“OLD MAN FOOTBALL,” the Georgia fans chanted in the stands Saturday night as they celebrated their 41-20 win at Missouri, and if you hadn’t paid attention to the week in the college game, maybe you thought Brett Favre showed up.
But the fans were talking about a style of play, not a player, and the chant was their closing argument in a debate of sorts over football philosophy. It started a few days before the game, when a reporter asked Missouri defensive lineman Sheldon Richardson if he’d seen Georgia’s Week 1 win over Buffalo. “I watched that game. I turned it off, too,” Richardson said. “It's like watching Big Ten football. It's old-man football.”
First off: Being compared to the Big Ten stings, especially in a week when Wisconsin fell at Oregon State, Nebraska went down at UCLA, and Iowa lost at home to Iowa State by the old-man score -- OK, the old-man-in-an-iron-lung score -- of 9-6.
Richardson’s larger point was the difference between Georgia’s offense and Missouri’s offense. You probably know this stuff already. The Dawgs often line up in the formation kids learn in peewee ball: quarterback under center, a fullback behind him, a tailback behind the fullback. Georgia does play from the shotgun a good bit, and QB Aaron Murray will run the ball, but he doesn’t make a habit of it. Anybody who has watched football can follow the way the Dawgs play. They’re your landline.
Missouri is your cell. There are many choices, and buttons an old man is afraid to push. Quarterback James Franklin lines up in the shotgun most every play. If he’s not throwing, he’s always a threat to run. If there’s a running back, he’s off to Franklin’s side. The Tigers generally go no-huddle. They thrive on confusion.
This is all, as you surely know, a variation on the spread option -- I guess Sheldon Richardson would call it young-man football. The basic principles are as ancient as the wishbone -- the three-running-back attack that teams like Alabama and Texas used back when there were three TV channels. But the spread couples the option quarterback’s basic decision -- hand the ball off, or run it yourself? -- with a wide-open passing game based on the run-and-shoot, which got some traction in the NFL in the ’90s. The spread aims for fast tempo and big plays. Done right, it gobbles yards like PEZ dispensers. Somewhere down in Miami, West Virginia is still scoring on Clemson.
The spread also wins titles. In fact, let’s look at the national champions of the last seven years:
2005: Texas. Vince Young, the first master of the spread.
2006: Florida. Urban Meyer installed the spread, but Chris Leak was better as a drop-back passer. Tim Tebow ran the pure version as the backup. Let’s call this one a hybrid.
2007: LSU. Matt Flynn at QB. Jacob Hester at RB. Old-man football.
2008: Florida. TEEEEBOWWWW. Spread.
2009: Alabama. Lots of handoffs to Mark Ingram. Old-man football.
2010: Auburn. Cam Newton, the evolutionary peak of the spread.
2011: Alabama. Trent Richardson + defense = old-man ball.
So over the past seven years, that’s three titles for the spread, three for old-man football and one in between. But one more detail jumps out.
Quarterbacks on spread champions: Vince Young, Tim Tebow, Cam Newton.
QBs on old-man football champs: Matt Flynn, Greg McElroy, A.J. McCarron.
It’s a small sample size, but what the record suggests so far is this: To win it all with the spread, you better have a GREAT quarterback.
On one level, this makes sense. A spread quarterback has to have a big arm and good legs. He also has to make multiple reads on both running plays and passing plays. Not many players have all those skills at a high level.
But so many fans and broadcasters are still so attached to the classic quarterback mold -- a 6-foot-5 pocket passer with a cannon arm -- that we’re still processing the idea that a spread QB has to be even better. Even the NFL is figuring out that the spread can work in the right hands. Cam Newton showed it last year. Robert Griffin III showed it on Sunday.
But if you look at the best college spread teams through that lens, it’s hard to see any winning the title this year. Denard Robinson might be the best dual-threat QB in the country, but Michigan got tire-tracked against Alabama. Oregon (a run-heavy version of the spread) has a freshman, Marcus Mariota, at QB. West Virginia (which runs the Air Raid, a pass-first version) has Geno Smith, a fine passer who is encouraged not to run. Three good quarterbacks. None as good as Vince, Tim or Cam.
A few games proved that old-man ball can be fragile, too. After Arkansas QB Tyler Wilson -- a classic drop-back passer -- left with an injury, the Razorbacks collapsed against Louisiana-Monroe, which is normally no more than the third- or fourth-best team in Louisiana, depending on how Tulane’s doing. (Although they indisputably have the best nickname. GO WARHAWKS!) Arkansas had hoped this week’s home game against Alabama would springboard it toward a national title. But now the “College GameDay” crew has diverted to Florida-Tennessee, the Razorbacks have fallen from No. 8 all the way out of the AP Top 25 and I don’t think John L. Smith will get his photo hung at The Catfish Hole anytime soon. Piss temperature in Fayetteville: ice-cold.
But the old-man football of USC and Alabama and LSU and Oklahoma still dominates the top of the charts. If you have an elite program, it’s easier to recruit for old-man ball: Just pile up the running backs (Alabama) or the receivers (USC) or the defense (LSU). If you can line up star players across the board -- especially on the lines -- you don’t need a fancy scheme. The talent is enough.
That’s how it played out in Georgia-Missouri. Franklin hit two long passes out of the spread, Georgia kept false-starting and dropping passes, and Mizzou looked strong at 17-9 in the third. But from there forward, the Tigers collectively wore out. Georgia freshman RB Todd Gurley broke tackles; linebacker Jarvis Jones, the best player on the field, intercepted a pass and caused a fumble in the span of four defensive plays. Jones was still running full-speed late in the fourth quarter, when the Missouri players -- Sheldon Richardson in particular -- could barely catch their breath on the sideline. Old men, as a rule, aren’t as fast or as flashy. But they’ve still got muscle and stamina.
All we can hope for, as fans, is a clash of styles for the national title. The last time it happened was Texas vs. USC, and it was spectacular. This year, if your team drops out of the title race (and UL-Monroe, you’re still in it, GO WARHAWKS), root for something like Bama vs. Oregon, or USC vs. West Virginia. It’s fun to look at the splash of a Jackson Pollock. It’s easy to admire the lines of a Vermeer. But when they collide … that’s when you get a Picasso.