Is College Football Suffering an Identity Crisis?

Lisa Horne@LisaHornePac-12 and Big 12 Lead WriterMay 9, 2013

BOULDER, CO - OCTOBER 11:  Head coach Jon Embree of the Colorado Buffaloes reacts as he leads his team against the Arizona State Sun Devils at Folsom Field on October 11, 2012 in Boulder, Colorado. Arizona State defeated Colorado 51-17.  (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)
Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

When you think of Alabama football, you think of great defense and a balanced offense with emphasis on the run. Alabama football is well defined. It has an identity. 

But Alabama is one of the few in college football that has one. 

Washington State and Oklahoma State pass the ball. Oregon runs the ball with the zone read option. Kansas State has a balanced offense and unforgiving defense. They are who we thought they are. They have a distinctive style.  

But what about Michigan? Nebraska? Oklahoma? USC? 

All are elite teams with a well respected and rich history in college football. They still are, but the personality is gone. They have no identity. 

Nebraska football had been associated with the I formation under then-head coach Tom Osborne. Nebraska football in the 1970s was all about the I and a stout defense.

But for the past few years Nebraska football has been running the spread option. There is nothing wrong with that if it works. And it has worked. Up to a point. 

Nebraska led the Big Ten in rushing offense last year with quarterback Taylor Martinez the team's second-leading rusher. 

Martinez has a quirky delivery but he can pick apart a defense with his arm and his legs. Unfortunately, the Cornhuskers' defense allowed other offenses to score bunches of points very quickly.

Last year Nebraska lost to Ohio State 63-38 and to Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship 70-31. For life-long Nebraska fans, those scores are unfathomable. The Blackshirts were bloodied. 

Nebraska football hasn't been Nebraska football for nearly 12 years. 

Michigan too is a team without identity. Is it a passing team? Or a running team?

The Wolverines were ranked fifth among Big Ten rushing offenses last year. That's acceptable until you realize the Northwestern Wildcats are ranked ahead of them.

Michigan's passing offense was ranked sixth in the league and that is somewhat surprising. Wasn't quarterback Denard Robinson always cocking his arm, ready to unload the ball? Perhaps the low pass offense ranking was due to Robinson only completing 53.3 percent of his passes. 

Michigan football is heart-stopping. It's exciting. But that's due to Robinson, in both a good way—his running skills—and a bad way—his passing skills. Aren't all teams exciting when they have skilled players who play inconsistently?

USC was once known as Tailback U. Where art thou?

The Trojan rushing offense was ranked 72nd last year. In 2011 it was 52nd. The year before 25th.

The NCAA sanctions have undoubtedly hurt the Trojans since they are restricted to 15 scholarshipped players per class. But those restrictions are only in place from 2012-14. Tailback U has been in a tailspin since 2006. 

Remember Oklahoma's wishbone offense? It was a sight to behold. And it defined the Sooners.

Alabama and Texas also ran it with success. Alabama is still a power running team but Oklahoma and Texas' offenses have ebbed and flowed. 

Last year Oklahoma's rushing offense was ranked seventh in the Big 12. Texas' was ranked fifth. Neither team mustered up a 200 rushing yards-per-game average last season. The Sooner passing offense was the league's third-best and the Longhorns' was sixth. 

The empirical data suggests Oklahoma is a passing team but its back field is loaded with elite running backs. The Sooners are equipped to run the ball more but they can't. They're in flux.

Oklahoma threw for more than 500 yards against West Virginia and Oklahoma State, two prolific passing teams. Instead of running the ball and keeping the Mountaineers' Geno Smith & Co. off the field, Landry Jones attempted 51 passes. Against Oklahoma State, he attempted 73 passes.

That's so unSooner-like. 

Thirty-four years ago Oklahoma running back Billy Sims won the 1978 Heisman. 


Two Sooners have won the Heisman since Sims but both were won by quarterbacks. Jason White won it in 2003 and Sam Bradford won it in 2008. This points to a strong passing game and a program used to success.

Oklahoma did win the 2000 BCS title. But it also got hammered 55-19 by USC in the title game, now vacated, four years later. Head coach Bob Stoops has a 3-5 BCS bowl record. 

Most Sooner fans would likely associate Oklahoma football with power running and stingy defense. It is neither, but hope springs eternal.

Teams with strong identities conjure up specific images in our minds.

Oregon football is this:


Alabama football is this:


Kansas State football is this:


All three teams share a common trait.  Their head coaches have been at the program a long time or a recent hire has not changed his predecessor's offensive scheme. 

Mark Helfrich is in his first year at Oregon but said that the offense will be "99.2" percent identical to what Chip Kelly ran when he was the Ducks' head coach. Why mess with success?

Nick Saban has been coaching at Alabama for six years. Bill Syder has coached at Kansas State for 21 years. Both emphasize strong running, stout defense and discipline. Both continually recruit specific players to fit their offensive style. They have given their respective teams an identity.

Schools lose their identities when head coaches leave after three or four years. The new head coach comes in, overhauls the staff and changes the schemes. Players who were recruited to play in a pro set are asked to play in a spread. It's a difficult transition. It causes attrition.

And the team inherits a multiple-personality disorder. We no longer know who they are.

There are some coaches who can come in and drastically change a team's offense with minimal collateral damage. Urban Meyer, take a bow. But he's an exception. 

The lure of big money has caused head coaches to not honor their contracts and follow the money trail to bigger jackpots. 

This season 31 teams will see new head coaches. That amounts to 25 percent of all FBS teams with a new head coach. Head coaching changes have increased over the previous year's every year since 2008. 

Colorado hired its third coach in a 25-month span. Buffalo football is unrecognizable. And unwatchable.

It's not hard to draw the conclusion that college football's big money has predicated a team's need to win now. If Plan A doesn't work, there's no time to let it grow roots and thrive. Go to Plan B.

If that doesn't work, change everything up again and go to Plan C. 

And we wonder why college football is in the midst of an identity crisis. 


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