There have been several trends that have dominated the college football landscape over the last few years, and we've tried to capture and demonstrate some of them for you here at Football Study Hall. But projecting what trends will emerge in the future is, of course, a much more difficult task.
That said, here are some major factors that I believe could play into how 2013 fits into the constantly evolving story and history of collegiate football in America.
1. The re-emergence of traditional powers
It's very difficult for USC, Ohio State, Michigan, and Texas to not impact the national scene in a major way. All of these schools are places with major tradition, big financial resources, and access to considerable nearby high school talent. However, none of them proved capable of contending for a BCS crown in 2012 (the three that were eligible, anyway), and it's not certain that more than one of them will do so in 2013.
Some of these programs are confronted with the emergence of upstarts that have been seizing recruits and attempting to climb out of previous caste systems. As difficult as it was for Mack Brown to handle Oklahoma, he's now found himself in a position in which his bid for Longhorn revival is being contested by TCU, Baylor, and OSU with a questionable prognosis for a conference title and return to power. And that says nothing of the major recruiting momentum in the state of Texas for the Aggies and their SEC brethren.
Similarly, USC's slow recovery from NCAA sanctions and Pete Carroll's departure, combined with Oregon's major funding and cutting-edge strategies, have made it possible that Oregon has permanently entered the game's elite programs.
Ohio State has faced the most minor dip of the bunch, held back last season only by suspension from post season play. Urban Meyer's Buckeyes might be ready to launch the Big 10 back into the national spotlight, assuming that Brady Hoke doesn't get the wheels at Michigan turning more quickly than expected.
In general, the B1G is loaded with prominent programs and short on the kind of regional talent necessary to assemble multiple squads with SEC-level talent. For now, Michigan and Ohio State still represent the best chance for the league to field teams that can match Saban and company down south.
As a UT graduate and Ann Arbor resident, I'll be keeping a close watch on the attempts of these old school powerhouses to contend for the regional thrones.
2. The historic domination of Saban-ball
I've predicted that Alabama's achievements in 2013 will not prove to be as historic as to claim a three-peat BCS Championship run, but the team has still won three of the last four title games and are certainly in position to attempt to do so again.
All eyes across the nation will be on Alabama, much like the historic USC team of 2005, to see if the Tide can close out the non-playoff title game era with Crimson banners. If that wasn't exciting enough, they get Johnny Football and embattled A&M in Texas in September, the annual throwdown with LSU in November, and then, of course, potentially enormous games should they reach the SEC Title Game or National Championship.
Beyond the domination by Alabama's football team, is the ideological war between a hammering process for moving and stopping the football versus the arguably more modern and finessed approach of the spread offense. The last few years have seen a split in the SEC between programs embracing either approach.
After flirting with smashmouth football, Auburn has welcomed back Gus Malzahn and the spread-option attack that earned the Tigers a title in 2010. Saban-disciple Will Muschamp is even more committed to winning ugly than the Crimson Tide. Arkansas brought aboard the head of Wisconsin's power run game, Bret Bielema, to compete.
The SEC will always be known for physical play at the line of scrimmage and many of these philosophies share the principle of unbalanced formations and leverage, but 2013 will have a big say in whether the spread can overtake big formations as the weapon of choice for major SEC programs.
3. Will offenses continue to explode with innovation?
The last few years have seen up-tempo pace married to packaged plays with multiple reads and concepts that can allow an offense to run the same play several times in a row with a totally different outcome.
Likely as not, offensive coordinators will find new possibilities for packaging concepts, possibly even giving their QBs deeper pass reads and further stretching the defense with post-snap options to defend.
Additionally likely is the rise of packaging plays or the use of tempo amidst the non-spread offenses of the league. The possibilities of an up-tempo, pro-style offense have increasingly more NFL examples from which to glean. Imagine Alabama's 2012 run game coming at defenses, with Yeldon and Lacy alternating drives and McCarron reading the backsides of defenses for throwing short passes to Amani Cooper in space...
There's still a lot of room for these concepts to take a deeper root in the game.
If necessity is the mother of invention, then the need for Texas to get its loaded cast of running backs on the field together could generate some ideas that may become standardized if successful.
The answer to the question in the header is almost certainly "Yes." But what that innovation looks like could be anybody's guess.
4. How will defenses respond?
Mike Stoops had experience and a plan heading into the 2012 Big 12 season with the Okahoma Sooners defense. In the early '00s, he had moved All-American Roy Williams down to nickelback to combat increasingly spread out offensive formations in the league. As head coach at Arizona, he routinely faced the zone read and other spread option staples.
Coming into 2012 he essentially embraced the approach of the dominant 2009 Nebraska Cornhusker defense: frequent nickel and dime personnel; predominantly base defenses of Cover-3 or Palms with the odd man blitz mixed in to avoid missed assignments; big, two-gapping four-man lines; and aggressive pass-coverage with large defensive backs.
Missing Ndamukong Suh and answers for the questions posed by evolving Big 12 offenses, Stoops watched Oklahoma's defensive tradition take a huge hit against the likes of Baylor and West Virginia and get blistered in the run game by running QBs and packaged concepts.
