College football is not an egalitarian sport. Some schools will always be able to pay more for coaches, better facilities, more influence in the game's structure, and so on.
One of the most important advantages those major programs possess is greater access to scarce resources, and one of the most important scarce resources in college football is the big athlete. Kids who can generate explosive movements with 300-pound frames are invaluable in a game determined by violent collisions.
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So big-time football programs have long preferred strategies that rely on those players—that games be determined over which team is tougher and more disciplined in the trenches. These schools are able to hire coaches who can instill those traits, and they have the resources to guarantee that the athletes themselves are bigger and stronger on top of it. Advantage: bluebloods.
The rise of the spread offense changed that calculus, however, by putting games in the hands of skill athletes in space. Those kinds of players are much more widely available, for big-time programs and smaller schools alike. Teams can light up the scoreboard by having their quarterback sling the ball around to a cast of such athletes, and all of a sudden the playing field becomes much more even.
There's no better example of this effect than the Texas Longhorns. Labeled the most valuable football program in the nation by Forbes last year, Texas has yet to win a league title in this decade. Their competition in the Big 12 is mostly smaller programs utilizing spread offenses led by scrappy QBs, but the Longhorns have, so far, been unable to respond in kind with a great QB of their own.
The challenge for the big-time programs, then, is to find a way to counter the disruption of the spread while also bringing the focal point of the game back to what happens at the line of scrimmage. A number of schools have adjusted to college football's new landscape, and figured out how to do this. Three of them—Alabama, Ohio State, and Clemson—are competing in the College Football Playoff this year. Their secret? The running QB.
Taking Back Control
For decades, college football's rule of thumb was to deploy your best athlete at running back in the I-formation, ever since USC used the strategy with O.J. Simpson. Lately, however, teams are more influenced by what Texas (ironically) did in the mid-2000's with Vince Young: they look to plug in their best athlete at QB. If you take an athletic kid who has a good sense of what's going on around him and teach him how to scan a defense and make some throws, you can set him up to dominate the game with his legs.
That process has become easier, in part because the spread simplifies the QB position by spacing out defenders and turning the art of progression into a simple process of reading a few keys and throwing the ball. Add in summertime seven-on-seven competitions that give kids extra time to work on throwing mechanics, and you have programs at the high-school level regularly producing spread-competent running quarterbacks—great athletes who know how to read defenses and distribute the ball.
By utilizing such a quarterback, big-time college programs can force opposing defenses to orient their schemes around preventing quick throws to the perimeter that result in easy points. Then what happens? The game comes down to whoever's left in the trenches. A failure to control the line of scrimmage can result in a QB like Alabama's Jalen Hurts on the loose in open space.
There are all kinds of innovations going on in the world of spread offense, and the blueblood programs have zeroed in on the ones that allow them to run the ball behind their big guys up front. Three of the four teams in the College Football Playoffs have followed this strategy, and here are some of the ways they pulled it off.
J.T. Barrett and Ohio State
Thanks to his quick feet and big size (6'2", 225 pounds), J.T. Barrett is a gifted runner. Less known is the fact that in high school he served as the triggerman in an Air Raid spread passing offense:
This allowed Barrett to receive ample training in the art of throwing the ball off quick reads from the shotgun spread. At Ohio State, head coach Urban Meyer likes to use him like this:
If you observe the various receivers, you'll notice they are running routes. If opponents try to play this formation by ignoring the wideouts and loading the box, Barrett can easily punish them by making a simple throw to an open receiver in space. On this play, Oklahoma honored that threat and accepted the play as a contest of big-on-big up front, a contest that Ohio State won decisively and concluded with Barrett running over the Sooners' best safety en route to a first down.
When Ohio State needs to convert a key in key situations, opponents know what's coming: the Buckeyes snap the ball directly to their runner, who either throws the ball to the perimeter or runs down the Main Street behind his lead blockers. They know it's coming, but few teams have figured out how to stop it.
Jalen Hurts and Alabama
One of the biggest breakthroughs for the spread over the last few years takes the QB run game to its logical conclusion: offensive coaches realized that you can attach a QB run option to any standard running play and help your OL out.
Oklahoma's run game for the last two years has been built around the classic "counter-trey" play, which involves pulling the backside guard and tackle to lead to the strong side. The problem with running this play in the spread is that there's no one left to stop the backside defensive end from chasing the pulling OL and blowing the play up from behind. Unless, that is, you attach a QB option to keep the ball and run around the backside edge if that DE doesn't stay home:
You can attach QB options to any running play and thus avoid blocking a defender while gaining a "plus one" advantage at the point of attack. Alabama has always loved the "inside zone" running play, which is a straight ahead "mano y mano" kind of play that is well suited to a team with big, mauling OL. They tend to utilize Jalen Hurts in a few different ways to make the most out of that scheme, most notably as an inside runner in an "inverted zone read" scheme that forces opponents to choose between defending Hurts running behind double teams …
… or stopping one of their explosive RBs like Damien Harris on the edge:
Stopping Alabama has always been about beating them between the trenches when they're trying to fire off downhill at you with a big, physical front. Hurts has made this task that much harder for opposing teams.
Deshaun Watson and Clemson
The Clemson Tigers don't have an overpowering OL like Ohio State or Alabama typically fields. They're at their most comfortable when leaning on quarterback Deshaun Watson to mitigate any failures to win up front by scrambling for time and yardage. Between Watson and Jordan Leggett, their 6'5", 260-pound tight end, the Tigers can subdue smaller programs either in the trenches or out wide.
Against Alabama in the playoff final last year, Clemson clearly understood that they weren't going to beat the Tide with the former, as they had done against Oklahoma in the semifinal. Instead, they built their game plan on moving Watson around and hitting athletes on the perimeter.
It almost worked, but Alabama's own adjustments on offense allowed them to keep pace on the scoreboard.
Now we get to see what happens when three blueblood programs with running QBs (and Washington) face off in the playoffs. If Ohio State and Alabama succeed in making the battle for the trenches the focal point of each game, a Buckeye-Tide rematch in the final is likely. Urban Meyer and Nick Saban are currently 2-2 against each other; don't be shocked if their quarterbacks face off in the tie-breaker next month.
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