Has the spread stopped spreading in the SEC?

I had a feeling reading Michael Elkon’s comments in response to this post of mine about Auburn’s hire of Scot Loeffler that he had a post of his own coming on the subject, and, sure enough, he did.  There’s a lot to recommend there, but this is the point of greatest interest for me:

Auburn’s transition from the run-based spread to a pro-style attack* brings up a somewhat disturbing trend in the SEC: Creeping Sabanization. When Saban joined the conference, the mix of offenses was fairly diverse. Florida was running the spread. LSU was running something with spread elements. Arkansas was relying healvily on the Wildcat. Within two years, Auburn and Mississippi state were also running the spread. Two national titles for Saban later, everyone is trying to copy him, but not necessarily in good ways. Florida is running a pro-style offense under a Saban disciple. Ditto for Tennessee. LSU is attempting a modern-day imitation of the Bo Schembechler offense. Now, Auburn is eschewing the offense that was a significant factor in the Tigers winning their first national title in 53 years.** Mississippi State is left as the only run-based spread team in the league (and no one is running the Air Raid that played a role in Clemson, West Virginia, and Oklahoma State all making BCS bowls). Chris Brown asks whether the age of the spread is in decline. The answer is clearly “yes” in the SEC.

I’m never totally comfortable with these “pro-style” vs. “spread” debates, because there’s no uniform definition for either term, but I think Michael’s point has some validity.  It’s clear that we’ve come full circle from HP’s grandiose pronouncements that Urban Meyer had changed life as we knew it in the SEC.

The question is why.  I’m not sure if there’s one specific answer to that, but there are more than a couple of theories about what’s going on that are worth digging into.

  1. Creeping Sabanization.  That’s Michael’s primary explanation:  “… Saban is an outstanding defensive coach, so his teams don’t need an offense to put up big numbers. In sum, Saban’s style of conservative risk minimization works with a talent advantage and a dominant defense.”  It’s had an enviable track record of success over the past five years.  That resonates with coaches (particularly ones who have a defensive background like Chizik or are naturally conservative with game planning, like Richt).  It also clicks with ADs, who have hired Saban acolytes at places like Tennessee and Florida.  I agree with Elkon that Saban’s way requires stellar recruiting, but, really, is that a big problem at schools like Florida or Auburn?
  2. Quarterback play.  I don’t think this gets enough attention, but I’d argue that great quarterback play is a bigger necessity in a college spread attack than it is in a pro-style offense.  And if there’s one thing worth noting, it’s that the conference isn’t exactly in a golden age right now when it comes to quarterbacks.  (They’ve even noticed that in Montana, although Stewart Mandel’s explanation for the current state of affairs doesn’t make the most sense.)  Urban Meyer won SEC titles with a Tim Tebow.  Auburn had Cam.  Chris Relf doesn’t cut it in the same way.
  3. College football, tactically speaking, is cyclical.  This is something I’ve hit on before.  Good coaches adapt, no matter what gets thrown at them.  Especially as they see more of the same and become familiar with it.  As Matt Hinton put it, “… as the optimal window begins to close on the subversive deception of the spread and spread option, the great talent-maskers of the last two decades, the pendulum will begin to swing the other way — while Texas, Florida, Michigan, Auburn a cavalcade of first-rate recruiting powers are taking the “defend the entire field and the running quarterback” concept mainstream, less talented teams that relied on surprising defenses with the unfamiliar week after week must begin looking for a new edge.”  Sure, a Tebow or a Newton can elevate a spread attack to a level that even a Nick Saban can’t control, but that’s the exception, not the rule nowadays.  The best SEC defenses are too talented and too well-coached to be surprised anymore.

So where does that leave things?  I’m not totally sure, to be honest.  First of all, Elkon is right that Sabanization isn’t a one size fits all solution.

… Thus, even though a well-coached pro-style offense can work (and Loeffler is as good a candidate as anyone to run that offense well), the rest of the SEC looking up to Alabama could still stand to use the basic premise of the run-based spread, which is to use the quarterback as a runner to create either a numerical advantage in the box of favorable throwing conditions down the field. If you want a succinct scenario for the end of SEC dominance, it’s the possibility of the rest of the conference taking the wrong lessons from Alabama’s success.

If you can’t keep up with the Tide on the recruiting front, playing the same game Alabama does isn’t a winning strategy.  And that’s not exactly a new situation in this conference.  (The question I don’t have an answer for yet is whether the new SEC and NCAA rules on roster management will have an impact on leveling the playing field for recruiting.  If they do, would that make emulating Saban a more sensible strategy?)

