffered terrible losses early in the campaign.
Washington State is also suffering through some early setbacks in its transition to Leach's style of strategic bombing. While Cougars fans are hopeful success will follow before long, for the time being, WSU is suffering some terrible losses of its own.
The cornerstone of a Leach offense is the set number of rehearsed plays that often come in an empty (5-wide) or balanced (4-wide) formation. These plays are fairly well scripted, can be called at almost any time, and require little if any on-field, in-game preparation.
Now if only Leach had the athletes to pull it off...
Navy Triple Option Flex
Since we put Army on our list, it's only fair that we head south to Annapolis. The Midshipmen of Navy, like their brethren up in New York, lack the size and pure athleticism we see from the nation's top football programs. Since every cadet and midshipman must adhere to military fitness standards, a 320-pound lineman is out of the question for the academies.
So how can Navy compete so well against other FBS programs (8-5 in 2012)? It's all about the offensive scheme.
Navy runs a flexbone triple-option offense that was once one of the premiere systems in football. As players got bigger, strong and faster, the flex began to fall by the wayside with the introduction of pro style, run-and-gun, west coast and spread offenses. But therein lies the secret to Navy's success.
Since the flex triple-option is so rare this day in age, most teams have a very difficult time defending it. Navy opponents never really know where the ball will be going next, and the Midshipmen are masters at misdirection.
Whether the ball goes up the middle with the fullback, around the end with the quarterback, or out to the wings with the halfback, an opposing defense must defend each option flawlessly. In effect, Navy has three players carrying the ball on every play, and in this shell game, the defense has to be not only very good, but a little lucky, too.
What sets Navy apart from Army, however, is the introduction of a serviceable pass attack. The Midshipmen won't burn up any stat sheets with eye-popping passing numbers, but they can at least keep the secondary honest.
Nevada Pistol Option
Some people love the pistol, others think it's a gimmick. When Chris Ault invented the current version of Nevada's pistol, he used it to guide the Wolf Pack to eight-straight bowl games, and 11 in his previous 13 seasons (he did not coach the 1993 team, nor 1996-2003) before his retirement at the end of 2012.
Ault took over a Nevada program when it was a small Division II team back in the 1970s. He guided the program through its years in the FCS (then Division I-AA) until it became an FBS member in 1992.
The pistol formation places the quarterback halfway between a shotgun position and directly under center—basically a mini-gun, hence the name. From this vantage point, the quarterback makes defensive reads before the snap and has added time to throw the ball compared to under center. Otherwise, he can hand the ball off to a back who is much closer to the line of scrimmage, giving defenses much less time to react.
The pistol has been successful for the Wolf Pack out west, but it hasn't really been effective against non-conference opponents yet.
Until it does, it will remain a quirky feature of “mid-major” programs like Nevada.
Wisconsin Up the Gut
Okay, you caught us. Here's another scheme we're including on this list that isn't truly “creative,” but is pretty unusual these days.
These days, Wisconsin looks every bit the Big Ten team of yesteryear. The Badgers love a big, powerful run game, and while it may not be very flashy at first glance, it's guided Wisconsin to three straight Big Ten titles and trips to the Rose Bowl Game.
Every season, the names on the backs of the jerseys change, but the team is essentially the same: ginormous offensive linemen, powerful running backs and a quarterback who can manage the game even with questionable passing skills.
The trouble is this won't get Wisconsin very far outside of the Big Ten, and even causes quite a few hiccups in conference play. While the Badgers are finding ways to win just enough games to stay relevant in the BCS these days, we're curious if things will change for the better (or worse) under new head coach Gary Andersen.
When the spread was introduced, it was clear that a revolution was underway. Chip Kelly and the Oregon Ducks took the spread and injected some monster steroids into it, creating the most prolific offensive scheme we've ever seen in the history of college football.
The Ducks take the spread, combine it with the air raid, and mix it with the energy of a three-year-old who just found a stash of Pixy Stix. Kelly put together this system at Oregon as offensive coordinator in 2007 and 2008 under head coach Mike Bellotti. Bellotti and Kelly developed the system that is still in use today, and has led the Ducks to four-straight BCS bowl appearances.
The trademark of this system is not only it's typical spread formations and play-calling, but the speed at which the plays are executed. Rather than a typical system of hand signals and armband checks, Oregon revolutionized the signal system with a series of poster boards with four pictures or symbols. At a glance in under a second, every Oregon player on the field knows exactly what to do next. This allows Oregon to get plays off very quickly, often with more than 20 seconds remaining on the play clock.
And with a 46-7 record under Chip Kelly, three conference titles and four BCS trips in four years, you can't argue it hasn't been successful.
Mark Helfrich now takes over as Kelly heads to the NFL. Having served as Oregon's offensive coordinator over the past four years, Ducks fans can rest assured he's intimately familiar with every piece of the successful machinery Kelly put in place. There won't be many changes in the creative and deadly offense scheme in Eugene, and that has to scare the bejeerbers out of the rest of the Pac-12.