Where's The 'D'?

The college game has changed exponentially in the past decade. Dominant defenses are few and far between. Why? There are many reasons.

(Ole Miss RB Jeff Scott's run against Vanderbilt, which came in the final minute of the fourth quarter, is but one example of how up-tempo, strike-quickly offenses have taken over college football.)

The Ole Miss Rebel offense is averaging 490 yards a game.

Five years ago, that would be considered a lot of yards, a monumental offensive eruption.

The Rebels are tied for 33rd in the nation for total offense. Strap that on for size.

There are currently 28 teams averaging 500 yards or better per game. Twenty-eight.

Alabama's Nick Saban, with Tide Defensive Coordinator Kirby Smart, have long been considered the gold standard for defense in college football.

The Tide gave up over 600 yards, and over 40 points, to Texas A&M last Saturday. There have been years when Bama wouldn't give up that many yards in three games.

Alabama still recruits the very best defensive players in the country - with apologies to Robert Nkemdiche and Tony Connor, who they didn't get - but even they have proven to be vulnerable on that side of the ball.

So, here we are, a game that is now being dominated by offense.


Not being a coach, this writer has no clue, but I asked those who do - coaches at Ole Miss and different schools, mostly former Rebel coaches, offensive and defensive, who requested not to be quoted but were willing to educate off the record.

Hugh Freeze
Associated Press

And I also asked Ole Miss Coach Hugh Freeze point blank in Monday's press conference.

Before delving into the thoughts of some "others," here's what Freeze had to say.

"The game has definitely changed," Freeze said. "People who haven't changed with it, I see it all the time, they want you to get rid of your defensive staff. Have you looked at what is happening in college football?

"I guess folks are screaming for Nick to fire his defensive staff after last Saturday and Kirby is one of the best, a coach who does a great job. The game has just changed, whether we like it or not."

For Freeze, it starts with the style of offense a lot of teams, including him, are employing. The schemes these days are the great equalizers in talent.

"Offensive coaches are making defensive coaches defend the whole field now - sideline to sideline, even on an inside run play because of the options teams like us have on every play," he continued. "You add to that the tempo game and the rule changes and everything has been advantageous to the offense and I think the stats prove that."

Freeze said the difficulty of "totally stopping" the offenses now seen on the college level - and creeping into the pros in some cases, i.e., the Philadelphia Eagles under Chip Kelly, who came from Oregon, where 100-play offensive games are common - has gone way up.

"The high schools are doing it (tempo, read option, spread, etc.) more and more and the kids are so athletic. They are coming up in these systems and they are more ready to play when they get here," Freeze stated. "It's just hard to defend a 53-yard wide field when offenses are using every inch of it on every play. That's why I love what we do on offense and think it gives us some options.

"It is an equalizer. At times I have looked at my personnel versus theirs and think there's no way we are supposed to move the ball much against them, then you play them and look up and you have 400 yards. It makes you feel good your system is good, but it also makes you realize the advantages offenses have. It's very difficult on defenses. We are fourth in the SEC in total defense right now - that's pretty good, but the days of holding teams to 200 yards are few and far between now."

Ole Miss QB Bo Wallace
File Photo

So when the hypothetical you started watching college football, the norm, most likely, was a two-back set with a traditional hand-on-the-ground tight end and two wideouts that invited a 4-3 base defense as the best tool of the defensive trade.

Then the option game came along and gave defenses fits for a few years before they were figured out as one-dimensional and one-back and empty sets followed, spreading out the field and putting more pressure on defenses to cover more turf.

Many defensive coordinators started using different alignments that included more DB types beyond the standard two corners and two safeties, similar to Ole Miss' Husky package, or 4-2-5, that can be easily transformed into a 4-3 on short yardage downs by bringing the Husky tighter to the line of scrimmage.

Offensive tendencies became more difficult to figure out. Tendencies, said two different coordinators we spoke to, were what gameplans used to be based on. Not as much these days.

"With all the self-scouting technology now, you can't depend on tendencies. You have to get into a game and adjust to what you see more than ever before. You can think you have a good gameplan going into a game, but when it actually starts, you may be right or you may have to change everything," said an ACC DL coach.

