When will the spread option jump the shark?

From HeismanPundit, on The Top Programs in College Football:

… Urban Meyer has helped transform the SEC from a conference that used to run neanderthal, run-head-first-into-a-brick-wall offenses to one that is not afraid to spread the field and air it out.

From Sunday Morning Quarterback, on Mid-Major Monday: ¡Viva la Bone!:

… the current promulgation of the spread/spread option was based on the early, experimental success of Randy Walker, Joe Tiller, Hal Mumme, Mike Leach and Rich Rodriguez at schools with serious deficits in talent, much like Georgia Tech’s in relation to the rest of the ACC and the BCS leagues as a whole. This is part of the same cyclical struggle: 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.

That’s the thing about innovation:  it tends to begin on the fringe.  Schools that couldn’t match up on talent – particularly depth of talent – found help in offense schemes that leveled the playing field somewhat in two specific ways, as SMQ notes.

First, while depth might be an issue for these teams, it’s not like they were completely bereft of talented skill position players.  Running a spread scheme gave these teams a chance to isolate these players in space which provided opportunities to exploit better defenses in ways that more conventional offensive schemes might not be able to employ.  It’s an effective way to maximize the effect of limited personnel resources.

Second, there’s the novelty factor.  When you run the only offense of its kind that your opponents are likely to see over the course of a season, and those opponents only have a week or two at best to prepare for what you’re going to throw at them, that lack of familiarity can help to level the playing field, as well.

But what happens in a conference like the SEC where teams like Florida aren’t using the spread to equalize differences in talent levels and where, in one form or fashion, it’s becoming the offense du jour?

Now admittedly, I’m being somewhat provocative with my post header here – when you’ve got a QB like Tebow who was born to run the spread option, you’d be crazy not to deploy it – but as the spread, er, uh… spreads, it gets easier to defend as defensive coordinators refine concepts and personnel to go after it.

And that may already be happening.  Florida, which led the conference last season in scoring at a 42.5 ppg clip, saw its offense held to 17, 24 and 23 (remember, one score against Georgia came on a pick six) points in its three conference losses to the three schools that finished one-two-three in scoring defense in the SEC.

So how will a more finessed approach to moving the ball hold up in the SEC?  I’m particularly interested in seeing what happens at Auburn in the next couple of years.  Tony Franklin is essentially importing Mumme-ball to the Plains, with a few wrinkles added (utilizing a running QB being the most signficant).  This year, he’s got a throwing quarterback with a bad shoulder and a running quarterback who isn’t a consistent passing threat.  Will Auburn move the ball more on offense than it did last year?  And if it does, will that translate into more wins?


Filed under SEC Football, Strategery And Mechanics, The Blogosphere

7 responses to “When will the spread option jump the shark?

  1. dean

    “… Urban Meyer has helped transform the SEC from a conference that used to run neanderthal, run-head-first-into-a-brick-wall offenses to one that is not afraid to spread the field and air it out.”
    Wasn’t the same thing said of Spurrier in the ’90’s?

    If Auburn is imploring Mumme-ball with Tony Franklin then Tubbs might as well release the punter from his scholarship ‘cuz Mumme-ball doesn’t include punting.


  2. Sam

    Great subject material in this article as “the spread” is impacting several major college programs, and is growing in the HS ranks that feed the colleges. Gimmicky, or true innovative change? While it is still too early to judge, the early evidence is it will modify playbooks for many years to come, but unlikely to become the dominent offense in CFB. Success is dependent on specialized talent being available, and that is hard to find yearin and year out.

    WVU is the best example of how effective the spread can be, but how many White/Slaton combos are there? You are right about Tebow’s talent, but he doesn’t have a Slaton-type RB to make him totally effective and deflect the pressure away from himself. Like the Oregon QB last season, if he goes down your offense is severely handicapped with little chance of adjusting. Additionally, the zone blocking scheme requires different OL talent from those needed to support a pro-style attack. Can you recruit your OL based on running the spread, then switch them over should a Peyton Manning/Matthew Stafford style QB choose your school?

    You need to be two dimensional to be successful against today’s top defenses and once you go the way of the spread/wishbone/veer, you may run athletes (QBs, WRs, RBs, and some OL) who wish to play in the NFL to other schools who will better utilize their talents and showcase them for pro scouts to see. Committing to the spread may show immediate success, but have long-term consequences if the “experiment” fails, or you change coaches. See Nebraska as an example of how painful this conversion can be.

