Two years ago, Nick Saban urged a takedown of “Continuous Football,” as he called it. The Alabama coach stood up for moderate tempo at SEC Media Days in 2013 and criticized hurry-up offenses. Saban said 80 snaps a game were not good for the players; there was more risk of injury.
The slow versus fast debate went back and forth. Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze scoffed at Saban’s assertion and said “Show me some proof” that up-tempo is more hazardous.
The SEC was a basket case of emotions. Traditionalists feared the Baylor-ization of the SEC. “Speed ball” advocates pleaded, “Don’t hold us back.” Saban and Arkansas coach Bret Bielema appealed to the NCAA rules committee to slow the game down.
As it turns out, the SEC is not going to be overrun by speed ball. There is not going to be a culture change away from the 230-pound running back and drive blocks, down blocks, fullback-lead blocks, trap blocks and back-side pull blocks by guard and tackle. Teams can run some power plays out of a spread, but up-tempo programs are not going to conquer the South simply by having the quarterback spit the ball out to one of their four wide receivers every 17 seconds.
“I think it’s hard to play continuous football when there are enough teams in the league like Arkansas, LSU, Georgia, Florida and Alabama that will play keep-away on offense and have enough athletes on defense to play in space and create turnovers,” said Phil Savage, the CEO of the Senior Bowl, color analyst for Alabama football and a former NFL general manager and scout. “As a theory it might be easier for the power teams to prepare for the spread than the ‘spread’ teams replicating downhill football (power) in practice.”
Alabama, UGA, LSU and Arkansas are a combined 19-8 in SEC games this season. Ole Miss, Mississippi State, Auburn and Missouri are a combined 10-15. If 19-8 is a reflection of the recruiting power of Alabama, UGA and LSU — not just their style — why is Arkansas on this list?
Then again, the only team to defeat Alabama this season was Ole Miss, a fast team.
However, Texas A&M and its speed game has had no traction toward a division championship since the departure of Johnny Manziel. The Aggies can’t win with defense and a run game, like Alabama and LSU.
Auburn has not found an accurate passer to cause trouble with its game on skates. Ole Miss had a run of national prominence, but the Rebels’ place in the top five came and went. Missouri was 7-1 in the SEC last season, but Alabama and its balanced offense crushed the Tigers’ spread in the SEC Championship game.
Alabama had the best of both in 2014. It played big and it played fast. Just look at the SEC Championship game win over Missouri. Alabama got ahead playing fast and then cruised to the title playing methodical football.
Ohio State was a big and fast team in 2014 and won the national championship. Clemson can go both speeds, which is why the Tigers and Buckeyes are going to be favorites for the national championship this season. Alabama has more of a play-action passer in Jake Coker, but the Crimson Tide defense is the best in the country and can support a methodical offense.
Florida coach Jim McElwain may have to deal with that Alabama defense in the SEC Championship game. You don’t have to convince him it is a good plan to play fast against the Tide.
“I’d get it out of my darn hand fast just to not give them a chance to tee off on you,” McElwain said with a chuckle.
McElwain agreed with Savage that it is helpful to have enough big, physical players on the roster — and not just speed — so a team can have an effective practice. It needs to practice against rock-em, sock-em sledgehammer power plays and against the spread and speed. That is a criticism of Texas A&M as it got battered by LSU in 2013 and 2014 (708 rushing yards for the Tigers, 159 for the Aggies). A&M did not have the roster makeup to deal with power football because it was built for speed.
“To me, it’s how you decide to build your team that gives you the best chance to be successful,” McElwain said. “A lot of teams are doing it (playing fast), but I don’t think it is something that has been wholesale in this league yet.”
There is still some prejudice nationally against fast-paced programs. Just look at Baylor. The weak non-conference schedule hurt the once-undefeated Bears but so did the lack of physical style. The College Football Playoff selection committee left Baylor out of the top four when the first rankings were released.
Was it all the weak schedule or did perception of the offensive style have something to do with it?
It certainly could have been a lack of trust in the Bears’ style, which matters greatly. The Bears have one loss — the same as Alabama and Notre Dame — but little chance to make the Playoff, not just because of the schedule, but because Baylor couldn’t adapt and run the ball against a top-shelf defense like Oklahoma. The Bears looked flawed because they were one-dimensional (Shock Linwood had 103 yards rushing, but 53 yards were on two carries).
Kentucky coach Mark Stoops said teams that try to snap the ball quickly should not be confused as being finesse teams.
“Mississippi State and Ole Miss are power football teams in a spread format,” Stoops said.
Indeed, Auburn won the national championship in 2010 getting to the line quickly; its favorite play was an unbalanced line right and 6-foot-5 quarterback Cam Newton mauling defenders. The Tigers got into the national championship game in 2013 with a speed game. A&M beat Alabama in Tuscaloosa. Ole Miss beat Alabama in Tuscaloosa. The SEC can pound the rock, throw it around, play fast and play methodical.
“You’ve got to prepare for a little bit of everything, and I think that’s what makes this league so great,” McElwain said.
He added, “I think football is cyclical. I think if you look at what teams do offensively it all comes full circle.”
The debate is which is better, more effective. What style is more likely to produce a national championship and maintain the SEC’s reputation as the top conference in college football?
Kliff Kingsbury, the Texas Tech coach whose team plays very fast, does not want the biggest bullies on the block dictating rules, so he had a suggestion clearly aimed at Saban and Bielema, and others like them.
“You want me to play slower, well, OK, you need to get smaller, less strong defensive linemen,” Kingsbury told the Associated Press two years ago. “Stop recruiting these beasts up front and we won’t run as many plays.”
Ray Glier is the author of How The SEC Became Goliath, Simon&Schuster/Howard. He has worked for The New York Times, USA TODAY, The Washington Post, among others