Based on all the above, offenses started scoring more points and eating up larger chunks of real estate.

After a while, the defensive coaches caught up with all of that until offensive coaches brought back option football, but not your father's option.

Virtually every play Ole Miss calls has a run or pass option, depending on how the defense is lined up and, basically, off the number of defenders in the box. A lot of schools have incorporated that into their attacks.

(This smartfootball.com video shows one of Ole Miss' packaged plays, which, because of the options available to the QB in the formation, allowed the Rebels to run the same play five times in a row in the BBVA Compass Bowl.)

"You can't think run or pass any more. You have to think both, no matter the situation, and you have to defend both at all times. There is a lot of educated guesswork going on when you make a defensive call," said a Pac 10 OC.

Then, the coup de gras. Offensive coaches came up with the tempo game to limit defensive personnel changes from play to play. When a ball is being snapped as quickly as it is put in play by an official, there's only time for a defensive call, but very little for shuttling situational players in and out.

"Tempo limits what you can call and what you can do from a personnel standpoint," one defensive coach said.

When you add to all of that the rules changes of the past decade or so, with so much protection given to the offensive players, the outcome was predictable.

More offense, less defense.

One defensive coordinator was blunt about the rules' part of the equation.

"If you had a mean safety or two, receivers would not go over the middle as much and that was a part of the field we didn't have to defend as much. Your safeties were more run-stoppers than cover guys. Now, with the rules like they are, everyone will go over the middle, meaning you have to have safeties who play like corners, but are still good at run support. Safeties used to control the middle of the field - not so much anymore," said our ACC connection.

Also, as one DC stated, each officiating crew is different.

"What is pass interference and what is not varies from officiating crew to officiating crew. It's very inconsistent."

Also, there's the matter of health that is tied to practice time rules and how coaches now utilize allotted practice time.

Scott is fourth in the SEC in rushing with 330 yards
UA TODAY images

"When I first got in the business, we used to hit in practice all the time, but we had 95 scholarship players," said one SEC head coach. "Now, we don't hit nearly as much for fear of injury and I think that shows in games. Kids are not as effective tacklers as they were 20 years ago. Why? They rarely do it except in games."

One thing that has not changed is that defensive football is all about matchups. In this day and age of four wides and one back and a tight end in motion, for instance, that means changing your recruiting to match those alignments.

"We used to recruit for a 4-3, but now we recruit less linebackers and more safeties and corners and smaller guys who might be able to play linebacker but can also cover tight ends and backs. Those guys are rare and why you see some teams just going with safeties at the so-called linebacker slots," said one veteran, prominent defensive coach who has been in the SEC for nearly three decades. "You have to have versatile athletes who can play more than one traditional position. Consequently, when we play what few power teams are still out there, we find ourselves short on true linebackers. It won't be long before only the ultra-talented defensive teams will be playing a 4-3. Hell, even they don't as much as they used to."

Even adjustments are getting more difficult from a defensive standpoint.

"When every play has four or five options, what do you change?" asked one ACC D-Line coach. "Defensive adjustments are still a big part of our game, but it's more difficult to hone in on what an offense is doing because of the multiplicity of offenses from formations that look the same. Coaches who make good adjustments are rare. If you have one, you better keep him."

So what's in the future?

For the foreseeable future, more offense and less defense.

"Let me put it this way," said a Big 12 DC, "if I was a young coach, I would definitely train on the offensive side of the ball. Defensive coaches are just waiting to be fired - and we are good coaches who know what we are doing."

The way things are going now, 7-6 defensive donnybrooks will be as rare as a dodo bird egg.

One secondary coach from the Big 10 laughed about it to keep from crying.

"Don't be surprised to wake up one day in the near future and see games where both teams score in the 50s and 60s on a regular basis."

If that comes to pass, one has to wonder if too much offense won't become as "blah" as too much defense did before the Wishbone burst on the scene in the 1970s.

With the way things are going in college football, it looks as if we are about to find out.

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