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.
- 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?
- 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.
- 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.