The man most synonymous with defense and dominance in college football says he’s not wasting any of his time this summer trying to scheme against the sport’s run-pass option plays.
“I don’t think there’s any answer to RPOs,” Alabama head coach Nick Saban said.
That’s a sobering thought for college football’s defensive minds such as Saban and South Carolina head coach Will Muschamp or for anyone who doesn’t savor scoreboards that look like runaway pinball score displays.
“I don’t know that there is an answer,” said Georgia head coach Kirby Smart, who took over the Bulldogs program after serving as Saban’s defensive coordinator. “You can’t completely stop that. Points scored has gone up every year. It’s going to keep going up.”
In 2008, 36 teams in the country averaged 30 or more points per game. In 2016, that number had risen to 58. A direct line can be drawn from that fact to the rise of no-huddle, spread offenses with mobile quarterbacks and now the RPO plays that spin off those offenses. In a RPO play, a quarterback watches a particular defender and either hands the ball off (or runs himself) or makes a throw based on which way that defender commits.
“I don’t think we played a team last year outside of Georgia Tech that didn’t do some of it,” Smart said.
Executed correctly, it’s almost impossible to defend because the targeted defender can be made wrong no matter which decision he makes.
“You can run a running play, and the offensive line blocks a running play, which the defensive player keys a run,” Saban said, “and the quarterback sits there and does this (mimicking handoff) and then throws the ball, because the safety doesn’t come down or the safety does come down or whatever, there is no solution to that.”
That doesn’t mean all defensive coaches are waving the white flag completely. Muschamp has spent plenty of time this summer thinking over the best way to defend RPO plays, he said.
“You have to be able to play some form of man coverage in a lot of it because a lot of times it can eat you up in a zone,” Muschamp said, “but you have to be multiple in what you do.”
The solution might be as simple as “recruit really good players,” Muschamp said.
“Recruiting is the best way. Scheme wise, it’s going to be hard,” Smart agreed. “The biggest thing is having really athletic perimeter players who can match up and play these people when an RPO is going on. If you have enough guys who can play press (coverage), you have a chance to be successful.”
There is a magic bullet that could kill the RPOs, and that’s a rule change that would make it illegal for offensive linemen to be past the line of scrimmage on a passing play, but no defensive coaches in the SEC expect to get that kind of help. (College football allows linemen to be 3 yards past the line of scrimmage when the ball is thrown.)
“If they’re not willing to change that…,” Saban said with his voice trailing off as he shrugged. “But on the other hand, it's exciting. We score like 40 more points a game than what we used to. Our 2011 team gave up eight points a game. The best defense in the country gives up twice that now and it's going to continue to go that way. It’s very difficult to play defensive football when you can't key the difference between runs and passes.”