College Football’s Leveled Playing Fields

Marshall Faulk at San Diego State

The changing faces of college football over the last fifteen years has been a unique situation upon the sporting landscape. Gone are the days when the traditional schools would line up and pummel a school from a smaller conference. Don’t get us wrong, there are still some lopsided contests but the talent level is closer than in the 1970’s,80’s, or even the 90’s. This is the byproduct of several things.

The first thing was with up to 20 cable televisions showcasing football around the country. Schools could recruit outside their region for talent and deliver the promise that their families and friends could still watch them play. Alternative schools to the traditional powers also offered players the chance to remain at their position of choice. One glaring example of this was when Marshall Faulk was coming out of New Orleans as a high school star.

Tons of schools were recruiting him and one of the heaviest was Florida State. They would offer Faulk a full scholarship yet they wanted him to switch from running back  to cornerback. Faulk opted to go to San Diego State where he dazzled the nation as a freshman gaining 1,429 yards and 23TDs. Along the way he had a freshman record 386 yard, 7 touchdown performance against U of Pacific. Before you say something about the talent level, keep in mind he’s just 3 weeks away from giving his Pro Football Hall of Fame induction speech. So kill that noise.

The point being he didn’t have to play cornerback with Terrell Buckley and watch Amp Lee and Warrick Dunn as tailbacks at Florida St when he had other alternatives. Being on the west coast and playing in many night games, Faulk was watched all around the country and became the first freshman to get serious consideration as a Heisman Trophy candidate. There are other notable examples of this but an electrifying running back that made both Hall of Fames (college and pro) seemed like a logical example. Players know they can go anywhere and be seen all over the country.

Steve Slaton slashing up Marshall

The second was the scholarship limitations the NCAA  instituted in 1990. Now the top 20 schools, the Miami’s, Florida St’s, Oklahoma’s, Nebraska’s, Texas’, Michigan’s, Ohio St’s, the USC’s couldnt swallow the top 100 tailbacks coming out in a given year. Some of them were talents that never developed or later developed. Some players actually blossomed at non traditional schools that struggled to get the blue chip prospect.

When you get a Steve Slaton at West Virginia, a LaDainian Tomlinson who opted to stay near home at Texas Christian, or a Jamal Anderson at Utah, or even a Doug Martin right now at a Boise St. These players could have split time or may not have started early in their careers at traditional schools. In most cases we never hear of these players as they fade into obscurity and don’t make the pros.

Some play in Canada but many fall by the way side. Two players that did play later were Jeff Smith of the Nebraska Cornhuskers of ’83 and Priest Holmes of Texas in the late 90’s. Each played RB behind Heisman winners in Mike Rozier and Ricky Williams. Yet both developed their talent in the NFL, Smith had a serviceable career with Kansas City Chiefs, where Holmes went on to rewrite the Chiefs record book after winning a Super Bowl ring in Baltimore.

Yet all of a sudden we were seeing electrifying, record breaking runners at schools we didn’t expect those performances from. The aforementioned LaDainian Tomlinson, A Troy Davis at Iowa St running for back to back 2,000 yard seasons in the mid 90s. A Barry Sanders rushing for 2,629 yards and 37TDs in a 1988 Heisman Campaign, who followed an All American Thurman Thomas. Who followed another All American and ’82 NCAA rushing leader Earnest “Sparkplug” Anderson with over 1,800 yards rushing. Yes the year Herschel Walker won the Heisman he didn’t lead the nation in rushing. The latter three talents went to Oklahoma St and not Texas or Oklahoma.

The third key component in leveling the collegiate playing field were the different strategies employed by college coaches.  These evolving sets have been lifted from the antiquated wishbone offense to more pro style sets including the run and shoot, 3 receiver one back sets, to the variations of the spread offense. Teams that couldn’t field All American offensive linemen could opt for an attack that spread the defense and made it think. Why go toe to toe with an opponent when you can out think your opponent and outhit him when he is out of position? This has been the true equalizer in college football over this last ten years just ask Michigan how it feels about Appalchian St. Michigan became so confused that they thought “hell if you can’t understand it hire a coach who does” yet they didn’t have the type of talent needed to direct that offense under coach Rich Rodriguez.

With the run and shoot, different types of receivers were needed to make the offense go. You recruited your traditional large fast receiver(6’0-6’3 -215 lbs.) along with a new prototype that manned the slots.  This player was smaller in stature yet quicker than the large fast receiver and stood (5’7-5’9 -175-185lbs.) which were the high school receivers that traditional schools didn’t recruit unless they were going to be switched to cornerback.

Yet these players found homes in offenses that spread the field and played their game in space throwing the football. Most teams realized that the third and fourth best WR were normally better than third and fourth corners on a given team. You had the University of Houston in the 80s and early 90s as the vanguard of the run and shoot teams and most recently June Jones University of Hawaii teams. Even the Miami Hurricanes employed these techniques winning two National Championships in1989 and 1991.

