The Evolution Of College Football: The Reign Of The Spread Offense

McLeod NealeAnalyst IAugust 24, 2008

Every college football fan loves to debate who the best college football teams of all time are.  These debates are fun to have, but it is an impossible task to figure out how teams from separate times would perform against each other. 

While teams of the past have had great athletes, it is hard to know how defenses of the past would hold up against the newer offensive schemes of later teams. 

Time and time again in college football, it has been proven that brains can overcome gaps in talent—i.e. Boise State and Oklahoma. 

One thing is clear about the state of college football today, though.  The spread offense is king.

In order to continue we need to define what "spread offense" really means.  There are many versions of the spread offense, but they are all based on similar principles.  The three main principles are:

1. Spreading the field with more WR's instead of having a FB and/or TE(s) in the game.

2. Dual threat QB

3. Using WR's and RB's interchangeably, and using WR's to run the ball

According to my criteria, last year:

-spread offenses accounted for four of the top five, six of the top 10, and 11 of the top 20 offenses in yards per game last year.

-four of the top six rushing offenses in yards per game, were spread offenses.

-the top three passing offenses in yards per game, were spread offenses

-10 of the top 13 offenses in points per game, were spread offenses

I beleive that spread offense principles first appeared in the late 80's and early 90's under Steve Spurrier. 

Spurrier was known for what was called the "Fun 'N Gun" offense that was a pass happy offense with sets of four and five WR's on the field at the same time.  That offense proved to be deadly and is known for transforming the way that football was played in the SEC.

Let's fast forward to the last couple of years of college football now.

The most dominant team in I-AA football, Appalachian State, runs the spread offense, and has won three straight National Championships and a victory over ranked Michigan last year.

Two of the past three minor conference teams to earn a bid to a BCS bowl game have incorporated principles of the spread into their offensive schemes.

Even the best teams in I-A football have had a difficult time dealing with the spread offense.  No one is immune, including teams like USC, Oklahoma, and Ohio State.

The most dominant team of the decade is probably USC.  Even USC used Reggie Bush in a more versatile role that had him lining up as a RB and WR like Percy Harvin does at Florida right now. 

USC has the best athletes in the country going there, and their fans will probably tell you that they play best in big games against ranked games.  They have done well in big games as USC has only lost two games against ranked teams since 2003. 

The thing that USC fans won't tell you though is that the two ranked teams that USC lost to in that span, Oregon and Texas, both used spread offense principles.

Spread offenses have also ravaged the two traditional powerhouse teams in the Big 10, Michigan and Ohio State.

Last year, Michigan, a preseason top five team, lost its first two games, against App State and Oregon, two teams that ran versions of the spread offense.  They went on to win their next eight games.  Michigan allowed over 33 points against three of the four spread offenses that they faced last year.

Ohio State has also struggled quite a bit too.  In the last three years Ohio State has lost five games.  Four of those teams have incorporated spread offense principles.  Those four losses include Texas in 2005, Florida in 2006, and Illinois and LSU in 2007.

Oklahoma is not immune either.  All you have to do is go back to the last game that Oklahoma played last year.  WVU ran them off of the field. 

Texas Tech with Mike Leach's pass happy attack has also gotten the best of the Sooners two of the past three years.  Other spread teams that Oklahoma has lost to include Oregon and Texas, when they had Vince Young.

Now to fast forward to this year.  The two best conferences in the nation are considered to be the SEC and the Big XII.

The Big XII was able to make a jump last year due to its high-powered offenses.  The Big XII has at least three teams—Texas Tech, Kansas, and Missouri—that incorporated spread principles last year.

The SEC has at least four teams—LSU, Florida, Arkansas, and South Carolina—that did the same.

Tennessee and Auburn are hoping that changing to the spread offense will pay off this year.  Tennessee has hired Dave Clawson, former coach at the University of Richmond who ran a very successful spread offense. 

Auburn hired former Troy offensive coordinator Tony Franklin, whose offense last year averaged over 30 points per game against three ranked SEC teams. 

The other conferences look as if they are farther behind and do not have as many teams that run the spread or some form of it.

Are the principles of the spread offense the reason that the SEC and Big XII are the better conferences at the moment?  It could be, but what exactly makes the spread offense so dangerous?

In order to understand the spread offense, we have to understand the offenses that preceded it.  The modern football fan, looks at an offensive football player and labels him as a QB, RB, FB, WR, TE, or OL.  That is because the roles of each position were very specific and each player had one job and it is very specific.

The spread offense effectively destroys all position distinctions except for the offensive line.  In order to fully understand what the spread offense is and how the spread offense works, you need to throw football terminology out of the window. 

All there is are linemen and play makers.  Instead of looking at what position an athlete plays, you need to look at a player for his overall skill set in the areas of running, passing, receiving, and blocking. 

Those are the four things that offensive football players are asked to do, and the spread offense asks football players to diversify their skill set rather than specialize in one area.  That is why the perfect word to describe the spread offense is "versatility."

It really is no different than a small forward in basketball: It is a position that requires a nice blend of post and perimeter skills.  While there are better shooters and post players out there, a big guy with decent post and guard skills can easily be the most dangerous guy on the court. 

The spread offense seeks to cause problems for defenses in the same sort of manner.  Here are the possible scenarios:

1. A lot of offenses that put three or four WR's on the field still like to keep a RB in the backfield and run the ball.  That means that it is crucial that your WR's are good blockers. 

If you have a player that is good at both receiving and blocking it creates issues just like a guard who can play in the post.  A LB may not be able to cover the WR, but at the same time a CB may not be able to shed the block.  So now you have issues as a defensive coordinator.  It also makes it even more crucial for the RB to be a good blocker in case if there is a blitz.

2. The same thing happens with a dual threat QB.  It creates a delimma due to the fact that the defense has to simultaneously drop back in coverage and cover the run, as if the QB is a speedy RB.  This is the type of problem that Vince Young, Dennis Dixon, and Pat White created for defenses.

3. What creates real headaches is when you have a player like Percy Harvin, Reggie Bush, or CJ Spiller that could line up as WR's or RB's.  If they line up as RB's it would be nice to have a LB in the game, but at the same time if they line up at WR you want a CB in the game.  You also have the issue of the RB catching the ball out of the backfield too.  It is just a losing situation for a lot of teams.

4. I have also noticed that additional mismatch problems arise when you put undersized TE's into the game.  This essentially makes them a hybrid of a TE and WR and it creates a problem because they are faster and thus are a mismatch for safeties and LB's.

Now that we know the issues the spread offense causes, is the spread offense unstoppable?

I do know that many people are now incorporating the 3-3-5 or 4-2-5 defenses in order to stop the spread.  It is only part of the solution, though.  The real issue is dealing with the versatility of athletes at certain positions. 

In order to fight against offenses that use versatile offensive players, you have to fight back with versatile defensive players.  This is something that I think that can only be cured by recruiting, which is the life-blood of college football programs, and realizing that there is not a certain mold that players have to fit into at whatever position that they are being recruited for. 

Coaches are going to have to find players that are hybrids of different positions on defense in order to match up against offenses that have players that are hybrids of multiple offensive positions.  Until that happens, though, I really cannot see the spread offense being stopped.


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