Barry Odom doesn’t feel like a pioneer. Certainly not after that day against Alabama.
Arkansas‘ defensive coordinator might as well have worn the padding his players used. Everyone felt beat up after a 52-3 loss to wrap the regular season.
But somewhere deep down, there was flicker of hope in a larger battle. Odom’s plan against the Crimson Tide that December day included a heavy reliance on the 30 Stack defense.
The 30 is not necessarily revolutionary, just one of the latest tools being used against the modern spread offense. In general, it involves dropping eight speedy defenders into coverage. It emphasizes stopping the run and deep pass.
It worked — to a point — that day. On his way to the Heisman Trophy, Alabama wide receiver DeVonta Smith was held a season-low 22 receiving yards. Also limited was Davey O’Brien Award winner Mac Jones (208 passing yards). Doak Walker Award winner Najee Harris rushed for his second-lowest total (46 yards) in his final 20 games.
It became a case of how fast you want to die.
“We wanted to try to make them earn it,” Odom said. “Our mindset was, ‘Make them throw the ball underneath and populate it enough when they hand it off and try not to give up explosive plays.’ We felt like we knew what our kids could do. They executed pretty well for the most part of that game.”
You’ll just have to ignore Smith’s 84-yard punt return and those six rushing touchdowns.
That’s why Odom quickly added, “Anybody who doesn’t follow football reads those statements wouldn’t have any idea what I’m talking about.”
That’s the essential struggle of trying to stop the spread offense. Mostly, there are small victories. In the case of Arkansas, sometimes very small victories. But a massive struggle endures.
Will the spread ever be stopped or slowed?
History would suggest, yes. The great offenses of the past — Split T, wishbone, I-formation and veer — were all revolutionary in their own ways. But defensive evolution eventually trumped revolution. They’re mostly all gone as reliable base offenses.
The spread now has dominated college football for at least 15 years with no signs of slowing down. Confounding defenses, the spread succeeds because it uses bits and pieces from those offenses of the past.
The result: Defenses have become massive underdogs within the game itself. This being Hollywood awards season, we might as well call them best supporting actors to weekly offensive fireworks.
It has also made accomplished defensive coaches look in the mirror and ask themselves if they’re worth a damn anymore.
“Much like the three-pointer, they’re not going away,” said Oklahoma defensive coordinator Alex Grinch.
“Good luck,” veteran defensive coordinator Phil Bennett said. “If you’re holding teams under 24 [points], you’re doing a hell of a job.”
“Until we can find a way to play with 12 on defense, it’s going to be hard to slow a lot of these teams down,” said Odom, a 17-year college football veteran as a player and coach.
These summations are not new. Football has never been this leveraged to one side of the ball. It’s also been damn entertaining. The nine highest-scoring seasons across the FBS have all come in the last nine years.
It’s equally frustrating for those trying to stop it. Even worse for defensive types, the question now being asked: Will it ever be stopped?
“Schematically, defenses will catch up,” veteran defensive coordinator Kevin Steele said. “But it’s going to be a longer process than most. The athleticism that’s on the field, the field is too wide [to cover] with 11 men.”
Alabama might as well have written the manual on both sides of the discussion. The three highest-scoring teams in program history have taken the field in the last three years. But in winning his seventh national championship this season, Nick Saban had one of his worst defenses. In fact, Alabama in 2020 had the third-worst defense (352.2 yards game) to win ever a national championship. That goes back to the beginning of the wire service era in 1936.
“We have a good defense,” Saban said. “We gave up 19 points [per game] last year. That was first in the SEC. That’s six points above what we think is average. The game is different now. People score fast. I grew up with the idea, ‘You play good defense, you run the ball, you control vertical field position on special teams, you’re going to win.’ … You don’t win anything now doing that.”
Not these days. The most important statistics have become explosive plays and points per possession. You win those categories, you’re usually going to win big.
In the space of their careers, Alabama’s Class of 2017 won two national championships. As freshmen, they were part of the best championship defense of the College Football Playoff era (260.4 yards in 2017). As seniors, they were part of the worst championship defense of the CFP era (2020).
