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Even SEC can't stop evolution of offenses

1/21/2015

DALLAS -- It's a sign of the times when you start seeing ground-and-pound Alabama running tempo.

There's a reason one of Will Muschamp's final orders at Florida was to have his team attempt to run more of a spread offense with some tempo. There's a reason Texas A&M and Missouri's offenses have flourished and have a combined record of 56-23 during their first three seasons in the SEC. There's a reason the Mississippi schools have been on the rise. There's a reason Gus Malzahn has had immediate success in two short years as head coach at Auburn.

There's a reason we saw two spread-minded teams -- one incredibly tempo-driven -- with offenses ranked in the top 10 and defenses outside the top four of their own conferences reach the first College Football Playoff National Championship game.

As rugged and as defensive-minded as the SEC has been for years and years, offense is taking over college football, and the SEC -- for the most part -- is trying not to get left behind.

“Any offense is trying to find any advantage against the defense," Oregon running back Royce Freeman said during media day for the College Football Playoff National Championship Presented by AT&T. "Why wouldn’t you? If it’s tempo or if it’s different personnel, if it’s by the rules, do it.”

Exactly.

Times are changing in all forms of football. Offense is in and defense is ailing.

In each of the last two seasons, the SEC has had six teams finish the year allowing more than 390 yards per game. From 2008-12, only nine teams allowed more than 390 yards a game. The disintegration of defense is apparent in the SEC, and how long it lasts is unknown. Offense is having a trickle-up effect with high school teams adopting the spread more and more and ramping up the tempo. Running quarterbacks feel like more of a necessity in the sport than a luxury.

Nobody thought the spread would work in the NFL, but the read-option is there to stay (hello, Super Bowl-bound Seattle Seahawks) and even the New England Patriots have been running a version of the spread during the last few years at times.

It's a natural evolution in sports for people to try and find the next best thing. Football is no different. For a while, defenses were stagnant and offenses would shift and motion to create leverage. Now, defenses can move at and before the snap to create temporary advantages and mismatches. So offenses have answered by lining up quicker and snapping the ball faster.

It's in all forms of the sport, but Oregon coach Mark Helfrich, whose Ducks have been perfecting this thing since the Chip Kelly days, believes this offensive fad his school helped create might not be the future of football.

“It’ll cycle though. People that believe in certain things will keep it at their core," Helfrich said. "… There are also certain people who are just experimenting with it, so to speak.”

Cyclical or not, programs are realizing that the current offensive evolution -- or revolution -- is real. Most teams in the SEC implement some form of higher tempo in their offenses. Some are spreading guys out more and finding homes in the shotgun. While it goes against all old-school football mantras, it's something coaches realize is the style of the times, and it's working and it's greatly affecting defenses.

Just look at Alabama. This is a team that dominated college football with a very traditional -- and successful -- offense. But Nick Saban's defenses have struggled with the spread recently. Johnny Manziel and his high-flying Texas A&M Aggies lit up Alabama for an average of 523 yards and 35.5 points in games in 2012 and 2013. Against Auburn and that uptempo Malzahn spread the last two years, Alabama has surrendered 1,023 yards and 78 points.

Alabama went 2-2 in those four games.

Take it a step further and look at Alabama's two-game losing streak in the postseason where Oklahoma (spread and tempo) and Ohio State (spread) combined to score 87 points and reeled off 966 yards.

Running quarterbacks, spread and tempo have been weaknesses for Saban's defenses, so he added all three to his offense this year and watched Alabama set all sorts of offensive records and average 484.5 yards per game (most during his Alabama tenure) and 36.9 points a contest.

“Three or four years ago, Nick Saban was talking about how he didn’t really like [uptempo offense], and the disadvantages to it," Oregon defensive back Juwaan Williams said. "He’s making the evolution himself.”

Ohio State coach Urban Meyer, a week removed from his third national championship victory, began some of the transformation down South by bringing his version of the spread offense from Utah to Florida in 2005. His very personnel-driven philosophy changed as the players did. That's why you saw Florida's 2008 national championship-winning offense look so different from the 2006 one.

And that's why Dan Mullen's spread at Mississippi State looks a little different from the one he helped run as the offensive coordinator at Florida. That's why Hugh Freeze's spread at Ole Miss has some philosophical differences from Mizzou's. That's why Tennessee is now spreading things out more now to go with its tempo with a more mobile quarterback in Joshua Dobbs.

“It’s not system-driven; it’s personnel-based," Meyer said of the spread.

That's why Bret Bielema isn't interested in it at Arkansas. He has his big guys plowing into everyone every chance they get, and he likes it. And that's fine, but as we continue to look around the league, more tempo and more spread is coming. Even new Florida coach Jim McElwain, who was a part of the ground-and-pound Bama philosophy during his time with Saban, would like to inject more tempo in the Gators. Steve Spurrier has even experimented with some tempo at South Carolina.

As we dive into this new playoff thing and football gets faster and faster, the SEC appears for the most part to be ready and adapting. And really, it had better be.

“It seems like every team is trying to conform to that," Ohio State offensive lineman Darryl Baldwin said. "I guess it’s more about scoring points now than playing defense now."