The triple-option offense nowadays is a novelty, but only a handful of decades ago, this run-oriented offense ruled college football similar to how the spread offense has overtaken the game today.
Oklahoma — using the wishbone variation — popularized the scheme during the 1970s, and it remained relevant into the 1990s. However, some form of the option has existed for over 100 years, with my favorite variation being the short punt formation. This off-the-wall strategy was common during the turn of the 20th century, when points were so hard to come by that punting on third — and even second — down was actually a brilliant move. In this formation, teams had the option to punt, run, or pass.
Despite its absurdity from our modern perspective, it worked. Fielding H. Yost’s point-a-minute offense at Michigan compiled a record of 55-1-1 from 1901 to 1905 using it. In that span, the Wolverines outscored their opponents 2,821 to 42.
As the game evolved, this method (predictably) became irrelevant, and while the triple option in its advanced forms hasn’t reached the state of total irrelevancy, its made way for superior offensive schemes. Programs such as Navy and Army utilize the triple option because they lack access to elite talent, but for Power 5 program like Georgia Tech, it’s unique.
Under head coach Paul Johnson — who successfully implemented the triple option at Georgia Southern and Navy — The Yellow Jackets have finished each of the last nine seasons ranked inside the top 20 in both rushing yards per game and yards per carry. So while Georgia Tech’s offense is unconventional for a program of its stature, it remains effective.
What the triple option essentially does is transform football into a game of basketball. The Yellow Jackets run most plays searching for the right matchup so they can create a 2-on-1 fast break. While the break is developing, Georgia Tech’s offensive lineman will push upfield and deliver punishing cut blocks:
This play became an easy touchdown for two reasons. First, the Yellow Jackets created the 2-on-1 matchup in the backfield. In that scenario, it’s all about the quarterback reading and reacting. After the pitch to the outside, the running back has an alley to the end zone thanks to a pair of perfectly executed cut blocks on the outside.
Sometimes, the triple option features a clear choice from the start. On this play, Georgia Tech’s quarterback wasted no time sprinting upfield. From his vantage point, he probably saw vulnerability in Virginia Tech’s defense up the middle. One cut block from the running back later, and the quarterback is off to the races.
So how on Earth can Tennessee — who ranked 107th in rush defense last season, have injury concerns along the defensive line, and is without Darrin Kirkland Jr. for the season according to Volquest — going to prevent the Yellow Jackets from steamrolling all over them on Monday?
This play is a perfect example of what it takes to stop the triple option. It’s all about discipline. Discipline within each individual player’s assignment. Discipline in the A and B gaps. Discipline on first down. If the defense can contain every gap and penetrate into the backfield, then the Yellow Jackets are basically screwed for that play.
But for a defense that seemingly allowed every running back last season to set a school record for rushing yards in a single game, disciplined might not be a reasonable expectation. In all reality, Georgia Tech’s likelihood of gashing the Vols on Monday night is high.
However, there is a silver lining for the Vols. While Tennessee’s defense offers zero indication that they will effectively stop the run in 2017, there’s also no indication that Georgia Tech’s new quarterback — whoever that may be — is serviceable at running the triple option. In this offense, it’s all about making quick decisions. Any slight hesitation results in a loss of yardage, or even worse, a fumble.
Tennessee won’t hold the Yellow Jackets under 200 yards on the ground. Johnson and company run the ball over 50 times per game, so it comes with the territory, but let’s not assume that Georgia Tech’s offense is a well-oiled machine at this moment. They have just as many question marks, and if the triple option isn’t working for them on Monday night, then they’ll just be out of options at that point.