In short, there's something in the air.
This fall, Baylor and Kansas State will unveil their own version of Texas Tech's point-a-minute, spread passing attack. Iowa State will take to the friendly skies, boasting a couple of preseason first-team all-conference picks in WR Todd Blythe and QB Bret Meyer. It's also Year Three of coach Bill Callahan's attempt to install the West Coast offense at Nebraska. Kansas is operating a pro-style offense these days while Oklahoma State looks for balance with dual-threat QB Bobby Reid behind center. Add it up and it's part of the reason why Texas A&M has shifted to a 4-2-5 defensive alignment: programs want the extra safety on the field when facing four- or five-wide sets as well as to provide run support against spread options.
"The style of offense is changing," said Callahan. "There's not many teams that you can look at (in the Big 12) that are going to line up in the I-formation and try to come downhill at you. There's just not many teams doing that."
What a difference a decade makes. The shift in offensive philosophy shapes up as one of college football's more intriguing pre-season story-lines, given the fact that two formerly ground-bound conferences (Southwest, Big Eight) that formed the Big 12 have gone airborne. The deep I-set that launched Earl Campbell in 1977, as well the wishbone attacks at Texas and OU that devastated defenses for the better part of two decades, is ancient history to the Big 12 student-athletes of today. In their time, the Big 12 has become a pass-happy league that is also part of the national trend toward the spread-option running game.
"It's becoming a much wider game with teams embracing three- and four-wide receiver formations," said first-year Kansas State coach Ron Prince, "and they accomplish it by having a terrific playmaker, a dual-threat athlete at quarterback. Now, you basically are playing with 12 people on the field. The last time the game of football took it to this level was the single-wing. That was a little bit different but, in the single-wing, the quarterback was basically the threat. He was the player that really won games for you. You can see in last year's BCS Title Game, the player (Vince Young) that won that title, the team that was involved, they had a player who was an unbelievable dual-threat. But I think, in the entire game of college football, that is now the trend."
The flipside is that fullbacks are a dying breed in college football's latest trend, almost unthinkable at places like Nebraska just 10 years ago.
"We have to practice the two-back style attack against our defense just we can keep them boned up on that aspect of football," Callahan noted
The "trend" offers the possibility of quick fixes at Baylor and Kansas State.
"There are a lot of programs who have made themselves fixtures in the Top 25 because they had the opportunity to put this kind of system in place," Prince said. "And a lot of people are still trying to figure out the answers to defending it."
But for all the difficulty some defenses have had in covering the spread, it just isn't all that difficult to install, Baylor coach Guy Morriss believes.
"You just rep the same plays over and over and over and over," he said, "but you just show different looks. Our players have seen that script for the whole spring...Our running backs thought they were going to get left out but, once we put it in and they saw their role in it, they got pretty excited."
The scheme springs the running game with large splits along the offensive front and also by spreading the secondary by overloading the field with receivers. The premise is that most teams have neither the depth nor talent at DB to cover five receivers, play after play after play. Quick-hitting slants, hitches and curls become explosive plays, as does a simple RB draw, because the scheme can destroy the underneath integrity of the defense.
Texas Tech could be the poster child for any program in search of an offensive scheme capable of lifting it from mediocrity and into the national rankings. Coach Mike Leach's sixth-season in Lubbock saw the Red Raiders clinch a New Year's Day bowl bid for the first time in 11 years and crack the Top 10 for the first time since 1977. It's no secret that Leach's system has often leveled the playing field against superior talent and, as a result of its success, has revitalized Tech's recruiting. And with the Raiders introducing its fifth QB in as many seasons, we can reasonably conclude that, yes!, it is the system. But Leach bristles at the suggestion that his scheme is less physical than traditional, smash-mouth football.
"You wanna see physical?," Leach asked. "Go and write about someone who's throwing the ball 60 times a game, and see how physical that is. Ask the offensive linemen if it's physical when everybody brings the house. I don't think you'll find an offense that's more physical."
The system, with its wide offensive splits, is one that even a former NFL All-Pro offensive lineman (Philadelphia Eagles) like Morriss can embrace. He even went so far as to hire Lee Hays as his new offensive coordinator after his West Texas A&M team led the NCAA D-II ranks in passing (363.8 ypg) last season.
"Nobody can teach one-on-one, pass protection anymore," Morriss said, who is also the O-line coach at Baylor. "I believe that if I have a strong suit, that's it: man-protection, so, I'm doing what I do best. I've seen the system work."
For the Cornhuskers, a balanced attack punctuated by a pass-first philosophy offers a chance to rejoin the elite company that Texas and USC now enjoy. The Cornhuskers have the dubious distinction of being the only program to play both USC (Sept. 16) and Texas (Oct. 21) in 2006, and Callahan believes opponents will still have to light up the scoreboard like a pinball machine to have a shot at upended either the Trojans or the defending national champs.
"In looking at the two teams that have won the National Championship in the last two years, you have to score points to win," Callahan said. "What Texas did, putting 41 points on USC, and what USC did two years ago against Oklahoma, it's pretty prolific. Playing in a national championship game and scoring the amount of points that have been produced really sends a message."
The message is this: defense may win championships, but not unless your offense can score.