You have to have a quarterback. College football is reaching the point that the NFL reached years ago. You must have a great quarterback or you cannot succeed. For years there were ways around that, but that is no longer the case.
Back and Forth
The 2006 BCS championship game was memorable for many reasons. Perhaps none of the memories has been as enduring as the domination of the game by the Florida defensive line. The athletic and fast Gator big men where the herald of the future of college football. The new way to win in college was to find big strong defensive linemen who ran the 40 in 4.6 seconds. That was the base model. You could add elements to the defense, like fast linebackers or physical corners, but the basic, the most important thing was the line.
The rise of the new, athletic defensive lineman forced offenses around the country to respond. Offenses had to innovate to find a way to counteract the advantage a new generation of players had created. It has always been this way. One side of the ball creates an advantage and the other has to adjust to counteract. This time the offensive answer was the spread.
The spread is a term used to describe an offense that is so broad it is almost meaningless. The spread can be run first and run heavy, or it can be pass heavy. It can be based on the read option or be a variation on the air raid. It can be molded to suit many different talents and philosophies. Generally, the spread is an offense that seeks to force the defense to cover the field horizontally, from sideline to sideline, on every play.
Spread offenses can be power offenses. They can utilize power blocking and try to run between the tackles. They can be more finesse and seek to get the ball out to the edge quickly, using hitches, screens and jet sweeps. They can be what the coordinator needs them to be. What they cannot be is simple.
Why the Quarterback
There is a myth that the best quarterback for the spread is a mobile, running quarterback who can throw the ball a little. That’s not true. A mobile quarterback is needed for most offenses, but a mobile quarterback is not enough. If all the defense has to prepare for is a running game with little credible passing threat, the offense won’t be successful. That’s where the college game is. Defenses have evolved to the point that it takes a truly multiple offense to compete. If your offense is one dimensional, your offense is ineffective.
If your offense is going to be multiple, meaning it can effectively run and pass, attack short and long, move the ball inside and outside, then your quarterback must be multiple. He must be able to read pass coverages and make good passes. He must be able to read defenders and run the ball well. He has to audible and check. He has to be able to do all these things because the simpler he is, the less effective he is. This is why transcendent quarterback play has become so important.
The decline of the SEC East
It’s no secret that the SEC East has declined in recent years. It’s odd that a division of the nation’s premier conference that is sitting in one of the most talent rich areas of the nation has allowed itself to fall behind the SEC West and some other divisions around the country. Could it be that the division that was able to create the defenses of the mid-2000s has not been able to keep up with the subsequent quarterback evolution?
Look at Florida, the flagship program in the East. What has been missing from the Gators more than anything since Tim Tebow left? A quarterback. What has transpired in Gainesville has been a parade of underachieving quarterbacks. It’s been ironic that some of the best defenses in the nation have been paired with some of the most inept offense.
South Carolina’s success came with Connor Shaw, a multiple quarterback, at the helm. Without him, they’ve struggled. Tennessee, Kentucky and Vanderbilt have similar stories. When they can get strong quarterback play, they’ve had their best success. Without it? None.
To be sure bad quarterback play has always doomed an offense. It seems that it is becoming more common for quarterbacks to fail to perform at the level their teams have needed. Is that because several teams have recruited poorly for several years? Or is it that what is being required of the quarterbacks is greater than it has been in the past? Based on the ways you have to attack a defense, it seems like the latter.
There are some schools who have eschewed the wholesale run toward the spread offense and a multiple attack. Georgia and Alabama are two of the most prevalent. They have incorporated elements of the spread attack in their offense, and they’ve also held on to plenty of pro style options. They run the ball between the tackles, out of the I formation often. They are successful with it, to a point. Georgia has famously under performed relative to their expectations. The reason Alabama can do that is that 9 games out of 10, they have superior talent across the field. They can rely on that as much as their scheme to win games. Most teams can’t do that. Most teams have to create a greater schematic advantage, but to do that they need a quarterback who can exploit it, and it doesn’t seem that there are that many quarterbacks around.