It's Time USC Switches to the Spread Offense

Zach ZarembaCorrespondent IJuly 24, 2009

PASADENA, CA - JANUARY 1:  Mark Sanchez #6 of the USC Trojans smiles as he holds the Rose Bowl Trophy after the game against the Penn State Nittany Lions on January 1, 2009 at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California.  USC won 38-24.  (Photo by Jeff Golden/Getty Images)

Over the last five years, the USC Trojans have earned the title of college football’s best and most feared team.  No coach has recruited and developed more talent than Pete Carroll has in his tenure in Los Angeles.  He has also had a number of assistants go off and find head coaching jobs, including Lane Kiffin, who is in the process of putting together one of the nation’s best recruiting classes in his first season at Tennessee.

In the past four NFL drafts, the Trojans have produced the most picks in three of those four drafts.  In the latest draft, the Trojans had eight defensive players selected.  On their current roster they have multiple NFL-quality backs as well as one of the nation’s top receivers in Damian Williams.  The Trojans are the closest thing to a NFL feeder school and are routinely the nation’s most talented team.

But the Trojans have not won a national title in four years, which is considered a drought for this program, and have not made a national title appearance in three years. 

In the last three years, only four teams have made it to the National Championship game, with Ohio State and Florida each making it twice.  The other two teams are Oklahoma and LSU.  Each team runs a version of a spread offense.  Texas, who also runs a spread, beat the Men of Troy the year earlier so the last four National Champions have run the spread. 

The spread offense is the most popular offense in football today.  Many high school and Pop Warner teams are also operating spread offenses.  The spread offense, well, spreads the field and utilizes speed and quickness.  Instead of the traditional two wide receiver sets, the spread commonly calls for four or five receivers.  This stretches the defense and big plays happen more often. 

Each coach has their own modified version of the spread offense.  Teams like Florida run various option plays and even utilize their receivers in the running game.  Texas Tech, on the other hand, uses the spread to strictly pass.

Although this offense has variations, one thing is certain: The good teams running this offense score lots of points and commonly rank in the top ten in yardage.

Oklahoma and Florida, the teams that played for this year’s BCS National title, each had prolific offenses.  Oklahoma totaled five sixty-point games and nine games where they scored at least fifty.  The Gators were not as impressive, but did hang sixty and seventy point games. 

In USC’s 2004 title run, the Trojans had a powerful and explosive offense; they outscored their opponents by an average of 25.2 points.  This was during the early revolution of spread offenses.  But lately they have had trouble beating up on teams the way Oklahoma and Florida have.   In the last three seasons, the Trojans have averaged victories of 15.3 in 06, 16.6 in 07, and 23.2 in 08 (they beat Washington State 69-0, which shouldn’t really be counted because Washington State might have been the worst Pac-10 team in the conference’s history). 

Now, don’t get me wrong.  I was at the 2009 Rose Bowl and watched USC put on a clinic against Penn State.  I also watched their Rose Bowl clinics in '07 and '08, but they were only at the Rose Bowl and not the National Championship, and that’s not good enough in Los Angeles.  The reason they were in Pasadena in the first place was partly due to the fact their offense had choked during the regular season. 

Against Penn State the USC offense was perfect.  Everything was perfect.  But in the end, they only put up 38 points.  If Florida or Oklahoma were to have been matched against Penn State, a “perfect” showing by one of those two teams would have meant a 50-plus-points effort. 

To put things into perspective, during the 2008 campaign, the Sooners averaged a 26-point differential while the Gators posted a whopping 30-point average.

To add to this debate, the teams that Ohio State, LSU, Oklahoma and Florida lost to also ran the spread. 

In 2006, Ohio State went undefeated, but Florida lost to Auburn, which now runs the spread as well. 

In 2007, Ohio State was upset by dual threat quarterback Juice Williams and Illinois.  Illinois coach Ron Zook was one of the early coaches to jump on the spread’s bandwagon.  2007 National champion LSU lost to Kentucky, and then Arkansas.  Arkansas Coach Houston Nutt, who ran the spread and the wildcat formations, confused the Tigers as his team ran up 50 points in three overtimes. 

Then, in 2008, it was Nutt again, but this time he was at Ole Miss, which shocked the country by beating Florida.  Oklahoma’s lone setback was to rival Texas.  Texas quarterback Colt McCoy became a Heisman favorite in that game by showing off his throwing and running ability.

In addition, the Pac-10 defenses that face USC every year are beginning to figure out the Trojan offense as they see it for their sixth and seventh times through.  USC is replacing their offensive coordinator for the third time in five years, but the general scheme will stay the same. 

The one knock on the spread is that it doesn’t produce players that can adapt and play at the NFL level.  Top quarterback picks Matt Ryan and Matthew Stafford played in mostly standard sets in college while Heisman winner Troy Smith, from Ohio State, has struggled in the pros.  The spread offense doesn’t really affect the development of any position other than quarterback, although talented Raider running back Darren McFadden has struggled adjusting to the NFL.  McFadden played for Nutt at Arkansas.

But would Pete Carroll, who is regarded highly for developing NFL talent with his pro-style offense, want to put his quarterback’s draft stock in jeopardy?  You think Carroll would want to win but I’m sure he has noticed the change taking place in college football. 

When Oklahoma’s quarterback Sam Bradford is taken first overall in the upcoming NFL draft, proving a spread quarterback can be drafted high (if he can play at the NFL level remains to be determined), will the light bulb then go on in Carroll’s mind?

But let’s face it, besides Carson Palmer, what USC quarterback has found success in the NFL?  John David Booty is still too young, but Matt Leinart has had multiple chances to shine on a talented Cardinals team.  Mark Sanchez will have a great opportunity playing for the Jets, but like Bradford, he is unproven in the NFL.

It should also be noted that the New England Patriots, the NFL’s most successful franchise in recent years, commonly uses four- and five-wide receiver sets.  The Patriots offense is the closest thing to a spread offense the NFL has to offer. 

The Trojans have the athletes to run this prolific offense, so will they get behind the eight ball, or follow suit as so many teams have already done and install the offense of the 21st century?

Powerhouses such as Texas, Oklahoma, Ohio State, Michigan, Virginia Tech, Penn State, Florida and West Virginia have made the switch.  When will the mighty Trojans?


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