<
>

The 25 most important games in college football's spread revolution

play
LSU's offensive transition from smashmouth to spread (1:08)

Former LSU players Marcus Spears and Booger McFarland discuss the Tigers' transition to the spread offense and explain why they were skeptical at first. (1:08)

LSU's adoption of, and success with, spread offense principles in the 2019 college football season signaled the end of the spread offense's revolutionary life cycle. To commemorate the moment, let's look back at the 25 most important and definitive games from the spread revolution.

Dec. 19, 1980: BYU 46, SMU 45

In 1980, Hal Mumme was quarterbacks coach at West Texas A&M, asking existential questions about how the passing game could be deployed and why people didn't use it more. According to S.C. Gwynne's "The Perfect Pass," watching LaVell Edwards' BYU team score three touchdowns in four minutes to beat an old-school, power-heavy SMU team -- in one of the sport's greatest games, no less -- while gaining 446 yards through the air and losing 2 yards on the ground, was all the proof of concept Mumme needed.

A lot of the college football universe continued to see BYU's pass-happy offense as gimmicky in some way, even as the Cougars won the 1984 national title and beat almost all of the sport's blue bloods, from Miami to Penn State to Oklahoma to Notre Dame, over the course of about 15 years. Mumme would go on to serve as UTEP's offensive coordinator and as a high school coach before finally landing a collegiate head-coaching job and getting to truly implement his vision.

Sept. 23, 1989: Iowa Wesleyan 49, Grinnell 7

Mumme's first victory as Iowa Wesleyan's head coach was a mission statement. Grinnell ran a traditional offense and had beaten Wesleyan the year before, but as Gwynne writes in "Perfect Pass," Wesleyan "destroyed them, 49-7, completing 30 of 50 pass attempts for 408 yards and six touchdowns. To put those numbers into perspective, that same year NFL teams averaged 18 passes per game out of 32 attempts for 211 yards." The seed had officially been planted.

Dec. 11, 1993: East Central 49, Glenville State 35

Rich Rodriguez became head coach at Glenville State in West Virginia at the age of 26, and with few people in the stands and little pressure, he followed his nose, and some sound logic, to some new ideas. He chose a fast tempo for his offense because he hated defending the two-minute drill as a defensive back at West Virginia. He put his quarterback in the shotgun because, as he told me in a 2014 interview, "We had a shorter quarterback, and I thought I could get five dumpy linemen who could get run over slowly," therefore giving his QB more time and space to throw. He discovered the zone read when his quarterback bobbled the snap on an inside zone handoff and tucked the ball and ran for a nice gain instead.

In 1993, his Pioneers rode these concepts to the NAIA championship game. Unfortunately, East Central's decidedly old-school offense -- fullback Tyler Jack ran for 318 yards in the title game -- won the day, and a defense coordinated by a young coach named Todd Graham made just enough stops. Two decades later, Rodriguez and Graham would coach against each other again, as rivals at Arizona and Arizona State.

Oct. 4, 1997: Kentucky 40, Alabama 34

After three years at Iowa Wesleyan and five at Valdosta State, Mumme was hired away by Kentucky in 1997. (C.M. Newton, the UK athletic director at the time, gets a spot in the spread offense hall of fame for this massive roll of the dice.)

It took Mumme only about a month to make a big impression. In front of what was then the second-largest crowd in the history of UK's Commonwealth Stadium, Anwar Stewart returned a blocked field goal 68 yards late in regulation, Tim Couch connected with Craig Yeast for a 26-yard score in the first overtime (he threw for 355 yards on the day), and the Wildcats beat the Crimson Tide for the first time since 1922.

Yes, 1922.

As the Montgomery Advertiser's John Zenor put it the next morning, "Times change. Sometimes they change gradually, sometimes with the full force of a barreling Mack truck." Mumme couldn't establish much program momentum in Lexington, but others would soon successfully spread the gospel.

