Elite programs emerge
when looking deep

Sep 26, 2006 6:05 AM

An area of college and pro football dynamics that’s important to understand is depth.

This doesn’t refer to how many star players a team has, but whether a team is stocked or thin with above-average players at a lot of positions. Naturally, the most important of these is at quarterback, just above other key skill positions such as running back and wide out.

This was evident early in this NFL season with Cincinnati. The Bengals caught a break with the quick return to health of QB Carson Palmer late in preseason after a serious knee injury in January. The Bengals won their first two games minus two wide receivers, T.J. Houshmandzadeh and Antonio Chatman. In Week 2, the Bengals also lost WRs Chad Johnson (disoriented after hit from Cleveland safety Brian Russell) and Tab Perry.

Still, you wouldn’t have noticed. Receiver Chris Henry caught five of Palmer’s passes for a career-high 113 yards against Cleveland. The Bengals also have speedster Kelley Washington, who had five catches for 77 yards in one game. Cincinnati has drafted well at the skill positions, stockpiling depth and talent.

In college, large schools with a long tradition of winning football are usually heavy with depth. These would include colleges such as Tennessee, Ohio State, Georgia, USC and Texas. For the most part, these teams have little trouble recruiting a lot of talent, carrying athletic budgets and scholarships that allow them to stock their teams with depth.

This gives them an edge when players get hurt and they have a quality reserve to plug in. If a smaller school that likes to run the ball has two talented offensive linemen that get hurt, limited depth could severely alter their offensive production. Other times, coaches fail to do an effective recruiting job, which hinders developing overall talent and depth.

This has been evident at Mississippi State, where Sylvester Croom inherited a program with little talent. In his first season, the Bulldogs had a 28-7 win over Tulane in Croom’s first game. Mississippi State was then blasted (43-14) by Auburn and got stung (9-7) by Division 1-AA Maine at home! This month they lost at home to Tulane as an 11-point favorite!

Coach Al Groh runs a fine program at Virginia, but they’ve lost so much talent to the NFL the last three years. The Cavs are in a rebuilding mode, scoring just 13, 13, 10 and 7 in their first four games in going 0-3-1 ATS.

You’ve heard football analysts say, "This team is not rebuilding, they’re reloading." This refers to programs so well known that they rarely have to start all over each season. Instead, they’re fortunate enough to be able to regularly attract top-notch talent to keep the winning going, even after key players graduate.

Most schools, however, don’t have the gridiron tradition to stockpile talent and can lack depth. In recent years, these schools include Duke, Northwestern, Kansas, Vanderbilt, Indiana and Temple. In September, small schools can give the appearance of being competitive. As October and November roll around, they begin to play much worse both SU and ATS.

The reason is partly because everyone is healthy in September. However, football is such a violent and physical game that players get banged up with injuries. Schools lacking depth are at a big disadvantage as the talent level on the bench drops significantly when compared to big-name schools. They can’t plug in equally effective players as the starters get banged up.

Winning, scholarship money and charismatic coaches are the keys. Look how fast Washington fell apart after the departure of Rick Neuheisel, going 3-19 SU, 6-15-1 ATS the last two years. Of all the key positions in football, none is bigger than QB, especially more difficult to maintain in college with players graduating. Northwestern had the nation’s fourth best offense last season, but graduated QB Brett Basanez. This year Northwestern came out of the gate averaging 17 points and lost at home to Division 1-AA New Hampshire.

National champion Texas rode the big shoulders of QB Vince Young to an unbeaten season in 2005, even winning at Ohio State. With Young off to the NFL, the offense isn’t as strong behind freshman QB Colt McCoy. Understandable, evidenced by scoring just seven points at home in the rematch with Ohio State.

With smaller schools, one or two talented players can make a huge difference on a team’s performance. Miami of Ohio knows all about this, losing QB Ben Roethlisberger to the NFL after the 2003 season and the offense slipped. This year, they are trying to replace the loss of QB Josh Betts and struggling, averaging just 16 ppg.