Heading into the Big 12 era back in the mid-90s, you’d never guess the league was going to quickly evolve into the most explosive, passing offensive-based conference in the nation. If anything, it looked like Nebraska was simply going to expand their stomping grounds into the south as they were on an unbelievable run at the time.
Then in the inaugural season of the Big 12, a young and explosive Texas team led by a scrambling QB put up 503 yards of offense on one of the better defenses Nebraska had fielded and the Longhorns shocked the Cornhuskers with a 37-27 upset win in the Big 12 championship game. The following 1997 season seemed to dispel the idea that either Texas or spread-ish offense was going to rule the league as Texas fell apart and fired their coach while Nebraska returned their starting QB (fellow named Scott Frost) and went undefeated while claiming a split national championship with Michigan. So if I told you then that Texas was going to crush Nebraska repeatedly and drive them from the conference while the league was taken over by prolific passing offenses you’d probably laugh.
Now we know that’s exactly what happened.
The rise of the pass and the death of neanderball
I think there are a few common confusions about what led to the Big 12 becoming what it is today. One interesting wrinkle to the ‘96 B12 title game was that the Nebraska D that took the field for that contest would hardly look out of place today.
The ‘Huskers had a really solid secondary, a pair of small and speedy OLBs in Jamel Williams (6-2, 205 converted safety) and Terrell Farley (6-1, 205, HS track star). Up front they had star DEs on either side of the line with Grant Wistrom and Jared Tomich. They could play man coverage, run, blitz, and were an absolute nightmare of a defense, they just couldn’t tackle James Brown or hold up in man coverage against all of the talent on the Longhorn roster.
The problem for Nebraska in that game was less about the talent, scheme, or composition of their defense. They just weren’t used to handling what is commonplace today in the Big 12, a mobile QB buying time and choosing between multiple explosive targets playing backyard ball. If you could transport that group forward in time and train them to defend modern offense they’d probably look better than many of the defenses that took the field for the Big 12 in 2017. A lack of athletic Ds or awareness of the need for speed hasn’t really been the main issue across the league.
Another common confusion with “neanderball” offense like Nebraska’s ‘96 crew that lived to convert third and two over and over again is that they don’t work anymore. That’s not really true, and there’s some reason to believe they can even work better today. For starters, modern defenses aren’t designed to handle that style of attack, if you can match up a throwback fullback on a CB who made his reputation with his play in 7on7 then you can be pretty effective on offense.
Another is the rise of schemes like the “dread-wing,” the 11-personnel spread offense that uses a dual-threat QB paired with a traditional blocking TE attached to the line, a blocking FB with him in the backfield, and then three wideouts. If you’re willing to run the QB a lot, like Kansas State does, you can actually score a lot of points on top of controlling the ball. That was Nebraska’s MO back in the day, they didn’t just choke opponents out 23-6 every week it was often more like 52-6.
There are three reasons that neanderball (ground-based offense that runs as the first and second option) didn’t survive in the Big 12.
1. It’s harder to pull off than a spread passing attack
The Big 12 recruits from Texas, where the spread offense is king at most schools, and the dominant coaching trees that people hire from stem from Mike Leach. Given how well this approach has worked out for programs like Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, and TCU there’s not much reason to be counter-cultural.
2. It’s less efficient than modern spread attacks
Especially if you get down in a game and need to come back from a multiple-score deficit. While the uptempo spread teams can struggle to ice a game and keep an opponent from coming back, the neanderball offense isn’t designed to handle a quick 21-0 deficit of the sort that’s fairly common in the Big 12. Modern, passing-based spread offenses can score more points more quickly.
3. Neanderball doesn’t really protect your defense from the challenges of tempo
I noted in an article this time last year that teams who run the ball a lot don’t necessarily protect their defenses from having to be on the field or defending a lot of plays. Throwing the ball and converting lots of first downs is a more consistent way to control the ball than trying to pound it on the ground. At any rate, if the other team can regularly score in 2:00 or less rushing to the line and throwing the ball around there’s not much you can do on offense to limit the number of possessions or plays your defense faces.