Oct. 10, 1998: Wisconsin 31, Purdue 24

Thanks in part to 127 yards from sophomore sensation Ron Dayne, Wisconsin beat a game Purdue squad to move to 6-0 in an eventual Rose Bowl campaign. But all anybody could talk about was another sophomore: Drew Brees, Purdue's quarterback and the point guard for Joe Tiller's "basketball on grass" system. The Boilermakers would go on to upset maybe the best Kansas State team ever in a classic Alamo Bowl. But this game's on the list because Brees threw an NCAA-record 83 passes, completing 55 (also a record) for 494 yards. (He also threw four interceptions, which turned the game, but that's neither here nor there.)

Two years later, the pass-happy Boilermakers would go to the Rose Bowl for the first time in more than three decades.

Dec. 31, 1998: Tulane 41, BYU 27

New Tulane coach Tommy Bowden promoted Rodriguez from the small-school ranks, and in his first season as offensive coordinator in New Orleans, he improved Tulane's scoring average by 15 points per game and flipped a 2-9 team to 7-4. In 1998, the Green Wave surged to 12-0 and 45 points per game.

Their Liberty Bowl victory was symbolic, coming as it did against Edwards' BYU. "BYU has never played a team like ours on offense," Tulane quarterback Shaun King said after throwing for 276 yards and rushing for 109. The game also took place without Bowden, who had already accepted the Clemson job. Rodriguez joined him, and within two years Clemson's Woody Dantzler had become the first quarterback to pass for 2,000 yards and rush for 1,000 in the same season.

Oct. 7, 2000: Oklahoma 63, Texas 14

Having experienced how frustrating Mumme's Air Raid system was to defend, former Florida defensive coordinator Bob Stoops hired Mumme's offensive coordinator, Mike Leach, as his own OC when he took the Oklahoma job in 1999. OU immediately surged from 115th to sixth in scoring offense, and Leach became Texas Tech's head coach after just one season in Norman.

The offense he left behind, now coordinated by Mark Mangino (and a smidge more balanced), continued to roll. In the Red River Rivalry in Dallas, Josh Heupel threw for 275 yards, running back Quentin Griffin scored six touchdowns and OU went up 35-0 just 3 minutes, 30 seconds into the second quarter. The Sooners beat No. 2 Kansas State in Manhattan the next week, then returned home and beat No. 1 Nebraska by 17. Two months later, they took down Florida State in the Orange Bowl to win the national title just two years after going 5-6.

Nov. 4, 2000: Northwestern 54, Michigan 51

After a 3-8 debut campaign, Northwestern coach Randy Walker and offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson knew their I-formation attack just wasn't going to have the bodies to compete in the Big Ten. They needed a tactical advantage. Wilson visited Rodriguez at Clemson in the spring of 2000, learning how to operate what still amounted to a power run game, only with tempo and with the quarterback as a keeper threat.

The effects were immediate: Northwestern improved from 110th to 10th in scoring offense, and against a still-mighty Michigan, the Wildcats rushed for 332 yards and threw for 322 over 90 snaps, outscoring the exhausted Wolverines 18-6 in the fourth quarter.

Wilson: "I think when we did that, people were like, 'Wait a minute now, this is not a gimmick.' I think people took note of that one. Those blue guys? They were statistically one of the better defenses going into that game. It wasn't like that was some crap Michigan team. That was a good team. The spread teams that aren't physical? That's a gimmick. Even though we changed everything [that offseason], we window-dressed everything, it was still power, it was still downhill running." And it won Northwestern a share of the Big Ten title.

Sept. 14, 2002: Bowling Green 53, Missouri 28

Another branch on the spread tree began to grow in 2001 when Bowling Green named former Notre Dame receivers coach Urban Meyer as head coach. The Falcons hadn't enjoyed a winning season in seven years but immediately rose to 8-3.

Meyer and a staff that featured eventual successor Gregg Brandon and future Mississippi State and Florida head coach Dan Mullen crafted an offense around ahead-of-his-time quarterback Josh Harris, and the offense ignited. BGSU averaged 41 points per game in 2002 and thoroughly destroyed a Missouri team seeing its own offensive renaissance with quarterback Brad Smith (who would eventually become the first quarterback to average a 2,000/1,000 season over his career). Harris threw for 311 yards, rushed for 66 and caught a 34-yard touchdown pass from receiver Cole Magner.

