Nick Saban and Bret Bielema Want You to Think About the Children (or Their Odds of Winning)

By Ross Fulton on June 29, 2013 at 2:00p

Perhaps the most significant recent change in college football is the increased use of the no-huddle. Teams are paring down their playbooks, eschewing complexity in the name of running plays in rapid succession.

As I have previously discussed, the no-huddle is disarmingly simple to implement and demonstrates that a huddle serves little utilitarian purpose. It is perhaps not surprising that no-huddle teams were the leaders in most NCAA categories in 2012. 

Standing Athwart History

Perhaps in response, voices are rising in certain quarters to slow down no-huddle, high tempo teams. The first such call came from the man currently atop the college football landscape – Nick Saban. Saban's concern was largely couched in player safety:

I think that the way people are going no-huddle right now, that at some point in time, we should look at how fast we allow the game to go in terms of player safety," Saban said on today's SEC teleconference. The team gets in the same formation group, you can't substitute defensive players, you go on a 14-, 16-, 18-play drive and they're snapping the ball as fast as you can go and you look out there and all your players are walking around and can't even get lined up. That's when guys have a much greater chance of getting hurt when they're not ready to play.

Yet Saban's concluding remarks perhaps demonstrates his real concerns: 

It's obviously created a tremendous advantage for the offense when teams are scoring 70 points and we're averaging 49.5 points a game. With people that do those kinds of things. More and more people are going to do it.

I just think there's got to be some sense of fairness in terms of asking is this what we want football to be?

Brett Bielema recently added his voice in support of a rule change to slow down up-tempo offenses. Like Saban, Bielema claimed his concern was player safety:

Not to get on the coattails of some of the other coaches, there is a lot of truth that the way offensive philosophies are driven now, there's times where you can't get a defensive substitution in for 8, 10, 12 play drives. That has an effect on safety of that student-athlete, especially the bigger defensive linemen, that is really real.

Saban and Bielema's remarks beg the question – should the rules be modified to slow no-huddle teams – either out of a concern for player safety or to return football to how it "should" be played?

Structural Premise

The rules of football provide the offense and defense distinct advantages. Defenses have a numbers' advantage. By definition, the defense will have at least one unblocked defender – the counterpart of the offender holding the football. The offense, by contrast, commences the play and, as such, controls the tempo of play, substitutions and alignment. It is self evidently to the offense and defense's advantage to seek to maximize those structural advantages. 

The no-huddle provides an offense the opportunity to do so. The offense can control and vary tempo (including playing fast) as well as preventing a defense from substituting. As Sonny Dykes states, the no-huddle works as a form of deception and constraint. Playing up-tempo limits the need to have a large number of plays and formations because the defense does not have time to recognize tendencies. The offensive players also benefit because they get increased practice reps and the opportunity to perfect the plays they do use.

To paraphrase Ohio State offensive coordinator Tom Herman's statement during a recent clinic, in third and short the Buckeyes are going to use "rocket" tempo and run either inside zone or power. The Buckeye coaching staff does not care if the other team knows those plays are coming because a) they are going go fast and b) they are so good at those base plays that they do not think a defense can stop them.

Do we have a problem?

Saban and Bielema assert the problem caused by such a fast pace is injuries. But the coaches do not cite evidence of an increase in injuries. If Bielema is concerned about injuries to bigger defensive linemen, he could also choose to play smaller individuals. One might also suggest that they show concern for large offensive linemen playing up-tempo.

The underlying concern seems to be a belief that up-tempo, no-huddle offenses are changing they way they believe football should be played. The problem, however, is that the idyllic version of football is in the eyes of the beholder. It does not seem a coincidence that Bielema and Saban do not use the no-huddle and the rule change they propose would force other teams to play their style. Tony Franklin, whose Louisiana Tech teams operated at perhaps the quickest pace in college football, was quick to offer a rejoinder:

The most hilarious thing about the timing of those (Saban's) comments is anybody who watched New England play Denver (Sunday). New England is the best offense in the NFL for one reason. They play like colleges do. They play no-huddle, fast-tempo, they change tempos and they do what they have to do to win. I think Belichick would probably disagree with his buddy.

