While it’s not getting as much media attention as the upper-level musical chairs games being played among the Big 10, ACC, and Big East, this week the WAC might’ve shaken things up more than any of its bigger neighbors by bringing Grand Canyon University into the fold. Pending final NCAA approval, in 2013-14 the GCU Antelopes will be the first for-profit school to join a Division I conference.
While not exactly clean (they’ve been sued by the Feds for illegal admissions practices), GCU has a better reputation than many for-profit schools, and it has boosted its campus-centered income by leveraging the barely-tapped resources of online classes better than any school this side of the University of Phoenix. Investors have so far liked the move enough to add a few dollars to the stock’s value (currently at $24.24 per share) since the announcement.
In terms of the general quality and dollar-value of a GCU education, though, any statements are at best damning the school with faint praise: horror stories of its failures are easy to find, and GCU’s 24% four-year graduation rate (which is their publicly stated rate, mind you) is abysmal by any standard.
But this isn’t about academics. It’s about a struggling conference and a cash-flush school with athletic aspirations teaming up, which is the same situation we’ve seen repeated across the country, though perhaps not as vividly as here.
The WAC has eroded members over the years. Including GCU, it’ll have six members at the start of the 2013 school year, and will soon be the first big conference since the imploded Southwest Conference in ’95 to drop football. While the WAC is dropping football, it still is home to the usual retinue of less-expensive collegiate sports; keeping in mind television revenues for sports like basketball, there’s still a reason for the conference to exist as a point of contact for media deals. GCU, meanwhile, boasts 20 varsity squads, including a men’s volleyball team that already competes in D-I; success in any of them on this bigger stage will only raise the school’s profile.
There is the obvious correlation: in the free-market world of collegiate athletics, it makes sense for conferences (which are money-making enterprises) to take on for-profit partners, particularly if they have revenues like the Antelopes do. It’s also another sign that notions of unified geography and academic pursuits within conferences are, for better or worse, becoming as quaint as the idea of attending classes in suit and tie.
What’s most interesting to SLF readers, though, might be the school’s past ambitions to start a football program. As recently as 2009 the school’s CEO (now Chairman of the Board) was making public comments about adding football to their list of D-II sports. Provided the current model of for-profit online education doesn’t crash and burn (and it’s got some trademarks of a bubble), GCU is actually in a good position to improve its financial position. If the school finds itself competitive in the WAC and still thinking about the gridiron, there’s a chance it makes another go at football at the D-11 level. If GCU has any measure of success, it could change conferences again, only this time for a mid-major with a pigskin presence.
Who knows how this ends up? Maybe we’re seeing the future of collegiate sport, or of the university model itself.
The easiest way to beat a spread-option teams is to out-talent them at every position across the board. Of course, that’s pretty hard to do if you’re not an LSU or Alabama, and even for these guys beating spread-option teams isn’t a guaranteed thing—I’m pretty sure Les Miles and Nick Saban are happy to see Urban Meyer gone…and sad to see Kevin Sumlin arrive.
So how can defenses slow these teams down without a talent advantage? There are a few things we see teams across the country doing, some reactionary and some tried-and-true.
Streamlining the Gameplan
Just as the up-tempo offenses are slashing their playbooks and simplifying their situational rules and schemes as much as possible, defenses are moving in the same direction. Watch a typical defensive effort against a fast-paced squad and you’ll likely see a coach lean heavily either on basic zone shells or on lots of straightforward man looks. This puts pass-defenders in situations where they’re less likely to get confused by keys or hurt by play-action. Blitzes are often rule-based, with linebackers rushing based not on a signal but rather a formation or a backfield look, which essentially cedes play-calling to the players; not having to check with the sideline allows these defenses to line up and diagnose formations more quickly.
This streamlining is carrying over to practice. Teams talk about preparing for the tempo of these teams, which is important, but perhaps not as important as preparing for the raw fundamentals of football. Ten years ago, a swarming defense could overcome mistakes by individual players; one missed tackle could be offset by two or three follow-up defenders. Today, full-field play and the option game allow offenses to single out and isolate individual defenders as never before, with the result being that plays have a greater probability of going long than they did before. Overcoming this requires an unimpeded focus on the fundamentals of football, particularly defeating blocks and making open field tackles.
Preparation also requires that defenses get as realistic a look as possible from their scout teams. This means that high school quarterbacks from option-heavy teams are becoming a bit of a commodity even for pro-style teams, and not just for the purpose of turning them into receivers and safeties.