By the next season, Meyer had taken the Utah head job. Two years and an unbeaten season later, he was at Florida, where he would win two national titles.

Nov. 16, 2006: West Virginia 45, Pitt 27

After two prolific years at Clemson, Rodriguez was hired to lead his alma mater, and he had the Mountaineers at 9-4 by his second season. They took shares of the Big East title in 2003-04 and, with a freshman backfield -- quarterback Pat White, running back Steve Slaton -- went 11-1 in 2005, torching Georgia in the Sugar Bowl. The next season, Slaton and White broke another "that shouldn't be possible" barrier: In an 18-point romp over rival Pitt, White threw for 204 yards and rushed for 220, while Slaton rushed for 215 and caught six passes for 130. That was 14 years ago and remains a staggering feat.

WVU would go on to win 11 games in 2006 and get to within one win of the BCS Championship in 2007, but Pitt would get its revenge, frustrating a hobbled White and besting the Mountaineers 13-9 in a classic upset.

Sept. 8, 2007: Oregon 39, Michigan 7

Almost overnight, Chip Kelly became the standard-bearer for the up-tempo spread. Hired away from New Hampshire as Mike Bellotti's offensive coordinator before the 2007 season, he had the Ducks averaging 43 points per game nine games into the season. His second game was perhaps most memorable: In Ann Arbor, against Lloyd Carr's last Wolverines team, Dennis Dixon threw for 292 yards, Jonathan Stewart and Jeremiah Johnson combined for 200 rushing yards, and Dixon rushed for 76 while scoring on the most gorgeous fake Statue of Liberty play of all time.

The Ducks were primed for a spot in 2007's national title game until Dixon tore his ACL in November. Three years later, with Kelly as head coach, they would indeed make the title game.

Nov. 24, 2007: Missouri 36, Kansas 28

You want a sign that college football has been turned on its head? How about Missouri and Kansas playing for the No. 1 ranking in the BCS standings?

Thanks to QB injuries and a huge run of upsets -- Stanford over USC, Illinois over Ohio State, Kentucky and Arkansas over LSU, Texas Tech over Oklahoma, etc. -- the 2007 title race was maybe the most wide-open in the sport's history. When Mizzou and Kansas met at Kansas City's Arrowhead Stadium, they were a combined 21-1, and the winner would be positioned for a shot in the national title game. Soon-to-be Heisman finalist Chase Daniel completed 40 of 49 passes and Mizzou took a 28-7 lead into the fourth quarter before weathering a late charge. The Sports Illustrated cover that week read, "Mizzou, that's who."

(This being college football, the oligarchy quickly struck back. Oklahoma used a second-half run to cruise past Mizzou in the Big 12 title game, and thanks also to WVU's loss to Pitt, heavyweights LSU and Ohio State played for the national title. The minnows of the world will always have November 2007, though.)

Nov. 1, 2008: Texas Tech 39, Texas 33

Quick word-association game: When I say "four verticals," what do you think of? The odds are pretty good you thought, "Harrell to Crabtree."

In his ninth season at Texas Tech, Mike Leach found a breakthrough. With a blue-chip quarterback (Graham Harrell) and the best receiver in college football (Michael Crabtree), the Red Raiders began 2008 10-0, thanks in part to this classic. They raced to a 19-0 lead against top-ranked Texas, but the Longhorns clawed back and took a 33-32 lead with 89 seconds remaining. Eighty-eight seconds later, Crabtree scored running Four Verticals, maybe the single most enduring and devastating route combination of the era.

play
0:37

On this date: Crabtree's clutch catch wins game for Texas Tech

On Nov. 1, 2008, Michael Crabtree catches a touchdown pass in the final seconds to win the game for Texas Tech over Texas.

Tech rose to second in the polls and demolished No. 8 Oklahoma State to set up what would become a winner-take-all matchup against Oklahoma for the Big 12 South crown.

