There's a danger in broad-brushing with the term "spread offense." Being too liberal with it can lead to another, often false marker: finesse.
No team that uses the spread wants to be called finesse, although the designations often go together. The word finesse -- defined by Webster's as refinement or delicacy of workmanship, structure or texture -- is blasphemous in a sport that shapes its identity around brawn. While certain spread systems do have a finesse flavor, others, like Ohio State's and Auburn's, sit on the opposite side of the spectrum.
"That's completely different than what we believe in," Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said.
Good luck finding the finesse in the way Ohio State stomped its final three opponents to win the first College Football Playoff national title. Try to locate the delicacy in how Auburn's H-backs take on defenders to clear lanes for ball carriers ("They have a mindset," Tigers defensive end Carl Lawson said, "to blow up whoever's out there").
Refined? Ohio State's offensive linemen prefer to be called "the slobs." Offenses don't finesse their way to a combined 1,167 yards against Alabama, as Ohio State and Auburn did last season. Finesse teams don't combine for 249 runs of 10 yards or more.
"I always chuckle when they say, 'Well, you're a finesse team,'" said Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez, who pioneered the spread in major college football. "People put all the spread offenses in one little neat box, but there's such a variety. Philosophically, what are you trying to attack?
"Auburn, Ohio State -- those are physical spreads."
While the spread undoubtedly has changed college football, it hasn't yielded many national champions. Of the nine most recent winners, only three fall under the spread offense umbrella -- two teams (Florida and Ohio State) coached by Urban Meyer; and Auburn, where Malzahn served as offensive coordinator in 2010. The common belief among many coaches is that while the spread is the great equalizer, championship teams still must be overpowering up front.
"Some of these [spread] teams are nothing but loose plays, throw the bubble screen, throw the smoke screen," Alabama coach Nick Saban said. "They will run the zone play to keep you honest, but everything is spread out. Everything's four wide. Everything's finesse, to get you in space and make you miss a tackle.
"But those guys [Auburn and Ohio State] will bloody your nose if you don't watch out."
Both the Buckeyes and Tigers have spread elements in structure. But they operate under the principle that has defined football for generations: "When do you break the man across from you?" Ohio State offensive coordinator/line coach Ed Warinner asks.
Despite Meyer's track record with a power-based spread, Ohio State still heard doubts about its ability to match Alabama's muscle in the playoff semifinal. According to ESPN Stats & Info, the Buckeyes rushed for 222 yards between the tackles against Alabama, 39 more rushing yards than the Tide had allowed in an entire game last season. Running back Ezekiel Elliott had 213 yards between the tackles against Oregon in the title game.
"People were like, 'Oh, you can't run the ball against them. Your offensive line's not good enough, their defensive line is too good,'" Buckeyes tackle Taylor Decker said. "And we just ran the ball. Against Oregon, they had those huge defensive ends that were playing 4i's, which makes everything a man block, and we still were able to run the ball inside."
The Ohio State-Auburn strain of the spread has proved most successful at the highest level because of an ability to win the line of scrimmage. The zone read is at the core of most run-based spread offenses with mobile quarterbacks.
But teams like Ohio State and Auburn use it for a different purpose than most.
"The zone read has changed from being a constraint play to a downhill play," said Wisconsin defensive coordinator Dave Aranda, whose defense last season faced both Ohio State (a 59-0 loss in the Big Ten championship) and Auburn (a 34-31 win in the Outback Bowl). "It was, 'Give me a run to occupy people, so I can throw screens.' There's still some teams who do it that way. With Ohio State or Auburn, those teams want to push vertically on the line of scrimmage.
"They're running the zone read to run the ball, to set a tempo."
Malzahn doesn't like the spread label attached to his offense, but welcomes the tempo tag. Auburn's objective is to marry speed and power with its run-heavy scheme. If successful, Tigers opponents not only will be gassed late in games, but beaten up.
Auburn has outscored opponents 239-151 in the fourth quarter during Malzahn's first two years as coach. The Tigers held a 128-56 edge in the fourth quarter during the national title run in 2010.
"There's nothing better than the second half, being able to run the football and they know you're going to run it, everybody in the stands knows you're going to run it," Malzahn said.
The origin of Meyer's system traces back to an October bye week during the 2005 season, his first at Florida. Meyer had brought in a record-setting offense from Utah but the Gators produced just 36 points against Tennessee, Alabama and LSU, dropping two of the games.
A showdown with rival Georgia loomed, so Meyer and assistant Steve Addazio met at Meyer's home and brainstormed how to inject a power element into the spread structure.
"In that conference, you couldn't move the defense 2-techniques [D-linemen lined up over the guards], you couldn't get enough movement to get that running game going," said Addazio, now head coach at Boston College. "We put power and counter in and iso in. It became a very physical, downhill deal coupled with speed sweeps and things. Make them defend the whole field in the run game and the throw game.
"Everybody talks about the spread and there's so many different variations of it, but we started a different kind of branch of that thing."
Meyer since has sharpened his philosophy. He wants athletic linemen but those who crave inside runs.
Ohio State's run scheme is simple but effective. Warinner lists only four plays: inside zone, power, outside zone and counter -- "The four core runs they run in the NFL." It's no mystery, Warinner adds, why Ohio State had three rookie offensive linemen -- Corey Linsley, Jack Mewhort and Andrew Norwell -- start games in the NFL last season.
"What we do translates much better to the NFL than people want to say," Warinner said.
The only difference between Ohio State and more conventional offenses is its base formation -- quarterback in the shotgun, receivers spanning the width of the field. Warinner thinks the spread provides "cleaner looks" to diagnose potential matchup advantages, and increases the threat of long passes through play-action.
"When I was recruited by Coach Meyer, he made that pretty clear that you're not going to come in here and use smoke and mirrors as an offensive lineman," Decker said. "You're going to do what linemen do, and that's move people and block people and protect.
"We're a super downhill, in-your-face running team."
The philosophy is reflected throughout the Ohio State and Auburn programs. Malzahn thinks few teams feature more live hitting in practice than Auburn, which he calls a "big risk" but one worth taking if the Tigers can translate their edge to Saturdays.
Ohio State won't touch quarterbacks or tackle running backs in practice, but there's no letup at the line of scrimmage.
"We're not looking to just cover up defensive linemen," Warinner said. "We're looking to try to displace them."
Malzahn still hears the finesse label incorrectly applied to his offense, but not nearly as much as before. Auburn led the SEC in rushing by a wide margin in 2013 and finished just behind Georgia last season.
Ohio State has finished first or second in rushing in the Big Ten in each of Meyer's first three years.
"People talk about the spread offense and there's a lot of misnomers," Auburn offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee said. "What we do and what Ohio State does, we spread the field and make you defend the whole field, but we're still physical.
"We're not finesse offenses. We're physical offenses."
Chris Low and Mitch Sherman contributed to this story.