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 Marshall (13 points per game).
Despite that, Thundering Herd coach Doc Holliday lost his job. It might have been because Marshall was also 63rd in scoring.
Vanderbilt coach Clark Lea refers to the importance of being "zeroed out" on defense against RPOs. That means accounting for a mobile quarterback in the run-pass option -- 11 defenders on 11.
"That's where offenses have become so complicated is that they've found ways to isolate you," Lea said. "You're requiring your players to win their one-on-ones, to be impeccable when it comes to the execution of the defense. And then you pay with the explosive-play touchdowns when you miss the execution."
Secrets and lies
The sensitivity of the issue resonates in the industry. Unfortunately, we are not able to share thoughts on the subject Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables, one of the best in the business. Venables was not allowed to discuss "scheme," according to his boss, Dabo Swinney.
It also does not include Mike Elko. In researching this story, Texas A&M's defensive coordinator was mentioned repeatedly as one of the best defensive minds against the spread. However, Aggies' coach Jimbo Fisher does not allow his assistants to speak with the media in the spring.
Elko was a big part of the Aggies' first New Year's Six bowl in nine years in 2020. In his third season since coming from Notre Dame, Elko coached a defense that led the SEC and was ninth nationally.
For the fourth time in the last five years, Fisher's offense led the conference in time of possession. This time, it was almost 35 minutes per game. That left only 25 minutes for the spread to do its damage.
"Jimbo is a defensive coordinator's dream," said Bennett, now defensive coordinator at North Texas. "It's like playing for a wishbone team. He believes in ball control, possession and protecting the defense."
That wishbone offense lasted from the late 1960s to the mid-1980s. Mississippi State's Emory Bellard was given credit for inventing the formation. In the beginning, it was a way for teams with lesser talent to stay competitive. Then it became the best way to attack. Defenses couldn't compensate for the multiple fakes and the triple option on the edge. The quarterback could at any time post-snap run, pass or pitch.
"Just like with the old option days … every decision you made, you were wrong," Indiana coach Tom Allen said. "They had an answer for all that. That's kind of how offenses feel now.
"As soon as you start stopping the run, the ball is over your head. It's geared toward points, points, points."
Add the talent of a Texas, Nebraska, Alabama and Oklahoma during that era, and the wishbone was unstoppable. Those four teams combined to win at least a share of nine national championships from 1969-79.
Defenses eventually caught up by getting bigger and faster up front. Oklahoma was an inflection point in the transition. To compensate, Barry Switzer was in the process installing a more pass-friendly offense in 1985 when Troy Aikman was injured early in the season. That led to backup freshman Jamelle Holieway taking over. The offense reverted more to the triple option. Holieway became the first freshman quarterback to lead a team to a national championship.
Trevor Lawrence became the second in 2018 by running a Clemson offense that was arguably the best spread offense in the game.
"The option is a running version of the spread," Bennett said.
It's no surprise Clemson is 44-2 in its last 46 games when having more explosive plays than the opponent and at least a +1 turnover margin advantage. The Tigers are efficient. They've accomplished those two things in almost 65% of their games during that span.
The art is in teaching defenses how to create turnovers. Grinch has long stated that 24 turnovers in a season is equal to at least nine wins.
"We were trying to brainwash the guys they were in control as opposed to things were just going to come their way," Grinch said. "We had no idea the numbers would come out that way. It just did, and it worked for us. In a 12-game season, you're talking two [turnovers] a game. It's not rocket science. We tell the defensive guys, 'If you're not scoring touchdowns, that's your role.'"
What Grinch might not tell his troops: "The ball has no idea of where it is supposed to go."
OU's defense has caused 27 turnovers in 25 games since Grinch arrived two seasons ago. In those games, the Sooners are 21-4.
"Keep in mind the audience I'm talking to," Grinch said of his arrival from Ohio State in 2019. "All they've done is win Big 12 championships. They're saying, 'Coach, you're telling me takeaways equal victory? I beg to differ. We're winning [already].'"
It may be a case of football Darwinism in the future. Natural selection. Ten years ago, Oregon ruled the world with its version of the zone-read spread. It helps when you have Heisman candidates like LaMichael James. Without that elite talent, Chip Kelly is 10-21 in three seasons at UCLA. His version of the spread didn't exactly take over the NFL either.
Talent still matters. So does balance. The last time the game was this even between run and pass plays was 2014 (54.8% run vs. 45.2% pass in 2020.) In can be argued that defensive evolution against the spread caused it.
Veteran college assistant Tony Franklin, now retired, teaches spread concepts to high schools as a side business. He once had more than 400 clients.
"I had no competition for about eight years," Franklin said. "Now I've got seven million copycats. … We used to teach our high school clients the RPO deal. I used to make them sign a contract they wouldn't teach anybody because I thought we could get five or six years out of it."
Now the world knows. The argument can be made the spread bubbled up from high schools to the NFL. Usually, it's the other way around. Defenses still haven't caught up.
"All these offensive coaches on here," Saban recently told the Louisiana High School Coaches Association in a virtual clinic, "… you guys are all part of the Taliban, man. I mean, you're part of Al-Qaeda.
"You have changed our game and made it so hard to play defense. … I can't sit in church without shaking my leg or my hands start shaking because I'm worried about what you guys want to do next."