ATHENS – On one hand, you have Sheldon Richardson, the Missouri defensive lineman who infamously said he had to turn off the Georgia game this past Saturday because “it’s like watching Big Ten football. It’s old-man football.”
Then you have Jon Gruden, the former NFL head coach and current lead analyst for ESPN’s Monday Night Football. He says he loves watching the Bulldogs’ offense in action. As for that spread stuff Missouri does? Not so much.
“I like what Georgia does offensively,” said Gruden, who was on the broadcast crew that called Georgia’s game against Michigan State in the Outback Bowl on Jan. 2. “I look forward to getting their tapes. . . . When you get Georgia, you get a lot of good stuff. You’re gonna see audibles, two-back play-action. You’re going to see an array of personnel groupings and formations and different ways of attacking. I like what they do at Georgia.”
Those two philosophies will collide this Saturday night in Columbia, Mo., as the Bulldogs visit Memorial Stadium to play Missouri in its first SEC game. The Tigers and Texas A&M were approved to join a newly-expanded, 14-team SEC last winter and officially were chartered into the league on July 1.
Over and above their long history and association with the Big Eight and Big Twelve conferences, the Tigers are coming from a different place philosophically. Coach Gary Pinkel’s teams are known for utilizing a spread offense to produce big numbers. Virtually every one of Missouri’s school records for points and yardage have been established during the era of Pinkel and his offensive coordinator David Yost. Routinely the Tigers have finished among the top teams in the country in total offense, including this past season when they were 12th at 475.5 yards per game.
“There will be some four-receiver looks and five-receiver looks,” Georgia coach Mark Richt said. “Sometimes the quarterback will be the only one in the backfield when they snap the ball. Their goal is to spread you out, but they want to run the football, too. A lot of their run game does come from their quarterback, but they do give it to their back in the backfield a good bit and run the zone-read type stuff like everybody else runs.”
The spread offense – and variations of it — has been hot trend in college football the last several years. It gained in popularity after Urban Meyer brought it from Utah and used it to win national championships at Florida in 2006 and 2008.
Gruden doesn’t care for it.
“These teams are in a no-huddle offense and they’re trying to snap the ball before the defense is ready as many times as they can in a game,” he said. “They throw bubble screen after bubble screen and funnel screen after funnel screen and they run the read-option and that’s about it.”
Gruden said such offenses do little to prepare their players for the NFL. He said Georgia’s pro-style offense, by contrast, is why you see so many of the Bulldogs’ players getting drafted early and having success at the professional level.
“They’ve had the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft in Matthew Stafford,” Gruden said. “My brother [Jay Gruden] coaches A.J. Green and he was accomplished enough to come into the NFL and make the pro bowl as a rookie. Cordy Glenn was a first-round draft choice. Knowshon Moreno was a first-rounder.
“It’s because they run a pro-style, two-back offense, which is really unheard of in a lot of places these days. They’re committed to slamming the ball at you. They can get into a one-back set, they can use the no-huddle, they throw the ball down field. I think the battery there of Mark Richt and Coach [Mike] Bobo is excellent. They’ve got an excellent line coach, too, [Will] Friend.”
What makes Gruden’s comments particularly interesting is they run contrary to what a lot of fans think. A vocal segment of the “Bulldog Nation” has been complaining for years about the play-calling and game-planning of Bobo, the offensive coordinator.
Gruden, who has worked with Bobo at some clinics in recent years, doesn’t get that.
“I think the guy’s an excellent coach,” he said. “I think he’s vastly underrated. That’s just my opinion. I don’t think you can argue that there’s been a lot of production and Georgia has won a lot of games the last decade. What has Aaron Murray done? He’s thrown, what, 60 touchdown passes in two years? That’s disgraceful isn’t it?”
Stafford was the No. 1 overall pick of the 2010 NFL draft. He passed for 5,038 yards with 41 touchdowns and 16 interceptions for the Detroit Lions this past season. He said he owes a lot of his early success in the NFL to the training he received at Georgia.
“Our system here is similar to what we did at Georgia; a lot of the same concepts and just how we go about it,” Stafford said. “Being under center and being able to play in a pro-style offense in college benefited me a lot. That was a big part of my decision to come to Georgia.”
Stafford said he stays in close touch with Bobo, exchanging text messages weekly and talking football over the phone.
“I love him as a play-caller and as a coach,” Stafford said. “I had him in his first couple of years [as play-caller] and I think he’s gotten better every year. I watched them last year and I thought they were moving the ball great. Obviously Aaron had a great year. I’m excited to see what they can do this year.”
Bobo said he doesn’t pay any attention to the criticism he gets from fans. He said he wouldn’t even be aware of it if reporters didn’t occasionally ask him about it.
“We’re in our hole and we’re in here grinding and working,” Bobo said. “We really don’t get caught up with anything like that, good or bad. I think if you’re doing your job you can’t really look at the positive stuff or the negative stuff. It can affect you either way. You just want to do the job to the best of your ability.”
Bobo said he believes he is a better coordinator and play-caller than he was when he first took over those duties from Richt in 2006.
“You learn what to look for and how to go about your week and the organization of it,” he said. “I just remember early on you felt like there wasn’t enough hours in the day and you weren’t going to get everything covered. I’m very fortunate to be here with Coach Richt, who’s been a coordinator and has a great staff. I think we work well together. It’s just about managing time and preparing for games and getting ready for each week.”
The system Bobo is running was designed by Richt. He has been coordinating offenses since the early 1990s when he helped lead Florida State to 14 consecutive Top 5 finishes. At the beginning of that stretch he had the Seminoles running a version of “the spread.”
“We called in the ‘Fast Break,’” Richt said. “This was in 1992. I know there’s a lot of people who think this spread stuff started a little while ago. We were doing a lot of that in 1992.”
But Richt eventually settled on a multiple pro-style offense. He said he prefers the versatility and “physicality” of it.
“It’s sound fundamental football, you know?,” he said. “I think the more that people spread the field, the less that they’re able to handle the power running game. Sometimes things trend to being spread and out in space, but sometimes when everybody works in that direction they forget how to defend some hard-nose football.
“We just believe in what we do, I guess.”
As well they should, Gruden says, criticism be damned.
“First of all, every coordinator in every town I go to is under siege by the fans and bloggers and websites and talk radio,” Gruden said. “But those people don’t represent everybody. . . . I think there are about 20 new coordinators in the NFL this year. Just to make a point, that’s a tough job.
“You’re going to be criticized, sometimes justifiably and oftentimes unjustifiably.”