The last two seasons have seen two teams that run the triple option offense, usually out of the wishbone or flexbone formation, have great success at the college football level. In 2014 it was the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets, under head coach Paul Johnson, who had an 11-3 season and played for the ACC title and also won a New Year’s six bowl game. In 2015 it was the Navy Midshipmen who also won 11 games with their only two defeats coming against highly ranked Notre Dame and Houston.
So why don’t more teams adopt the triple option offense given the success some teams have had using it? Shouldn’t teams with distinct disadvantages when it comes to recruiting and building winnings programs like Iowa State or Rutgers consider this type of offense?
Pros and Cons to College Football Teams Running the Triple Option Offense
One of the main issues, which is quite basic, is that this type of offense is seen as out of date in the modern game by many football viewers. Fans like watching teams they are indifferent to run a triple option offense, but those same fans wouldn’t like to see their own teams adopt this offensive playbook. The trend in recent years has seen teams, like Oregon and Baylor, go to hurry up spread offenses where the aim is to score as quickly and as often as possible with the offense operating at a fast pace. That type offense is almost the opposite of a run heavy wishbone attack that wants to methodically gain positive yards and dominate the time of possession to help its defense.
The second problem with teams adopting the triple option is that whenever a new coach takes over a team said coach is given a certain period of time to re-build the program while the coaching staff also works to recruit the talent they want so they can install the scheme they want to run in the long term. Fans hope for immediate success on the field and also want to see their team picking up commitments from key recruits.
If a team is openly recruiting players to run the triple option offense they will be severely limited in the type of recruit that will be interested in coming to play for them. All of the top four and five star recruits, particurlarly at the offensive skill positions like quarterback and wide receiver, generally want to play in systems other than the triple option. If recruiting top talent is a problem, that becomes an issue for the team and head coach.
But the inherent advantage in running the triple option is a team doesn’t need to recruit highly touted high school players since that type of offense generally requires a different skillset from its players. At quarterback, for example, you’re looking mainly for a stud athlete who isn’t being offered a scholarship or looking to play at the next level rather than a Johnny Manziel or Marcus Mariota type. Keenan Reynolds fits that mould perfectly and was one of the best players to ever suit up for Navy.
The service academies are annually in the bottom 20 teams in the recruiting rankings and regularly far exceed expectations given the players they are able to attract. That is how Navy turned some of the lowest ranked recruiting classes into an 11-2 team that challenged for the AAC title with Houston and Temple. Air Force has also quietly put together a number of impressive seasons themselves.
However, there are other key drawbacks to the triple option that are less easy to solve. While finding a quarterback isn’t a totally impossible task, it’s very difficult in the current era to recruit the type of fullback and tight end required to be really successful. Ideally you need a full back who is around 240 pounds and can block but also carry the ball. However, with so many pro teams moving away from having a full back at all, players like this are scarce. Players of that size are generally being recruited at running back, meaning they aren’t interested in playing for a team running the triple option, or have moved over to play defense as a defensive end or linebacker. Even the NFL is struggling to find genuine tight ends who can both block effectively and catch the ball in the open field.
A big risk in installing the triple option is that if it fails and there is no improvement in a team’s record and a head coach is fired, starting over with a new head coach is infinitely more difficult. Any head coach who takes over a team that has the players to run the option would have a really difficult time installing a different offense, particularly in the first couple of seasons of the new coach’s tenure. It is certainly a riskier venture than just running a more widely used offensive scheme that can easily be adapted if a coaching hire doesn’t work out.
The lack of talented recruits and he other issues discussed does limit the type of team that could effectively install the triple option and see an improvement in their win/loss record. The example above of Iowa State is an interesting one given that they have only managed to win nine games once in the past century. The Cyclones would be running the triple option in a conference where most teams are built on the passing game on offense and defense. Even if teams like Georgia Tech and Navy aren’t consistently winning nine or ten games every year, they are still out performing Iowa State regularly. Would it have been a terrible idea if they had hired Ken Niumatalolo to install the triple option offense instead of Matt Campbell earlier this year?