Nick Saban looks on with his arms crossed.

Saban says, OFFENSE WINS; is Mario Cristobal Listening?

Charles Fischer, Mr. FishDuck Editorials

We all grew up hearing “Defense wins Championships,” and the early Nick Saban National Championship teams at Alabama epitomized this mantra. Yet college football has begun to change: Alabama scored 45 points against Auburn in 2019 and lost, and it took over 50 points to win the SEC Championship in 2020 over No. 7 Florida (52-46). Everyone watched the carnage as the Tide stuck 52 points on Ohio State in the National Championship game. The narrative concerning what it takes to win the big prize is clearly changing.

The first seismic shift occurred last fall when Nick Saban told ESPN

“It used to be that good defense beats good offense. Good defense doesn’t beat good offense anymore. It’s just like last week. Georgia has as good a defense as we do an offense, and we scored 41 points on them (in a 41-24 Alabama win). That’s not the way it used to be. It used to be if you had a good defense, other people weren’t going to score. You were always going to be in the game.

I’m telling you. It ain’t that way anymore.”

Joe Burrow and LSU set the world on fire in 2019 scoring 48 points per game to win the National Championship.

I should clarify; while the fans felt the shock waves of Coach Saban’s remarks, the majority of the college coaching community (especially in the SEC) had already been making seismic, offensive shifts for years.

A few weeks ago in a Zoom call with high school coaches in Louisiana, Saban expanded upon his remarks, further explaining why defense will not win a ‘Natty in 2021…

“We have a good defense. I mean, we gave up 19.0 points per game last year and that was first in the SEC. 19.0 points per game. That is 6 points above what we feel is average, which is giving up 13.0 points per game, and it’s first in the SEC. The game is different now. People score fast. The whole idea, like I grew up with the idea that you play good defense, you run the ball, you control vertical field position on special teams, and you’re going to win. Whoever rushes the ball the most, for the most yardage is going to win the game.

You’re not going to win anything now doing that.”

Could you hear Knute Rockne turning in his grave, the heads of current coaches and fans exploding across the US? This sacrilege to all we have known did not stop there…

“Because A, the way the spread is, and the way that the rules are, to run RPOs, the way the rules are that you can block downfield and throw the ball behind the line of scrimmage, I mean those rules have changed college football. No-huddle, fastball has changed college football. So I changed my philosophy …

We have to outscore them.”

This is perhaps the greatest college coach in history with seven National Championships, the defensive guru who fought against, but then adopted, the Spread Zone Read No-Huddle Offense. He has demonstrated that of all the attributes that define his greatness … perhaps adaptability is his biggest?

I have written many times about how Oregon averaged 43 points a game during the entire nine year Chip Kelly/Mark Helfrich offensive span. And many have taken me to task for wishing for “the good-ol’ times,” reminding me how those days will never return (Get over it Charles!). Yet the Ducks are the only college football program in history to average 45 points or more for five straight seasons, as they did at Oregon under Chip Kelly and Mark Helfrich from 2009-14.

Why would Cristobal change what was working so well? 

If you have tough sledding against San-Fricken-Jose-State … then that is a clue.

It was only three games into the Cristobal era when I declared in September of 2018 that “this offense will not take us to the promised land.” I was savaged on a number of other sites with personal insults. Yet my prophesy could not portend the horrendous actual results of the Oregon offense under head coach Mario Cristobal.

What have Ohio State, Clemson and Alabama averaged in scoring the last three years?  Because to win a National Championship, Oregon would probably have to beat one, if not two of them to get the crown. Over the same three-year span that Cristobal has been head coach at Oregon (2018-2020) those three teams averaged 44.81 points per game, more than my fantasy of where Oregon should return to at 43 points per game. What was the reward to Oregon fans for Cristobal dumping the classic Oregon Spread offense?

Oregon averaged 33.84 points over the same three years.

(And people wonder why the Ducks lost some games they shouldn’t have?)

Other teams wanted some of this; Kenjon Barner ran through the Trojans for 321 yards in one game.

To add insult to injury … it is well documented that Clemson copied the Oregon offense in 2010 and subsequently augmented it with their own variations. Head Coach Ryan Day at Ohio State was a player and coach under Chip Kelly at New Hampshire. Nick Saban brought in as offensive coordinators Steve Sarkisian and Lane Kiffin, both of whom coached against Oregon in the Pac-12 and knew our offense well. This trend of high offensive scoring began with Oregon, and now the Ducks can’t score more than 21 points to beat Cal in 2020?

Cristobal dumping the Spread Zone Read No-Huddle offense was the worst strategic coaching decision at Oregon since Mike Bellotti implemented the “Edge” defense under DC Rich Stubler in 1996.

There IS Hope on the Horizon…

I believe that Cristobal moved away from the Oregon Spread offense so that nobody later could say he was riding Chip Kelly’s coattails. He wanted to do it his way. But while Cristobal’s offenses have lacked an identity, his hiring of Joe Moorhead as offensive coordinator has given fans hope, since the newest trend to attack defenses is through the RPO concepts (Run-Pass-Options) of which Moorhead is recognized as one of the foremost known national leaders.

OC Joe Moorhead discussing 2021 Spring Football.

Coach Moorhead’s innovation was demonstrated often this last fall, and with full spring and fall camps–along with so many starters returning–the fans of Oregon and Cristobal may both get what they have been lusting for: an offense that is different enough from Chip Kelly/Mark Helfrich to satisfy Cristobal, with the potential of the high-scoring glory days necessary to win in this new era.

Suffice it to say that it will add tons of drama and entertainment for us all to watch play out this season because….

“Oh, how we love to ponder about Our Beloved Ducks!

Charles Fischer   (Mr. FishDuck)
Eugene, Oregon
Top Photo from Twitter

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