Not long ago, balanced, professional style offensive systems ruled college football. Just 10 years ago, the final 2004 AP Poll read like a randomly assembled list of traditional college football powers: USC, Oklahoma, Georgia, LSU, Florida State, Miami, Texas, Michigan, Ohio State, and West Virginia. True, Texas ran a version of the spread offense, but to take advantage of one of the great talents in college football history (Vince Young), not because the coaching staff had a history rooted in a non-traditional offense. The only team running a true “system” offense was – not surprisingly – the only non-traditional power of the bunch: Rich Rodriguez’s spread option West Virginia Mountaineers.
Fast forward to October 4th, 2014. For the first time in the history of the AP Poll, five of the top eight teams lose in the same weekend. Oregon, which became a power on the strength of Chip Kelly’s hurry up spread option system, is cut down by the Arizona Wildcats, with – you guessed it – Rich Rodriquez at the helm. Juggernaut Alabama and their pro style offense are chopped down by traditional also-ran Mississippi and their version of the packaged hurry up spread. Mississippi State – another SEC second thought – dominates Texas A&M. UCLA is edged by former mid-major Utah. TCU – who from 1996-2011 bounced between the Western Athletic Conference, Conference USA, and the Mountain West Conference – takes out Oklahoma.
Come Sunday, half of the top 10 was made up of non-traditional powers: Mississippi State, Mississippi, Baylor, TCU, and Arizona.
“System” offenses have a set ideology and method for attacking a defense. It does not mean that they are unbalanced in terms of run/pass ratio (as many people assume), but it does mean that they have a strong identity of plays and formations and a consistent methodology for attacking a defense. The wing t did it with multiple series and an order of playcalling designed to put defenders in conflict. The split t, split back veer, wishbone, and flexbone did it by building around the triple option and taking advantage of defenses designed to stop that play. The run and shoot did it with after the snap option routes designed to defeat any defensive look. The list goes on…
The key to the hurry up spread – the current system du jour – is that any, and almost every, previous system can be adapted to the spread. Many teams couple the spread with the Air Raid, itself a simplified adaptation of the old LaVell Edwards BYU passing offense. Rodriquez, Kelly, and many others base their offense on zone running and option concepts. Auburn’s Gus Malzahn has coupled it with the wing t. Cal’s offensive coordinator Tony Franklin has roots in the Air Raid, but now seeks run/pass balance with a variety of creative runs passes, and packaged concepts.
The beauty of the variety of spread offenses is that most of these offenses do not require a roster loaded with 5 and 4 star recruits in order to succeed. Instead, a good personnel “fits” for the offense are of the utmost importance. An offense can be designed in order to take advantage of lower tier recruits who are hand picked to fill the roles that will make that offense successful. And – because the offenses are adaptable – they can highlight the strengths and hide the weaknesses of a roster that is built with lower tier recruits.
When pro style offenses ruled the day, the traditional powers dominated the recruitment of prototypical players to fit those offenses. With superior talent, the pro style quarterback could hand off to the prototypical running back or throw a play action pass to the future NFL tight end or wide receivers behind an offensive line made up of prototypical maulers.
Rich Rodriguez, with future NFL return man Rasheed Marshall at quarterback, helped changed the status quo. Now, if you couldn’t recruit the towering pocket passer with the rocket arm, you look to recruit the spindly speedster. If you didn’t have any luck finding the 6’3” wide receivers or the pro style tight ends, you put an under recruited, undersized athlete in the slot (Wes Welker at Texas Tech being perhaps the most famous example), and play without a tight end. Can’t find the future NFL road graders in the line? That’s okay – recruit speed and technique, and make it work in your system.
In short, the rise of the “system” offenses in college football has led to more coaches being able to better utilize the talent of more athletes, which has evened the playing field with the traditional elite programs. This evened playing field will continue to lead to more parity, more upsets, and a more exciting product. And it isn’t just the spread offenses that are making waves. Georgia Tech, with their flexbone triple option, which traces roots back to the Don Faurot split t of the early 1940s, lurks undefeated at the bottom of the top 25…