Dominating Defensive Fronts
Before the spread formation returned to prominence, defenses overcame subpar line play with aggressive eight-man fronts. When spread offenses began nullifying the eight-man fronts, teams began relying on nickel and dime packages, since early spread teams didn’t have much in the way of a run game. Now, though, with the advent of zone blocking and the resurgence of the option, defensive linemen are more valuable than they’ve ever been.
Spread teams often run plays based on the number of defenders in the box; a defensive lineman who can’t regularly be stopped by one blocker essentially throws-off the math. More specifically, two solid defensive tackles who each demand double-teams can keep their linebackers clean, and two agile defensive ends can confuse veer and zone reads, letting linebackers play “assignment ball.” At the same time, down linemen who can rush the passer can help keep linebackers in coverage and let secondaries focus on the pass. Just as important is that these down linemen are savvy enough to understand the nuances of option play, and flexible enough in their technique to disrupt blocking schemes. If there is a place for increased defensive complexity versus spread-option squads, it’s probably with defensive linemen.
Two old tricks from the early days of playing the option have returned to prominence, and both are in the service of improving defenses’ ability to see plays develop. The first is the return of the stand-up defensive end, which we last saw mostly with old five-man lines. These days, we’re seeing teams with four-man lines put their ends in two-point stances in order to better see mesh options and rocket/jet motions develop.
We’re also seeing linebackers set up further and further away from the line of scrimmage. Again, this allows linebackers to more easily identify the actual ball-carrier. Option plays take more time to develop than straightforward runs, so linebackers can make up the difference even if they’re placing themselves farther away from the play.
Stressing the Quarterback
Another old-time option defense, though more difficult now with the proliferation of spread/shotgun-based mesh-options. Getting licks in on the quarterback is always a good thing, and with many spread quarterbacks being on the sprightly side and more prone to taking hits defenses often have a multiplier in their favor if they get a few jarring blows in. Beyond simply playing solid schemes that lead to conventional pressures and tackles, defenses often react to option plays in order to force the quarterback to hang on to the ball or even make a bad read and run right into pressure; when it works, it exposes the quarterback to extra hits (and has the added advantage of keeping the ball away from running backs, who’re usually more dangerous runners.) I think this going to create some tension in the pro-levels, since NFL squads are becoming intrigued by zone-reads and veers in the middle of escalating concussion concerns, and the quarterbacks having success with these plays—Griffin, Luck, Newton, etc.—are mainly bright young stars that the league doesn’t want to see injured and owners and GMs can’t afford to have injured.
Putting Time on Their Side
Everything thing today’s spread-option teams are doing is fundamentally sound, and hearkens back to excellent football techniques that fell by the wayside not because they were inherently faulty, but because the game changed around them. We aren’t seeing a “gimmick” offense, but rather an offense that might be better suited for today’s game and rules than previous iterations. Coaches recognize this, and are adopting spread-option systems and various components of these schemes at every level of play. This conversely means that defensive players are now getting a heavy-dose of spread-option prep from JV all the way into the pros. This experience will ease learning curves, and coupled with coaches’ increasing familiarity with spread-option concepts, probably force a new round of evolution in offense.
It also takes time for defensive coaches to develop and teach the counter-punches to the spread-option game. Coaches might have a dozen different coverage schemes just to stop a pro-style passing attack, but only one or two approaches to an option team. You see this with inexperienced schools playing Georgia Tech or the service academies: they’ll have the flexbone bottled up for a quarter or two, and then Paul Johnson or Ken Niumatalolo throws in a tweak like a midline read or an arc release and suddenly an opposing D is helpless. Oklahoma fans saw their title hopes dashed when Florida moved to the Shovel play in the second half of the BCS championship game. Teams are developing responses to the entire suite now, though, and even coming up with ways to attack, rather than react.
There’s one final point I want to cover about rules. Today’s spread teams take advantage of what have been tremendous rules changes aimed at enlivening the game and protecting players. For now, I don’t think we’ll see many more rules designed to increase scoring and quicken games, e.g., I don’t expect it to become completely illegal to touch receivers during the route or for the play clock to be shortened any more. On the other hand, I don’t think we’ll see any rules changes made just to give defenses a break, such as easing substitution rules.
To me, though, there seems to be several ways the rules of the game could be changed to increase safety, and my belief is that the changes left on the table could immediately make or break the spread-option team. Just to give an example, imagine if below-the-waist blocking were banned. It’s not too hard to imagine: low blocks lead to a fair number of injured defenders, and perhaps more importantly, they’re viewed by some as antithetical in spirit to “real” football. Take these blocks out of the game, and three things happen to spread-option teams: the zone running game gets hampered, the screen game gets busted, and pass protection gets trickier for undersized players like backs and tight ends. That’s trouble for any team that likes to pass, teams that favor athletic linemen, and teams that run the zone-read…or basically, most spread-option teams.
