All spread offenses -- or spread quarterbacks -- are not created equal.
It’s easy for casual observers to lump "spread offense" teams or the quarterbacks that lead them into one category, but that’s unwise. Mississippi State and Texas A&M are perfect examples: Two spread teams, two completely different philosophies, two great quarterbacks leading their teams to success -- perhaps the two best in the SEC, Mississippi State’s Dak Prescott and Texas A&M’s Kenny Hill.
Saturday will be a showcase for both of them, and as each will display, there’s more than one way to skin a cat.
On one side is Prescott. He’s the veteran, the seasoned quarterback who has seen it all. He’s the leader, the heart and soul of the Bulldogs and he’s the straw that stirs the drink in Mississippi State’s offense, throwing for 964 yards and 11 touchdowns while adding 378 rushing yards and three scores.
"I think Dak Prescott is the player that [Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen] has been wanting," Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin said. "[He’s] the complete dual-threat quarterback to make this thing go."
The Bulldogs’ offense offers a healthy mix of read-option, play-action, counters, draws, and enough designed quarterback runs to make a defender’s head spin. It looks a lot like what Florida ran in the Urban Meyer era, natural since Mullen was the offensive coordinator at Florida under Meyer from 2005-08.
Sumlin said the influence from the Florida days is evident but that Mullen has also put his own twist and new wrinkles on the attack.
"There's no doubt that these guys like to run the ball from this attack; quarterback is part of the run game and you have to account for him, and as soon as you do that, with all the motions, everything that happens, they make you fit the right gap, account for the quarterback and create some rotations in the back end," Sumlin said. "But as soon as you do that, if you're not rotating properly or fitting the right gap, the play-action pass is deadly. When you have a dual-threat quarterback that's playing at a high level like Dak is, that's the real issue: stopping the run game and stopping the quarterback run game."
Prescott's 230-pound frame allows him to be a force as a north-and-south runner while also absorbing contact.
On the other side is Hill. He’s the young upstart, making only his sixth start. He has the pedigree (son of a professional athlete, won a state championship at a signature Texas high school football program) and he looks like he was born for the Aggies’ Air Raid-inspired offense but is still coming into his own as the Aggies’ signal caller. He wasn’t named the starting quarterback this season until six weeks ago.
That hasn’t stopped him from success though, which he found immediately. Currently, he leads the SEC in passing yards (1,745), passing touchdowns (17), attempts and completions (118-of-180). Hill’s charge is to pass first and distribute the ball to the numerous Aggie receivers and he does it well.
"He has a great understanding of what they want to do offensively," Mullen said of Hill. "He really anticipated throws well down the field. That’s one thing you see, when he’s letting the ball go before receivers get in and out of breaks. There’s a lot of that confidence that goes in that. For a guy who before a receiver makes a break let it rip down the field just shows how much he understands their system and he understands and knows all of their wide receivers."
On top of that, Hill is mobile and can improvise when necessary.
"He can make things happen," Mullen said. "He extends plays with his feet and extends them in the pocket to create throws down the field. He’s a very elusive runner on top of that where if you have everybody in coverage he can keep a play alive and all of the sudden he’s running for a first down and moving the chains for them."
The difficulty in defending the Aggies comes on the perimeter with the one-on-one matchups, combined with the breakneck tempo they attempt to operate. Like Mullen, Sumlin's philosophy is similar to what he used at his previous school (Houston).
"What they’ll do is they’ve got to be accurate because they’ll beat you underneath, and they’ll beat you some quick screens to kind of lure you in, and then they’re going to take shots down the field," Mullen said. "When they do take those shots and hit those shots, that’s when they become really an explosive team. The quarterbacks do a great job of putting the ball to guys."
While their styles are different, the stakes are similar for both Prescott and Hill. Each is trying to keep his respective team undefeated and in the thick of the SEC West race, not to mention the College Football Playoff.
The winner will also likely boost his Heisman Trophy candidacy.
Regardless, the stage is set Saturday for an entertaining battle between two gifted signal callers.
"[Hill is] a great quarterback that makes plays, distributes the ball well and gets the ball to the playmakers," Mullen said.
Said Texas A&M defensive coordinator Mark Snyder of Prescott: "Dak’s really good. You can tell he's the cog that makes the engine go."