Then along came Rich Rodriguez and his West Virginia Mountaineers. He took the spread offense to a complete zenith with what you could do with a 53 1/3 yard wide field and implemented a power rushing attack from a spread formation. First he recruited Pat White from Alabama.  At 6’0 (being generous) and 185 lbs. he was short for a quarterback and had a decent arm, yet it was his 4.28 40 yard dash that made it nearly impossible for interior linebackers to read blocking patterns, than get to the flank to defend against his options or pitch to Steve Slaton.

Slaton was brought down from Pennsylvania. One of the nation’s fastest running backs coming out of high school in 2005.  He had committed to Maryland who had offered him a scholarship then retracted their offer.  He took his 4.3 speed to West Virginia to team with Pat White, Owen Schmitt, recievers Darius Reynaud #82 and Brandon Miles#7 and a powerhouse was born. They spread from a traditional set and some 3 receivers yet ran what they call a speed option that most MLBs didnt have the lateral quickness to stay with.  The result?? First we have to set the table for you.

The Miami Hurricanes and Boston College had just fled the Big East to join the ACC. Many felt that the Big East was no longer a top flight conference with two of their heavyweight schools having departed. Yet the Mountaineers started a redshirt freshman in Pat White, and a freshman tailback in Steve Slaton and a new offense took the country by storm.  They improved as the season went on and Slaton finished the season with 1,128 yards and 17 TDs, while White finished with 952 yds rushing and 7 TDs to go along with moderate passing to keep defenses honest.

Once they ran out to a 10-1 record, their Big East championship gave them an automatic bid to the BCS Sugar Bowl where they would take on Georgia. The Bulldogs that year were 12-1 and only a close loss in SEC play had kept them from appearing in the National Championship Game. Experts scoffed that West Virginia’s offense couldn’t perform that well against a superior defense from a superior conference. Yes experts were treating the Big East as a second tier conference with the remaining teams.  So the battle lines were drawn and since the Sugar Bowl had to be moved from New Orleans to Atlanta’s Georgia Dome, because of Hurricane Katrina, this would be a home crowd for the Bulldogs too. No way the Mountaineers could stay on the field with an SEC team……………….right??

Naturally underdogs play with a chip on their shoulder and Bulldogs were chasing Mountaineers all night. In a humiliating 38-35 defeat, SEC Champion Georgia never led in the ball game. No one on the set picked West Virginia to win and the nation watched in stunned amazement as the Mountaineers burst onto the field and  was up 28-0 before Georgia knew what hit them. Freshman Steve Slaton set the Sugar Bowl rushing record with 26 carries for 204 yards, 3 Tds with twin 52 yard touchdowns that were electrifying. Passing the exploits of Tony Dorsett, Herschel Walker, Major Ogilvie, Vegas Ferguson, and keep filling in blanks here…Slaton outrushed them all just being 7 months removed from high school. Yikes!!

This watershed game got more coaches on the bandwagon of the spread to be used as a rushing offense.  By the time the point was hammered home that this was an offense to stay, was when Appalachian State upset Michigan in “The Big House” in 2007. Now even skeptics were using some variation of the offense in their playbooks. Though the SEC was embarrassed that night in the Sugar Bowl, we come to see that 5 years later Auburn wins the National Championship over Oregon and both were run first, spread option teams. In came the Cam Newtons and Terrelle Pryors to lead this new wave…

So the landscape has changed, first through the proliferation of cable television stations allowing players to play in far away places and still be seen back home.  This changed the way colleges could approach players when they weren’t the clear cut favorite to land a particular recruit. Players weren’t forced to switch positions to go to a particular name school when there were other alternatives.

This happened simultaneously with the NCAA limiting the amount of scholarships teams which spread talent all over the collegiate landscape. Then in an effort to find the great equalizer, coaching innovations leveled the playing field even more with better tactics while landing a better athlete on their campus than ever before.  Couple these factors with the natural chip on the shoulder that most underdogs play with and college football has turned into “On any given Saturday…” Making college football an even greater game than before.  We’ll be back to help solve the National Championship Game and BCS problem later.

Thanks for reading and share this with everyone

One thought on “College Football’s Leveled Playing Fields

  1. Excellent topic! I think the scholarship limits had the biggest impact since the big schools couldn’t hog all the talent. Look at USC the past couple of years, they were desperate for a RB to step up! At RBU of all places! In years past they would have 10 to 15 guys with huge talent, some All Americans chomping at the bit to prove themselves after being the Big Dog at their HS or even state.
    A very revealing article, thanks Taylor Blitz!

    Liked by 1 person

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