10 Offensive Schemes in College Football We Want to Make a Comeback

David Luther@@davidrlutherFeatured ColumnistMay 30, 2012

10 Offensive Schemes in College Football We Want to Make a Comeback

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    Over the years, the game of football has gone through more than a few changes.

    Heck, it wasn't until 1906—almost four decades after the first college “football” game was played—that the forward pass was made a legal play.

    Obviously, the game has undergone more changes since then, and changes continue to occur. The spread offense, once considered a gimmick, has now swept the nation as the modern way to play the game.

    But what about all of those old, great formations that were part of football's golden era?

    While some of our all-time favorite formations are truly obsolete, there are probably a few here that could see a rebirth of sorts, if the right coach and the right program came along to risk bringing them back.

    Here are 10 offensive schemes we'd love to see make a comeback in college football.

The T

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    The T formation, like most formations on our list, hasn't fallen completely out of use. But everyone agrees that it has become pretty much obsolete these days.

    The T formation was the halfway point between the “old style” formations like the single- or double-wing formations (that we'll talk about later) and the pro formation, I formation and modern incarnations.

    The most interesting thing about the T is that it completely lacks any wide receivers. The formation is essentially a tight formation used for strong running games in very short-yardage situations, with two halfbacks, a fullback, and two tight ends.

    This classic formation could make a comeback if there's a team with a strong enough offensive line and powerful backs who can reliably pick up four or five yards from the T.

The Power I

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    Another formation featuring three running backs that has fallen out of favor in today's high octane game is the Power I.

    The formation is a simple two tight-end set with a halfback and a fullback in the standard I formation, with an extra fullback lined up to the strong (right) side of the first fullback.

    Again, we occasionally see this outdated formation in short-yardage situations. With fullbacks becoming less important in today's pass-heavy game, this formation stands little chance of a making a comeback.

    That doesn't mean we wouldn't like to see it used more often, though.

The Maryland I

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    Ah, the good old Maryland I.

    This aptly named formation was developed by Tom Nugent, who was head coach at Maryland from 1959 through 1965.

    Like other I formations, this set is usually for power running plays.

    Today, the Maryland I is usually seen as a gimmicky short yardage or fake-out formation, but it beckons the memories of an era of football long since resigned to the history books.

Pro Set

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    Designed in the late 1940s and widely employed by college and pro teams through the 1980s, the pro Coast offense,” made popular by the San Francisco 49ers of the NFL.

    Utilizing two wide receivers, a halfback on the weak (left) side and a fullback on the strong (right) side, this formation had about as many play-call options as a person could imagine.

    The main advantage of this formation was that is kept the defense guessing, and it allowed for endless quarterback audible options.

    The pro set, or variations thereof, are still seen from time to time today, although the most popular modern variant replaces a tight end with a third wide receiver.


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    Really, who doesn't love the pistol formation?

    It has a little something for everyone; running, passing, cunning, guile. What's not to love?

    The pistol, as one might assume, is a “smaller” version of the shotgun. Firearm analogies aside, the pistol is aptly named for its ability to allow the quarterback to “quick fire” a pass to one of three receivers, or at least scare the defense into honesty with the possibility.

    If a pass isn't the call, there's always a halfback three yards behind the quarterback (who is himself three yards behind center).

    We'll admit that this formation is still used today, so we'll adjust our premise slightly here to say that we wish we'd see more of the pistol.

    If it's good enough for LSU and Alabama, it should be good enough for the rest of the nation, right?


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    Leave it to the folks from Texas to come up with a doozie of a football formation.

    The wishbone formation was developed and first widely employed by the Longhorns during Darrell Royal's legendary tenure from 1957 to 1976.

    Not only did Royal (along with offensive coordinator Emory Ballard) come up with this new approach to offense, it was wildly successful, too. The Longhorns went 167-47-5 under Royal, and won 11 Southwest Conference titles and three national championships in 20 seasons.

    Texas also finished in the final Coaches' Poll Top 10 11 times over that span.

    So what happened?