“I changed my philosophy about five or six years ago when Lane [Kiffin] came here [as offensive coordinator],” Saban added. “We said, ‘We gotta outscore ’em.'”
That tipping point in 2014 changed not only Alabama but all of college football. Saban made it OK for everyone to spread word of the spread. The generation’s greatest coach joined the revolution going against every defensive instinct.
If defenses are ever going to catch up, there won’t be a moment or even a series of moments. Change will be incremental — a series of Odom-like “wins”. Against Alabama, that translated to surrendering “only” seven explosive plays out of 65 run by the Tide. (Teams track them in different ways, but for these purposes, explosive plays are defined as runs of 12+ yards and completions 15+ yards.)
“I don’t know about eliminating [the spread],” Odom said. “At this point, you’re just trying to slow it down.”
RPOs stalling significant progress
Defenses are making some improvements. Scoring is down slightly from an all-time high in 2016 when teams averaged 30 points per game. Reacting to more wide-open offenses, defenses lined up with at least eight players behind the defensive line 46% of the time in 2020. Compare that to six years ago in 2014. That figure was 27%. More importantly, defenses are more effective when playing that way. Yards per play allowed in those formations is down slightly (2% from 5.66 to 5.52).
In all, defenses have been deployed with eight or nine players behind the line 14% more often than they were in 2014. They have no choice. In general, the more defensive players lined up back there, the less efficient offenses perform. Whether it be 2014 or 2020, offenses have struggled the most when there were only two down linemen, per Sports Source Analytics. Amazing.
Stopping the spread has always been about stopping the run with the fewest people possible up front. That allows more defenders in the secondary to populate pass defense. Even better if you can play man coverage.
You saw a bit of that in the Super Bowl. Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes struggled with a Buccaneers defensive line that dominated Kansas City up front. The Chiefs were missing both starting tackles. Tampa Bay expanded its coverage across the field, meaning speedster Tyreek Hill seldom got deep, and everything tight end Travis Kelce caught was underneath. Do that and you can afford to play physical man-to-man up front with deep zone in the back.
Sounds easy, right? It isn’t. Defensive coaches continue to curse RPOs. The run-pass option evolved by capitalizing on an obscure rule from the 1960s. It allowed offensive linemen to block 1 yard beyond the line of scrimmage and drive the defender 3 yards downfield. In 2009, that rule was amended. Linemen could be up to 3 yards downfield (without blocking) when the pass is released.
“That was a trigger point that allowed the RPO to gain new momentum,” said Steve Shaw, secretary-editor of the NCAA rules committee.
Ask any defensive coach. He’ll tell you that the 3-yard rule is violated on any given RPO by the offense. An RPO essentially allows a quarterback to change the play after the snap with the ball in his hands. What might look like a running play at the mesh point (handoff point between the quarterback and runner) can quickly turn into a pass if the quarterback keeps the ball. At that point, defenders are theoretically fooled by being committed to the run.
“It’s insane,” said Steele, a defensive assistant for almost 40 years. “Every key that you give [a defense] on the RPO, linemen down the field break those keys. That’s like my grandmother trying to read a book without glasses.”
The NCAA rules committee discusses altering the 3-yard rule each year, according to Shaw. That discussion usually goes nowhere, perhaps because any coaches protesting RPOs are usually running them on offense.
“The unintended consequence was it created a new type play,” Shaw added.
A play that has created a conflict on every snap. If not on the field, then on the sideline.
“Defensive coaches are probably the greatest ambassadors for why it should be called,” Grinch said of the lineman downfield rule. “We also [might be perceived] as the bitchers and moaners on it, so nobody wants to hear your opinion on it.”
In Auburn‘s breakdown of Alabama’s prolific offense last year, Steele said his staff counted “246 motions, shifts and formations.”
“When I was a graduate assistant, when we’d break teams down, if you had more than eight formations, that was exotic,” Steele said.
That was also four decades ago.
“Exotic” has a whole new meaning these days. Remember Bennett’s statement about 24 points per game? It was only 10 years ago that Alabama led the country allowing only 8.2 points on average. The 2020 leader in that category was