Nov. 22, 2008: Oklahoma 65, Texas Tech 21

In 2002, Kevin Wilson left Northwestern to take the offensive co-coordinator job at Oklahoma. He became solo OC a few years later, and in 2008 his Sooners attack went on the most devastating offensive run to date.

"I remember Kirk Herbstreit called me in the preseason," Wilson says, "and I said, listen, we're going to do this no-huddle stuff, but we're going to be different. We're not going to be like Northwestern and going spread all the time. I got Jermaine Gresham, and he's gonna play both in the slot and at tight end. I got DeMarco Murray, he's gonna play tailback and play in the slot. I got this kid named Brody Eldridge, and he's gonna play fullback and tight end. I'm gonna go from big to little without substituting, and I'm gonna go fast as crap. I think we've got a chance to be kind of different."

Everything current-day offensive coordinators are attempting to do, mixing formations and tempos to create mismatches, the 2008 Sooners did in droves. They averaged 48 points per game through eight games, then somehow found another gear, scoring 60-plus for five consecutive weeks. (It could have been six straight, as Wilson points out: "We were beating Kansas State 55-3 at halftime, but we just kicked a field goal in the second half.")

This was the buzz saw Tech ran into late in 2008. "Let me tell you about Mike [Leach]'s teams," Wilson says. "When Mike's teams are good, they're physical and they're dirty and they play great, and that was a damn good team. They were a really hot team, and we were just the hotter team. With the no-huddle and the spread -- kinda like the [UNLV] Runnin' Rebels in basketball -- if you get cold sometimes you can look pretty damn bad, but when you're running ... when you get hot ... it can be fun." A spectacular understatement.

Nov. 22, 2008: Abilene Christian 93, West Texas A&M 68

While the FBS was experiencing an offensive renaissance in 2008, as tends to be the case, the really wild stuff was happening at the lower levels. In the second round of the Division II playoffs, Abilene Christian and West Texas A&M put on a ludicrous display of 161 points and 1,531 yards. This would have been high-scoring for a basketball game. ACU led 42-34 at halftime and used a 37-POINT THIRD QUARTER to distance itself.

Abilene Christian's Bernard Scott rushed for 292 yards and six scores, and Billy Malone completed 16 of 25 passes for 383 yards and six touchdowns to six different receivers (including Scott). A&M's Keith Null went 42-for-63 for 595 and seven touchdowns; 14 of those completions went to Charly Martin, who gained 323 yards and scored five times. Perhaps the biggest surprise: There were four punts!

A&M's head coach at the time? Don Carthel, UTEP's offensive-line coach when Mumme was the offensive coordinator. Everything ties together.

Jan. 8, 2009: Florida 24, Oklahoma 14

In a national title matchup of two of the spread's early adopters, Urban Meyer's Gators found an edge.

Oklahoma controlled the first half, but Florida made two goal-line stands -- a fourth-down stop and a deflected interception -- to buy itself time. In the second half, Florida's Tim Tebow (231 passing yards, 109 rushing yards) and Percy Harvin (171 total yards rushing and receiving) took over. Florida took a 17-14 lead early in the fourth quarter and, after another interception in its territory, iced the title with a seven-minute, 76-yard touchdown drive. The Sooners had the formations and tempo, but the Gators had the run game and the best secondary Oklahoma had faced all season.

Jan. 4, 2012: West Virginia 70, Clemson 33

This game had an impact in both the present and future tenses. First, it provided proof of concept for Dana Holgorsen, former Iowa Wesleyan receiver under Mumme and former Texas Tech assistant under Leach. He had taken over for Bill Stewart, Rodriguez's successor at WVU when Rodriguez left for Michigan, and in his first season he led the Mountaineers to 10 wins and a demonstrative Orange Bowl victory. (And because of one of the plays WVU dominated with, it also introduced the world to Bob Stitt, the mad-scientist head coach at Colorado School of Mines at the time and a soon-to-be cult favorite among spread-heads.)

