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Sports Then and Now

How Has the College Game Changed the NFL?

Posted on November 19, 2020 by Christopher Alpizar

Pros Looking Over Their Shoulders

We don’t normally think of the college game leading the charge in terms of the evolution of football but there is increasing evidence that the NFL is adopting some of their measures. It’s a bit like the tail wagging the dog, yet it is proof positive that all good ideas don’t necessarily germinate at the professional level.

Nevertheless, there are inherent differences between the two games, some of which will never be bridged. Wooing high school kids, and their parents or guardians is a different animal altogether than the sterile task of drafting a college kid onto a professional team. Alabama coach, Nick Saban, has etched his storied legacy in the college ranks but toiled at the NFL level for eight years. Below he explains why he prefers coaching at the collegiate level.

“I just felt like we could control our own destiny in college a lot better, and I love college football because I thought you could have a greater impact on young people at the 18- to 22-year-old timeframe, aight,” Saban said. “And I love the NFL and I love the players … but your leadership and your influence and the kind of program that you can have to try to get players to do things that are going to help them be more successful in life, probably you can have a greater impact in college than you can in the NFL. I’ve always enjoyed that. My family always enjoyed it. My wife’s always been really involved with it. We’ve been very happy being in college football. But sometimes you learn about yourself when you do things like go to the NFL and you learn about yourself – ‘Oh, this is not exactly what I thought it was going to be. Look what I left. I left something that I loved.’ And I loved it at LSU when I left LSU to go to the Miami Dolphins. You live and learn, I guess.”

But the pro game certainly has been influenced in some aspects by the college game, namely, the spread offense. As we all know, NFL offenses have become more wide open, much like college, and that has much to do with the league turning from a defense-oriented league to an all-out West Coast aerial blitz in what seems like each and every game. Since the beginning of the decade, the shotgun was featured in 56 percent of the plays while now it is responsible for a whopping 79 percent of the offensive sets.

If we look at the totals in the NFL, odds courtesy of Sportsbook Review, we can see that more games than ever are in the 50s. Pure running backs are becoming extinct, except for the uber elite, because teams are requiring tailbacks who can double as receivers. Or, perhaps more aptly, receivers who can double as tailbacks. Take last April’s NFL Draft when there were 18 running backs taken but the first one didn’t go until the 32nd overall pick, the last selection of the first round.

That player happened to be LSU’s Clyde Edwards-Helaire, chosen by the Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs. Ironically, Edwards-Helaire was slotted as the fourth or fifth running back to be taken by many of the draft pundits because they felt his rushing ability was not as sound as others like Georgia’s D’Andre Swift, Wisconsin’s Jonathan Taylor, Florida State’s Cam Akers, or Ohio State’s J.K. Dobbins.

However, after 10 weeks of the NFL regular-season C.E.H. is the most productive rookie running back of them all because he does one thing better than the rest – catching the football. There was a time when college quarterbacks who made their bones in the shotgun or spread offense didn’t translate to the college game, i.e. Tim Tebow, but that has been changing recently. As the NFL offenses rapidly adapt to the go-go college style, we see that the likes of Lamar Jackson and Patrick Mahomes can not only take the edge but are also able to toss a 30-yard strike on the run.

Ultimately, the pro game has become more fun because of it and prior to the global pandemic, the ratings continued to soar. At some point, teams might get back to a more run-oriented, ground-and-pound, offense but right now we’re seeing nothing of the sort and we have college football to thank for it.

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