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The smashmouth spread invades Texas

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Eager to enjoy the benefits of football success in one of America's fastest growing states, SMU and Houston have both made plays to bring aboard rising offensive coaches to bring a new flavor of spread offense to the region.

Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

There's a reason that programs around the country invest large amounts of money into their football programs. It energizes the alumni to give money to the school, it draws in revenue, it raises the profile of the university and increases applicants to the school, and it generally serves as a powerful uniting force for communities around the university.

The state of Texas is one of the fastest growing regions in the nation and the Dallas/Fort Worth and Houston metroplexes rank as the fourth and fifth largest in the United States with roughly seven and six and a half million people apiece.

Interestingly, the major universities in the state all exist outside of those two major metroplexes including the region's traditionally powerful football programs at Texas, A&M, and Oklahoma. So in an era when the state's population continues to grow and private universities like TCU and Baylor are dominating the Big 12, two universities in Houston and Dallas have moved to make a play for grabbing a bigger share in this lucrative business.

With the hires of Clemson's OC Chad Morris and Ohio State's OC Tom Herman, Dallas' Southern Methodist University and the University of Houston have made strong plays to be a part of future college football realignment and to take advantage of their proximity to two of the nation's most loaded talent regions.

However, while most of the other schools in the region are adopting the Air Raid offense (seven of the 10 schools in the Big 12 run Air Raid systems), SMU and Houston opted for the "smashmouth spread" offense as they look to build up their programs as relevant Texan powers.

While this style of offense is big on RPOs (run/pass option plays) it doesn't share its primary pro-style influence with the Air Raid offense. The Air Raid found much of its origin in the West Coast offense and simply took the idea of sending out multiple receivers on timing routes to its logical conclusion by introducing spread formations and faster players that could do more damage on these concepts.

The smashmouth spread borrows from the old triple option but is also largely shaped by the power run offense where the idea is to hammer the point of attack with numbers in order to throw it over the opponent's head.

Traditionally the passing game has been considered to be the tool of the less privileged programs that can't impose their will with a physical running game, but SMU and Houston will try to build up their programs' muscles while going the traditional route of overpowering their opponents at the point of attack. Will the power spread allow them to do it?

Principles of the power spread

The combination of the quick passing game with gap schemes like the power run create impossible dilemmas for the defense even more difficult to navigate than the conflicts that Air Raid teams often create.

The reason is that while zone running game is designed to allow neighboring offensive players to work in cohesion to get leverage advantages at the point of attack, gap schemes pull players from other areas on the field. When the defense is already spread out, it becomes very difficult to adjust after the snap.

An example from the attempt by the Kansas State Wildcats to defend a Baylor gap scheme paired with the quick passing game.

Gap vs C4

The coverage by Kansas State here is a "special" trips coverage designed to allow the safeties to stay in the middle of the field while hopefully forcing the ball outside the hash marks.

However Baylor still creates structural stress for the Wildcats in three ways, first by using wide spacing so extreme that K-State's attempt to keep players in the middle to stop the run still can't get even numbers in the box (six players) to handle the run as the middle linebacker is apexed out wide between the offensive tackle and the slot receiver.

Secondly, the threat of the Baylor vertical passing game is forcing the safeties to line up 12 yards off the ball.

Finally, they use a gap scheme that pulls a lineman. Even if the middle linebacker could have reached an off tackle zone run there's simply no way he can get all the way inside to a new interior gap that is created by the pulling lineman:

The Wildcats tried to adjust later by moving the middle linebacker tighter into the box, only to give up an all too easy pass to the slot receiver:

This is how the power spread works in principle, by combining gap schemes that create numerical advantages at the point of attack with spread formations and passes that prevent the defense from being able to keep their players in position to respond before a crease is created for an offensive skill player.

Even the fastest defenses struggle to match the physicality of these offenses' run game that occurs as a result of the power run scheme, largely because they are just repeatedly flanked.

Both Herman and Morris make heavy use of power, counter, fold, and inside zone running plays to create this downhill affect in the run game and then combine it with RPOs and deep passes to punish defenses if they commit the numbers necessary to stop the run. Defending it requires careful scheming and great talent.

Regional advantages

The way to stop the power spread is either by having superior DL who can stall or blow up the blocking scheme without requiring timely support from the linebackers or else having enough athleticism on defense to lock down receivers in man coverage and bring the safeties in tight to stop the run.

Even in a couple of years after some roster development, if Morris' SMU or Herman's Houston attempted to use the power spread to hammer a good defense from the Big 12 or the SEC they might still be thwarted, but those aren't the schools on their schedule.

Instead they share a division with each other, Memphis, Navy, Tulane, and Tulsa. Most of the schools in the AAC are smaller programs that exist in deep talent pools but most of them can't compare with Houston or DFW. What's more, SMU and Houston happened to be located in cities with lots of wealthy, potential donors (if not alumni) that could be easily captivated by an exciting, local team and convinced to invest in facilities and other team resources. SMU already discovered this in basketball where their shiny Moody Coliseum and Larry Brown-coached team regularly sees a packed house featuring the "who's who" of the Dallas scene.

These coaches understand their recruiting advantages well and upon arriving in Dallas, Morris quickly filled out his staff with Texas HS coaches and has seen the fruit with 14 commits already on board for 2016, including seven 247 consensus 3-star prospects.

Meanwhile Herman has had even more success rallying support in Houston and currently has eleven commits that include a quarterback who had competing offers from Clemson and Ohio State as well as a defensive tackle who might be the best player in the state.

If SMU and Houston can fill out their rosters by getting players that lower level or even high level AQ teams are after then they should see a real talent advantage in the AAC that when combined with the leverage advantages afforded by the power-spread could have explosive results.

What's next?

The power spread has existed at the high school level for a long time, where teams often stick their best athletes at quarterback and find ways to unleash them as runners, and its invasion of the college level arguably started with the hiring of Art Briles at Houston.

Now with Morris and Herman back in the region there's a chance that the traditional powers could be brought into the smashmouth spread revolution. Texas' Charlie Strong, Oklahoma's Bob Stoops, and A&M's Kevin Sumlin all have partially cloudy futures at their respective institutions as none of them have been able to match the expectations for the programs in recent seasons.

There's a chance that a couple of seasons of explosive offense in Dallas or Houston paired with further disappointment at the powerhouse schools could launch Herman or Morris into these top jobs. After all, the major powers in football that were initially hesitant to adopt the more finesse-based Air Raid might gravitate towards the compelling vision of the power spread that combines a physical run game with explosive scoring and high-paced offense.

In the meantime, Houston and SMU have been sleeping giants for some time at their level of football and the time might be coming when they wake up, shake things up, and shape the future of the region.