It’s the great equalizer. People say Baylor can’t play defense. You know what? Before Art Briles got there, they couldn’t play offense, either, and they couldn’t win games. Now all of a sudden, Baylor can beat people because they can outscore people.

Obviously if you can line up and you’ve got better players than everybody else and play great defense and eat clock and win as many games as you can, that’s a great way of playing football, too. The problem is, 95 percent of us don’t have that type of talent to do that.

So when they fall into that trap of saying, ‘Here’s how Alabama has won championships. Here’s what we should do,’ to me, that’s the trap that Coach Saban would want everybody to fall into because, the reality of it is, he’s going to have better players most of the time.

It is so simple as to be unnecessary to say, but the way to succeed at football (or any sport) is to maximize your chances within the rules. Offenses have sought to control tempo within the play clock for as long as the game has existed. In fact, the huddle is a relatively recent addition to the game.

The modern huddle was largely introduced by Paul Brown. Before Brown, an offensive player generally called plays and huddles were largely unnecessary. Brown wanted to control his modern offensive system. He would use rotating guards to run plays in from the sidelines.

The huddle therefore is not how football has "always been played" but was instead an innovation to maximize the offense's ability to conceptually organize itself so as to dictate formation and alignment. The no-huddle is now popular because offensive coaches have discovered they can effectively call plays while gaining the no-huddle's advantages. 

What the proposed rule change would do is significantly alter football's balance-of-power. It would take away one of the offense's structural advantages without altering those inuring to the defense. As Franklin indicates, it is perhaps not surprising that Saban – a defensive coach who generally has better talent than his opponent – seeks to take away an offense's strategic advantage. Calls to alter the rules to prevent up-tempo, no huddle offenses would perhaps be more convincing if they were not coming from coaches who would self-evidently benefit from the no-huddle's demise. 


Comments Show All Comments

btalbert25's picture

A rule change like this would be horrible for college football.   Right now there is virtually no parity in the sport, a rule change would absolutely destroy the little bit that exists. 

trasch_man's picture

Look when Saban and Bielema got their wish when we saw LSU vs Alabama for the title game when it was the lowest-rated title game of the BCS era. No one is stupid enough to take away this new-found excitement from a sport that keeps growing. Don't hinder those who are succeeding to drag along those who are not. This isn't 3rd grad field day, adapt or die.

SilverState's picture

One might also suggest that they show concern for large offensive linemen playing up-tempo.


The underlying concern seems to be a belief that up-tempo, no-huddle offenses are changing they way they believe football should be played. The problem, however, is that the idyllic version of football is in the eyes of the beholder.

...and this.

JYBUCKEYE's picture

Bert is a moron. For really real. 

Oyster's picture

I have no problem with the no huddle.  I hated it when Sam Wyche ran it and would snap the ball to get a penalty and thus use that as a play to gain yards.  He admitted he did that.  But as a pure style of play, why not?  People hated the forward pass in the beginning too, right? 

"Scrolling hurts my finger"

(and FitzBuck was clearly the winner)

Ohio Guy in Jersey's picture

Wyche's premise was similar. He wanted to prevent the defense from substituting and to control tempo. That certain teams STILL tried to sub players and got penalties as a result shows their stubbornness...or stupidity.

Oyster's picture

Yea, but when he saw they had too many guys on the field when trying to sub, he would intentionally snap the ball.  That, in my opinion, is chicken shit!

"Scrolling hurts my finger"

(and FitzBuck was clearly the winner)

rdubs's picture

Many teams still do this.  I think it is a smart move.  You can try to substitute, but you better be quick.