So when faced with the options of trying to teach spread athletes to mash skulls and then match uber-efficient opponents with a grit n’ grind approach or else to do what everyone else was doing and seek marginal advantages...most everyone is choosing the latter.
Dime defense and paradigm change
So that Nebraska D that Texas torched back in 1996, the issue they faced was that they were designed to stop the run. Their infusion of speed and athleticism across the defensive backfield was done with the intention of allowing the Cornhuskers to swarm the run and force quick punts back to their own plodding, juggernaut of an offense.
For years different defensive minded coaches in the Big 12 have had the intention of stopping the run on defense while using the run to try and keep their explosive opponents off the field. It never really works and it was always the wrong defensive strategy, as Iowa State proved in 2017.
If you want to play in a low-scoring slugfest the right answer is actually to build your defense to stop the pass, stop explosive plays, and thus force your opponent into a low-scoring slog that your own offense is better designed to win.
You might ask why you wouldn’t pair this with a high efficiency passing attack but it’s hard to protect the defense and consistently win with toughness and ball control if you invite your opponent to have repeated possessions to attack your defense and eventually turn the game into a shootout. A classic, python approach to choking out opponents and controlling every aspect of the game needs to combine defense with ball control. That can and should mean throwing the ball some but it also means running a lot and being happy to set up and convert manageable third downs.
The path to building the sort of pass-stuffing defense that could allow neanderball to return was on display last year in Ames, IA and Austin, TX. Both squads built off three-down defenses that basically traded in an impact edge-rusher for a middle of the field robber bookended by deep safeties. By fielding smaller, faster defenses both teams found that they could:
-Swarm the run with numbers if they needed to AND get a free-hitter from that robber safety that opponents weren’t blocking.
-Eliminate big passing plays by robbing the sort of seam routes that lure in safeties and create isolations outside for star receivers like James Washington.
-Eliminate big plays in general by having deep defenders and speed everywhere that makes it hard for even successful runs to become long scores.
-Increase the variety of blitzes and thus generate pressure with 3-5 defenders without being overly exposed or predictable.
For all of those reasons, dime defense is the future for the Big 12 and probably the rest of college football as well. But this also leaves open the possibility of neanderball returning.
The return of neanderball
There are four obvious contenders for teams that could potentially bring neanderball back to the Big 12. One is ironically Texas, who took Iowa State’s dime package structure and ran with it en route to shutting down some of the most explosive offenses in the country. They could pair the same defense with an improved rushing attack and QB/FB hybrid Sam Ehlinger.
By using Ehlinger to convert short-yardage (as Tom Herman did with J.T. Barrett before him), Texas could turn themselves into a run-centric, neanderball offense that sets up regular short-yardage scenarios and converts them while wearing opponents down. Texas will undoubtedly also mix in the passing game but they could be a much more deliberately-paced team than your typical spread attack in 2018.
Iowa State is another option, while they’ve shown a great aptitude for attacking opponents with the passing game they’re also hoping to run the ball more effectively this coming season.
Kansas State is partway there but they’ve been trying to arrive at what the dime offered Texas and Iowa State a year ago with their 4-3 defense and it hasn’t borne out. Under new DC Blake Seiler perhaps they come closer to mimicking the Texas/ISU dime or else the TCU pseudo-dime that looks like a 4-1-6, but the latter is less established and tends to require a caliber of DE that K-State hasn’t had consistently. Offensively there’s rumors that K-State wants to become more up-tempo and athletic, which would nullify some of the neanderball aspects of their approach.
Then there’s Baylor, who want to be a multiple pro-style offense and suffocating defense in time but who’s coach hasn’t quite mastered the art of shutting down the spread and who’s current personnel necessitates that they spread the ball around and try to score in order to have any chances of winning. Additionally, their recruiting strategy has been more about trying to stockpile elite athletes rather than to try and out-tough everyone.
So no one in the B12 is quite on the fast track to rebuilding something like what Nebraska was doing on offense in the 90s (or the modern equivalent) while shielding the classic “run the ball, play D, control the game” strategy with the new innovations in dime defense save for...maybe Texas. Truth is stranger than fiction.