College football's not immune to fashion, whether it's for uniforms, styles, or most notoriously, scheme. From Army's run game to TCU's passing schemes of the 60s, through the Wishbone rage and the run 'n shoot, to the NFLized offenses and defenses of the current day, coaches will always tinker, tweak, and wholesale adopt foreign schemes in an attempt to gain a competitive advantage on their opponent.
Continuing the comparison, some of these turn out to be the facemask or elastic pant, and some of them turn out to be the "Asparagus Urine Nightmare" unis Oregon trotted out a few years back. The I-formation=staying power, while the wishbone now elicits audible "OOOHS" when your team runs it as a gag in spring practice (and not because it's spectacular.) Some stuff sticks, and some doesn't, which is leading us to the latest gob of strategic goo tossed against the collective blackboard of college football: the spread.
Old hotness: the 'bone.
In particular, take Jeff Tedford's recent admission: Cal, one of the most successful pro-style offenses in the country, will be taking "elements" of the spread offense and adding to the Bears' repertoire this fall, most likely to take advantage of Marshawn Lynch's versatility and perhaps to get more mileage from Joe Ayoob's fast feet (which hopefully will speed up his slow, turnover-prone head this season.) Tedford is in college coaching circles regarded as a school unto himself on par with Spurrier, Leach, Petrino, and Chow, the architect of his own variation of a pro-style system heavily dependent on conventional formations and a stout running game opening up passing lanes downfield.
Even Tedford sees the need to get in on at least a smidge of spreadulation, if only out of a vague sense of feeling left out of the whole thing. (Really, why tweaking anything in Cal's offense is a good idea is beyond us; the only thing hobbling the Cal offense is hobbling, as in injuries to the quarterback, and the ever-present challenge of breaking in new and inexperienced quarterbacks.) Why fiddle, when you've got a system that performs well against a broad spectrum of defenses and techniques?
The obvious answer: one more tool in the belt. You want the maximum number of options at your disposal to address the challenges posed by moving a ball against a defense that is on par or even superior in athletic talent to your own. Logical enough, but with a caveat taken from the pages of design theory: have as many buttons as you need and no more. There's a diminishing return on complexity in all things, with the only possible exceptions being tax code, Chinese shipping ownership schemes, and the plot of The Baroque Cycle. (We're almost done with the damn thing, we swear.) What Tedford seeks to gain is options; what he could end up with is chindogu, an offense taking two or more practical themes and combining them into an ineffective mishmash of a scheme.
The spread offense: revolution, or automatic noodle-cooler?
While Oregon's Frankenspread--created by Gary Crowton after he watched Utah rampage through the Mountain West against his BYU teams--put up impressive numbers, it floundered when it counted against USC and in their bowl game.
The most conspicuous introduction of the spread came in our own beloved, swampy backyard. We spent most of last year's offseason fiddling around with the Gatorsports Urban Meyer playbook before watching "THE SYSTEM" come crashing down around Meyer and Chris Leak's ears in a smoldering heap of bad protections and useless five yard curls.
Whatever the spread is (and spiky poo Bob Davie has a decent enough guide to what the spread is and what it does to defenses here,) two things are clear: there have been hiccups, and despite these coaches seem to have a nasty crush on it. But should they? Using our advanced algorithmic analysis, we cut and pasted the top 25 offenses in the land from CNNSi's website and examined them to see how prevalent and successful the spread truly is at the D-1 level. Using that list, we broke the 25 down into four basic categories:
Chunky jam: not spreadlike in any consistent manner, e.g. pro-style, standard dumbed down collegiate two back sets, or variant thereof. Four wide does not make you a spread, by the way...
"I Can't Believe it's Not Butter Omega-3 Non-Dairy OMG IT'S MADE FROM PEOPLE" spread. Incorporates certain elements of the spread within a larger conventional framework. Example: Bobby Petrino at Louisville, who lives and dies by two-back sets and the run but also uses some elements of the spread in his attack. Calling it the power spread seems misleading, but there's some particles of the idea in his overall scheme.
"Margarine" spread: teams that run consistently out of shotgun spread formations with one back sets, but also mix in several different formations, including two-back formations. The difference here is that the team runs out of one back sets Florida and Texas '05 fit perfectly in this category, though the Longhorns won't likely be as daring with the scheme with a freshman qb this season. (Texas Tech, for the record, probably fits in this category.)
"Pure Butter" Spread: the shotgun/one back banditos who only switch to conventional formations as a variant on the trick play. You might see two backs, but they'll be split on either side of the qb in the gun. Utah '04, Northwestern any year, UNLV, and West Virginia all qualify here.
Here's the top 25 scoring offenses, broken down by our purely unscientific and amateur categories:
Chunky Jam: USC (1), Notre Dame (6), UCLA (7), Boise State (8), Minnesota (10), Arizona State (36.1), Wisconsin (12), Auburn (14), Virginia Tech (16), Miami (19), TCU (19), Tulsa(24).
"I Can't Believe it's Not Butter Omega-3 Non-Dairy OMG IT'S MADE FROM PEOPLE" spread:
Louisville (3), Fresno State (5), Penn State (12), Toledo (14), WSU(21), UTEP (21).
Margarine Spread: Texas (1), Texas Tech (4), Oregon (9), Michigan State (16), Brigham Young (21), Nevada (25).
Pure Butter Spread: Bowling Green (16)
We can quibble about the hackish delineations between the teams and whether they belong to one category or another, but even with some fiddling, the pattern remains clear: hybridity pays significant dividends, while a reliance on the spread as the prime strategy for maximizing talent on the playing field is still a rarity in the best offenses in college football. What is also clear is that the spread--whatever it really is--is more a spice and not the main ingredient in the recipe for a successful offense.
Leak: could have told you about the spice, not main course thing after '05.
The lesson paid off handsomely for oldsters like Galen Hall and Mack Brown, who were able to fit previously maligned, underachieving qbs into spread sets and ride them to bowl victories and championships. It also helped loosen up Ohio State's Troy Smith, whose '05 season looks better and better the longer we think about it. (We're not the only ones--SI's touted him as "the poor man's Vince Young, which if we were an Ohio State grad we'd have serious issues with, unless we really were poor, in which case we'd have to give them their due, there.)
Can it stand on its own? Looking at 2000 Oklahoma, we'd say yes. But is it the philosopher's stone of offenses? Nope--as Urban Meyer found out in excruciating fashion this year, hybridity has its benefits, including not getting your qb killed before the end of November. In the big picture, it's just another accessory, and anything but a whole outfit by itself. In Tedford's hands, though, it could be runway model material by the end of '06.