With the stranglehold that the SEC has on the national championship, what does the future look like for the Big 12?
We asked three football analysts:
Former NFL running back and current ESPN analyst
Q: Up-tempo, spread offenses have become the rage in the Big 12. Could that help the league end the SEC's run?
A: “I don't know that up-tempo's going to be the answer because a lot of other teams are using it, even inside the SEC now. Hugh Freeze at Mississippi. Auburn's going to have Gus Malzahn. Of course we saw what Texas A&M was able to do in their first year in the conference. It's not like (SEC defenses) are going to be surprised by what they see.”
Do you think they were last year by A&M?
“A little bit. You look at the beginnings of the Florida and the LSU games, you look at the beginning of the Alabama game, down 20-0 ... everybody watches film, but it's something different to see it on game day. Your guys don't run it with the same tempo in practice. And even if they're trying to get the same tempo, they don't run it with the same efficiency because it's not the offense that they run.”
Sort of like trying to prepare for a bowl game against Navy and the triple option?
“Exactly. The triple option's a great example. But I think it's going to take some defensive improvement (in the Big 12). You're going to need to get some of those guys, especially on the defensive line, that the Big 12 just doesn't seem to have as much of these days. You had the (Alex) Okafors, you had the Gerald McCoys, you had some guys sprinkled here and there in the last couple years, but you haven't seen them across the board, so you're going to have to have some kind of presence like that. The offenses are going to be fine, but you're going to need more of a defensive presence.”
Lots of high schools in the Big 12 footprint run spread offenses, and kids who could be defensive linemen might say, “I want to be part of that instead of defending it.” Does that add to the struggle of recruiting game-changing defensive linemen?
“There aren't a lot of those guys in the country, first of all. There a lot of 6-foot-3, 6-foot-4 guys. There are a lot of 300-pound guys. There are very few that combine that with athleticism. They're not easy to find. They can be found, but it's not always easy. And of course, you have up-tempo offenses, you've got to have more than one or two of them because you've got to be able to rotate them throughout the course of the game. They're out there to be had, but you have to find them and you have to bring them in and develop them. A lot easier said than done.”
If you're a defensive line recruit and you see how many plays you may have to play in the Big 12, is that a tough sell for coaches?
“Very interesting question. It might have been more of an issue two or three years ago again because you're seeing it more and more around the country now. You go to the SEC, you're going to have to face it. You go to the Pac-12, you're sure going to have to face it. Big Ten's really the only conference that you don't have more than one team doing it consistently. I guess you had Michigan with Denard (Robinson) and now Urban (Meyer) at Ohio State, but I think it could discourage some guys. But the key is to get that momentum. Get one or two guys in there, then they get some people to follow, then you get that depth and those guys know they don't have to take 60, 70 of those snaps themselves. You're going to have 80 or 90 snaps defensively, but you're not going to have to take more than 75 or 80 percent of them.”
Look into the crystal ball. Five years from now, what does the Big 12 look like?
Is it still all about spread offenses? Does it crack the SEC stranglehold on titles?
“First of all, I think there will be a national championship appearance at least in the next couple years. Kind of hard to tell who that is. (Laughs.) The crystal ball is not that clear. But as far as what college football is going to look like, I think the spread offenses are here to stay, the up-tempo is here to stay. You're going to see more and more of it, especially as you see the league incorporating more of those principles. High schools are already doing it. A lot of the players are going to want to do it in college because they're familiar with it, and then the college players, they're going to make part of their decision — ‘Can I go to a place that's going to prepare me for the NFL?'”
Former NFL running back and current Fox analyst
Q: The up-tempo and spread offenses, when you look into the future for the Big 12, do you see even more of it?
A: “Yeah, and that's one reason why I think (Alabama coach) Nick Saban raised that question — the uptempo offenses are leading to more injuries, which I don't think is true. What it does is it puts a lot of pressure on the defense. If you're a bigger defensive lineman, it's tough for you to get more sacks, it's tough for you to stay on the field because it's wearing on your conditioning. And that's due to the fact that those schools like the Alabamas and LSUs have better athletes depth-wise on the offensive and defensive lines. In order to compete with them, up-tempo offense and the pace puts a lot of pressure on them. It's a totally different style of play. I think Texas A&M and (Kevin) Sumlin really surprised a lot of people with their pace with what they were able to do and caught a lot of teams off guard, especially Alabama. It took them toward the second half at that game in Tuscaloosa to really catch on to what they were doing. You start to get the athletes that you're recruiting at Alabama and LSU to A&M and schools in the Big 12, then it could be a problem.”
If the Big 12 continues the trend toward up-tempo and spread and scoring a bunch of points, is that the answer to stopping the SEC's run of national titles?
“You have to win. It puts pressure on, but you ultimately have to beat those teams. It hasn't been close the last few years. I see a lot of teams doing it. The Pac-12, they're doing more spread offense. The Big Ten is starting to do it a little bit more. You see Ohio State do it a little bit. Michigan has certain nuances of it in their offense. Northwestern and so forth. But I think this is an evolution of offense that we're going to see for quite some time. The traditional way of lining up in the I and coming down hill is becoming a thing of the past.”
