Thursday, October 18, 2007

"Spread Single Wing" Spreading the Upsets in College Football

In college football, the upsets are spreading
By Jon Wilner
Mercury News
Article Launched: 10/18/2007 01:38:03 AM PDT

In an eight-day span, the Bay Area college football teams had three highly upsetting experiences.

First, Stanford beat USC in one of the greatest upsets in college football history. Then San Jose State nearly upset No. 16 Hawaii under the Friday night lights. Then Cal, on the verge of being No. 1, was upset by 14-point underdog Oregon State.

It's enough to make a coach shrug his shoulders.

"I can't explain it to you," Cal Coach Jeff Tedford said Tuesday. "I don't know why. I just know it is."

And it is everywhere.

The first seven weeks of the football season have been like the first four days of the NCAA tournament.

March Madness had George Mason over Connecticut.

September Madness had Appalachian State over Michigan, which was considered an upset-for-the-ages for about a month, and then came Stanford over USC.

"Appalachian State beating Michigan was not a huge upset to me," San Jose State Coach Dick Tomey said. "Appalachian State is so used to winning. They've won the I-AA championship and looked unbeatable doing it.

"The Stanford game was much more of an upset."

There have been others, although none so extreme.

Seven Division I-AA teams have beaten major-college opponents.

The top-10 teams in the Associated Press' preseason poll have a combined 16 losses.

The Nos. 1 and 2 teams lost on the same weekend - last weekend (LSU and Cal) - for the first time in 11 years.

"There's a lot of good teams, a lot of good preparation that's going on, a lot of good players," Tedford said. "Anything can happen."

It's just that anything seems to be happening anytime.

To explain the upsets, coaches often point to scholarship limitations. But schools have been maxed out at 85 free rides (an average of 17 per year) since 1994.

The difference isn't where the recruits are going to school. It's the caliber of the recruits themselves.

The 500th-ranked player in the country - the receiver at Kentucky, for example, or the linebacker at Boise State - is much better today than he was five or 10 years ago. "That person has done more preparatory work and is playing fewer other sports than was the case," Oregon Coach Mike Bellotti said.

Thanks to the proliferation of summer camps and all-star games, players are exposed to more coaching and better competition these days. And thanks to improvements in strength training, they are bigger, stronger and faster than they used to be. "The physiology of exercise has given players a chance to be as big and strong as people who are naturally that way," Tomey said.

To explain the upsets, coaches also point to the spread offense as the great equalizer, but the spread has been around for decades. The difference is the form it takes.

In the 1990s, it was Washington State's Ryan Leaf standing in the pocket and firing the ball to one of five receivers. Today, it's Appalachian State's Armanti Edwards throwing to his wide receivers or running through a hole in the Michigan defense.

That's why coaches refer to it as the spread-option or the spread single-wing, because the quarterback has the option to run or pass - like the old single wing.

"When the quarterback hands the ball off, theoretically you have nine blockers," Tomey said. "When the quarterback runs, you have 10 blockers. It's devastating."

The spread has become college football's version of the three-point shot, allowing smaller teams to play with the big boys. It extends the defense (horizontally) and places ballhandlers in open spaces, not the trenches, thereby reducing the importance of powerful linemen - the players who usually end up at USC, Michigan and Oklahoma.

Everyone has pieces of the spread in their playbook, and some teams, such as Oregon, now use it exclusively.

"We saw it as an advantage, as something that would give us an innate advantage against certain teams and certain types of programs," Bellotti said. "I think that has been borne to be true."

What's next for a season that gets wilder by the week, for a sport that gets crazier by the year? Will more Appalachian States rise up in coming years? Will more top-10 teams go down?

Or is this year an extreme case of upset fever?

"I think this is going to become the norm," Tomey said. "There's just so much parity."


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