By Kurt Voigt
FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. —
Gus Malzahn and his no-huddle offense have faced more than their fair share of doubters and critics over the years, dating back to his days as a high school coach in Arkansas.
That debate has followed Malzahn all the way to the Southeastern Conference, once thought of as the place creative offenses went to die.
Led by an influx of new, offensive-minded coaches — including Malzahn, now the head coach at Auburn — the SEC has joined the rest of college football by embracing the age of the lightning-fast spread.
It’s a trend highlighted by the success of schools like Auburn, Texas A&M, Missouri and Ole Miss, though not all of the league — led by defending national champion Alabama — has let go of its running and defensive roots.
The differences in style and tempo have played out beyond the field. They’ve led to debate about player safety among coaches and increased salesmanship in recruiting battles — largely focused on the spread’s appeal to skill players eager to reach the NFL.
“The greatest thing that can help us in our recruiting department is the more failure the Philadelphia Eagles have,” Arkansas coach Bret Bielema said, noting the struggles of the up-tempo offense run by former Oregon coach Chip Kelly during his first season in the NFL.
Bielema’s answer came after a question about the perception that the spread might be more fun than his more traditional, balanced approach to offense. The former Wisconsin coach, who led the Badgers to three Rose Bowl berths in seven seasons there, said recruits find his style enjoyable. He also said the Arkansas offense is what “the NFL is running.”
“Every kid that plays offense and defense and special teams’ football in college wants to play in the NFL,” Bielema said. “He wants to play in a system that’s going to benefit his ability to play at the next level. I really believe that over the course of time, the pro-style offense is going to win out for that exact reason.”
Bielema has been at the forefront of a debate about up-tempo offenses in the college game. He contends that more plays and less time for substitutions leads to more injuries.
It’s a point the usually reserved Malzahn reacted to at SEC media days in July, saying he thought it was “a joke.”
Early in Malzahn’s career, while coaching in the smallest high school classification in Arkansas, his Shiloh Christian team famously won a playoff game 70-64. It was an offensive shootout that caused one coach in the state’s largest classification — one who ran the traditional wing offense — to react by saying “that will never work in big-time” high school football.
The doubts about the spread were also there in the SEC. At least, they were before Malzahn — then the Tigers offensive coordinator — and quarterback Cam Newton helped lead Auburn to a national championship during the 2010 season while using the spread. It was the start of a wave of up-tempo coaches entering the league, including Texas A&M’s Kevin Sumlin, Ole Miss’ Hugh Freeze and Missouri’s Gary Pinkel.
Entering this weekend’s games, Texas A&M, Auburn and Missouri lead the SEC in total offense, and they have a combined 20-4 record behind their fast-break offenses.
“I think the thing that helps most with recruiting is winning and doing well on offense,” Missouri offensive coordinator Josh Henson said. “But I think that stigma, ‘Well, spread offenses can’t win in the SEC; you can’t move the ball,’ I think some of those things are going away from a recruiting standpoint.”
Freeze, who has also run an up-tempo offense dating to his days as a high school coach, admitted that running a spread offense might not hold much appeal to running back and offensive linemen recruits.
Still, the emergence of the spread at the high school level has made it a popular choice in college with some players.
“This is the offense I grew up in as a kid, even in high school we had a no-huddle offense, so I love it, I love the offense,” Auburn tight end C.J. Uzamah said. “We’re getting after it, we wear the defense down and pound it in.”
Alabama coach Nick Saban, long a believer in a pro-style offense, echoed Bielema’s comments about that approach better preparing players for the NFL — though it’s worth noting that his recruiting battles are less difficult the most after winning three national championships in four years.
“We want guys that fit what we do and can see that they can have success doing the things that they’ll do here,” Saban said. “And our program reflects a pro-style type of attack, which should be appealing to most players.”
The NFL-ready point is one Bielema reinforced earlier this week when he tweeted a link to an article with the headline, “Spread offense not fitting into NFL.” The question for now is whether it’s here to stay in the SEC.
% AP Sports Writers John Zenor and David Brandt contributed to this report.