Geraffi's picture

It's within the rules. It worked. And as mentioned above, the defensive coach chose to try to squeeze in a substitution to eliminate the effectiveness of the no huddle. That was dumb and cost them 5 yards. 
It was innovation within the rules, just like the up tempo no huddle. Football benefits from innovation and evolves. Perhaps one of the evolutionary changes/responses to the up tempo offense will be to replace the 350 lb behemoth run stoppers with more athletic, lighter defensive(and offensive) linemen.
As in life, adapt or parish. But don't change the rules to squelch innovation in, or evolution of the game. 

southernstatesbuckeye's picture

Ok, fine Mr. Saban. Lets do away with the no huddle. but at the same time, lets add a rule that says defenses have to count to three before rushing. After all, a rush that is too quick may put offensive linemen in peril because they might not have time to set up in their blocking stance.

and how bout those defensive backs while we're at it? _How many times has a wide receiver been cold cocked while trying to haul in a pass? good God, for the sake of the players and their safety, the rules should change to require the defensive back to grunt loudly when he is near a receiver, so the receiver is aware of him and can properly protect himself from potentially career ending injuries.

How many more asininely stupid suggestions might there be?

I like cookies.

southernstatesbuckeye's picture

I think all kickoff teams need to skip instead of run. this allows a play to more fully develop while limiting those big hit injuries. There is also evidence that skipping strengthens the calf muscles.

That's a win-win.

I like cookies.

Earle's picture

Has anyone actually proposed a specific rule on this? Most of what I've read has been of the "We don't like this and somebody needs to do something about it" hand wringing variety. Surely there's not a strong "ban the no-huddle" argument, but I can foresee a rule under the guise of player safety that gives the defense an opportunity to substitute, which would gut much of the no-huddle's advantage. The NCAA is just stupid enough to do something like that.

Snarkies gonna snark. 

rdubs's picture

The closest thing I have seen to an actual rule proposal is allowing a 15 second substitution window after first downs.

Bucksfan's picture

I dont know about any real injuries, but i have seen a lot of FAKE injuries during the no-huddle.  Maybe these bozos could try that?

KBonay's picture

Bret may get injured trying to get his fat-ass down the field to follow the plays...

Aesculus.'s picture

I think Bret ate the children.

MN Buckeye's picture

Saban, Bielema, and Crean.

Northbrook's picture

If anybody ever flopped on me like this I'd kick them in the face. You want something to whine about?

WezBuck28's picture

Maybe your fitness program isn't that great...if you can't run down the field in a timely manner then maybe your guys should not be on the can obviously be done if the other team is doing it..suck it up Bert, and put down those damn Cheetos!

dubjayfootball90's picture

I can't believe this has been brought up in the past. Just so stupid. A key argument would be: Show me evidence of injuries being exponentially more because of the no huddle and maybe there could be some type of point. MAYBE. These comments by Bert and Saban are just insane.

You can feed a bobcat all the chili it wants. That don't mean it's going to crap out diamonds.

MN Buckeye's picture

and self-serving

Arizona_Buckeye's picture

Ah - poor baby Bret and Saban - want to change the rules because that is how they want to coach!  Sorry guys, until you can find a way to shut it down, the spread and hurry up are here to stay so either get used to it or shut the fuck up

The best thing about Pastafarianism? It is not only acceptable, but advisable, to be heavily sauced

Hovenaut's picture

Stack your defensive line depth, maybe play a 4-2-5 set. That could offset that no huddle stuff.

I think I know a defense that may be employing some of that strategy.

DannyBeane's picture

Randy: Yeah, the players should all wear bras! And instead of helmets, they should wear little tin-foil hats, because you know, it's the future, and we shouldn't be so barbaric!
Principal Victoria: How will the bras and tin-foil hats make it safer?
Randy: Oh, you're all not getting it, see, while we're at it, we'll have a balloon instead of a ball, and whoever catches the ballon will tries to run while all the other players hug!

The Vest-er's picture

Sarcastoball would be lost on Bert. The card doesn't tell him when to hug or go for the 2 point encouragement conversion.

Fundamentals are a crutch for the talentless.

CALPOPPY's picture

Oh, I'm confused. I thought it was hug for 2. 

I'm a hurtin' buckaroo.

NuttyBuck's picture

Sorry Saban, you don't get to change the rules merely because they don't suit your team's playing style. The Buckeyes are coming for you and the SEC, and trying to change the rules won't help you. It's too late. We will see you soon. Try not to lose again to A&M (because you cant keep up with the pace) and ruin our date. 

