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Defenses Taking Back Control of College Football

   by Scott Spreitzer - 09/01/2010

One of the most interesting trends from the 2009 college football season was the move back toward defense after years of offensive evolution.

Scoring had exploded the prior few seasons (particularly after the sport abandoned its experiment of shortening games with rules changes about when the clock would run). That explosion was led by the proliferation of “spread” offenses.

More and more teams each year were adopting variations of the spread. They were passing like crazy. They were running out of wide-open formations that gave their backs plenty of daylight. You’d see wild and crazy shootouts where it looked like neither defense had a chance. Quarterbacks were on all the magazine covers. Receivers were the new running backs. Games were running three-and-a-half or four hours long, wreaking havoc with the TV schedules.

That slowed way down in 2009. Dramatically. I wouldn’t be surprised if the trend continued in 2010.

What happened last year? And why is it likely to continue?

*Defenses started blitzing more. They went on the attack. Quarterbacks had less time than ever to make decisions. And it doesn’t matter if a receiver is open 15 yards down the field if the quarterback is laying flat on his back.

*Defenses didn’t just blitz more, they blitzed more creatively. The elite defenses in particular started using NFL style “disguised” blitzing to wreak havoc on opposing offenses. Try getting cute against Alabama, Nebraska, or Texas. A defender you didn’t see coming will be in your face in an instant.

*Even more passive “prevent” style defenses got smarter about keeping everything underneath. They’d allow short completions, but not long ones. They’d make receivers run East or West after a catch rather than North and South. Instead of marching down the field for TD’s, offenses would make a couple of first downs, then punt or try a long field goal.

This was obvious to the naked eye if you were watching a lot of games, which is basically all I do every weekend. It was obvious in the boxscore stats because production went way down. It was obvious if you were monitoring Over/Under numbers on the Vegas board. Totals were dropping lower than I’ve seen in a long, long time in certain types of matchups.

Remember how many big name quarterbacks saw their production backtrack in their 2009 senior seasons? Colt McCoy was a non-factor vs. Oklahoma and Nebraska. Tim Tebow had to grind out several Florida wins when they were expected to coast to blowouts. Sam Bradford barely saw action due to injury because he kept getting blasted by pass rushers. Revenge of the defenses!

I expect the trend toward defenses to continue because it takes offensive coordinators longer than one offseason to figure out how to deal with aggressive blitz schematics! That’s an even bigger issue if you’re breaking in a new offensive line, or a new starting quarterback. Also, I should point out that many of the “offensive guru’s” like Ralph Friedgen of Maryland have been struggling to slow down their team’s offensive slides for years. Once the riddle of the spread was solved, the guru’s didn’t have a counterpunch. Many like Joe Tiller of Purdue are no longer even on the sidelines. Now that’s a problem everywhere because a nation of defenses copied what opponents of Maryland and Purdue had been doing successfully. The more athletic defenses copied, then improved upon it.

Let me say it this way, It took defenses a couple of years to come up with an antidote to the spread offense. I think it will take offenses a couple of years to learn how to pick up blitzes and find new seams in defensive pass alignments.

So, as you handicap 2010 college football, remember that the sport is trending away from spread offenses, and toward defenses. If you’re the type to bet "favorites" and "Overs," you’d be playing with fire with that approach. Look to invest in veteran defenses vs. inexperienced offenses against the spread at cheap prices (particularly in the first month of action). Look to bet Unders whenever quality defenses are squaring off. We saw a lot of 16-13 type games last season that never had a chance of going Over. They’ll be more common this year in my view.

It’s not enough to know the ins and outs of each team. Seeing the big picture landscape with a clear eye can add as many as 5-6 points to your winning percentage over the course of a college season. Shade your action accordingly.

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