Over time, WVU's victory also became known for the chain of events it put into motion. Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney fired defensive coordinator Kevin Steele, replacing him with Oklahoma's Brent Venables, who went on to craft one of the most modern and dynamic defenses in college football. Steele, meanwhile, went back to the drawing board and emerged at the end of the decade as another one of the game's most effective defensive coaches at Auburn. Failure remains life's best teacher.

Nov. 10, 2012: Texas A&M 29, Alabama 24

Conference realignment ran roughshod at the beginning of the 2010s, in the process allowing us to answer what was until then a hypothetical question: Can a Big 12 offense win in the mean, mighty SEC?

Yes. The answer is always yes.

Perhaps you prefer the symbolism of Big 12 transplant Missouri reaching the SEC title game, and nearly the BCS Championship, in its second season in the league. But for sheer starkness, it's hard to top Texas A&M, with its slippery redshirt freshman quarterback (Johnny Manziel) and a coach with a sterling spread pedigree (Kevin Sumlin) beating the defending national champs in Tuscaloosa.

play
1:00

When Johnny Football took down Alabama

Revisit Texas A&M's upset of No. 1 Alabama in 2012 and the game that turned Johnny Manziel into a legend.

A&M scored on its first three drives to take a 20-0 lead. The Crimson Tide cut the deficit to three in the fourth quarter, but the unflinching Aggies scored twice and forced two turnovers to seal the victory. A&M would go on to win 11 games, and Manziel would become the first freshman to win the Heisman.

Nov. 7, 2013: Baylor 41, Oklahoma 12

The most impressive thing about this game wasn't the 29-point scoring margin -- it was the fact the Baylor offense didn't even play all that well. The Bears came into the game averaging 69 points per game (!) and 9.0 yards per play and managed merely 41 and 5.7, respectively, against the conference's standard-bearer.

The Thursday night, prime-time humiliation of a college football blue blood was the high point for Art Briles' tenure at Baylor. Through his own interpretation of the Air Raid -- which stretched defenses out even further, and created more big plays than virtually any other offense ever -- the former Leach assistant and successful high school head coach had resurrected a moribund program and brought a Heisman to Waco, Texas, through the exploits of quarterback Robert Griffin III. Then, with Bryce Petty behind center in 2013, the Bears were even more dangerous, at least until a road letdown against Oklahoma State knocked them from national title contention.

Nov. 30, 2013: Auburn 34, Alabama 28

The run-pass option -- or "POP" pass, as some called it at the time -- introduced itself into the lexicon in one of the greatest games in college football's illustrious history. While we remember the 2013 Iron Bowl as the Kick Six thanks to Chris Davis' last-second, 109-yard return of a missed field goal, what happened 32 seconds of action earlier probably had a more lasting effect: Auburn quarterback Nick Marshall kept the ball on what appeared to be a zone read, but just as he looked to be crossing the line of scrimmage, he threw the ball to Sammie Coates, who raced down the sideline for a 39-yard touchdown.

Gus Malzahn was a renowned high school coach and offensive mind who had served as Auburn's offensive coordinator during the Tigers' national title run in 2010. In just his 12th game as AU's head coach, he had already made a forever contribution to college football lore. Auburn won the SEC title and nearly beat Florida State in the BCS title game.

Oct. 22, 2016: Oklahoma 66, Texas Tech 59

By the mid-2010s, spread principles such as tempo and the zone read had long since become part of the fabric of the sport, and RPOs were taking over, to the extent that even a seemingly old-school team like Penn State was riding them to a Big Ten title. But the Big 12 was still figuring out ways to push the envelope, never more than in this ridiculous quarterback battle between Oklahoma's future No. 1 pick Baker Mayfield and Texas Tech's future NFL MVP Patrick Mahomes.

Mayfield threw for 545 yards and seven touchdowns, the Sooners' Joe Mixon gained 377 combined rushing and receiving yards and Dede Westbrook caught nine balls for 202. On the other side of the field, Mahomes completed 52 of 88 passes and was credited with 85 rushing yards. The teams combined for 185 snaps and 1,702 yards (exactly 854 each), and OU basically won because it scored touchdowns on its final six possessions, while Tech did so on only its final five. When you combine unmatched offensive talent with nearly perfect offensive schemes (and, yes, a lack of matching defensive talent), this is what happens.

play
0:59

Reliving Mayfield-Mahomes' record-setting matchup

Baker Mayfield and Patrick Mahomes traded blows in a record-setting game in 2016, in which the two QBs combined for 1,383 passing and rushing yards.

