Stats wonk and college football historian Bill Connelly of ESPN recently dropped a two-part series of articles over at the Worldwide Leader tracing the rise of the spread offense, a trend in which the Oklahoma Sooners have obviously played a major role. After longtime holdout LSU adopted a wide-open attack in 2019 that fueled the Tigers’ run to a national title, Connelly concludes it represented the culmination of the spread’s takeover after decades in the making.
Even Connelly would probably admit that he’s behind the times on declaring that the spread has finally conquered the football world. The spread evolved into college football’s default offense years ago. In fact, its ubiquity has rendered the “spread” designation meaningless. To get a better idea of what teams plan to do offensively, you have to know which flavor of spread they favor. Is it more Mike Leach? Art Briles? Rich Rodriguez? Joe Brady?
Nevertheless, the Bayou Bengals’ success last year did feel like watching a final domino fall in the spread’s, um, spread. Let’s think about what this means up and down college football’s food chain.
The advantages of being a “spread team” have disappeared.
The spread really started to take root as a way for outmatched teams to overcome physical disadvantages in the trenches. The scarcest prospects in football are elite defensive linemen, specifically defensive tackles, and they tend to congregate at powerhouses.
Playing stacked teams on their terms with traditional personnel groupings and formations didn’t make sense for middle- and lower-tier programs. Spacing out players, leveraging advantageous one-on-one matchups and moving the action outside the tackle box helped level the playing field, metaphorically speaking.
Those days are over. The upper crust is now playing the same game as spread teams. The knock-on effects beyond offensive style are significant.
Instead of building their programs around the idea that they will see a “pro-style” offense every week, the Alabamas and Ohio States are organizing as though the spread is the norm. They are recruiting spread personnel and scheming to both run their own offense and to stop it. Consequently, a Texas Tech or a Northwestern no longer benefit from playing style the elites eschew.
Bob Stoops actually set the tone for the fight-fire-with-fire approach back in 2008 when he turned offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson loose. Rather than trying to hold off high-powered offenses in the Big 12 like Texas Tech, the Sooners decided to build the best of the bunch.
Yet... it also seems like coaching malpractice to not run some version of the spread.
Everything about the football landscape is pushing college coaches toward the spread. It’s proliferating at the high school level, and 7-on-7 passing leagues are booming in the offseason. Prep quarterbacks are training year-round with passing gurus. Rules have tilted dramatically in favor of offenses. As such, the “blocking and tackling” of football are now spread skills and concepts.
Equally importantly on the college level: The rules are undeniably hospitable towards RPOs. Offensive linemen have a three-yard cushion from the line of scrimmage before they’re considered downfield, which enables offenses to put defenders into brutal conflicts playing the run or pass. Aside from the rule itself being generous, it’s difficult for officials to monitor. Why wouldn’t a coach want to take advantage of that?
Unfortunately for early adopters of RPOs, such as Kansas State under Bill Snyder, they attracted imitators. Simply having them in your arsenal no longer confers an edge to an outgunned squad. They are staples of today’s offenses.
In other words, RPOs are no longer innovative, but they will likely be part of coming innovations.
What does this mean for OU?
The Sooners brought the spread to the Big 12 two decades ago, and they’ve continued to push the envelope ever since then. With Lincoln Riley at the helm, they’re showing no signs of slowing down.
The operative question for Riley now: How will the conference’s upstarts look to flip the script on the Sooners?
There’s always the triple option - ask OU’s defenders how they liked dealing with that two years ago when Army came to Norman. But the most likely program to go that route, Kansas, appears intent on sticking with the spread under coach Les Miles and his up-and-coming offensive coordinator, Brent Dearmon.
More likely, teams on the lower rungs will look to revert back to manball-ish styles of play. A consensus is forming around the idea that the best path to defending the spread is flooding the field with hybrid defenders along the lines of the 3-3-3 scheme dreamed up by Iowa State defensive coordinator Jim Heacock. The trade-off: taking some size off the field.
That may create openings for underdogs to push around opponents using heavier personnel and downhill rushing attacks. At the very least, opposing defenses may be forced to abandon their base schemes and lineups to handle sets with two and three tight ends. For example, consider what Kansas State is doing now under Chris Klieman and how that played out versus OU in 2019.
Throwback styles won’t generate eye-popping statistics and impressive headlines. For overmatched teams that can’t afford to play sexy and hope to win, though, they may still be the way forward. For the Sooners, that means having a defensive package ready to go for the bruisers.