09/12/2013 01:45 PM
The dividing line in college football, the one thing that most sharply separates the sport's top teams these days, is the speedometer. In recent years, the list of teams that forms the sport's upper class has been neatly cleaved in two. On one side are teams such as Alabama and Stanford, which use pro-style offenses featuring stationary quarterbacks who like to take their time snapping the ball. On the other are programs such as Oregon and Texas A&M, which play a frenetic, up-tempo style and encourage their quarterbacks to juke and deke around the field like they just stole something. These clashing philosophies are now so entrenched, right down to the sniping coaches, that they've become the Hatfields and McCoys of college football.
All this means that Saturday's showdown between No. 1 Alabama and No. 6 Texas A&M isn't just about whether quarterback Johnny Manziel and the Aggies can upset coach Nick Saban's two-time defending national champion Crimson Tide for a second straight year. It is also shaping up as a royal rumble for the sport's ideological future.
The scheme that's driving this ongoing debate is the hurry-up offense, a style that dozens of college teams have adopted in an effort to level the playing field. These teams rush to the line of scrimmage without huddling and run plays in rapid succession, often with a speedy quarterback and wide receivers stretched across the field, dragging defenses behind them huffing and puffing.
They have pushed the pace of offenses to the extreme: Eleven teams last season played faster than the fastest team in 2007 (Tulsa), including current top-10 teams Clemson, Texas A&M and Oregon, the program that set the standard for succeeding with speed. After coaching Oregon to four straight BCS bowls, Chip Kelly jumped this year to the NFL, where his Philadelphia Eagles stunned the Washington Redskins on Monday night with an offensive display the league had rarely seen.
Meanwhile, some of college football's traditional powers have stuck with the more conventional form of the game, which looks lumbering by comparison. That group includes Alabama and Saban, who has won four of college football's last eight national championships, including the 2003 title when he was at Louisiana State.
The evidence is building, though, that the upstarts' hurry-up offense is the best and maybe only way to beat Alabama: Teams can try to beat the Tide at their own game—with inferior recruits—or they can pull the Tide so far out of their comfort zone that Alabama can't keep up.
Last season, Texas A&M managed to run 77 plays in its 29-24 win over Alabama—one every 25.3 seconds they had the ball. That was more than five seconds faster per play than the rest of Alabama's opponents.
Even some strategically primitive teams have noticed. Georgia, whose power game was derided by an opponent last season as "old-man football," changed its stripes against Alabama in the Southeastern Conference championship game. The Bulldogs shaved 4.5 seconds off each play against the Tide, going from a season average of 25.8 seconds per play to 21.3 seconds against Alabama. The result: Georgia was five yards from scoring the winning touchdown and playing for the national championship when time expired.
Out west, a long way from the Division-I national championship, is Bob Stitt, an influential practitioner of fast football at Colorado School of Mines. It was Stitt's "fly-sweep" play that West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen employed in the 2012 Orange Bowl to score 70 points against Clemson. This style, Stitt said, can "close the gap on teams that just flat-out are more athletic than you—more powerful, bigger and stronger." In college football this year, those teams are Alabama and Stanford, the top foils to Oregon's championship hopes.
In the Aggies' win last season over Alabama, which effectively won the Heisman Trophy for Manziel, Texas A&M actually wanted to played faster, said Kliff Kingsbury, the current Texas Tech coach who was then the Aggies' offensive coordinator. In fact, that game was the Aggies' slowest all year: Their pace was 17% off what they otherwise averaged.
Kingsbury said the hurry-up strategy is particularly effective against the physical monsters that Saban has stockpiled on defense. "I know I wouldn't want to line up with two tight ends and two running backs and let the clock get down to three seconds each time and try to run it up in there," Kingsbury said. "I think you've got to give yourself at least a chance against all the great athletes on defense they have—try to get them in space and try to play fast."
Besides speeding up the game, the fastest offenses avoid making substitutions, which also deprives the defense of the chance to make them. When the Aggies did substitute against Alabama, the Tide slowed the pace by shuttling in players as late as possible. Alabama also did its best to slow the Aggies' pace by forcing them into the most third downs they faced in any SEC game all season. Texas A&M tends to take more time on third down than it does when it's moving the chains.
But the Aggies were still able to make the game a chaotic mess that left the Tide's defense gasping for air, particularly in the first quarter, when Manziel staked his team to a shocking 20-0 lead. In the quarter, Manziel completed just one pass of more than 10 yards, and even that was the result of a fake-option ploy. Texas A&M thrived otherwise with a combination of short routes, quick snaps and Manziel scrambles, with the shifty quarterback scampering for 74 yards on his first three drives.
With a year of Manziel at the controls, the Aggies are operating even faster than they did last year. They took 19.6 seconds between plays in their season opener against Rice. On Saturday against Sam Houston State, the first game Manziel started, that pace dipped below the 18-second mark in the first half.
How to tame the Aggies' offense is a question that has lingered in Tuscaloosa and bedeviled Saban and Kirby Smart, Saban's highly regarded defensive coordinator, who have had 10 months and an idle week to prepare for Manziel this year.
Both sides have dug into their philosophies. Saban has questioned the safety of fast-paced offenses, which hurry 300-pound men through more plays in a high-impact game than ever before. "Should we allow football to be a continuous game?" Saban said in July. "Is that the way the game was designed to play?"
Coach Gus Malzahn of Auburn, the Alabama rival who runs a similar offense to Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin's, scoffed at that notion and said his style marks the next evolution of the game.
They may have the answer as soon as this weekend. Another Aggies upset—Alabama is a 7½-point favorite—would have consequences beyond determining the team with the inside track to represent the SEC in the national championship game. It also could decide whether a style of offense once dismissed as a gimmick will become college football's ruling scheme.