Second, not all schools have abandoned the spread, or at least spread (i.e., running quarterback) principles.  Connor Shaw had more rushing attempts last season than Relf did.  And Jordan Rodgers had over 100 rushes in 2011.  Hugh Freeze, Ole Miss’ new head coach, is importing an offense that saw its quarterback carry the ball 161 times and score ten rushing touchdowns in the process.  Also, James Franklin.  So we shouldn’t bury the spread; it’s not dead yet.

But you have to carry that over in the context that it’s Saban’s world and we’re living in it.  One of his coordinators took a head coaching job.  Smart is likely to get one very soon.  Sunseri will be talked up if he’s a success at Tennessee.  That’s a coaching tree still putting out branches.  (But notice I didn’t say spreading.)

There’s also the question of how well the new trend succeeds at Florida and Auburn.  Weis was a disappointment, to say the least.  And Pease isn’t at Boise State anymore.  As for Loeffler, it will be interesting to see how that shakes out.  It sounds like Chizik has some definite ideas on what he wants from his coordinator, as Malzahn found out last year when he was pushed to slow the pace of the offense down, so there’s a question about how much of a leash he’ll be put on.  And I can’t help but wonder why Muschamp didn’t take a look at a coach who was on the Florida staff when he came in and announced he was ditching Meyer’s offense to go pro-style.

Elkon makes a couple of Georgia-related points in a follow-up post:

… When Florida was at its full pomp under Urban Meyer, one argument that Georgia fans made was that the Dawgs would have a recruiting advantage in a spread-crazy conference because Georgia would be somewhat unique and could tout its superior preparation for the NFL.  Matt Stafford going at the top of the Draft provided evidence for this point.  That advantage goes away now that Florida, Auburn, and (to a lesser extent because they were never really a spread team) LSU are all running pro-style offenses.  Style-wise, Georgia is just another team in the SEC.  Yes, they can tout where Stafford, Knowshon Moreno, and AJ Green were drafted, but Auburn can cite to Scot Loeffler’s record sending quarterbacks to the NFL.

On the other hand, if you view the run-based spread as a slightly better way to skin a cat, then Georgia benefits from conference rivals adopting a sub-optimal offensive approach.  After the 2008 and 2009 Florida games and the 2010 Auburn game, Dawg fans will not be sad to see the return of stationary quarterbacks on the offenses of their two biggest conference rivals.

Eh, maybe.  If Auburn gets to point to Scot Loeffler’s record elsewhere, Mark Richt can do the same.  I suspect there are enough pro-style quarterbacks coming out of high school to go around in the SEC, considering the conference’s burgeoning reputation of going against the (spread) grain.  Recruits are going to care a lot more about the here and now than what Loeffler’s kids at Michigan did.

Michael’s on more solid ground with his second point, although Tebow and Newton aren’t the examples I’d use.  Georgia had problems with Vandy’s running quarterback this past year and really struggled with running quarterbacks in 2010.  Grantham’s definitely made strides dealing with that, but I can’t say I’ll shed many tears if Georgia sees more statues in the backfield.

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20 Comments

Filed under SEC Football, Strategery And Mechanics

20 responses to “Has the spread stopped spreading in the SEC?

  1. I’ve been meaning to write about this for a while, but the “Sabanization” in the SEC baffles me. When you’re at a talent disadvantage, you don’t beat the best by copying what they do.

  2. peacedog

    How about this: when the majority of the nation is uses a traditional drop back passer under center, with the very occasional option offense, there is a market shortage. Because there’s a caliber of player out there who can make plays with his feet but has, at worst, a decent arm. Where does he play? He’s not consistent/good enough to be a traditional QB at a big-6. Maybe he finds success as some sort of H-back/slot back. Maybe he languishes on a roster as a WR who occasionally comes up with spectacular plays.

    Except now we’ve got an offense that uses both his arm and legs. With a decent OC we can make the passing attack simple enough that he can have success in the air; his wheels are really good and suddenly the defense is at a disadvantage.

    The thing is, to have success in the spread (. . . the type we’re talking about; one that utilizes QB runs in tandem with the RBs and possibly WRs in a non traditional triple/flex option format. Except. . . well you get the idea) you still need a *good* QB. But it’s a different kind of QB. And years later, with a lot more teams running those types of offense, that kid isn’t as easy to get any more is he? He’s no longer an underappreciated resource. So you switch back in part because you are having trouble getting the right guy.

