I got a chance to talk with Mandel recently about what he has learned about this plan of attack and what other coaches told him about trying to defend the spread-option attack.
LV: Stewart, what have coaches been saying to you about the offense that Florida plans to run this fall?
SM: I think people are intrigued by it and are as curious as I'm sure Florida fans are as to what it will look like and how it will work. I think the most fascinating thing is how many schools around the country, after seeing what Utah did last year, spent this off-season adopting all or part of it for themselves. This thing spread like wildfire to Oregon, Purdue, Missouri and Texas A&M. Bobby Bowden even spent some time on it but I don't know if they'll try to run any of it. It's really the offensive rage around the country right now.
LV: How much time did you spend on it trying to figure it out to some extent for your article?
SM: Well I watched some tape with him (Meyer) and I studied some tape on my own. I don't pretend to be a master of it. I'm not a football player or a coach myself, but the actual option concept of it is really very simple. It's basically the wishbone except out of the shotgun and with spread receivers rather than the traditional tight formations they used to run. The play we described in the article was a shovel pass in the Fiesta Bowl that went for a touchdown. It happens very fast and I had to stop and rewind it a hundred times to figure out how he got that wide open but the actual principles behind it are rather simple. It's very hard to defend because at Utah last season the players just grasped it so well and executed it so well that even if you spend time preparing for it the speed at which they execute it makes it very hard to defend.
LV: The fact is they were able to have a lot of success against Texas A&M and Pittsburgh even though they didn't have a lot of speed at Utah. Does that convince you and some of the coaches you've spoken with that this offense will succeed in the SEC?
SM: Well it can definitely work at the highest level it all depends on how well the players involved grasp it and execute it. At Utah the first season they were there they weren't all that explosive on offense if you look at the stats. It wasn't until the second year that everything clicked and it became this awesome unstoppable force that you saw last year. Yes, at Florida he has four receivers with more talent than anything he had at Utah, a couple of good running backs and you obviously have a very talented quarterback in Chris Leak. But Alex Smith knew that offense cold, and Chris Leak is going to have to know that offense cold by the time they play Tennessee, or maybe even by the opener against Wyoming. All the talent in the world won't matter if they're not executing it right.
LV: An interesting comment in the article comes from Texas A&M Coach Dennis Franchione who details how difficult it is to prepare for and defend against all the options this offense has. Of course he should know. Utah gained 582 yards against the Aggies.
SM: Yeah, and it's no coincidence that his staff is one of the ones that are most actively trying to incorporate some of it this season. Their coaches came to Gainesville this spring to learn more about it. All spread offenses are designed to make you defend the entire field rather than a small portion of it like teams who run a traditional I formation. It's a different mentality. The I-formation mentality is to just overpower people while the spread mentality is to try to create mismatches where a linebacker is having to cover a wide receiver and that kind of thing. What makes Urban's system unique is not that the spread passing attack is all that different but it's the added wrinkle of the option. The threat that presents is an entirely different thing to defend than a team that spreads out four or five receivers but throws it on every down.
LV: S.I. has the Gators at #3. Are you that high on this Florida team?
SM: I do think that might be a little high considering they are adjusting to new coaching and considering they lost five games last year. But I do think they are going to make a lot of noise this year and I think that offense is a big part of it. The SEC by nature is pretty traditional and there isn't a whole lot of new innovation that comes to us from year to year. Well, Auburn with pretty much the same guys from the previous year went from 8-5 to 13-0 by having a new offensive mind come in and better utilize the talent that was there. That's basically what Florida is doing this year. It's the same players that were there last year but they're going to be running something that SEC defensive coordinators haven't seen before and I think that's going to give them a great advantage. They still have to play defense obviously and the players have to grasp it themselves, but they have a chance to do something pretty special and make a run at the conference title.
LV: You guys have Florida at #3 and Tennessee at #5. Is the Florida/Tennessee game the SEC Championship game this year? SM: Well, no because you have LSU, which has assembled as much talent as anybody. They have a new coach, too but they're a talented team with a chance to win the conference. Auburn lost a lot of big-name players but they're not going to be that far down. In fact, Tommy Tuberville says this team is just as talented as last year. Georgia is a good team as well. But that game (Florida/Tennessee) will definitely set the tone and I think a lot of people around the country will be watching it because that will be the first real test for Urban Meyer and this offense. If they have a big night against Tennessee it's going to open a lot of eyes.
LV: I agree because one thing that is certain is Tennessee will have the best defense this offense has ever gone up against.
SM: Absolutely, there's no question about that. The teams that they ran up big yards against from the BCS conferences --- A&M didn't have that great of a defense last year --- Pittsburgh didn't have that great of a defense --- this is the big test. Tennessee has one of the best defensive lines in the country, plus a lot of experienced linebackers and secondary guys. If anybody can shut that thing down, certainly they could.
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Obviously Stewart Mandel is pretty impressed with what Urban Meyer has done and what this offense could do. I thought getting a perspective from someone with a national viewpoint would be interesting. I hope you did too.
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