So, is there a Big 12 team that could win it?
“You know, I look at the personnel of like Texas and Oklahoma. Maybe those schools could possibly contend with them. I think on any given Saturday, a team could be beat. But it's just tough to say that a style of play could unseat the SEC. Ultimately, it comes down to who wants it the most and executes the best on that day. The quality of play especially at the top of the SEC is spectacular. You can see it in the depth and the quality of the players, especially on the defensive lines. It's just night and day difference when you see the defensive ends, the defensive tackles in the SEC vs. around the country. Man to man and depth-wise, it's just incredible.”
Have all of these up-tempo, spread offenses impacted recruiting for defenses in the Big 12?
“I don't think they're recruiting bigger guys in the Big 12 because of that very reason. They need more bodies. They need lighter athletes that can defend the guys that can work in space because this conference is based on it. They're not going after the monsters that you're seeing, 6-8, 290 pounds rushing off the defensive end. You're just not seeing that.”
But then if a Big 12 team has to face an SEC team? Problem?
“It becomes a problem. But I think the biggest test this year will be Oklahoma State going against Mississippi State, especially out of the gate. You've got fresh bodies. Hopefully between both of the teams they won't endure injuries so we'll have a true sense of where they are. Mississippi State has an unrated front seven defensively. Of course, I like Oklahoma State and the firepower they have offensively. We're going to have a chance to see just where those two teams are in a neutral site.”
Look into the crystal ball. Five years from now, what does the Big 12 look like?
“I think in five years, where the game is going, it's becoming less physical. So many rules now to protect players. You have players more conscious of where they're hitting. I see more of the up-tempo offenses. I think the huddle will be nonexistent. I see plays being called from the line of scrimmage. We're seeing the style being embraced in the NFL now. New England's been doing it for years. The 49ers are starting to do it. Of course (Robert Griffin III in) Washington, Peyton Manning in Denver, so we're starting to see the style permeate into the NFL. So, I think it could be here to stay for quite some time.”
Q: What separates the SEC from other conferences right now?
A: “For those that are suffering from SEC fatigue, this may be your year. What the rest of the country needs for the SEC to finally be knocked from its lofty perch is really for the conference to cannibalize itself. Because none of the other leagues are in their realm. They're not. The league is that superior right now. It's not a myth. It's true. And anyone who suggests otherwise is just not watching the product. The SEC is, in my opinion this year, finally going to be the victims of their own success. It's too top heavy a conference this year. You have three elite teams on each side of the division, with Alabama, A&M and LSU in the West and Georgia, South Carolina and Florida in the East, and I would suggest there are two wild-card, up-and-coming teams in both of those divisions that are capable of beating any one of the three elite teams: Vanderbilt in the East and Ole Miss in the West.
“People forget that it took a variety of incredible things to fall at the end of the season (in 2008) for LSU to lose in triple-overtime, at home in their last regular season game of the year, and still play for the national title and win it with two losses. People forget that. They get amnesia about it. They were fortunate as a conference to keep the streak going that year. I'm not saying it was inappropriate that LSU played in that game. Certainly it wasn't. They deserved it. They got in the game and they buried Ohio State and the streak was kept alive.
“After the SEC Championship game this year, I think everybody in the league will have two losses. If everybody in the league has two losses, that's certainly gonna open the door for either an undefeated Big 12 team, an undefeated ACC team, a probable undefeated Louisville or an undefeated Ohio State or Michigan. I would argue that even a one-loss team from the Big Ten or a one-loss team from the Big 12 — if it's the right one-loss team — would get the edge over a two-loss SEC team playing in the title game. It's reasonable to assume that. Some things have to happen.
“As much as Texas and Oklahoma probably loathe Texas A&M, they need Texas A&M to have Johnny Manziel available to play against Alabama to beat them for all of this to happen. Be careful what you wish for if you're hoping A&M doesn't have Manziel. If Alabama plays A&M without Manziel, then I could be wrong and Alabama has the easiest road of any of the power teams in the SEC because of the unbalanced schedule.
“I've got Louisville playing Ohio State for the national title this year. And I'm basing that on the SEC having this problem at the top because there's too much in the upper half of each division. These teams are too good to come through unscathed. But that said, Alabama's got the easiest road of the elite teams because of the unbalanced schedule. I'm basing a lot of this on A&M beating Alabama, which I think they will if Manziel plays.
“When people talk of Alabama as a dominant champion, I'm like, ‘Really? Come on. Hang on a second.' They are an elite team with the best coach of his generation, who without a doubt, is the best in big-game situations of any team in America. But to suggest that because they dominated an out-manned Notre Dame team in the national championship game that this program is somehow dominant, no. We're not living in the Bear Bryant, Bud Wilkinson era. There is no such thing. Georgia was one play away from beating Alabama. LSU was one poor defensive call away from beating Alabama. They are not dominant. They lost at home to Texas A&M, so the term dominant is being used a little too loosely here. They're the most decorated, and certainly the best big-game team in America. There's no doubt about that. I just think that there's a lot of competition and too much of it in the SEC. I think that's gonna open the door for these other conferences.”