    Obviously this isn’t *the* answer. But it some cases it could be part of the answer. I meant to say this to Mike but forgot to.

    • And years later, with a lot more teams running those types of offense, that kid isn’t as easy to get any more is he? He’s no longer an underappreciated resource. So you switch back in part because you are having trouble getting the right guy.

      This is what I think Mandel missed in his critique. That the high schools in the Southeast aren’t cranking out a lot of good dropback pocket passers isn’t that big a deal, because there are enough nationally for SEC schools running pro-style offenses to offer. Now if that changes and the pro-style becomes the prevailing offense nationally, then the SEC may have some problems. Or it’ll just change styles again.

      • Maybe. I think the days of forcing a definition on an offense are over. You might want to be a run based pro-style offense, but it depends on your recruiting classes. If you can’t get the drop back passer, you need to flexible enough to adjust. The available players should set the tone and type of the offense. Got 4 AJ Green caliber receivers? Better utilize an Air Raid package frequently. I’ll take your quote above a step further, “Good Coaches adapt to their current roster”.

  3. Mayor of Dawgtown

    Cogent analysis, Senator.

  4. Macallanlover

    I don’t disagree with the premise of these comments but feel the supply demand issue is not getting enough attention. There has been a shift in the HS offenses over the past decade to the spread attack, perhaps due to a shortage of pro-style QBs, or perhaps because of the over-supply of athletes capable of running the “spread” attacks at age 16. It just might take longer to develop a QB that is over 6′ 2″, has cannon arm potential, and can read defenses, or maybe there is a lack of coaching talent to develop that animal at the HS level.

    Whatever the cause, it has led to a shift at the collegiate level and that has reduced the supply of QBs to the NFL. I don’t think the NFL has more teams with running, athletic QBs because they prefer that, I just don’t feel there are enough top quality QBs that can perform in a “pure” NFL pro-style offense. The two Mannings, Brady, and Stafford are the exceptions, the NFL is starved for top level guys like this. Sure, there are the Brees’ of the world but for everyone of those there are more guys falling on their faces, incapable of putting the team on their shoulders with their arms alone. While I don’t follow the NFL closely at all, I would be hard pressed to name more than 8 quality, pro-style QBs on the 30 NFL rosters. That number may go up if the colleges revert back to that, but with the success of the Oregons, Oklahoma States, West Virginias, etc., the various spread offenses are here to stay, imo.

    • Biggus Rickus

      I picked 1988 as a random year, but here are your top 10 QBs in the NFL by rating:

      1. Boomer Esiason CIN 97.4
      2. Dave Krieg SEA 94.6
      3. Wade Wilson MIN 91.5
      4. Jim Everett RAM 89.2
      5. Warren Moon HOU 88.4
      6. Joe Montana SFO 87.9
      7. Neil Lomax PHO 86.7
      8. Bernie Kosar CLE 84.3
      9. Phil Simms NYG 82.1
      10. Dan Marino MIA 80.8

      And here are 2011’s top passers:

      1. Aaron Rodgers GNB 122.5
      2. Drew Brees NOR 110.6
      3. Tom Brady NWE 105.6
      4. Tony Romo DAL 102.5
      5. Matthew Stafford DET 97.2
      6. Matt Schaub HOU 96.8
      7. Eli Manning NYG 92.9
      8. Matt Ryan ATL 92.2
      9. Alex Smith SFO 90.7
      10. Ben Roethlisberger PIT 90.1

      I would argue that this is a golden age of QBing in the NFL. Assuming players like Rodgers, Stafford and Eli stay healthy there are six future Hall of Famers on that 2011 list. Romo could be a 7th, though he’ll have to shake that (deserved) choker label. And that’s with arguably the best of the bunch, Peyton Manning, missing the entire season. In comparison, there are three Hall of Famers and a Neil Lomax on the other list.

      • Zdawg

        The golden age of QBing or the dark ages of pass protection.

        I wonder what a similar comparison would look like with running backs.