All said, this series offers just a sliver of the ever-changing spread-option game and its consequences, which itself is just a sliver of the ever-changing landscape of football. We’re already seeing the spread-option game evolving; Nevada’s pistol formation and Louisiana Tech’s revamped cadence rules are probably the two best-known examples. It’ll be interesting to see what the next few years bring.
Like most famous football quotes, this gem is attributed to Vince Lombardi, and like most things attributed to Lombardi, it’s got more than a measure of truth to it. Many spread-option coaches have taken this dictum to heart by driving their offenses as fast as possible on the field, and along the way have blown open scoring records.* Where you’ll often see pro and pro-style teams bleed the play clock down to its final seconds, up-tempo teams will run consecutive series where the ball’s snapped only seconds after being set.
Football is a game of alternating possession, and if fast tempos were driving up scores but not wins, it’d be forgotten as an unsound novelty. What we’re seeing, though, are these up-tempo teams being incredibly effective when it comes to making every possession count. Here, College Football by the Numbers breaks down points-per-possession as of November 5 (third column, data ranked from best to worst):
Of the top 15, only Florida State and Alabama could be said to run pro-style offenses. Almost all the rest are spread-option teams, and many of them are up-tempo.
There are some temporal reasons for why up-tempo teams are having this success. There’s enough offensive variety in the college game to prevent defensive coordinators from zeroing in on these attacks, and strength and conditioning coaches are relearning how to prepare their players for the energetic and neural demands of enduring so many plays during a game. Also important is that defensive coordinators right now are largely restricting the mental aspects of the game to the sidelines, which means there’s rarely enough time for defenses to get in signals versus a very fast offense. As defenses catch up to fast spread teams, much of it will be because linebackers and safeties are calling the defenses, and not their coaches; right now, though, up-tempo teams often see two kinds of fronts: simple and confused. Finally, since up-tempo teams can prevent defensive substitutions with their speed, defenses need to find more high-level athletes who can stay on the field regardless of situation.
There are some unavoidable advantages to an up-tempo system that won’t go away without fundamental changes in the way football is played. First, playing defense is more exhausting than playing offense, which means fatigue affects defenses far more than offenses. A fundamentally sound defense has to pursue ball-carriers. If an offense followed every play with the same tenacity as a flowing defense, it would at best needlessly tire its own players, and at worst turn the game into a festival of illegal blocks in the back.
Second, because up-tempo teams practice with the same rapidity with which they play, they essentially get more practice reps than a pro-style squad. This rehearsal can’t be discounted. Chip Kelly’s squads can hit thirty plays in ten minutes of practice.
Because of these factors (especially the last two), I think the concept of a full-time, up-tempo team is going to be a long-term factor in modern football. It’s also why pro teams like the New England Patriots are stressing speed. This isn’t to say that fast-tempo offenses don’t have their drawbacks. It’s difficult to learn multiple sets of dozens of plays while practicing at a furious pace, so faster teams usually have simpler playbooks. Here’s football afficianado “Hemlock” over at Matthew Brophy’s site commenting on Louisiana Tech:
“While Oregon gets all the headlines, LaTech is probably the most advanced up tempo team going today. As readers of this blog know, we are big fans of what Tony Franklin is doing at Tech. The reason is concision. No team has probably dropped more from their package over the past three years than LaTech. Watch the Virginia game if you want proof. LaTech goes into every game with a very light package. (Just compare LaTech’s package to the one UVA ran the other day and tell us whose offense is simpler) Each game it seems lighter and lighter as they get faster and faster. Practically gone from their package are old Air Raid staples like Mesh and Shallow. Basically all they do is run an increasing amount of [inside zone] tied to key screens and two or three man games on the flanks. When they want to get down the field they run Verticals, Sail, and Y-Cross. What makes them go though is speed and efficiency. Not only does LaTech play fast but they do so with very few mistakes. An offense that does not make mistakes is a difficult one to stop.” (www.brophyfootball.blogspot.com)
In fact, Louisiana Tech’s most “complicated” plays are their run/pass option series, where extremely simple staples like quick screens and zone runs are melded into the same play. Using spread sets lets the quarterback quickly identify where defenses are weak numerically, and using the option game (often on several defenders in succession) lets him attack weak points and essentially make the defense perpetually wrong. Of course, having multiple plays rolled into one also makes calling audibles unnecessary, which helps keep the attack speed up.
So what can defenses do to catch up? We’ll close out this series with a look at what has worked (and might work) to slow these teams down.