Thursday, July 3, 2014

How up-tempo strategies both hurt and help big programs

The hurry-up, no-huddle (HUNH) offensive trend that's sweeping across both college and professional football is leaving a lot of classic strategies in its destructive wake. After watching Oklahoma obliterate opposing teams in 2008 and continue to put up gaudy offensive numbers hence after while being joined by Oregon, Baylor, and Auburn I boldly proclaimed that the HUNH was the best possible offense to install at a big time college football program.

Well in reality it is and it isn't. In some ways, it can help them considerably, in other ways it does not. I'm going to broach just a few of the helpful and harmful impacts the HUNH has had on college football strategy at major programs:

1). Positive: The rare hybrid players become more valuable
     Negative: Personnel packages go out the window

As we've covered in the "basketball on grass" series, there are few things more devastating than an offense that can run a play from the I-formation one snap and then rush to the line and run another play from an empty formation within 15 seconds without substituting.

Defenses often prefer to defend an offense by matching formations and situations. "Oh you're going to line up in the I-formation on 1st and 10? We're going to bring in a big defensive group and make a play call to stop the run. What are you doing? Empty formation? You're throwing it? Oh shoot, let's get Kowalski off the field, now!"

If the offense can be in the I-Formation running the ball downhill or in an empty formation throwing a quick pass from the same personnel group...then the defense has no chance to substitute and get their best responses on the field.

Alabama, Florida, LSU, all of them rely somewhat on matching offensive formations with the right defensive package to defend them. This is why Saban hates the no-huddle, it invalidates one of his favorite defensive strategies.

The kinds of players that make this possible such as the running back who can run routes, the fullback who can carry the ball, the tight end who can run routes and block, the dual-threat QB, these aren't particularly common players. It takes a lot of athleticism and coordination to master all of the roles that make something like Oregon's "Flying V" possible.

Save for the smaller schools that are better at evaluating prospects, the big schools generally have more access to the types of players that make these strategies especially devastating.

The downside here is that a lot of big time programs are fielding great defenses by recruiting tons of specialized athletes and then deploying them in different personnel packages.

Big time programs often rely on the following syllogism for finding advantages:

1. While playing great offense requires skill, playing great defense depends on having athleticism to respond to the offensive players. For instance, a corner needs to be quick than the WR because the receiver already knows where he's going before it happens.

2. Great athletes are more rare.

3. Big time schools can get more great athletes than smaller programs.

4. Big time schools can field the best defenses.

Now, of course big time defensive schools also have a better shot at finding versatile, hybrid defenders but in the meantime they have to give up some of their favorite strategies AND give up on making use of bigger rosters with their package-heavy defenses if they want to stop HUNH teams.

2). Positive: Faster pace means more plays, more need for depth, and more emphasis on execution
     Negative: Scholarship limits, eligibility limits, and simplified play books erase some big program advantages

Part of the reason the move to the HUNH was so perfect for Oklahoma was that it allowed them to focus their offense around execution. They tended to have the best athletes in the Big 12 so on a typical outside zone play they could expect to find success in the form of a solid or even explosive run perhaps as often as 75% of the time.

Well the more times you create a situation where you are running outside zone, the more likely it is that the odds will play into your favor. If you have back-ups who can come in and wear out the opponent then those odds even increase over the course of the game.

By the time the Sooners got deep into the 3rd quarter or into the 4th quarter, outside zone was often giving them nearly 100% odds of having a successful play as opposing DL became exhausted by the effort needed to beat reach blocks by Duke Robinson or Trent Williams.

The problems relate to nullifying the advantages big programs have in assembling staff and accumulating players.

Because everyone plays by the same 85 man scholarship limit, there's only a certain extent to which a big time program can accumulate top players. Furthermore, eligibility limitations mean that a good deal of their roster includes underclassmen who aren't ready to perform at a high level on the field. Alabama might have two four-star linebackers that you don't have, but neither of them understand how to make their coverage drops yet.

If a top program struggles to evaluate athletes to their system then their advantage in depth over opponents is virtually nil. What's more, assembling a top staff of schemers and thinkers becomes less valuable if the game moves more and more towards players making choices on the field.

At that point, it all becomes about who can teach the best and it could be a long while before the best teachers are all accumulated in the ranks of the big programs.

Finally, sometimes the 4/5 star players that big programs target are valued highly because of athletic traits but aren't necessarily the brightest players. If the game moves towards players having to make decisions and calls on the field, then some of those less athletic but more cerebral 2/3 star players that smaller programs can always find and snatch up become more valuable.


Most of the trends and changes brought by the HUNH offense can be used to benefit top programs, but they will require either considerable adaptation by coaches at those programs or gradual attrition of the non-HUNH coaches before new ones take over.

In either event, smaller schools can stand to benefit from the arrival of the HUNH and enjoy fantastic offensive success at the expense of their opponents. If a smaller school can find some of those rare hybrid players that make the HUNH really dangerous from the bowl of leftover 2/3-star recruits? Even more so.

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