Alabama's offensive formation looked all wrong, like a scoop of
chocolate ice cream on apple pie, before a crucial
fourth-quarter snap against Florida last Saturday. Five wide
receivers? An empty backfield behind quarterback Andrew Zow?
Could this be the same program that was built on a bedrock of
testosterone by Bear Bryant and carried on with only occasional
variation since the Bear's retirement and death almost 16 years
ago? It is. Zow threw a 14-yard touchdown pass to Antonio Carter
in the back of the end zone. It was a key play in the Crimson
Tide's 40-39 overtime victory, which ended Florida's 30-game
home field winning streak and put Alabama alone atop the SEC West.
Almost a thousand miles to the north, another Neanderthal,
Michigan, continued to shuck its roots by using four-wideout
formations in a 38-12 spanking of Purdue, which lives by that
look. In the first quarter the Wolverines scored on an 18-yard
pass from Tom Brady to David Terrell while in the four-wideout
In the last autumn of the century, evolution has taken Bronko
Nagurski's game and turned it into something closer to Ultimate
Frisbee. The latest turn in college football's strategy wheel
has made a rage of the spread offense, a series of formations
employing three, four or five wide receivers while leaving one
or sometimes no back behind the quarterback. The spread is a
creative answer to the eight-man defensive fronts that took over
the game in the mid-1990s (SI, Oct. 28, 1996) and a quick fix
for struggling programs unable to attract lots of talent.
"Everywhere you look, you see wide-open styles," says Syracuse
offensive coordinator George DeLeone.
Last Saturday the spread ruled. Both Alabama and Michigan rode
their newly embraced formations to big victories. The Tide
outpassed Florida 336 yards to 307, and Michigan almost did the
same to Purdue (318 to the Boilermakers' 328). Florida State,
which has been running a variation of the spread called the fast
break since Charlie Ward was at the throttle in 1992, pounded
Duke 51-23 to remain No. 1. Kentucky, which has been using the
spread since coach Hal Mumme came in from Valdosta (Ga.) State
four years ago, drilled Arkansas as Tim Couch's replacement at
quarterback for the Wildcats, Dusty Bonner, threw four touchdown
passes. Marshall and its quarterback, Chad Pennington, employed
the spread to assume control of the Mid-American Conference with
a 32-14 win over Miami of Ohio (page 112).
October 10, 1999
Even some teams that lost in big games last Saturday wouldn't
have been involved in such heady competition had it not been for
the spread. Purdue and quarterback Drew Brees brought the
nation's longest winning streak, 10 games, to Ann Arbor. Oregon
State and its coach, spread pioneer Dennis Erickson, were a
surprise 3-0 before losing a 37-29 shootout to Southern Cal.
Oklahoma, once home to Barry Switzer's brushfire wishbone, was
3-0 and leading the nation in passing--"You never thought you'd
see that, did you?" cracked Brigham Young's pass-happy coach,
LaVell Edwards--before losing 34-30 at Notre Dame. Without the
spread, the Boilermakers, Beavers and Sooners wouldn't be on the
radar screen. "I believe this is where offense is headed," says
Alabama quarterbacks coach Charlie Stubbs. Correction: Offense
is already there.
Nothing is new in football, including the spread, which was
introduced in the college game in the mid-1970s, when Jack Elway
was coach at Cal State-Northridge. Elway copied the offense that
his son, John, was running at Granada Hills (Calif.) High under
coach Jack Neumeier, who's the godfather of the formation. His
team lacked speed and size, so Neumeier concocted a package that
exploited the arm and decision-making skills of his toothy
quarterback. "We used four wide receivers and called everything
at the line of scrimmage," says Neumeier.
The elder Elway took the spread to San Jose State, where
Erickson was his offensive coordinator. Erickson took it to
Idaho, Wyoming, Washington State and Miami. Elway also taught
the system to Mike Price, now the coach at Washington State.
That was the ground floor: Elway, Erickson and Price. For many
years, despite Erickson's two national titles at Miami, those
three coaches were the sole practitioners of the spread. Price
used to run what he called "a one-back camp" in Pullman, and it
was a cozy gathering of fewer than 10 coaches. His last one, in
1998, pulled in coaches representing 30 staffs. Last spring's
camp was held at Auburn, where coach Tommy Tuberville uses the
Through the 1980s and early '90s, successful college programs
were ground-oriented. Even as the wishbone and veer went out of
favor, the I formation remained. In the mid-'90s, however,
defenses underwent a sea change with the rise of the press, an
attacking variation on Buddy Ryan's 46 defense, which had
carried the Chicago Bears to a Super Bowl title in '86. Extreme
versions of the press stuffed at least eight defenders in the
box (an imaginary rectangle close to the line of scrimmage) to
take away the run. Any team with two good cornerbacks capable of
locking up in man-to-man coverage could shut down an opponent's
ground game without fear of getting burned deep. Ohio State's
defense in '96 ran the wildest press of the era, often sending
nine men (including spry freshman linebacker Andy Katzenmoyer)
to the line of scrimmage while relying on rotating cornerbacks
Ty Howard, Shawn Springs and Antoine Winfield to cover receivers
until the big guys could get to the opponent's quarterback.
Florida won a national title when defensive coordinator Bob
Stoops installed the press he had been using at Kansas State.
Offenses had few answers.
