"I think things go in cycles," says Auburn defensive coordinator Will Muschamp as the Tigers prepare for Florida's spread offense. "Right now (the spread) is kind of the fad of what people are trying to do. A lot of these teams are spreading you out to run the football."
Just as the veer, the wishbone, I-formation or shotgun offenses were developed over the years, the new wave of offense seems to be a spread offense designed to run the ball and take advantage of mismatches in the passing game.
"It really reverts back to the old split-veer single-wing philosophy of running the football back in the backfield with the number of fakes and pulls and things they're doing," Muschamp explains. "A lot of older things come back into play."
All good things come to an end as they say, just as the wishbone and the old Wing-T have taken a backseat in college football to more advanced offensive attacks. But with defenses getting faster off the corners and quarterback mobility becoming a necessity as a result, the spread may make more than just a brief impact on the world of college football.
"I don't know that it'll end because they've got good athletes, they've got good players and they've done a good job in my opinion, especially at Florida, of isolating playmakers in space," Muschamp notes. "They make you make plays in space. I don't know that it's going to end."
Just as Vince Young did at Texas and as Dennis Dixon is doing at Oregon, Florida quarterback Tim Tebow is passing the ball with tremendous success and also a threat in the running game. He's a LenDale White (power runner) and Matt Leinart (efficient passer) wrapped into one uniform. Tebow is currently third in the NCAA in passing efficiency and has thrown for 1,096 yards and 10 touchdowns with just one pick through four games. He's also rushed for seven touchdowns and 358 yards, which is 13 more than Auburn starting tailback Ben Tate.
"They're a power running team with a quarterback that is a power runner," Muschamp explains. "Unfortunately for us he can spread the field and throw the ball extremely well. It's just a different way of getting to a power running game, as opposed to lining up with two backs and letting everybody load the box with nine people and see if you can beat a guy one-on-one because you're going to outnumber the box. Well now it's tougher to outnumber the box based on them spreading you out. You've got to account for Andre Caldwell, Percy Harvin and the speed they have outside. That's the problem it presents."
On most of Auburn's running plays (at least with Brandon Cox in the game), the quarterback's sole purpose is to get the ball from the center to the runner. Florida's spread takes away that middleman and gives an extra blocker or receiver that has to be covered. And while Auburn runs most of it's play-action passes using three players to set it up--the quarterback, fullback and tailback--Tebow is often times his own play fake with just a stutter step. That means he still has five other eligible receivers to throw to that aren't a part of the fake.
Kestahn Moore is the primary "running back" on the team and pounds the ball between the tackles along with Tebow. Then there's Harvin, Caldwell and Jarred Fayson who are constantly in motion in and out of the backfield. They're listed as receivers, but as a part of the spread attack they also serve as backs. Riley Cooper, Louis Murphy and tight end/receiver Cornelius Ingram are deep threats used mostly to stretch the field and open up the short passing attack. Not to be forgotten are Brandon James and Chris Rainey, Florida's version of Trindon Holliday.
"There's a lot of speed," Muschamp says. "They make you defend the field. Percy Harvin is as good of an offensive football player as there is in the country--great acceleration, change of direction and they get him the ball in a lot of different ways. Tebow, obviously, is an outstanding player. He throws the ball extremely well, runs the ball extremely well and had 170 (yards) last week against Ole Miss.
"It's another game you've got to make plays in space and you've got to have some playmakers step up in the game because they're going to create a lot of one-on-ones with good people. We've got to make plays and stop the run. They're a spread offense that is going to run the ball first and set you up to throw the ball down field."
With so many players in and out of the backfield with such a variety of personnel, the Gators run a lot of shotgun reads, draws, options, triple options, counters, screens and play-actions. Then they'll mix in the reverse to the slot receiver when opposing defenses over-pursue.
Auburn's defense was solid in year one of Muschamp in 2006, but if there was an aspect needing to be patched up in year two it was how the Tigers played against athletic quarterbacks. Syvelle Newton, Tebow, Matthew Stafford and John Parker Wilson all had success tucking and running out of the shotgun a season ago.
"Any time you face something that is a little different or a little unusual for your players it often presents a new set of problems just from familiarity of understanding what they're trying to do and how they're doing it," Muschamp notes. "We were able to practice more in camp on gun runs. We spent probably five practices strictly on quarterback gun runs to get a better feel for playing these teams. I think that's been a help so far. Against South Florida we played a little better against the gun runs."
With Gene Chizik as defensive coordinator from 2002-2004 and David Gibbs at the post during 2005, Auburn's defenses ran mostly base 4-3 gap control schemes. Muschamp brought with him in 2006 the defensive equivalent to the spread as far as the new style of play with three, four and five-man fronts from the same personnel, delayed blitzes and innovative ways to confuse the opposing quarterback.
The Florida offense, which is arguably the fastest in the country, has taken advantage of its speed and also it's different looks and formations. The Gators scored 49 against Western Kentucky, 59 against Troy, 59 more against Tennessee and 30 at Ole Miss.
With a combination of Chris Leak and Tebow last season, Florida scored 17 points against Auburn in the first half, but the Tiger defense stepped up held them scoreless in the final 30 minutes. Auburn won 27-17.
"Last year in the first half, (being out of position) is what killed us," Muschamp says. "We misfit about four run plays, and those four run plays hit for about 70 yards in the first half. We just misfit on some runs, and if you misfit on some runs you're going to pay for it because of their speed and athleticism outside. You've got to be right on your gap fits and what you're trying to do and you've got to be able to create a new line of scrimmage with your front."
Muschamp's heavy blitz packages and attacking style won out in the second half as the Tigers beat the Gators to the punch. New meets new again in The Swamp on Saturday at 7 p.m. CDT, but Muschamp says it'll be the same old-school football won or lost in the trenches.
"Really it boils down to the bottom line of getting a hat on a hat up front," he explains. "They're a power running team from the shotgun, but they give a lot of glitz and glamour of formations, motions and shifts, and when it all boils down to it they're running a counter play, a lead play, a tackle wrap. They're running basic old running plays, just from a different look."