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The Spread Is Here to Stay, or Why Alabama Is the Last Great Smashmouth Team

Former Alabama RB Eddie Lacy
Former Alabama RB Eddie LacyStreeter Lecka/Getty Images
Barrett SalleeSEC Football Lead WriterMarch 20, 2013

Alabama proved on Jan. 7 inside the confines of Sun Life Stadium that lining up and punching your opponent in the mouth early, violently and often still is a rather effective way of winning football games. 

The result that night was a 42-14 win over Notre Dame in the BCS National Championship Game in an game that wasn't nearly as close as the score indicated.

It was an old-fashioned, smashmouth beating—one that has become commonplace in Tuscaloosa ever since head coach Nick Saban took control of the program prior to the 2007 season. A punishing offensive line and a big, physical running back have become staples.

Slowly but surely, that method of winning games is becoming more the exception than the rule.

Spread offenses have become more and more prominent in college football over the last decade, and virtually every team—Alabama included—now has elements of it in their playbooks.

That's only going to become more and more prominent as time goes on.

When spread guru Urban Meyer was hired by Florida before the 2005 season, SEC traditionalists panned the move. 

"It will never work."

"SEC defenses are too fast and physical in this day and age."

Eight years later, Florida has two crystal footballs and Auburn one using different variations of the spread.

"Gimmicky college offenses" have now crept into the NFL.

Just this past season, Colin Kaepernick led the San Francisco 49ers to the Super Bowl running the spread option, and Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson made the Pro Bowl.

In the past, the best athletes in high school gravitated towards the quarterback position. Now that it's even more possible to make a career out of it, that trend's only going to continue.

Drop-back quarterbacks won't become extinct in the future, they'll just have to be able to do more than just sling it around the field.

Over the last five years, we've seen recruiting rankings reflect the increasing number of dual-threat quarterbacks. In 2010, there were only six dual-threat quarterbacks that achieved 4- or 5-star status in the 247Sports.com composite index. In 2014, there are 14.

It isn't just the potential that "spread" quarterbacks have at the pro level that will force smashmouth football out of the game, it's the rules-makers.

College football is already making a concerted effort to emphasize player safety in the game, arguably at the expense of old-fashioned football.

Five years ago, "targeting" penalties were more myth than reality. In 2013, they'll result in ejections in some instances. Last season saw college football institute new blocking rules that prevented players outside the tackle box from blocking below the waist except on straight-ahead blocks.

But it isn't just college football that's taking the physicality out of the game, the NFL is also hopping on board. 

The NFL approved a new rule on Wednesday that would make offensive players initiating contact with the crown of the helmet more than three yards downfield or outside of the tackle box a 15-yard penalty, according to ESPN.com.

Does that matter in the landscape of college football? Not at the moment.

But if you don't think those rules—or some variation thereof—will trickle down, you're kidding yourself. These rules aren't being instituted for the sole purpose of player safety; protecting various entities from litigation is also a factor whether that's openly discussed or not.

The possibility of playing in the same or similar offense all the way into the NFL, coupled with an increased emphasis on players safety, means that the current edition of the Alabama Crimson Tide represents a dying breed.

Old school.

That doesn't mean that Alabama itself will be forced to change. It may not have to.

But even though we've seen teams move from the spread back to the pro-style offense in recent years, it will be harder and harder for those teams to continue running those schemes in the future.

 

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