Big 12 coordinators are having a difficult time finding ways to address the threats of spread offenses. Overwhelming offenses with aggressive blitzes has been largely written off due to the threats of tempo and motion, while dominating them with freaks on the DL is a luxury of the wealthiest programs and not a viable strategy year in and out.
Beyond major schematic evolutions, the solutions have to come in terms of resource allocation.
Consider the challenges today for an SEC defensive coordinator. You're trying to install a defense that your charges can master while still playing with speed and confidence against teams that may push the tempo and demand discipline from your players. One week you're going to have to match A&M's four- and five-WR sets. You'll need answers in your base defenses for all of the major plays they run, as well as personnel packages that will allow you to cover good receivers and corral Johnny Manziel.
The next week, your base defenses and personnel need to be ready to handle the different concepts and physicality of LSU's offense. The defensive backs you relied on against A&M to cover lightning slot receivers and blitz Johnny Football may not be on the field this week more than a quarter of the game.
If you're the Alabama Crimson Tide, you probably have enough talent on your squad to fill out your different personnel packages. If you're Vanderbilt, you may need to consider either a catch-all approach that can adequately handle multiple situations or perhaps focus more of your recruiting numbers on filling out the defensive roster.
For once, Big 12 defensive coordinators may look to the East with compassion and sympathy rather than resentment.
To the north and west in B1G and Pac-12 country, these exact same challenges are cropping up, and it's hard to see a Jimmy Johnson on the horizon ready to bring another all-purpose wrecking machine like the Miami 4-3 Over to a major university to provide the answers.
Of course, if that happens, we'll chronicle it for you here.
5. Which games could encapsulate these trends and carry repercussions for the game as a whole?
Some are obvious, others less so:
Week 1: TCU vs LSU, Cowboy Classic. Patterson's 4-2-5 is perhaps the closest modern equivalent to be found of Johnson's 4-3 Over, and it will take on the power run game of Les Miles before doing a tour of spread-option nightmares in the Big 12.
Week 2: Texas @ BYU. Obviously Notre Dame vs. Michigan is a sexier game. But in the Longhorns' pursuit of a physical run game and an attempt to rebuild their defense to handle a physical run game, this matchup could provide the answer to whether Mack's Texas is ready to reclaim the spotlight. Bronco Mendenhall fields very strong, hard-nosed football teams, and a blowout Longhorn victory would be a sign that the rest of the nation may not be able to laugh at Bevo any longer.
Week 3: Alabama @ Texas A&M. This one is a no-brainer. Personally I'm hoping for a 100-degree Texas day and eligibility for Manziel so Alabama can take on the full weight of the up-tempo spread on its journey up the mountain.
Week 4: Good week to be forced to attend a wedding.
Week 5: Wisconsin @ Ohio State. Bad week to be forced to attend a wedding. There are several great games on the docket, but this contest represents the first big test for Urban's Buckeyes in proving they can win big when there are postseason stakes.
Week 6: Conference pick'em. Conference play begins, but there are not many obvious symbolic matchups.
Week 7: Florida @ LSU. As a UT fan, I'm imploring you to ignore the Red River Shootout and take in the physical bloodletting in Baton Rouge, which may well have championship implications.
Week 8: USC @ Notre Dame. Clemson vs. Florida State will be an important contest, but it's hard to ignore Notre Dame's attempt to maintain balance back on top of the college football mountain in the wake of Manti Te'o's shame and Everett Golson's temporary dismissal. Meanwhile, the Trojans attempt to push them over and claim the spot.
Week 9: Boise State @ BYU. It's not often that we get to see Boise take on teams with comparable talent. This one has the added bonus of being a Friday night contest.
Week 10: Florida vs Georgia. The world's largest outdoor cocktail party. Georgia is returning almost its entire offense, and this could determine the SEC East.
Week 11: Oregon @ Stanford. Everyone will be eager to see if Stanford's success against the Duck offense in 2012 can be sustained, and this game could carry title implications. Maybe peek on OU's visit to Waco, as well, to see if the Stoops can master the evolving spread monster.
Week 12: Florida @ South Carolina. If you haven't tuned in a game to see Jadeveon Clowney by this point, you could do worse than this matchup. If it wasn't obvious, seeing Clowney should be a priority for all college fans.
Week 13: Texas A&M @ LSU. If Johnny Football hasn't unraveled by this point, it could be a momentous game.
Week 14: Ohio State @ Michigan. This is the game that will take my priority, but Clemson vs. Clowney is a worthy choice. Additionally, Notre Dame plays Stanford and FSU and UF battle it out for Floridian supremacy. Fans of college football can't lose this week.
Week 15: Louisville @ Cincinnati. Several Big 12 games with big implications will occur this weekend (UT vs Baylor, OU vs OSU), but if 'Bama is on track for another title game appearance and Cincinnati is all that stands before Bridgewater's Louisville team in meeting the Tide in that game, then I'll be rooting hard for a Bearcat upset.
Let's get this thing started.