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The synergies of the optimal college football offense

What are the five elements of the optimal college offense? Catch up here.

NCAA Football: Navy at Southern Methodist Ray Carlin-USA TODAY Sports

So this is where it gets interesting. While all of the five principles outlined in this week’s post — QB as run threat, optionality, simplicity, space, and pace — confer advantages individually, it is the way specific pairs and groups of them interact and create synergies that is truly compelling.

Simplicity + Optionality (+ QB use in the running game)

While the benefits of simplicity are obvious, the apparent drawbacks are, too. The chief objection to an offense that leans towards simplicity is that a limited number of concepts could lead to predictability, allowing opposing defensive coordinators to “figure it out” and game plan to stymie the offense.

This concern can be greatly mitigated, if not totally erased, by adding optionality to concepts. By adding simple, rules-based decisions, unpredictability can be added, even to basic concepts.

The addition of “window dressing” through formation variations and varying decoy receiver routes adds disguise to the mix. This creates what could be called asymmetric complexity—from the outside it has the appearance of complexity, but on the inside the reality is simplicity. This should be the Holy Grail for every scheme design in football.

For example, if we go back to our initial example of an inside zone run out of 10 personnel (the example below shows it out of a 3x1 alignment, but it could just as easily be out of 2x2), this simple play becomes three different plays with the addition of a quick WR screen option (such as a bubble screen) based on pre-snap read and the addition of a QB read on the end-man on the line of scrimmage.

The blocking numbers are improved as well, with the addition of the QB read. While this has become fairly common practice, the revolutionary aspect of it has not been fully embraced yet, in my opinion.

The best part of this wrinkle is that the play is exactly the same for 10 of the offensive players; the only “cost,” in terms of added complexity, is two rule-based decisions for the QB to make.

Simple Zone Run with Two Levels of Options Added

If the offense is constructed from the beginning with an economy of concepts and base formations, but with a meaningful degree of optionality and non-functional window dressing variations built into each play, the amount of variations can appear nearly limitless, even within a fairly simple framework.

High levels of unpredictability can be achieved by making sure virtually all plays incorporate more than one of the following:

  1. WR screens based on simple pre-snap rules
  2. QB reads on running plays
  3. True run-pass options (RPOs) based on post-snap reads
  4. Receiver option routes
  5. Traditional play-action

In fact, given the ample evidence of the effectiveness of play-action (see here, here, here, and here, for starters), I don’t understand why a passing play that isn’t an RPO or play-action pass would ever be called outside of obvious passing situations.

NCAA Football: SEC Football Media Day
Mississippi State head coach Joe Moorhead has created one of the more advanced RPO systems in college football.
Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Simplification of the overall offense in terms of number of concepts reduces the offense’s overall mental workload. The only potential point of stress in this equation is the quarterback, and if repetitions and film room time are focused on becoming so expert at the reads that they become second nature, that becomes a less major concern, especially compared to learning to digest and process the kind of complex verbiage that is present in something like a West Coast offense, for example.

Finally, a slim playbook built with plays designed as described above should allow enough efficient practice and mastery of the concepts to allow for building new special wrinkles for opponents based on game planning. If these new elements are based on existing concepts that the QB and team has already mastered they should prove to be relatively easy to install and execute.

Simplicity + Pace

The tactical use of pace on the field can help to mitigate potential problems of predictability. If the defense isn’t sure how quickly the ball will be snapped or is struggling to line up fast enough, players are going to need to make adjustments on the field (without huddling) rather than having them signaled in from the sidelines. This is one of the traditional arguments for the use of a hurry-up, no-huddle (HUNH) offense.

More strategic gains can be made by a program that embraces a high degree of pace in its practices, especially if implemented in concert with a simplified offensive scheme.

It is evident that fitting more reps into practice while practicing a smaller number of concepts adds up to more reps per concept, but the degree of leverage in the math is perhaps non-intuitively large.

These numbers are made up as a simple example, but the math holds no matter what the actual numbers are:

  • Consider a situation where a team has 40 total concepts and time to do 200 repetitions. That is, on average, five repetitions per concept.
  • If the offensive complexity is scaled back by 40 percent, that leaves 24 concepts. If the pace of practice is accelerated by 20 percent, that leads to 240 reps. The result is an average of 10 repetitions per concept, double the reps above.

