The most important strategic decision a head coach makes, whether new to a team, or established, is which offense to run. His choice of offense determines what kind of personnel he needs, how practices should be organized, and how he should scheme for different opponents. All decisions come after this decision.
There are times in D-1A history where a coach can win with one of several offenses, given the talent and coaching ability. Think of the mid-80s, when OU won with the Wishbone, Miami won with a pro-set "I", and
Nebraska won with it’s Option "I". Some of these offenses relied more on superior talent to work, others required superior coaching and game planning, but there was always an offense that was uniquely suited to a team’s strengths and weaknesses.
This is not one of those times. The Spread is the dominant offense in D-1A, so dominant that a coach better have a pretty good reason to not run it. For the 3rd year in a row, a Spread team has won the MNC, joining pass-based Spread MNCs TCU (1935, 1938) and OU (2000). The very talented and well-coached OSU Buckeyes have lost only 5 games the past 3 years (2005- UT and PSU, 2006- Fla, 2007- Illinois and LSU), and each loss was to a team that ran a run-based Spread offense. UT, Fla, and LSU were extremely talented teams, but tOSU had better players than PSU and
Illinois. Spread teams score more often and more consistently than other formations right now.
What exactly is the Spread? I’ll let one of its creators define it-
"The Spread offense creates spaces in the defense which, if they can be kept open, will allow good gains on run plays. It is no longer necessary to make holes. It is only necessary to keep holes open."
"Spread Formation Football"
They didn't always used to just produce running backs...
Did you think the Spread was invented recently? No, Meyer won MNCs with it in the ‘30s, run by his Single Wing tailbacks Sammy Baugh and Davey O’Brien (check out O’Brien’s ’38 Heisman winning season sometime. In an era that didn’t pass much or well, he threw up stats that most of the QBs in the Big 12 would love to have). The wide open Single Wing popular in the ‘30s (Note- not every Single Wing was a Spread formation) was replaced by the "T" (which evolved to the "I" and its NFL variations) because the "T" had fewer turnovers, with its simpler handoffs and pre-determined holes. The lessons learned from the modern option offenses’ running plays, and the West Coast Offense pass routes and reads have been incorporated into Spread formations and effectively turbo-charged them. The modern Spread has all of the big play capability of the old Single Wing Spreads, with no greater risk of turning the ball over than in the "I".
A way to tell the difference between the Spread and the "I" is that the "I" formation plays try to put blockers on tacklers by design and execution. It puts Xes on the Os. The Spread doesn’t worry about putting Xes on Os; it tries to use formation to create spaces between the Xes and Os and attacks those spaces. Some Spreads are pass-based; others are run-based.
How do you designate a Spread team, given that a lot of Spread teams still run some "I" formation, and "I" formation teams occasionally spread the field? A big clue is where the QB receives the snap. The "I" formation has an important reason for him to be under center- so the handoff can be sure, and the back can read the blocks before taking the ball. Many of the "I" formation pass plays depend on play-action, and the under-center snap helps sell it. In Spread offenses, there is less of a reason for the QB to be under center, if he’s trying to get the ball into an open space as quickly as possible. I know that a lot of "I" formation passing can come from the shotgun, so I’ll give you another clue. If a team is in a short yardage situation, say 3rd and 2, and the QB is 5 yards behind the center receiving the snap, with no more than one back with him and both Ends split wide, and then runs or throws from there, you’re probably watching a Spread team.
I think if you proposed to Jim Tressell or Pete Carroll that the Spread was a fundamentally superior offense, they would look at you patronizingly and gently explain that the pro-set "I" was a very proven offense that has won a lot of games, it is the offense of the NFL, and that it can do the same things the Spread can do. Unfortunately for their argument, Charlie Weis would say the same things, and until last December, so would Lloyd Carr.
The Pac-10 is the last bastion of the Pro-set. USC has had a ton of success with the Pro-set. The nation seems to forget that USC was not the only Pac-10 team in MNC contention last year. Spread team Oregon rose to #2 in the nation, and was in the process of whipping Mike Stoops’
Arizona team to consolidate that position, when QB Dennis Dixon went down. With no backup ready to run the offense, Oregon finished the year the way
Texas would have finished 2005 if Matt Nordgren had to take over in the Baylor game. Let’s see how Oregon does in 2008, with
Dixon and a bunch of other seniors gone. My guess is that they’ll do better than expected, and contend again.
As I wrote in the beginning, the most important strategic decision a team makes is which offense to run.
Michigan has just decided to go with the Spread, by hiring Rich Rodriguez. UCLA, TAMU, and
Arkansas have seemingly decided to go with the pro-set, judging by their recent hires, unless Neuheisel, Sherman and Petrino decide to get away from the offenses that they made their bones with. My prediction is that in two years they’ll realize they’ve made a mistake.
"It's amazing. It's the Spread."