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by Bryan Leonard - 09/16/2011
Strategically, football has similarities to war. Commanding officers use photographs of rival positions in an attempt to identify weaknesses in the enemy lines, then plot their offensive strategies accordingly. A smart commander doesn’t have his men go head on at the enemies’ strongest defensive positions – you exploit the weak spots. Football coaches devise Xs and Os in their game plans and watch endless hours of film. Any soft spots will help them exploit weaknesses in an attempt to find victory on the gridiron.
An obvious example is when a strong rushing team faces an opponent that can’t stop the run. Navy, Air Force and Georgia Tech have had an outstanding ground game the last few years. In one matchup a few years back the Midshipmen faced a small Tulane defensive line. This was the story the previous season when Navy ripped through Tulane, 35-17, as a 9-point home favorite. In the rematch Navy rolled up 300 yards rushing on a whopping 68 carries, getting the cover easily in a 29-0 win. This is basic strategy, too – “We’re going to run the ball, can you stop it?”
Sometimes those weaknesses change from season to season and it’s up to the handicapper to stay informed. The Arizona Wildcats and was a weak defensive team until Mike Stoops came aboard as coach, who had worked with his brother Bob to build the Oklahoma defense into a powerhouse unit.
Mike Stoops had great success for many years as a defensive coordinator, which was a large factor in him getting the Arizona job. In his first year, Wisconsin came to town and the Wildcats were much improved against the run. It wasn’t a shock to see the Badgers struggle offensively, gaining 262 total yards, just 3.1 yards per rushing attempt. Wisconsin was lucky to squeeze out a win, but Arizona got the cover as a +10 home dog. The point is, Arizona was no longer a weak team against the run because of the new coaching staff, which has designed game plans to stop the run wherever they’ve been.
Keep tabs on the Florida State defense this season, as another Stoops brother (Mark) is running their defense, beginning his second season.
Many times teams can struggle early in the season because they step up in competition and look bad. But don’t write them off yet, especially with conference games on the horizon. I recall when Toledo had a terrific offense behind gifted QB Bruce Gradkowski. The Rockets struggled badly in their first two games, but that was against teams from the Big 10 and Big 12. Then Toledo stepped back into MAC competition taking on rebuilding Eastern Michigan. Eastern Michigan lacked speed and bulk on defense and didn’t match up well at all with a talented and veteran Toledo offense. Don’t be fooled by that 42-32 final score – Toledo led 42-17 going into the fourth and finished with 204 rushing yards and 338 passing! Gradkowski was outstanding, completing 22-of-29 passes and accounted for 5 TDs (3 passing, 2 rushing). Toledo covered and used their strength (a versatile offense) against Eastern Michigan’s big weakness (‘D’).
So keep updated on injuries, coaching changes and the strength and weaknesses of both college and pro teams. It will help you identify good teams to play on and ones to play against each week.