Auburn in BCS Championship Game Shows Spread Is Here to Stay

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Auburn in BCS Championship Game Shows Spread Is Here to Stay
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
Gus Malzahn didn't invent the spread offense but he has mastered it and has Auburn back on the BCS Championship Game.

It has been building for years, but the 2013 season has proved once and for all that the spread offense is here to stay.

There is evidence of it everywhere.

Of the 10 teams playing in BCS bowls, five run a version of the spread. The past three Heisman winners were all spread quarterbacks, and three of this year's six Heisman finalists play in a spread system.

Of all the things that prove that the spread is here to stay, nothing is more convincing than the success enjoyed by the teams that employed it in the nation's best conference.

In 2012, Texas A&M, which went just 64-60 in its final decade of Big 12 football, went 11-2 in its first year of SEC play. Missouri has had just three seasons with 10 or more wins since 1961. In 2013, the Tigers' second year in the SEC, they had 11 wins before December.

The SEC Championship Game provided the most convincing argument yet. Auburn and Missouri combined to set a number of SEC Championship Game records in Auburn's 59-42 win.

Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn has done as much as anyone to make the spread into the most popular offensive system in college football.

It's hard to imagine a pro-style team going from 3-9 to a berth in the BCS National Championship Game in the span of 12 months. That is exactly what Malzahn has done since taking over the Auburn job after the 2012 season.

The spread allows a coaching staff to utilize the best athletes on the roster in a number of ways. After Malzahn placed an increased emphasis on the run game, running back Tre Mason went from a solid back to a Heisman finalist. 

Quarterback Nick Marshall, a former defensive back and junior college QB, became  the catalyst for everything the Tigers do on offense. Marshall has improved each week under Malzahn's tutelage and has come up huge when the Tigers needed it most.

Auburn has a number of weapons on offense, but Marshall's athleticism is what makes them nearly unstoppable. Having to guard against his ability to keep the ball and run with it gives even the best defensive coaches headaches.

Remember this play in the final minute of the Iron Bowl? Alabama head coach Nick Saban and defensive coordinator Kirby Smart surely do.

Brandon Oliver

Clearly, there was a lapse in judgment and poor discipline by the defenders on the play, but that is because of the threat an athletic quarterback like Marshall represents. Auburn lined up the way it had so many times before with Mason and fullback Jay Prosch lined up in the backfield.

The Tigers had it blocked so well that the two Alabama linebackers froze, expecting Mason to get the ball up the middle. Instead, Prosch pulled all the way across the line, bypassed the defensive end and sealed the outside linebacker, leaving Marshall to beat only the end on his way around the corner.

Brandon Oliver

At this point, no one expected Marshall to throw the ball. Not even the safety and the corner, who let wide receiver Sammie Coates slide past them to keep Marshall from getting around the corner.

Everyone knows what happened next. Marshall flipped the ball to Coates before crossing the line, and he cruised into the end zone with no Crimson Tide defenders within 15 yards of him.

When the quarterback has to be accounted for on every play as a potential run threat, it creates another problem for the defense, which is already spread thin.

The spread has been called "basketball on grass" for good reason. The whole idea behind it is to use athletes to create mismatches with the defense. In doing so, the spread parallels almost any other sport by finding an area where the defense isn't and trying to create a big play.

When properly executed, the no-huddle spread doesn't allow the defense to substitute fresh bodies for tired players who may not fit the play call.

Saban told AL.com's Andrew Gribble that he believes the spread is bad for the game. He might truly believe that or he might just not like it. Either way, he has to deal with it because it isn't going anywhere.

Of the top 14 teams in the latest BCS standings, nine run a version of the spread as their regular offense.

Spread Offenses in the 2013 BCS Top 14
Ranking School Offense Points/Game Yards/Game
2 Auburn Zone Read 40.2 505.3
6 Baylor Spread Pass 53.3 623
7 Ohio State Power Spread 46.3 518.5
8 Missouri Spread 39.0 492.9
10 Oregon Spread Option 46.8 573
12 Clemson Spread 40.2 502.9
13 Oklahoma State Spread Pass 39.8 44.6
14 Arizona State Zone Read 41.0 460.8

cfbstats.com

Saban will go down as one of the best coaches in the history of the game, but the spread takes away from great game-planners like Saban because it doesn't allow them to dictate the tempo of the game.

Running the hurry-up, spread offense gives the offense an advantage similar to the way poor weather does. When a game is being played in the rain or snow, the offense has a clear advantage over the defense. 

The offense has to deal with the elements the same way the defense does, but at least the offensive player knows where he is going once the play begins.

The same can be said for the spread offense. The defense can be lined up properly considering the look the offense is giving it, but it often won't matter. There are so many different options the spread gives an offense that it can be nearly impossible to stop.

Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez and Ohio State coach Urban Meyer took the spread and ran with it in the middle of the 2000s. After his success at Florida, Meyer has led Ohio State into a new era of football with a wide-open offense.

Malzahn burst onto the scene with a junior college QB in 2010 and made his return to the SEC in 2013. He doesn't have Cam Newton this time around, but he doesn't need him.

Auburn has all the tools on offense to make a defense look lifeless. The Tigers did it all year, and it has them on the brink of another national championship.

The Pac-12 and the Big 12 usually set the tone for offensive trends around the country, while the Big Ten and the SEC dominated with defense.

With SEC games beginning to have scores that look like this matchup between Baylor and Texas Tech, the spread is an undeniable force in the current landscape of college football.

The SEC is the center of the college football world, and the spread has fully infiltrated the conference in 2013. Saban knows it isn't going anywhere, and so should everyone else.

Maybe that's all it will take for the "three yards and a cloud of dust" crowd to finally admit that the spread is here to stay.

Another Auburn national championship would make it tough for anyone to deny. If the Tigers win the title again, their opponents won't have the benefit of seeing Malzahn leave for another job like he left for Arkansas State. 

He is now the head coach, and as long as he is on The Plains, the SEC will have to adapt because the spread offense has infiltrated the nation's best conference and not even the SEC defenses have been able to stop it.

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