Sixteen years after Joe Tiller introduced the spread offense to the Big Ten at Purdue, the system still looks out of place on the hallowed grounds of historic stadiums throughout the league.
The spread remains, at its core, quite un-Big Ten. The Big Ten's image is still power football, 22 personnel, large groups of large men lined up close together, creating dust clouds after relatively short gains. It's not about five-wide sets and first-to-40 games.
In the celebrated "Ten-Year War" featuring Big Ten icons Woody Hayes and Bo Schembechler, neither Ohio State nor Michigan eclipsed 24 points. Michigan averaged 13.8 points, while Ohio State averaged a scant 10.5, scoring nine total points in the final three contests. Those games are part of Big Ten lore.
I value Big Ten history as much as anyone, but I also realize the glory days have long since passed. College football has changed. The game is played in space, especially by teams hoping to offset a talent gap.
The talent gap remains for Big Ten offenses. There's a shortage of dynamic skill players and even elite linemen throughout much of the league. We've detailed the Big Ten's dearth of star wide receivers, but there are other positions that lack difference-makers.
The Big Ten needs to catch up. It needs to become, with a few exceptions, a spread league.
"It's a bit of an equalizer," Illinois offensive coordinator Bill Cubit said of the spread, which he ran at Western Michigan and now with the Illini. "It’s just hard to drive the ball 80 yards. You better have some big plays. Well, where do you get those big plays? There's some teams that say, 'OK, we'll run the power for three-and-a-half [yards], three-and-a-half, three-and-a-half.' But eventually, you're going to break down.
"You've got to get the ball out in space, and the simplest thing is to spread your guys out, too, unless you're Alabama or Stanford."
Here's the thing people need to realize about the pro-style offense. It demands nationally elite recruits to excel. Teams such as Alabama, Stanford, LSU and, even now, USC can run the system because of their recruiting clout.
Most Big Ten teams don't recruit at a nationally elite level. Ohio State and Michigan do, and Penn State, despite its postseason sanctions and scholarship restrictions, has managed to bring in top prospects suited to Bill O'Brien's offense. But the majority of the league simply isn't there, especially on offense, and can even the playing field by injecting spread elements.
Some Big Ten teams -- Northwestern, Indiana, Illinois, Minnesota, Nebraska -- already do it. But there are others -- Michigan State, Iowa and Purdue -- that continue to run pro-style offenses without elite talent.
In an opening weekend when Big Ten teams averaged 39.5 points, three of the four lowest-scoring totals came from Iowa (27), Michigan State (26) and Purdue (7). When you factor in that Michigan State had two defensive touchdowns and Iowa had one, the offensive numbers are worse.
Coaches Kirk Ferentz (Iowa), Mark Dantonio (Michigan State) and Darrell Hazell (Purdue) all believe in pro-style offense. Ferentz, the dean of Big Ten coaches, has remained steadfast even as the spread popularized around college football.
"We've had two Big Ten championship games, and an anti-spread team [Wisconsin] has come out victorious in both of those," Ferentz said. "Any coach is trying to do what they do best with their personnel. The teams that are successful are the teams that execute the best, whether it's spread or conventional."
Ferentz's personnel at Iowa is geared toward a pro-style offense. But is the talent level good enough to execute at the highest levels? Not lately.
Would Iowa's offense be much better with spread elements? It could attract different types of players and stress defenses in different ways. Then again, a bubble screen on third-and-9 stresses defenses, too.
If you watch the Big Ten Network, you've probably heard analyst Gerry DiNardo say that he doesn't think a team can win the national title running the spread. But DiNardo notes that the spread can help teams with less talent compete consistently with tougher competition.
"Iowa and Purdue could continue on the offensive path they're on because I think they can meet expectations," DiNardo told me. "They can be competitive in 2014 and beyond in the West with that offense. Michigan State, because they have [freshman quarterback] Damion Terry on their roster, because they've struggled offensively since Kirk Cousins left, and because they're going to be in the much more difficult division in the East, I could very well see them making a shift to a spread offense."
Throughout the offseason, Dantonio talked about the need for quarterbacks to make plays.
"You have a better chance of doing that in the spread than you do in the pro formation," DiNardo said.
When Kevin Wilson followed Randy Walker from Miami (Ohio) to Northwestern in 1999, he installed the same I-formation, power run-based offense they had run at Miami. Northwestern ran more plays and had the ball more than its opponents ... and averaged a meager 12.8 points a game.
"We didn't have any playmakers," said Wilson, now Indiana's head coach, who has run different versions of the spread since 2000. "We died a slow death. We needed to make some changes."
Northwestern went to the Rich Rodriguez-style spread the following year and finished third nationally in total offense and ninth in scoring.
Some Big Ten teams can survive outside of the spread. DiNardo sees Michigan forming a similar offensive blueprint to Alabama and Stanford, largely because of its recruiting success. O'Brien's offense originates from a pro formation but incorporates an explosive, NFL-style passing attack and an efficient run game -- "Very unique," DiNardo said.
Wisconsin provides hope for teams like Michigan State and Iowa. The Badgers aren't a recruiting force, but they've built their program around the power run, elite backs and massive linemen for more than two decades.
At Wisconsin's level, a system change isn't in order.
"They never wanted to get into the elite recruiting battles, and they have to," DiNardo said. "Schematically, they're fine. They're not much different than Michigan, but Michigan recruits the elite athletes."
Not enough Big Ten teams are in Michigan's position. More teams should incorporate spread elements to start evening things out.
Hazell is on board, noting that Purdue's offensive struggles at Cincinnati -- the Boilers ran only 29 first-half plays -- reduced the playbook.
"Whether you're doing spread, a little bit of zone read, option, quick game, play-action pass, you have to have the whole package," Hazell said. "You probably would have seen more of that had we been able to run more plays."
Here's hoping Purdue and other teams showcase spread elements more in the coming weeks.
Otherwise, they'll be headed for a slow death.