One of the challenges of handicapping college football is the presence of gimmick offenses. Gimmicks don’t really work in the NFL, but coaches like Mike Leach and Paul Johnson have built successful careers out of doing what no one else is doing. Year after year their offenses have worked to pile up massive amounts of yards, and to put big totals on the boards and win more games than their recruiting should probably allow them to win. Determining how a team is going to play against a quirky, pass-heavy offense like Texas Tech was or Houston is, or how they will face the relentless, non-stop running attack of Navy, Air Force, or Georgia Tech is a tough thing to do. Here are seven sets of questions that college football handicappers can ask yourself to help decode whether a gimmicky offense is scary enough to win, or whether it will be tamed:
What is the offense really like? – Any time a college football team appears to do something different that piles up big totals the media makes a big deal of it. The question you need to ask yourself is whether the offense is really as unique as it is perceived to be. Sometimes one of these gimmicky offenses really isn’t that far removed from a lot of offenses that teams normally play, but the teams that run it do things slightly different or are just better at doing it. Other times what seems like a revolutionary offense is really just a variation on what people used to do all the time. You need to ask yourself how unique the offense really is, if the opposing team has seen anything similar to it recently or if the coaching staff has faced something close in the past.
What pressure points does the offense hit? – Gimmick offenses are often effective because they relentlessly pound on one aspect of their opponent’s game. If it is a pass-heavy offense then it will find every weakness in the opposing secondary and find a way to expose it and exploit it. Once you figure out which pressure points the offense is going to hit then you can determine how well the defense is built to stand up to the challenge. The one thing we know about these unique offenses is that they don’t often adapt and change well, so if a defense won’t break under the assault they face then the offense is going to have a rough day.
How experienced is the defense? – Simply put, the older a defense is the more they have seen, and the more likely they are going to be able to stand up to adversity and avoid a collapse when things get tough. The older a defense is, the easier it is to bet on them against a scary offense. You also have to factor in here whether a team has ever seen an offense before. If the gimmick offense is a conference rival then an older defense will have seen the offense a few times in their career and won’t get nearly as worked up about it as a defense that is seeing it for the first time might.
How athletic is the defense? – The more athletic the players on a defense are, the more likely that they will be able to react and adapt to a defense that challenges them. You can generally but not exclusively equate this to the level of talent a team has – a top five recruiting college football team is likely to have a much more athletic defense than an ugly stepsister of recruiting.
How athletic is the gimmicky offense? – Quite often gimmicky offenses are used to overcome a talent deficit. That’s what happened at Texas Tech, for example – they had their success in the Big 12 despite recruiting at a level far behind the class of the conference because their offense was so cleverly designed and effectively run. The more athletic an offense is, though, the more likely they are going to be able to respond and react to a defense that stands up to them and initially gives them troubles.
What teams have succeeded against the offense in the past? – Inevitably there has been a football team at some point that has been able to contain a gimmick offense and exploit the weaknesses. How did they do it? Is it a way that can be replicated? Can this defense do it the same way?
How good is the other offense? – The better an offense is the more relaxed a defense can be because they know that small mistakes aren’t likely to cost them the game because their defense can stand behind them and bail them out. One key to handicapping a game with a gimmick offense, then, is looking at the strength of the opposing offense. The stronger the opposing offense is, the more relaxed the opposing defense can be, and perhaps the better the chance they have of containing the gimmick offense.