When Chip Kelly, Gus Malzahn, Urban Meyer, and other spread offense innovators developed and began implementing their various forms of the spread and read option in the mid-2000's, Group of 5 schools were some of the first to buy low and become early adopters. The "basketball on grass" formations were seen as something of an equalizer. Unable to compete while attempting to play tradition power-I football against Power 5 schools, the spread gave Group of 5 programs new life.
Similar to the 3-point shot in basketball, by spreading the field with four and five wide, utilizing a mobile quarterback, and creating space for athletes in one on one situations, smaller schools were able to compete with Power 5 programs that annually out-recruit Group of 5 schools with typically bigger, faster, and stronger athletes.
In 2007, we saw the first example of the advantages the spread read option can give when then-FCS Appalachian State infamously upset Michigan at Michigan. From that point, Sun Belt, MAC, and C-USA schools have successfully implemented various degrees of a spread offense to the point it is now commonplace for G5 schools to run exclusively out of the shotgun.
As a result of the frequency of spread offenses, defenses have now shifted their tactical and recruiting focus to primarily stopping the spread attack. Consequently, the players on defense are quicker and more athletic, but sacrifice power and size. This is so particularly in the front-7, where linebackers are forced to cover smaller, quicker receivers in space and defensive linemen are required to play at a no-huddle pace often without substitution. In these circumstances, size becomes a disadvantage.
That very brief background of the dispersion of the spread brings us up to yesterday, which saw some pretty ugly scores across the MAC ticker: Michigan State 73 Eastern Michigan 14. Arkansas 52 Northern Illinois 14. Wisconsin 68 Bowling Green 17.
As we mentioned here in the past, N. Illinois and BSGU are in the upper echelon of MAC football. They played each other for the MAC title last year, are expected to compete for it again this year, and have each beaten B1G opponents in 2014. Now, Arkansas and Wisconsin are good football teams, but they aren't Alabama. So how did NIU and BGSU get beaten so badly up and down the field yesterday?
I do not believe that "talent-level" as an answer is sufficient. Losses this lopsided come down to style of play, personnel, and identity.
Michigan State, Arkansas, and Wisconsin all share in a systematic resistance to all things spread offense. MSU and Wisconsin have recruited to play a specific type of "traditional" power football for over a decade now. Their reliance on a stout defense, efficient passer, and NFL quality offensive line and running backs have resulted in consistent success. Only in its 2nd year under Bret Bielema, Arkansas is already showing signs of Wisconsin-style football that Bielema intends to bring South.
Sticking to traditional roots has served these programs well, especially in comparison with programs like Michigan who have toiled with various spread and read option offenses since the Appalachian State loss and are still mired in mediocrity without identity.
By developing success through the physical running game, games against G5 opponents that have recruited to defend the spread yield blow-outs like yesterday. Already at a talent disadvantage, by favoring athleticism and speed over power at the line of scrimmage, over-matched trograms find themselves getting blown off the ball, and in BGSU's case, giving up 644 yards rushing.
The point is not to harp on the fact that Bowling Green's lines are outmatched by those of Wisconsin's. This is to be expected. Rather, the point is that I believe what Michigan State, Wisconsin, and Arkansas exposed yesterday was an opportunity for Group of 5 schools to potentially exploit a "market inefficiency" within the G5 conferences.
As MAC and Sun Belt conference elites favor spread offenses, the rest of pack follows suit. Defenses that have "caught up" to the spread offense by primarily recruiting to stop it are left exposed by a traditional offense rooted in a physical running game. This creates an opportunity for schools still looking for an identity - your Georgia States - to develop ahead of the curve and recruit for size and power offensively.
With nowhere to go but up and a talent-rich home state in which to recruit, Georgia State is a prime candidate to establish an identity as the Wisconsin of the Sun Belt.
As a relatively new program, it will take time, even years of recruits, to put the pieces together to run the ball the way Wisconsin and Sparty do. But even if the machine isn't finely tuned with system-perfect recruits, a well-run system can still be effective. Arkansas State from 2011-2013 is a clear example of how a team like the Red Wolves are able to adopt three systems from three new coaches in consecutive years and still produce 10-win seasons and conference championships.
It's not to say Georgia State will be winning games 68-17 anytime soon, rather by simply being different, the Panthers will have created a unique advantage for themselves. And right now, still looking for a Sun Belt win, the Panthers can use all the help available.