Thursday, July 31, 2008

Regarding "The Spread"...

I've been asked more than a few times over this excruciatingly-long off-season what I think about "the spread" coming to Auburn. I really haven't been able to answer that question (certainly not well) in a few words, so here are more than a few:

I still think the world of Al Borges. Anybody who doesn't appreciate what he did for Auburn has completely forgotten the night-and-day difference between the AU offense in 2003 as compared to 2004 and 2005. Everybody forgets today that Auburn didn't just light up the league in the undefeated '04 season, but also led the SEC in offense the following year--and that was with Brandon Cox under center. I still don't think there's anything fundamentally wrong with Borges' offense--at least nothing that three or four NFL-caliber wide receivers wouldn't have fixed. And that, of course, was the rub.

Obviously, things changed dramatically in 2006, when Auburn fell way back in the offensive standings, and again in 2007, when the Tigers darn near hit rock bottom on that side of the ball. While it's reasonable to think some of the difference was due to the natural progression of defensive coaches on the other teams getting more familiar with Borges's schemes, I think it's clear that losing Anthony Mix, Devin Aromashodu and Ben Obiwankenobi after '05 and Courtney Taylor after '06 was what really spelled doom for the Gulf Coast Offense.

All four of those guys are on NFL rosters today, and with all due respect to the wideouts on the current AU roster, we have not seen their like since. And it's showed. The Tigers lost nearly a thousand yards of total offense from '05 to '06. Once defenses knew there wasn't much of a deep threat, they could close down to a 30-yard box from the line of scrimmage, and Cox was turned into a punching bag as a result (and although nobody ever talks about it on the record, I think it's safe to assume that Cox's health problems were at the very least not helped by the poundings he took on the field).

Why did AU get in such a hole at receiver? The easy answer is that wideout recruiting fell off, but why that happened is a little more complicated. In an age of high school kids putting a premium on early playing time, it had to be hard to recruit new receivers as long as the "big four" still had eligibility. It wouldn't surprise me if the luxury of having those four guys around also made the staff somewhat complacent (there it is again, the one great flaw of the Tuberville era) when it came to signing newcomers at the position: "Hell, we'll get some next year."

Making things worse, once the positions did open up, prospects watching Auburn games no longer saw an offense they wanted to play in. WIthout a dependable passing game, Auburn fell back out of necessity to a power running attack, and I've yet to meet a top receiver who relishes the idea of spending most of his games as a blocker. That feedback loop continued to the point where the Tigers rarely cracked three touchdowns against SEC competition.

As good as Borges is when he has the right tools, continuing to use an offense built around players you don't have is a losing proposition. We'd already seen what happened to Auburn when Terry Bowden decided to insert the 1990's Florida State offense in a team that didn't have 1990's Florida State players at the "skill positions."

So, something had to change. If the players weren't going to change (and they weren't, certainly not in the short term), the offense had to, and making things harder, it had to change in a way that enticed more players of the kind Auburn didn't have to sign up. Whether the shift from Borges' pro-style attack to Tony Franklin's much-lauded "spread" was the right change or not... well, like they say, that's why they play the games. We'll see.

I'll be the first to confess that I have never been an fan of "the spread," at least not "the spread" as lazy sportswriters tend to use the term. I didn't like it when Bowden went five-wide and threw on most downs in 1995-98. These days we'd recognize that offense as a close relative to Texas Tech or Hawaii. That kind of imbalance is a recipe for two or three disasters a year in the SEC. I also still don't care for Urban Meyer's offense, which is just a gussied-up version of the Single Wing with more receivers; ditto for Rich Rodriguez's version at West Virginia. In the end, both are really just the option run out of the shotgun.

That said, I am comforted by Franklin's insistence that he intends to run a balanced attack out of his shotgun formations. I'm as dedicated a fan of the running game as any SEC fan anywhere, but history tells us that while you can't win if you can't run, you also can't win big unless you have balance.

There hasn't been a great Auburn team since the Bo Jackson-led Wishbone squad of 1983 that was not also a balanced offensive team. Indeed, the great strength of Borges' great run in 2004-05 (and Bowden's in 1993-94, for that matter) was the unpredictability of an offense that could either run or pass in almost any situation.

If Auburn can get back to that, things on the Plains will be just fine. If not... but there it is again: that's why they play the games.

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