The spread is one. Because it puts at least four wide receivers
(or three wideouts and a tight end) into a formation, defenses
must decide whether to cover each receiver man-to-man (leaving
only seven men in the box), drop into a zone (bailing out of the
press altogether) or stick with the press and count on drilling
the quarterback before he can deliver the ball to an uncovered
receiver. In any of these options the defense reacts to the
offense. "It absolutely spreads out a defense, to the point
where it has to match your personnel," says Alabama-Birmingham
coach Watson Brown. "You run it against a big old defense like
Ohio State's, and you force it to change. You're dictating to
Run properly, the spread not only assaults with passes but also
creates wide alleys for running backs. Erickson's best Miami
teams were terrific on the ground. Florida State's Warrick Dunn
ran himself into the NFL out of the Seminoles' fast break.
Alabama went to the spread in part to create more space for
running back Shaun Alexander, who rushed for 106 yards against
Florida on Saturday and could become a Heisman candidate because
Aggressive defenses hate the spread. Michigan's savvy veteran
unit spent a long week preparing for Purdue after facing
run-oriented opponents Notre Dame, Rice, Syracuse and Wisconsin.
The Boilermakers, who would throw 52 passes in Ann Arbor,
presented a different set of challenges to the Wolverines. "You
take a lot fewer chances against an offense like that," Michigan
nosetackle Rob Renes said after beating Purdue. "You have to make
sure you're in the right place, doing your job, on every single
play. And you've got to realize that they're going to make some
The Wolverines countered the Boilermakers' multiple-wideout
attack by using Terrell, the wide receiver, at defensive back.
That allowed starting corners Todd Howard and James Whitley to
cover Purdue's slot receivers, reducing the type of killer
mismatch--such as a strong safety or a linebacker on a
wideout--that drives the spread. Still, the Boilermakers were
behind only 21-12 in the third quarter. "I'd rather bang with
Wisconsin 11 weeks a year than go through this," said Renes.
The spread is more than simply a reaction to the hot defense of
the 1990s. It's also a shortcut for programs seeking instant
credibility. Mumme and Couch took long-moribund Kentucky to a
bowl game last year. At Louisville, former Utah State coach John
L. Smith, who had coached under Erickson at Idaho, installed the
spread when he arrived at the start of the 1998 season, and the
Cardinals went on to lead the nation in total offense, with
559.6 yards per game. No stories, though, are more arresting
than those of Purdue and Oklahoma, where coaches have used the
spread not only to beat the press and hit the ground running but
also to sucker-punch conferences that had long believed that a
wide-open passing attack couldn't fly in the bad weather of the
Boilermakers coach Joe Tiller learned the spread at Wyoming,
where in his last year, 1996, the Cowboys ranked first in the
country in passing. "The [spread] gave us a chance to be
competitive right away because people in the Big Ten hadn't seen
it," he says. "It's also a great equalizer because you don't
need great personnel at every position." For example, linemen
must be nimble but not huge and powerful, and the tight end
needs to catch only short passes.
The quarterback, however, must be superb. "If you don't have a
good quarterback, the spread doesn't help a lot," says UNLV
coach John Robinson. Purdue has Brees, who threw for 39
touchdowns a year ago. He was only 20 for 49 against Michigan,
but his receivers dropped at least 11 passes.
After Stoops took the Oklahoma job last December, he hired Mike
Leach, who had worked under Mumme at Kentucky, as his offensive
coordinator. "We had a very hard time with Kentucky when I was
at Florida," says Stoops. "Kentucky had decent
talent--especially at quarterback, of course--but we had more
talent than they did, yet they still made plays. I also liked
the fact that the spread would make us different in the Big 12."
To run his offense, Stoops recruited junior college quarterback
Josh Heupel. On defense, Stoops still presses.
Michigan has taken slowly to the spread. The Wolverines used it
in small doses two years ago, usually when Heisman
Trophy-winning cornerback Charles Woodson was in the game on
offense. Last year they added a few more snaps, and this year
they're deploying the spread as many as 20 times a game. "We're
using it occasionally on first down because defenses are
expecting us to line up and run it at them," says Michigan coach
Lloyd Carr. "It makes us less predictable."
The spread has more bonuses than Ricky Williams's contract. Like
fast-break basketball, it attracts recruits who dislike your
father's brand of football. "Look, this is a fun offense to
play, especially for a quarterback but also for anybody who
likes to score and play a little more wide open," says Brady,
the Michigan signal-caller. The spread keeps teams--and fans--in
games that might otherwise be considered lost. On Sept. 25 in a
duel of spread offenses Oklahoma trailed Louisville 21-14 in the
third quarter, yet won 42-21. "Some teams didn't feel they could
score enough points to play catch-up," says Smith, the
Louisville coach. "By throwing it you have a chance. It's not
like you get down 14 points and you're out of a game."
The downside? Empty backfields, spread sets and timing patterns
can expose a quarterback to heavy hits, many of them after he
has released the ball. Danny Wuerffel, who led Florida to the
national championship and won the Heisman Trophy in 1996, was
pounded by teams such as Florida State and Nebraska because he
was immobile and Florida runs deeper patterns than many spread
teams. Gators coach Steve Spurrier simply accepted that a
quarterback in his offense must stand in and be tough. Shaun
King, who ran a spread for Tulane last year and now plays for
the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and Brees are both quick-footed and
seldom get sacked.
More and more nonbelievers are being converted to the spread--at
least until opposing defenses adjust again. Alabama was late to
make the change. Just two days before a Sept. 25 win over
Arkansas (and less than a week after an embarrassing loss to
Louisiana Tech and its spread), Tide coach Mike DuBose freed
Stubbs to amp his offense after Stubbs had begged for months to
take advantage of the talents of Alexander, Zow and wideout
Freddie Milons. "Let's open it up," DuBose said. "Call it any
way you want it. Spread 'em out."
In other words, join the club.
"I'd rather bang with Wisconsin 11 weeks a year than go through
this," said Renes of facing Purdue's spread.
"I believe this is where offense is headed," says Stubbs.