YTOWNBUCKI's picture

What kind of nerve does Saban have anyway?  Who in their right minds would complain about rules after winning 3 national titles in 4 years?  Is he really that arrogant to think that football MUST be played his way?  As far as I'm concerned, that dude can pound sand. 

CJDPHoS Board of Directors

Go get your shine box, Gumar!

You can't spell chump without UM's picture

Bielema's and Saban's motto: If you can't stop it, then bitch about it

Brady Hoke ate my comment

hetuck's picture

The only increase in injuries have been the fake kind. 

Winning is a habit. Unfortunately, so is losing.

Vince Lombardi

bigbadbuck's picture

Nick Saban is about Nick Saban and no one else

Gentlemen, you can't fight in here, its a war room

Buck Wild's picture

The no-huddle is Saban's kryptonite...& he knows it...

"I can accept failure, but I can't accept not trying."
Woody Hayes 1913 - 1987

BeijingBucks's picture

Well considering Saban has oversigned more players than so many other teams... he wants a chance to get them all in there!

None can love freedom heartily, but good men; the rest love not freedom, but license. ~ John Milton

pjtobin's picture

If you keep then great. If not, then bow down gracefully. I wasn't a fan of the no huddle. Until I seen it operate. I'm just a fan. Who is still learning. It's funny to me coaches are bitching. 

Bury me in my away jersey, with my buckeye blanket. A diehard who died young. Rip dad. 

Colorado Johnny's picture

Every year in northeast Ohio we played this little team by the name of Cardinal Mooney. Said team would hand us our ass every year. Said team ran two plays, option left and option right. We hated The option. Why? We couldn't stop it. I now admire everything that team was able to do to us. You tend to hate anything you can't do, stop or understand. Satan, Bert...suck it and hate it.

Buckeye Chuck's picture

When Bielema talks about the inability to substitute for defensive players due to the no-huddle, he doesn't seem to realize that that too is an innovation of relatively recent vintage. Unlimited substitution didn't become standard in the NCAA until the 1960s. 
I think the main arguments against the no-huddle are emotional--the idea that football "should be" about grinding out yardage on the ground, and that predominantly passing offenses that allow teams to score quickly introduce too much of an element of luck. That's a widespread belief: even though Urban Meyer's offense isn't really built on passing, we all remember the comments from people who were uneasy about Meyer's arrival because, well, we just don't do the uptempo read-option at Ohio State.
It's time that the best defensive minds get to work on ways to slow these offenses down, instead of waiting on the rulebook to stop the change.

The most "loud mouth, disrespect" poster on 11W.

BeijingBucks's picture

I predict there will be a rash of 'injuries' this year to slow down the no huddle for substitutions AND to be able to use later as evidence against them.
It won't work.

None can love freedom heartily, but good men; the rest love not freedom, but license. ~ John Milton

Catch 5's picture

If a team has the endurance to run 12 plays in a row without resting much in between, then they have earned the advantage over a tired defense.  If they line up immediately after one play and snap the ball as soon as possible, then good for them - and to the extent that Saban and Co are trying to slow down the game or add time between plays, I disagree with.  As long as the offense isn't substituting players, I have no problem keeping the game going.  If the defense is gassed, take a time out or run another guy on and try to beat the play or take a penalty.
What I do want to see changed, however is the practice of hustling to the line, getting in formation, then everyone looking up to see the play call come in from the sideline.  How this isn't a false start every time confuses me.  The players are set, then they all set back at the same time.  I don't care if they are relaxed, if I'm a DC, I tell my line to bowl them over the first time they move, whether the ball is snapped or not. Once the players are set, they shouldn't be allowed to move until the snap (unless provided by rule, i.e. WR/TE in motion).  

Make their asses quit! - Nick Saban

razrback16's picture

I wonder if Saban would be willing to give up his oversigning advantage in exchange. He talks about wanting things to be fair, but yet exploits an inherent advantage of the SEC over many teams who either choose not to oversign because of moral reasons, or because they flat out can't because of conference rule reasons.