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Mid-Major Monday: ¡Viva la Bone!

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Writers of all stripes are generally in the business of being right, or of convincing readers they're right, or explaining why they should have been right, if only voters or executives or armies or the unfathomable circuitry of the universe had hewn to the prescribed course. These are the instincts of ego and self-preservation at their finest.

Rarely, then, will you find anyone as satisfied to be wrong about anything as I am a little more than a year after lamenting the death of the triple option in major college football. Then, the old bone-based ways of Ken Hatfield and Fisher DeBerry were ostensibly in the dustbin; Army remained committed to a vaguely "pro style," West Coast-ish version of "balance"; Nebraska's classic power I -- which occasionally incorporated an element of wishbone, and was always faithful to its principles -- was jettisoned for the lifeless short passing game of an NFL reject; sole practitioner Paul Johnson, passed over for marquee jobs in the annual coaching melee of 2006, seemed either confined to the Naval Academy or bound to divorce his beloved Flexbone in search of a flashier gig; and when asked about retaining DeBerry's system after four years of diminishing returns at Air Force, Troy Calhoun was making unambiguous overtures to the necessity of a "very effective passing game" and forcing opponents to "defend the entire field." The Falcons' depth chart listed two regular wide receivers for the first time in decades.

Triple option? Yes, please. Astroturf and unironic mustaches? Uh, thanks, anyway...
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And thus, spake I, descended the curtain on one of the defining innovations of modern football, an aesthetic and tactical pleasure that separated often overmatched amateurs from the ruthlessly homogenous pros and made careers of coaches, quarterbacks and, occasionally, entire teams no one expected to succeed by any other means. Among those who could have succeeded any way they wanted, Bear Bryant, Darrell Royal, Bill McCartney, Lou Holtz and Tom Osborne won mythical championships with various versions of the triple option. But time marches on and old gimmicks fall in its path.

Or something like that. At least I left myself a little rope by admitting, "in the eternal cycle of strategic push and pull, of course, nothing ever just goes away," and so, it seems, the triple option that proliferated from the mid-sixties to mid-nineties has not. Air Force's "new look" resulted in runs on 77 percent of its snaps, produced the Mountain West's leading rusher and offensive player of the year from one of its "wide receiver" positions, finished second in the conference in scoring and led to nine wins for the first time since 2000; Navy led the nation in rushing for the third year in a row and came within a yard per game of matching 2000 Nebraska for the best per-game average of the decade -- despite running a staggering 86 percent of the time, the Midshipmen were also third in yards per carry, just behind the much bigger/faster/stronger, draft-bound, two-headed monsters at Arkansas and West Virginia. Compared to this time last year, the old, non-spread triple option is actually stronger, and expanding: Army, weary of eight years of option-based beatings from the other academies since it scrapped the system in 2000, apparently spent the spring re-installing a super secret version of the wishbone the Knights ran back when they occasionally won the Commander-In-Chief series.

Even more importantly, Johnson begins the experimental odyssey of transplanting the flexbone to one of the major conferences, where the triple option's immediate future may again be in his hands -- the current promulgation of the spread/spread option was based on the early, experimental success of Randy Walker, Joe Tiller, Hal Mumme, Mike Leach and Rich Rodriguez at schools with serious deficits in talent, much like Georgia Tech's in relation to the rest of the ACC and the BCS leagues as a whole. This is part of the same cyclical struggle: as the optimal window begins to close on the subversive deception of the spread and spread option, the great talent-maskers of the last two decades, the pendulum will begin to swing the other way -- while Texas, Florida, Michigan, Auburn a cavalcade of first-rate recruiting powers are taking the "defend the entire field and the running quarterback" concept mainstream, less talented teams that relied on surprising defenses with the unfamiliar week after week must begin looking for a new edge. Maybe Johnson's aggressive, high-scoring version of the old bone concept is it; maybe he can't get away with leaving faster, more disciplined defenders unblocked the way the Midshipmen could against second and third-tier defenses. Either way -- for now, at least -- your father's option still has legs, after all.