As defenses home in on spread, offenses still one step ahead

Publish date:

Through history, offensive trends have largely been cyclical, with a new craze eventually supplanting the last. Usually, though, change occurs because defenses catch up. So far, that hasn't come close to happening with the spread, as all those video-game performances in the Big 12 last year showed.

But when, for the second time in three weeks, I took to Twitter to solicit more Mailbag questions, an interesting one emerged.

Will teams "overreact" to defending the spread and be exposed badly against the run and power elements in the next few years?-- @Derekjhernandez

That could absolutely happen. Across the sport, we haven't seen a whole lot of massive schematic movements by defensive coordinators to counter the spread. The same basic philosophy applies whether you're facing Florida, Oklahoma, Texas Tech or Oregon: You have to get to the quarterback. Give Tim Tebow or Sam Bradford time to operate and they'll pick you apart; you have to get pressure, and then you have to contain their speedy little running backs if they dump it off. To that end, defensive coaches are placing more and more emphasis on speed, from their line to their safeties.

It would stand to reason that as defensive personnel grow increasingly more nimble, they'll become susceptible to more traditional offenses that can run it up the gut. However, as of now, there are only a handful of programs fit to run that type of offense. There's a reason teams like USC, LSU, Georgia and Ohio State continue to be successful with traditional offenses: They have the best players. To run a productive, I-formation offense, a team needs big, bulky linemen, a true tight end, a couple of power runners and, preferably, a 6-foot-5 drop-back quarterback -- all of which are becoming increasingly scarce at the high-school level.

That's why the move toward the spread has been far more beneficial for mid-level teams looking to gain an "edge" against opponents with similar or greater talent. With the spread, a team just needs a few 5-8 burners who can get free in space and a QB who can get the ball to them. But now, we've reached the point where a team like Missouri -- which achieved great success with the spread the past few years -- plays nearly all its games against fellow spread teams. What, then, can a mid-level team do now to gain back that "edge?" Why not go back to a power offense?

It only takes one to break the cycle. We saw that last year when Paul Johnson installed his version of the old triple-option at Georgia Tech. The Jackets weren't overly talented, but they ran over several foes mostly because the defenses weren't accustomed to seeing that system. As a result, I fully expect to see some other teams follow Johnson's lead in the near future. And I fully expect someone in one of the more wide-open leagues to achieve similar results by switching back to power football -- or better yet, mixing power football in with the spread.

Keep an eye on Bobby Petrino at Arkansas. I always admired his offenses at Louisville because of the way he managed to incorporate such disparate styles. One minute Brian Brohm would be throwing to four receivers; the next, Michael Bush would be gashing it behind a fullback. Heading into this second year in Fayetteville, Petrino has his strong-armed QB (6-7 Michigan transfer Ryan Mallett), his elusive scatback (5-7, 165-pound Michael Smith, a 1,000-yard rusher last season) and a nice stable of receivers. Look for the Razorbacks to cause problems for SEC defensive coordinators this year.

Re: All-Time Coaching Legends. Tom Osborne is off your list of all time coaching legends because his personality is bland? Anyone with half a mind would take a "bland" Tom Osborne over a Woody Hayes or Paterno any day of the week, and twice on Saturday. The numbers (Osborne's .836 winning percentage compared with Woody's .761 and Paterno's .747) don't lie.

And unless you're trying to be an aspiring shock-jock twit, Osborne's philanthropic endeavors off the field sure help establish him as a quality person. And if being a good person on and off the field is "bland," then our society is certainly a dismal failure in the grand scope of humanity's history.-- Matt, Plano, Texas

Yowzers. Osborne's exclusion -- in particular the "bland" remark -- drew far more angry e-mails than that of any other coach, though Matt was the only Husker fan to view Dr. Tom's snub as a referendum on humanity. However, as I stated right at the top, it was not an attempt to rank the "best" or "greatest" on-field coaches. The topic was coaching "legends," and the coaches who achieve that rare, iconic status are usually the ones who bring a little bit more to the table. Like it or not, oftentimes it's the "villains" who capture our imagination. Woody Hayes won games and possessed an unforgettable personality, even if that personality included a bad temper that led him to punch a player.

Interestingly, it seems some Nebraska fans viewed Osborne's exclusion as doubly insulting, not only because they believe he belongs on any top five list, but also because of Hayes' presence there instead. No fan base in the country places more emphasis on character and integrity, so for Nebraskans, it's unfathomable some could view Osborne's personality as a negative. (In Hayes' defense, he was a pretty upstanding citizen himself, constantly hounding his players about academics and their postgraduate ambitions and donating his time to myriad charitable causes.) However, as other readers pointed out, one could argue Osborne was not even the most iconic Big 8 coach of his era. That would be the even-more villainous Barry Switzer.