Jan. 9, 2017: Clemson 35, Alabama 31

Early in 2012, after facing an up-tempo Ole Miss attack (that would go on to beat his team in both 2014 and 2015), Alabama coach Nick Saban famously asked, "Is this what we want football to be?" The joke since is that he wasn't asking out of exasperation -- he was simply wanting to confirm before adopting spread principles himself. He hired Lane Kiffin to modernize his attack, and Bama won the 2015 national title with it. But in 2016, Bama got outflanked by another gaudy spread interpretation.

The Tide took a 24-14 lead into the fourth quarter, but Swinney's Clemson was controlling the football, eventually snapping the ball 99 times to Bama's 66, and even a defense as deep as Saban's wilted. The Tigers scored early in the fourth quarter, then drove 156 yards in under four minutes on their final two possessions. Deshaun Watson, 36-for-56 for 420 yards overall, hit Hunter Renfrow for a 2-yard score with one second left, and Clemson had its first title in 36 years.

Jan. 8, 2018: Alabama 26, Georgia 23

It was called "Seattle" in the Alabama playbook. In general parlance, though, it was Four Verticals.

play
0:36

Alabama wins title on Tagovailoa's walk-off TD pass

Tua Tagovailoa throws a perfect pass to DeVonta Smith for a 41-yard TD in OT, giving the Crimson Tide their fifth national championship under Nick Saban.

When college football's dominant program has adopted your base principles, the battle is won.

Nov. 19, 2018: Los Angeles Rams 54, Kansas City Chiefs 48

We sometimes overstate the "college-ification" of the NFL -- the NFL's blocking rules make RPO options a bit more limited, NFL defenses adjusted almost overnight to slowing tempo teams such as Chip Kelly's Philadelphia Eagles, and there are always schematic differences when there are fewer talent advantages to come by.

That said, the offensive talent trickling up into the NFL has been spread-oriented for a while, and it's had an obvious effect, never more than in this game. Maybe the two most currently renowned offensive head coaches in the league (Kansas City's Andy Reid and Los Angeles' Sean McVay) were at the helm as two former Air Raid stars (Texas Tech's Mahomes and Cal's Jared Goff, coached in college, respectively, by former Tech quarterback Kliff Kingsbury and former Tech assistant Sonny Dykes) combined to throw for 891 yards and 10 touchdowns.

This was as close to a Big 12-style shootout as you're going to see in the NFL, and it's not a coincidence that it is also regarded as one of the most entertaining games in league history.

Nov. 9, 2019: LSU 46, Alabama 41

Among college football's ruling class, LSU was one of the final spread holdouts, continuing to deploy Big Burly Manball through the Les Miles era and into the first years of Ed Orgeron's tenure. Orgeron proclaimed a desire for modernization but couldn't get all the pieces put together at first. But oh, did everything come together in 2019.

With veteran quarterback Joe Burrow, one of the most talented receiving corps you'll ever see and some added energy in the playbook provided by new assistant Joe Brady, LSU put together maybe the best offensive season of all time. Despite playing half of the season's-end SP+ top 10, the Tigers led the nation with 48 points and 568 yards per game. Burrow posted FBS' first 200 passer rating, completing 76% of his passes for 5,671 yards, 60 touchdowns and only six interceptions.

Bama prevented big plays better than most against LSU and sacked Burrow five times, but Burrow still completed 31 of 39 passes, and Clyde Edwards-Helaire gained a combined 180 yards on 29 rushes and receptions. The Tigers bolted to a first-half lead, and although the Crimson Tide charged back, cutting a 20-point deficit to one score three times in the fourth quarter, LSU responded with touchdown drives each time. The Tigers were forced to deploy their vast arsenal to win, and they did so.