Nudging a little more towards simplicity and working a little faster results in 2.5x the repetitions per concept.

Is it any wonder that Chip Kelly’s Oregon teams executed his offense so well?

Oregon v Oregon State
Oregon’s rep-heavy, high-tempo system nearly won the Ducks their first national title in 2010.
Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images

Space + Pace

As mentioned above, one of the core ideas behind the widespread embrace of the HUNH offense that occurred a few years ago is that it limits the ability of the defense to make adjustments on the fly. Without the benefit of a defensive huddle, and without time to implement formation-based adjustments that may be signaled in from the sideline, the defensive players are left nearly to their own devices.

Over the last several years, defensive coordinators have managed to adapt to these tactics with some adjustments of their own. But there is no easy answer for defenses to the combination of pace and extreme spacing.

Lining up outside receivers extremely wide forces defensive coordinators to make choices and live with them, because the sheer distance makes doing much before the snap difficult. It also makes those choices quite apparent to the offense and anybody else watching.

Extreme spacing and pace were a couple of the cornerstones of the devastating mid-2010s Baylor offense. Assuming an offense has a QB with an arm strong enough to throw quick screens and hitches to receivers at the numbers on either side of the field, lining up receivers extremely wide virtually eliminates a defense’s ability to disguise coverages and blitzes.

Combining that with a variable or constantly fast pace of play further forces unwanted simplification on the defense.

It isn’t necessary to be quite as extreme as Baylor was or to use super-wide WR splits all of the time in order to be able to derive these benefits.

The combination of pace and space, especially with very large WR splits, also has clear, positive implications for the running game. The fact that it forces fewer men in the box and creates greater distances and tougher angles for DBs in run support is obvious.

What is less obvious, but very important, is that it also sharply limits the number of different defensive fronts the offense is likely to face. This has particular benefits for teams employing gap schemes in their running game.

One of the great things about the zone blocking scheme is that it is fairly simple in concept: once the basic rules are established and understood, blocking responsibilities against any front should be fairly straight forward.

Not so with gap schemes. For a gap run, such as a Power O or Counter, there are specific rules for each of the offensive lineman that can change depending on how the defensive front is aligned. This can become very complex and expensive (in terms of time) to install when you consider all the possible permutations of six-, seven-, and eight-man fronts.

When the offense greatly reduces the potential permutations with personnel and alignment, installing gap schemes becomes much less costly relative to zone blocking. Utilizing wide splits and the regular use of pace further reduces the potential defensive alignments that the offense is likely to face.

Tostitos Fiesta Bowl - Central Florida v Baylor
Lache Seastrunk had two 1,000-yard seasons in Baylor’s space-heavy attack.
Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Putting it All Together

When all five of these elements are combined, you get the last layer of synergies.

The QB running game and optionality become even more effective when combined with spacing (especially extreme WR spacing) and pace. The same pacing and spacing create clearer and easier reads for the QB to better utilize those principles.

The combination of simplicity and pacing in practice allow more reps per concept, which benefits functional depth at all positions, potentially including QB. The ability to prepare multiple QBs effectively reduces the impact of injury risk, which makes the whole offense less fragile.

We have also discussed the potential benefits of increasing reps per concept from the time saved by slimming down the playbook and the effective time added by increasing the pace of practice. But that isn’t the only potential use of time freed up during fall and spring camps or during the season.

Coaches could choose to use the time to drill fundamentals or to do extra focused work on key scenarios (onside kicks or onside kick coverage, for example). This is especially true for an offense that is accustomed to operating at a high pace — even if it doesn’t use tempo all the time — because special practice time dedicated to the two-minute drill is less necessary.

Both of Baylor’s and Oregon’s early- to mid-2010s offenses utilized most, if not all, of the principles described above. But an offense utilizing these principled need not resemble either of those closely, at least in terms of style. The Chad Morris offense that we have seen at Clemson and SMU (and will see this fall at Arkansas) also fits the model. As does the offense Scott Frost utilized at UCF and has taken to Lincoln.