Modern offenses have become the proverbial melting pot of college football. Teams are constantly changing and stealing from others in an effort to find success, which has in turn made offenses too complicated to label.
Still, many fans or broadcasters will often use terms without actually knowing what they mean (Brent Musburger — not everything is an end around; please stop misusing it like Ron Burgundy’s “When in Rome”).
In the world of the spread, teams’ philosophies often get categorized in an effort to help one understand what they are. But due to the nature and prevalence of the spread, this isn’t an accurate way of describing an offense. This directly applies to Oklahoma State, who has long been a chameleon, as Porter calls it, in a world where people are constantly trying to put things in boxes.
The nature of identifying an offense by a title is accurate when a team is running it in the purest form, like June Jones’ erstwhile “Run n’ Shoot” at Hawaii or Mike Leach’s “Air Raid” at Washington State. But modern offenses no longer rely on one overarching concept. The spread, which has become the craze of football at all levels, is a perfect example of this. The spread itself isn’t a particular set of plays or even a philosophy. The spread is an amalgamation of concepts and ideas that have accumulated from the beginning of football. Two teams might run the “spread,” but they might run it completely differently, The term might give you an idea of a team’s offense, but it doesn’t give you much of one. Additionally, with the media and fans constantly using the term “spread,” it’s created an effect of semantic saturation, meaning the term has been used so many times that it has lost its meaning.
Oklahoma State is a perfect example. They have a number of different influences. They have an air-raid influence from their days of Dana Holgorsen, who was a direct air-raid disciple from his days as walk-on and eventual assistant coach for Mike Leach and Hal Mumme. They still have many of the same formations, concepts and signals from their Fiesta Bowl days, but they’re not the exact same offense. Now, the Pokes incorporate a cowboy back into their scheme, often moving it around the field in a number of different positions. In that sense, the offense frequently operates as pro-style or two-back, as OSU used 11 personnel (one back, one tight end, three receivers) on roughly one third of their plays last season. The offenses during 2014 and 2015 could be seen as a more true pro-style offense because of their use of gap schemes (power, counter, etc.). There’s even a west coast influence, as the Cowboys use a handful of west coast concepts, including “sluggo seam,” which they installed last season.
The point is that offenses, and specifically OSU, have become ineffable in a sense. They are too varied and their origins are too expansive to be accurately described by a single title. In the era of the spread, teams are actually often identified by the coach, and more importantly the coaching tree, that the offense operates under. Chip Kelly has his own offense while Urban Meyer has his, and so on. Mike Gundy is a wild card because he’s brought in offensive coordinators from a number of different backgrounds, and OSU is constantly evolving to both adapt to personnel and stay ahead of the curve. Gundy, who (don’t forget) is an intelligent offensive mind, has said in the past that he’s also constantly bringing new plays to the table.
Expect the Cowboys to keep changing their version of the spread, just like they’ve been doing in the past. Fans are constantly worried about coaches not properly adjusting to the personnel as if they care less than the fans do. The Pokes will be fine this season. But when it comes to a name, does OSU fall under any particular title? What’s the most accurate name you can give to OSU’s offense? Successful. That’ll be plenty accurate, or at least we hope so.
Writer’s note: This article was written in response to the great feedback I’ve received asking what offense OSU runs. This, combined with our devoted readership and constant drive to create original content, motivated me to write on the subject. Thank you to all the devoted fans of the Chalk Talk series — let’s have a fun season this year, shall we?