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March 19, 2008
Auburn banking on change to spread offense
Tommy Tuberville was faithful for 13 years.
But like Brad ditching Jennifer for Angelina, Tuberville has jilted the system that served him so well for so long and took up with something newer and sexier. Tuberville has switched to the spread offense.
He replaced offensive coordinator Al Borges with Tony Franklin, a spread offense disciple who had success in the same capacity at Troy. Tuberville says he's just giving his system a makeover – albeit an extreme one – rather than changing philosophy.
"Our philosophy will still be to run and play good defense and play well in the kicking game," Tuberville said. "My concern was I don't think you can come into (the Southeastern Conference) and throw 67 times a game and be consistent winners.
"Tony showed me his stats and how he runs as much as he throws. We'll continue to run, but it will be from a spread formation. We'll use one back, but involve the quarterback in running more than in the past, which has changed our recruiting. But we won't go away from the run."
Ninety percent of the Tigers' plays will be run out of the shotgun, whereas previously 90 percent of plays were run with the quarterback under center. While Tuberville always has preferred to set up the pass with the run, Franklin prefers the opposite approach.
"We want to throw the ball a lot, especially a lot of quick gains to receivers," Franklin said. "We want the defensive linemen to turn and be running sideways. The longer the game goes on, those linemen get more tired and more tired, and then it gets easier to run the football. We're throwing the ball all over the place, and then we pound it at them."
The "pound it at them" part is what Tuberville is most comfortable with, and he's committed to keeping that a big part of Auburn's offense – and for good reason. In each of the past six seasons, Auburn has ranked among the nation's top half (and among the top 30 four times) in rushing offense.
A productive running game enhances defense, and the Tigers' defenses have ranked 26th or better each season nationally in that span. Most important, though, Auburn posted at least eight victories in each of those six seasons.
In 2006, Auburn averaged 24.8 points per game to rank 56th in the nation in scoring offense. Last season, the Tigers dropped to 24.2 points to rank 84th nationally. In that span, Auburn has scored 24 or fewer points 16 times, but went 11-5 in those games. Imagine the possibilities if the Tigers could manage one more touchdown per game. In the past two seasons, Auburn has allowed just three opponents to reach 30 points – Georgia won 37-15 in 2006 and 45-20 in 2007, while LSU prevailed 30-24 in '07.
Troy averaged 34 points per game last season to rank 25th nationally. But what really impressed Tuberville was that in two seasons under Franklin's guidance, Troy ran it 898 times and threw it 925 times – almost a 50-50 split. So after conferring with Oregon coach Mike Bellotti and Michigan's Rich Rodriguez – spread proponents – Tuberville decided it was time for the old dog to learn a new trick.
"When I talked to Coach Tuberville, I told him I only know what I know and they only know what they know," Franklin said. "We're at opposite ends of the spectrum in some ways, but there are a lot of similarities, too.
"We still run stretch plays and zone plays, but from different sets. He felt the changes in this style - and especially the tempo - might give him a better chance to score some more points."
Franklin, who once coached a wide-open passing attack under Hal Mumme at Kentucky, admitted he never would have imagined that destiny would take him to Auburn.
"I know what they've done and what their past is," Franklin said. "I think (Tuberville) looked at the possibilities and where this might go and what might happen. But that was never in my imagination. I never thought about coming here.
"It shows a lot when you see a team winning, eight, nine and 10 games a year and still looking for ways to get better. That's a sign of a good businessman and a good football coach to constantly be looking for ways to get better."
Auburn showed a glimpse of what may be in store in the Chick-fil-A Bowl in December. Franklin had been at Auburn just three weeks and rushed in his system, but Auburn defeated Clemson 23-20 as then-freshman quarterback Kodi Burns led the Tigers in rushing with 69 yards, including a game-winning 7-yard touchdown run in overtime.
Tuberville and Franklin agree that the spread is the future. More and more high schools are adopting versions of the spread.
"A lot of high schools are going to the spread offenses," Tuberville said. "You see more 5-11 and 6-foot quarterbacks that are athletes running all these (spread) schemes. It's harder and harder to find drop-back quarterbacks."
Burns, who is 6 feet 1 and 200 pounds, and Chris Todd, a 6-2, 220-pound junior college transfer who began his career at Texas Tech, are well-suited for the spread. Tuberville contends that most of the players already on the Auburn roster – not just the quarterbacks – may be better-suited for the spread than the pro set.
"We're athletic at almost every position on offense," he said. "We have good athletes in the offensive line, and no doubt Kodi Burns is better than in a drop-back scheme.
"Our wide receivers probably fit better with what we're doing now. We're always good on defense and in the kicking game. We're going to try to get away from the one- or two-point games we've had the last few years and are trying to find some way to match the offense with a defense that's been pretty good."
But a radical change in offense frequently comes with growing pains. For instance, when Bill Callahan took over at Nebraska in 2004, he installed a West Coach offense - but with players recruited for a power-option running game. The immediate results were predictable. The Huskers became one the most turnover-prone teams in the nation and finished 5-6, their first losing season in 43 years. Then-Oklahoma coach Barry Switzer considered shelving the Wishbone in the '80s when he had Troy Aikman at quarterback. But Aikman got hurt, Switzer went back to the Wishbone and Aikman transferred to UCLA. West Virginia ranked 89th in scoring and struggled to a 3-8 finish in 2001, its first season under Rodriguez.
Yet Auburn may be different.
The Tigers got a head start with Franklin putting in his system before the Chick-fil-A Bowl. Also, Franklin flatly rejected the suggestion that a change in scheme comes with a learning curve.
"At this level of football in the SEC, you have to have good players at every position regardless of what system you're in," he said. "I don't believe in excuses. I hate it when coaches say they need five years to recruit to this system. You do your job, be a good teacher and coach and make it work.
"There are a lot of excuses if you want to look for them – that a West Coast or spread offense makes your defense soft. It's only soft when the coach allows it. If you're looking for reasons why some things aren't happening, you can create whatever you want."
Clearly, Tuberville isn't expecting different results despite a different offense.
Archrival Alabama has raised its profile since Nick Saban arrived in Tuscaloosa last season, and Auburn's program has been largely overlooked. But when the usually low-key Tuberville accepted the Iron Bowl trophy at an Auburn basketball game last month, he enthusiastically reminded the audience that the Tigers have posted six consecutive victories over the Crimson Tide.
"Regardless of what you hear, we will have a football team next year. We've won six in a row and we're working on seven," he shouted to a rousing ovation.
"It seems like every year we have to prove ourselves again," Tuberville said. "We're one of the winningest programs in the country – not just the conference – over the last four or five years, but things happen in our conference and there has been so much turnover. Saban is at Alabama, (Bobby) Petrino is at Arkansas and Houston Nutt is at Ole Miss.
"There have been so many changes that teams that have been winning are being put on the back burner. Look at the presidential race – everybody wants to talk about change, but no one looks at the positive things going on. Nick has done a good job of rallying the troops. That's what I've got to do."
And one of the ways of rallying the Tigers, and trying to continue their dominance of Alabama, is to accept some change, too.
Perhaps the marriage with the spread will prove just as successful for Tuberville.
"It will be a great marriage – like all marriages – if it goes smoothly," Franklin said. "If not, we'll just have to test the times and try to love each other."
Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.