I like to often say that football is a simple game, and in that vein coaches, when designing offensive plays, have really only two choices: To change where the players begin (the formation), and where they’ll end up (the play design). Formations are often more important than plays, but also should be easier to get right: The guy should stand where he was told to stand. But they’re still fun to play with, and the past couple of seasons have seen some interesting wrinkles.
Probably the most famous new formation came about from the world’s smallest adjustment: Moving a runningback over a couple of feet. But no one calls it that; instead, they call it the “PISTOL OFFENSE” (all caps). Of course, announcers like to say a team is using the “PISTOL OFFENSE” (all caps) whenever the runningback lines up in the pistol, but really only a handful of teams use the set in anything that can be called an “offense” in the sense of a fully robust system, Nevada, of course, being among them with a mixture of downhill I-formation plays from the shotgun with options like the speed option and the veer play.
But I’ve been kind of down on the “Pistol” as something broad or novel, because most teams that have used it are still one-back teams and all they’ve done is move the runningback around a little, which is something good teams like Oregon or others were doing anyway, just not from the pistol. The real advantage of the pistol (the formation, not the offense), however, comes when you add a second back to the backfield. In the image below, West Virginia actually goes with three backs (more on that in a bit), but the point is simply that you can align a fullback (or two fullbacks) to add a strength to the formation.
Now, West Virginia didn’t have much luck with the three back set, but the idea is a good one:
For inspiration, you can think of Spurrier’s old Florida offense, which was largely built on two foundations, each from the I-formation: The Lead Draw and play-action off that play. Below is his favorite play (h/t Bruce Eien):
Now, imagine that play from the pistol set with a fullback, with the fullback shifting where the strength of the formation is. Indeed, Spurrier originally didn’t want to go to shotgun because he was afraid he’d have to give up his beloved play-action game.
Of course, the set everyone is focused on is the infamous “Diamond” formation, first used by Dana Holgorsen at Oklahoma State but now in use by about a dozen other teams. It’s a good formation: It’s a power set, keeping nine men offensively in the box; doing that should give you individual matchups on the outside; and you get most of the advantages of motion as described above. Oklahoma used it at the end of last season, as the below image shows (h/t Offensive Breakdown):
The Offensive Breakdown site gets into some of the particulars with the “Diamond” set. I’m not totally sold on it as being a cure-all: Why wouldn’t a fullback and an H-back tight-end give you the same advantages and more, with a better immediate pass threat (no one throws it to those fullbacks in the Diamond set, except maybe bootleg passes to them in the flat) and the inside gets awful clogged since, with no tight-ends, there are still only the same numbers of gaps created as with a single-back offense. If you ask Holgorsen he’ll tell you that what they really want to do out of the set is throw the ball, but they still used it in short yardage.
But those are details: The larger point is that there are a lot of interesting possibilities (most all of them foreshadowed at some previous point in football history). The “Diamond” is one possibility, but rest assured that there are others.