Better Of Red has a great column up by SeattleHusker on "the death of the spread" where he points to Linebacker recruitment as the greatest sign that the days of the spread running roughshod over this league are over. His own Huskers, in particular, frequently ran dime defenses against Big 12 teams including our own Longhorns. If I were a fan of the team that locked down Texas like they did in Big 12 championship I might be more inclined to call the spread era over, though we'll see if he's so optimistic when House of Spears isn't in the middle of it all.
The real crux of his argument is similar to what I was projecting yesterday. If teams are frequently taking linebackers off the field and replacing them with safeties or corners then eventually someone will make the switch towards the power running game and start brutalizing the smallish defenses and the trend will tend back in that direction.
However it's a leap to call the likely shifts by a few offensive coordinators towards a power game, which I do think is likely, the end of the spread in the Big 12 and there are a couple reasons I don't believe we'll see this emerge as the dominant trend.
1). Many of the defenses designed to handle the spread are also adept at stuffing a running game and are geared towards more flexibility in general, not stopping a passing attack. For instance, the TCU defense. Gary Patterson runs a 4-2-5 that has some distinct features like simplified coverage calls. They split the field and can run 2 different coverages on each side of the field so that the calls and responsibilities are very simple. For instance they have a "cover-2 robber" I had never heard of before reading about Patterson and assumed was a misprint until I read about it. They can hypothetically play man under in half the field and zone in the other, but I digress. My main point here is that TCU runs a 5 defensive back scheme that may decrease the average weight of the defender but it makes the 8 man front easy to disguise and employ.
I'm hesitant to mention them but that the group across the Red River has also managed to put some good anti-spread product out there without compromising their commitment to the linebacker position. OU recruited 3, 4 and 4 linebackers in their last three classes. Granted they are grabbing guys in the 210-220 range, but Stoops is committed to fielding defenses that make punishing hits (a testament to the toughness of both McCoy and Shipley) and are adaptable to various threats.
If Stoops could bring in some 4-5 star safety talent and develop it we would all be less critical of the way he stubbornly clings to base 4-3 defense and instead focus on the way he stubbornly clings to douchebaggery. At any rate, if everyone switches to the I-Formation Patterson and Stoops won't be overhauling their schemes. The spread has forced the adaptation of schemes that will have universal application.
2). The spread offers advantages that can't totally be robbed by any rover. The problems in defending from sideline to sideline on every given play, covering people on islands, and tackling shifty little weasels like Shipley are not going to be answered just by using faster defensive players. Moving a corner or safety onto Shipley in the slot is only the beginning in addressing the issue, it doesn't totally negate the threats and opportunities provided by sending Shipley over the middle of the field.
Additionally, while SeattleHusker mentions the common fan complaints about zone-blocking, teams that have implemented it successfully don't view it as "reach blocking" or "finesse running". A successfully implemented zone scheme should allow for a punishing running attack that sees the running back bursting through holes and running over defensive backs at the end of runs, basically like what we saw against Alabama.
In theory, a zone run should never be a negative play. Good stunting, bad OL play and poor overall execution has been the downfall of zone runs at the college level. I blame a lack of practice time devoted by teams that implement the zone because it's a good fit for the 11 personnel offenses that allow for all these devastating passing games. The outside and inside zone require a lot of practicing and linemen recruited for their ability to move laterally and many teams have not embraced the zone strongly enough to use these schemes effectively. Watch Oklahoma State and then tell me they have a "finesse" running game. They are simply a team that has embraced the zone as their base and recruit players that can execute it.
Or, if you look at OU they have used zone runs frequently and effectively against most of their competition without being described as lacking a "downhill" running game. TCU stuffed them with their 8 man front one year, Texas and Florida did by having DL that could run around their fat linemen. Most teams were just bulldozed in between desperate moments of sucking air.
To be more concise, having 3 receivers on the field doesn't prevent an offense from having a power running game. It's possible with the zone game and it's possible to design man-blocking plays with only 6 blockers. Trap, power (depending on the front), base and draw runs can all accomplish this. And of course, if the quarterback is a running threat...
We will probably not see the Spread dominate in this league like it its heyday when Daniels, Reesing, McCoy, Bradford and Robinson terrorized coordinators who weren't equipped with adequate nickel backs, defensive ends, or pressure packages designed for dealing with spread plays. However, I think we'll see more tweaking of the the spread along the lines of what Oklahoma has been doing with the use of a fullback, pacing, and the attempted development of quality Tight Ends that can block an end or abuse someone in coverage. Many of the struggles for Big 12 offenses has coincided very neatly with the departure of guys like Gresham, Irby, Pettigrew and Coffman.
3). The spread is easier to install and recruit then "pro-style" running based offenses. I mentioned yesterday that developments in the passing game have often come from places where operating a power-running game wasn't feasible. Finding a few speedy burners at receiver/running back, and a quarterback who can make quick reads and deliver accurate short throws is simply an easier task than building a line of drive-blocking machines, finding 6-3 receivers who can pull down deep passes, and 6-4 quarterbacks who can deliver the ball downfield with precision and velocity.
I would contend that a team with early 00's Texas Tech level talent could not field an I-formation offense nearly as effective as the Air-raid today, 5 years ago or 5 years from now and I don't mean just in regards to scoring offense. If you recruited I-formation players of comparable talent to the spread guys recruited under Leach they would not win as many games. One or two standout talents in the Air Raid like Welker or Crabtree can find more space and opportunity than one or two standout talents in the I-formation.
Ultimately every scheme is dependent on finding the right talent, coaching/execution, and the ability to adapt. I'm sure we'll continue to see 21 personnel offenses in college football and we may see a few more in the Big 12 over the next few years but I also think the innovations of the spread will withstand the counter-attacks by defensive coordinators... with the exception of Will Muschamp who is building a unit so fearsome that we should start throwing out nicknames now.