ORLANDO, Fla. — It was 2014 when Alabama made the switch, bringing in Lane Kiffin and embracing the up-tempo, spread wave in college football. It had won three of the previous six national titles and still decided that offensive changes were necessary.
What it adopted — an offense that incorporates elements of both pro-style and spread offenses — has helped lift the Crimson Tide to two more national titles since. In the 2013-14 season, Alabama averaged 65.9 plays per game, good for 116th in the nation. By 2015-16, that number had jumped nearly 10 plays per game to 75.2, up to 49th nationally.
“I am sure (Saban) likes (to win) 12-9 or 9-6 a little bit better, but that’s just being a defensive background,” Kiffin said on Jan. 7, 2015. “But once again, it is what it is. And it’s the direction that college football is headed. So instead of fighting that, why not join it and really that’s a big reason why we’re sitting here today.”
It has since become the norm in college football.
Five years later, Jim Harbaugh and Michigan adopted the same philosophy, poaching Josh Gattis from Alabama’s staff to bridge the Wolverines into the modern era of college football.
Wednesday afternoon, two of college football’s most storied programs will meet in the Citrus Bowl — each displaying its version of a modern college football offense. Fullbacks will be few and far between. Quarterbacks will take nearly every snap from the shotgun. There will be RPOs and read options. Las Vegas has set the over/under at 58.
“Hopefully when you watch us, you can see a real spread-type offense but yet you can see a football team that can still line up and run downhill at you and then everything in between,” said Alabama offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian. “And I’m sure (Michigan is) in that process.”
That process, as Michigan fans will recall, was turbulent. But the Wolverines now sit at 20th in SP+ offensive rankings, which would mark the best finish of the Harbaugh era. More importantly, the progress appears sustainable.
These offenses are by no means facsimiles of one another. Gattis incorporated elements from his time with Penn State and Alabama along with what Harbaugh already had in place to produce an effective end result. But there are hints in Alabama’s embrace of the “pro-spread” that clearly show up in how Michigan ran its iteration this year, each making a clear leap within the last five years to meet college football modernity.
Using motion to move the defense
There are plenty of misconceptions about what really constitutes a “spread” offense. Neither Michigan nor Alabama is — or has ever been — a Big 12-style, air raid attack, primed to throw the ball 50 times per game. The basic tenets are pretty simple: Open up the field to get athletes in space, increase the tempo to keep the defense on its heels, maximize options and looks to get the defense in conflict.
One way to do that — the “speed in space,” if you will — is to move players around pre-snap.
Auburn’s defense has to account for three distinct possibilities on this play. Alabama’s quarterback Tua Tagavailoa can flip it out to Josh Jacobs, the man in motion. He can hand it off to running back Najee Harris. Or he can do neither and find one of his three All-SEC caliber receivers downfield. The defense moves with the motion man, the linebackers bite on the possible run, and the result is an easy pitch and catch from an All-American quarterback to an All-American receiver.
That becomes a much more appealing set of options when your roster is chock-full of future NFL studs, but the conflict it creates doesn’t demand elite talent.
Michigan tried plenty of this throughout the season, and by the end became consistently effective.
Sophomore receiver Ronnie Bell’s motion here adds enough angst that the Ohio State defense practically falls all over itself trying to adjust. The result is one of the easiest touchdowns of Shea Patterson’s season, a wide open seam route for junior Donovan Peoples-Jones.
This kind of stuff isn’t dependent on personnel. Patterson and Peoples-Jones are really good football players; the motion here alone parts the middle of the field like the Red Sea. It all looks easy.
Using horizontal movement to open up vertical
The real beauty of an effective spread offense is an ability to use every yard of the field to thin out the defense — making the opposition account for all 11 players and all 53 yards of width.
That requires a keen sense of balance. That could entail moving the defense laterally with a speed option (Michigan ran a couple this season) or it could be a simple swing pass out of the backfield.
It seems basic, but few teams have the athletes to compete when Alabama gets its guys in space.
Then, suddenly they hit you downfield with any of their multitude of weapons.
Again, it helps when every single player involved in that touchdown will be playing on Sundays in the near future. That aside, the basic premise works as a template.
With the benefit of hindsight, it’s hardly a surprise that it took Gattis some time to strike that balance in his first year calling plays. Nor is it surprising that the players took time to adjust to all the differences that came with it. But once they did, the scheme was awfully resemblant of the stuff Gattis helped run at Alabama and Penn State.
When it clicks — a former five-star quarterback finding his highly-touted receivers — it all looks so easy and obvious. The best players on the team put in the best positions to make big plays.
“On offense, they have a lot of the multiples that a lot of college teams have now in terms of how they attack the entire field,” said Alabama coach Nick Saban on Tuesday.
There are plenty of pro-style elements in both offenses
What is also clear, though, and perhaps most misunderstood about both offenses is that neither completely abandoned its prior pro-style ways.
“When you watch us play — and I’m sure when you watch Michigan, the little bit I’ve seen of them is — it is spread principles,” Sarkisian said. “It is shotgun. But if you dig down deep into it, there’s a little of pro-style offense still involved in what we do and involved in what they do. And I think that’s the fine line.”
Alabama uses this play all the time — a simple counter, with a lead blocker from the backfield and a pulling offensive lineman to open holes. It works for the same reason a tradition, under-center counter play works: The blockers find a bodies, the running back hits the hole. Each player does his job and exerts his physical will.
These principles weren’t abandoned in the transitions to pro-spread.
Michigan’s run-game uses the same concepts — pin-and-pull, inside and outside zone, etc. — that it used prior. Playing from the shotgun or pistol does little to change that besides adding the element of a zone read or RPO.
The Crimson Tide and Wolverines will meet in Wednesday’s Citrus Bowl in quite different positions — Alabama still college football royalty, Michigan lagging well behind. But in a year washed out by disappointment once again, the Wolverines will head into the offseason with at least one distinct positive. This season’s schematic offensive changes are here to stay. And they have the templates laid out by programs like Alabama to thank.
“It’s unbelievable how much the game has changed, and it’s really hard to coach defense now,” Saban told ESPN in 2017. “But hey, it’s on me — regardless of the way I think football should be played — if I don’t change with it.”