Beyond that, there was actually far less griping about the list than I expected. Mostly, fans just wanted recognition -- even if just a "mention" -- of their schools' own respective legends, namely (in no particular order) Darrell Royal, Gen. Robert Neyland, John McKay, Frank Leahy, Fielding Yost, Bobby Dodd, Frank Cush, LaVell Edwards and Larry Keheres.

Do you think some of today's younger coaches -- namely Pete Carroll, Urban Meyer and Jim Tressel -- have the potential to one day wind up on your list?-- Matt, Boston

Today's coaches will have a hard time achieving "legendary" status because few stay at the same place for as extended a period as coaches of the past. Meyer may "not be going to Notre Dame, ever," but I still can't envision him being the head coach at Florida for 20 years. And while he may not admit it, Carroll's ego will eventually lead him back to the NFL. I'd put better odds on Tressel and Bob Stoops, both of whom seem happily entrenched where they are. Even so, each will need to add at least one more national title to be mentioned in the same breath as my top five.

Howdy, Stewart. Imagine you were a college football fan who wanted to go out and experience a few varied college settings this fall. You arrive Thursday night and leave Monday morning. Quality football and stadium experiences are important but not deciding factors. The most important criteria are food selection, nightlife and stuff to do in the area on Friday and Sunday. What three schools would you recommend visiting?--Michael, Cincinnati

That's a great question, Michael -- especially since Cincinnati sure as heck isn't one of them.

1. LSU. For those of us from other parts of the country, a trip to the Bayou is a culinary treat. Gorge yourself on crawfish, jambalaya and shrimp creole, both at the restaurants and at the nation's best tailgating scene. For sightseeing, visit Mike the Tiger's habitat, spend some time at LSU Lake or perhaps take a day trip to New Orleans, just more than an hour away.

2. Texas. Austin is the rare place that doubles as both a world-class city and a college town. Enjoy any number of delectable barbeque joints, take in some live music on Sixth Street and visit the state capitol building and (in)famous UT Tower.

3. Northwestern. Don't laugh. There's a reason opposing Big Ten fans make this trip every other year. You get to spend a glorious weekend in Chicago -- my favorite American city not named New York -- with a quick train ride up to Evanston for the game. Just be sure to do it before the cold weather sets in. (That means September.)

I saw an article last week that had West Virginia predicted to finish fifth in the Big East this year. I know they lost Pat White, but they also have a lot coming back, and some great recruits. Is fifth place really realistic for my Mountaineers?-- Paul, Louisville

First of all, the Big East is so small, and so tightly bunched, the difference between being picked second and fifth isn't as significant as in other conferences. For instance, last season Cincinnati won the league at 6-1, while the next three teams (Pittsburgh, West Virginia and Rutgers) all finished 5-2. So it's not inconceivable the Mountaineers could finish fifth and still be right in the mix for the title until the end.

That said, most reasonable observers would expect West Virginia to take a step back this fall. There's simply no replacing a leader as uniquely talented as White. The good news is his replacement, Jarrett Brown, has seen significant playing time the past few years and certainly seems capable of running the offense. But he's still not White, and remember, this team managed to lose four games last year even with White.

It's going to be a big year for nice-guy coach Bill Stewart. He drew a load of criticism early last season when the Mountaineers dropped consecutive games to East Carolina and Colorado, but inspired some confidence with a comeback bowl win over North Carolina. Still, there remain plenty of doubters out there -- myself included -- curious to see how he fares post-Pat.

Stewart: You say the readers are 50-50 on dropping the Crush? I say the half that wants to see it dropped should be forced to watch the entire upcoming season on an old 12-inch black and white television.-- Ray, Alpharetta, Ga.

That's quite a punishment, though I would argue it'd be worse for the pro-Crush contingent. Can you imagine being deprived of seeing the color radiate from this young lady's eyes?

The Mailbag Crush is terrible. I hate it, and all my friends hate it.-- Blake Hale, Lake Charles, La.

Well just how many friends do you have, Blake? Are we talking five or 500?

Keep the Crush. Screw the ones who don't like it. They can skip over it in the Mailbag, just like I do when Mailbag questions turn to Big East football.-- David D, Athens, Ga.