        • Biggus Rickus

          1988:

          1. Eric Dickerson*+ · IND 1659
          2. Herschel Walker* · DAL 1514
          3. Roger Craig*+ · SFO 1502
          4. Greg Bell · RAM 1212
          5. John Stephens* · NWE 1168
          6. Gary W. Anderson · SDG 1119
          7. Neal Anderson* · CHI 1106
          8. Joe Morris · NYG 1083
          9. Ickey Woods · CIN 1066
          10. Curt Warner · SEA 1025

          2011:

          1. Maurice Jones-Drew*+ · JAX 1606
          2. Ray Rice* · BAL 1364
          3. Michael Turner · ATL 1340
          4. LeSean McCoy*+ · PHI 1309
          5. Arian Foster* · HOU 1224
          6. Frank Gore* · SFO 1211
          7. Marshawn Lynch · SEA 1204
          8. Willis McGahee · DEN 1199
          9. Steven Jackson · STL 1145
          10. Ryan Mathews · SDG 1091

      • 69Dawg

        The NFL changed the rules and made the QB’s better. Put these 2011 QB’s back in 1988 and most would be mediocre at best. The DB’s can’t kill the WR’s any more and if you watched the Pro-Bowl you saw the future of Pro football and it is Flag football without the violence.

      • Macallanlover

        Thanks, admittedly I am a casual watcher, mostly just the playoffs. I am sure the QB rating is a decent measure but I will stick with the six top notch QBs from my earlier statement. Just from what I have seen, I wouldn’t want Romo, Ryan, or Smith as my QB, and am questionable on Schaub. With 30 teams and those three on the list, what does that leave you with on the other 20 teams…not to mention the backups?

        QB is the universally acknowledged “key” position in the NFL, it sure seems like developing 60 quality QBs over a 10+ year period would be a slam dunk. They certainly pay enough to attract the best talent, why are they falling so short? Interesting thoughts and discussion on the rule changes and how that could affect the ratings.

        • Biggus Rickus

          I don’t think there have ever been a glut of good QBs across the league. There are a handful of great ones, another handful of good ones and a bunch of stiffs, a few of whom have a couple of above average seasons in otherwise forgettable careers. At the moment, there are more great ones for their time and place than any time since the ’70s.

  5. I’m with you in that I don’t think this is an either/or premise. LSU’s had to minimize it’s QB play for four years now, I’m fairly certain that’s played the biggest role in the offensive scale back of the last two years (if Zach Mettenberger delivers on some early premise, we’ll find out whether I’m right or not).

    But it’s not like you can’t have a little bit of both. Jimbo Fisher’s offenses blended both styles pretty well, and leaned more one way or the other usually based on the type of talent on hand. The 2001 crew threw the ball around a bunch with Rohan Davey and Josh Reed because that’s what it did a lot. The 2003 offense blended some downhill running with some spread-option elements because Matt Mauck was an experienced guy with some good mobility (ditto Matt Flynn in 2007, when Gary Crowton was mostly using Fisher’s playbook by his own admission). The 2006 squad was more of a run and play-action attack with a lot of downfield throws because it had Jamarcus Russell and Dwayne Bowe and could bomb away like that.

  6. Cojones

    What seems lost here is the availablility of running QBs. That changes Os and the opposing Ds to your advantage. The “12th man” aspect is not lost on Richt who has one waiting in the wings with LeMay. In the meantime he keeps getting the best pocket passers available. Cam was an example of the extra O player when your QB can run and he demonstrates that it works in the pros as well.

    Hail to Richt, the best QB recruiter and shaper in College Football. Now , if we just can keep a healthy and deep O line around, we are off to the races with plug-ins for other O positions. Bobo’s game planning and in-game execution is also varied according to the O line. Grantam’s D is separated from those dependencies and can plug-in available fast linebackers and safeties quicker than supplying a dominant D line. We have had our eye on the O line problems, but has anyone looked lately at our D line recruitment/replacement after this year? Let’s hope that our day of coordinated fruition has arrived for this team with both O and D living up to potential simultaneously. Long live the Richtification of the SEC.

  7. Always Someone Else's Fault

    Why is it that when spread-team beats pro-style-team it’s scheme, but when pro-style team beats spread-team it’s talent differential? That’s usually the narrative.

    Seems to me spread teams beat the snot out of teams with less talent – and grind to a halt when they can’t find that one athletic mismatch to exploit all game long.

    In other words, scheme is way overrated. It’s not what you do. It’s making sure you excel at what you do. That’s what makes college so fun – different styles.

  8. Heath Oates

    Missouri’s spread offense gained 3000 yards on the ground and 3000 through the air with a sophomore quarterback last year. Maybe the big, bad SEC will be tough on them, but I doubt they shift toward any other offensive philosophy as long as Pinkel’s the head coach there.