    I love to watch the spread offense in CFB and feel there are 4-5 plays from in that needs to be in every playbook, but I would be reluctant to get too far down that road until more information is available. While Oregon and WVU struck fear in teams when they were clicking, they folded dramatically when the two QBs were injured and could not even beat below average teams like Pitt and Arizona when they had just one piece missing. I don’t think I want to become that dependent. As you noted, Florida has not been scary good even with the exceptionally talented Tebow there.

    One last comment, did the Heisman Pundit miss the 1990s in the SEC? The offensive revolution occured when Spurrier arrived at Florida and when Meyer came in the SEC hardly looked like neanderthals. (In case anyone hasn’t noticed, Meyer’s record at UF is VERY similar to Zook’s at the same point in time….and they ran Zook off.) Perhaps Rodriquez and Zook will awaken the Big 11 in the same way SOS did the SEC if the spread truly is the real deal.


  3. I think Hesiman Pundit is too young to have watched Spurrier’s Gators in the 90’s. How else could he have missed the “transformation?” Nobody made you defend the entire football field like the Wuerffel-led Gator offense.

    IMHO, the Urban offense does not seem to be as hard to defend.


  4. Good post. I’ve long said that merely being “Spread” is not enough ( i.e. http://smartfootball.blogspot.com/2006/01/has-spread-offense-reached-its-apex.html ) especially since, the very definition of being “spread” is you isolate guys one-on-one. This worked when it was your receiver vs. their linebacker or a backup DB who did not play in 10 other games, but not so much when everyone else is spread. Then we’re back to who has talent. The one thing about the spread – which is a strength and a weakness – is it is far less principled. Indeed, I actually think the “spread option” teams serious about running the ball cannot rely only on the old inside-zone with a QB pitch component, and must approach actual triple-option blocking and reads. (There are structural reasons for this too extensive for these comments.)

    The upshot is that I don’t think Meyer is succeeding at Florida because he runs the spread – he hasn’t really lit it up in a way beyond what you’d expect for a team with Florida’s talent – but he has proven that it “works” in the sense that you can still win close games with it and be a well-coached team. And he’s also diminished the effect for these other teams of being spread. So maybe the flexbone is the new thing for big schools. Time will tell.


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  6. shane

    I think White is the key to the success of WVa. His speed and ability to elude pressure make Their spread work. Conversely, QBs that lack footspeed and agility are sitting ducks for a defense with quick DEs and tackles that can clog the middle. Tebow is a good, strong runner, but lacks true outside speed. UGA’s DTs and LBS shut down the middle last year. So with no real running game to worry about and no TEs or FBs to deal with Their DEs could just pin Their ears back and fire off at Tebow. Sore shoulder or not, Tebow had nowhere to run. White’s true outside speed, and his ability to make a tackler miss make UWVa a different case entirely. A defense that plays too aggressively against Them risks giving up some big plays. I agree with the earlier posts, Meyer didn’t open up the hide-bound SEC,it was the OBC! I look for the same thing to happen in the conservative Big 11.


  7. Michael

    The key to the spread option offense is that you use the whole field to your advantage. This creates mismatches in personnel. Motion creates confusion for the defense and helps you find that mismatch.

    By creating space, the offense is able to open up some wide running lanes. You can run the option, use misdirection and quick passes. This scheme forces you to make plays in space thus defenses cannot get overly aggressive.

    On defense, you have to defend the dive back, watch for the draw and the quarterback accelerating off the dive. This puts a lot of pressure on a defense.

    One of the more popular alignments is the Gun zone option. This set features three or four wide receivers with a running back next to the quarterback and the fastest receiver parked in the slot. The slot receiver goes in motion but ends up in the backfield as the second RB to the right of the quarterback.

    What the gun-zone option tries to accomplish is to see how the backside defensive end and the outside linebacker adjust to the shift. The quarterback will base his decisions on what these two players do. For example, he snaps the ball and prepares to hand it off to the running back with one eye on the defensive end. If the DE chases the running back down the line of scrimmage, the QB keeps the ball and turns his attention to the OLB with the slot receiver now his option. If the LB commits to the QB, he pitches, if not, he keeps it.

    The greatest strength of the offense is creating mismatches. You are trying to get players in position to make plays based on a one-on-one mismatches in athleticism.