Still bitter over that West Virginia Sugar Bowl? C'mon David, it was nearly four years ago.

Why do you think Phillip Fulmer hasn't landed a coaching gig in either the college or NFL ranks? As of the beginning of last season he had the highest winning percentage of any coach with at least 10 years' experience, yet it appears very little interest is out there regarding his coaching future.-- Byron Lee, Hot Springs, Ark.

It's not unusual for a fired coach to be stuck in limbo for a year, especially if he's set on remaining a head coach. Remember, Pete Carroll was out of coaching for a year before USC took a chance on him. Butch Davis spent two years in TV before returning at UNC. So it's entirely possible Fulmer will be back on a sideline next fall -- but I'm guessing his stock won't be nearly as high as his winning percentage.

For one thing, there was a clear decline over his tenure at Tennessee. From 1992-2001, the Vols were flat-out dominant, going 95-20 (.826), but over his last seven seasons, Fulmer's record dropped to 57-32 (.640), including two losing seasons. And, getting back to the coaching-legend discussion, Fulmer isn't exactly the most charismatic guy in the biz. He's not the kind of showman who is going to come in and create buzz and excitement at a previously stagnant program.

My guess is he'll most likely wind up as an NFL assistant or college coordinator. If he's dead-set on being a college head coach again, he may have to go the Larry Coker (UT-San Antonio) or Terry Bowden (North Alabama) route. Incidentally, there's another fairly high-profile coach roaming in no man's land this autumn, but in Tommy Tuberville's case, I have little doubt he'll land himself a prominent head-coaching gig come winter. Perhaps at ...

Hey Stewart, when will the "U" finally get back to its dominance, and why do the 'Canes never get any recognition for their past? They have won five national championships since the '80s (after almost losing their football program altogether) which is as many as FSU and UF combined yet never get mentioned as an elite program. What gives???-- Bailey Joyner, Orange Park, Fla.

So much of the Miami mentality is built around "us versus them" that I'm not sure most 'Canes fans even want the recognition. They'd rather complain about the slights. That said, the "U" still gets plenty of acclaim for its past accomplishments. Any fan above the age of 10 knows well how many NFL greats the school has produced. As for the comparison with the other Florida schools, just last year the Tampa Tribune asked a panel of 20 journalists to rank the state's nine national-championship teams (this was prior to Florida's most recent title, which made it 10), and the top two choices were Miami's 2001 and 1987 teams.

That said, the reason few mention the "U" as an elite program right now is it spent the past three seasons playing in the Humanitarian and Emerald bowls and going 5-7. And the two main things keeping it from returning to the top are the same lingering deficiencies of the past five years: the lack of a reliable quarterback and elite playmakers. Miami has recruited very well the past couple of years, and perhaps those players will finally emerge this season. (QB Jacory Harris, for one, has the job to himself now that Robert Marve has transferred.)

Then there's the question of whether Randy Shannon is the right coach to bring it all together. He's been a somewhat polarizing figure to date, though there's also been an understanding that he needed time to rebuild. He made a great hire in landing offensive coordinator Mark Whipple, the innovative former UMass head coach and NFL assistant. Now it's time to see some real improvement. Unfortunately, Miami's first four games (at Florida State, Georgia Tech, at Virginia Tech, Oklahoma) do it no favors.

Hopefully Shannon gets things turned around, but if he does happen to go 7-6 again ... a certain ex-Miami assistant/10-year Auburn head coach is available for hire.

Why not tie your addiction to Lost and the Mailbag Crush into one item and make Evangeline Lilly this year's Crush?-- Adam Seyer, Austin, Texas

Believe me, I'd love any excuse to keep talking Lost -- like directing you to this recent interview with "The Man in Black" -- but unfortunately, Kate is the most boring character on the show. Of all the great mysteries that will presumably be resolved in the final season, I would love to find out why, after killing off eight gazillion other characters, the producers continued to beat us over the head with a mostly uninteresting love triangle involving a manipulative, mildly attractive leading lady.

I don't care which way you go with the Mailbag Crush, but I do have an opinion. Don't have a Crush just to have a Crush. If there is no one worthy, then skip it for a year. I think that would actually add a certain prestige to being the Crush.-- Jay Jerrell, Fort Worth, Texas

That's really what this all boils down to, people. I've yet to come across any celebrity this year who truly makes my heart go aflutter. I'm not necessarily saying we have to wait until next year, but let's not rush it. Much like a coach trying to pick a starting quarterback, when the right one comes along -- we'll know.