    The wishbone was a victim of its own success. As more and more top programs—Alabama, Oklahoma, Ohio State and Michigan among them—adopted the wishbone (or slight alterations thereof), defenses around the nation were forced to adapt.

    Faster and faster players were recruited to defend the wishbone, and eventually, the entire nation was in a wishbone-defending craze.

    As the defensive players got faster, ways of countering the wishbone were developed, and the formation fell into disuse by the 1990s.

    Today, the wishbone is employed primarily by middle-of-the-road FCS and Division II programs. Those programs use the wishbone to some success—until they meet a team with the speed to stop it.

Delaware Wing T

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    David M. Nelson began his coaching career at Hillsdale College in Michigan before moving on to Maine. After just a couple of seasons heading the Black Bears' program, Nelson was hired as the head coach at Delaware in 1951.

    Between his years at Maine and Delaware, Nelson developed an offensive set known as the Wing T that eventually gained the Blue Hens a “small college” national championship in 1963 (as well as three Middle Atlantic Conference titles during Nelson's eight-year tenure).

    The set was so successful, a major program such as Iowa used the Wing T to win three Big Ten titles (1956, 1958, 1960), two Rose Bowls (1956, 1958) and a national championship (1958).

    The Delaware Wing T was essentially a precursor to today's flexbone, adding a fullback and tight end at the expense of a wide receiver and flanking halfback.

    While occasionally seen today in red-zone situations, the formation has fallen into disuse for its heavy weak-side emphasis, allowing the defense to stack up on one side of the field.


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    The flexbone offensive formation is yet another example of a set that has fallen from wide use in the college game. But the formation can still be found in use by teams like Navy, where the option is heavily utilized.

    The advantages of the flexbone include the mitigation of a lack of size of the offensive team compared to the opposing defense (a la Navy and Air Force, the two most frequent users of this set).

    It also makes running a triple-option offense less cumbersome and complicated, yet still provides enough options to keep the defense very, very busy.

    Because of its ability to level the playing field, this formation is also used frequently in the lower divisions, as well as high school football, where skill levels of teams vary wildly.

    But as far as the top echelon of the FBS goes, the flexbone has been swept aside by the flashier and more high-flying spread formations of today.

Double Wing

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    As Pop Warner's success with the single-wing formation grew, his coaching genius took over. The result was the Warner-developed double-wing formation.

    The double wing is a direct precursor to the flexbone formation, except you replace the two wide receivers  with tight ends inside of the flanking halfbacks.

    After perfecting the formation at Carlisle, Warner took the double wing to Pittsburgh and rattled off a record of 30-1 in four seasons, with three national championships (1915, '16, and the war- and flu-shortened 1918 season).

Single Wing

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    One of the oldest offensive formations is almost never seen today.

    The single-wing formation was employed by most teams during the first half-century of college football. It was developed (or at least first widely used) by Glenn “Pop” Warner while he was the head coach for Carlisle Indian Industrial School.

    The formation utilized the first long snap from center to either a fullback, who lined up slightly to the strong side of center, or a tailback, who lined up slightly to the weak side and slightly further back in the formation.

    The quarterback in this formation was primarily used as a blocker. He lined up to the strong side of the fullback, directly behind the right tackle.

    A fourth back, the wingback, lined up to the right and slightly behind the right offensive end. The line itself also was completely unbalanced by today's standards. From left to right, the formation consisted of an end, guard, center, guard, tackle, tackle and end.

    Wide, sweeping run plays were popularized with this formation, and players like Jim Thorpe rose to greatness with the ability to run, throw and catch the ball (as the forward pass was a recent addition to the game).

    The single-wing formation also widely employed cutback plays, the genesis of today's reverse and misdirection run plays.

    While it would take a coach with a great deal of courage and chutzpah—not to mention a solid grasp of job security—to attempt this formation, its basic formation is recognizable in a few of the modern-day Wildcat formations.

    Because of its illustrious history and role in shaping the game we all love today, we're naming the single-wing formation as the top obsolete formation we want to see make a comeback.


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