The top rushing teams in college football are running some form of the wishbone/triple-option and some are doing it with less size and speed (military academies). It doesn't appear that defenses have "figured it out". Why don't more teams run it?

Update: I would consider flex-bone in the same category as the true wishbone. Many spread teams are running some form of option including triple option.

  • 3
    At least four teams in the FBS run some variant of the triple option, and none of them is better than 7-4 this season. Nov 23, 2012 at 8:33
  • 2
    @MichaelMyers - that is true, but do you expect any of the academies to be better than 7-4 with their scholarship/entrance limitations?
    – JeffO
    Dec 26, 2012 at 18:44
  • Does Georgia Tech have severe limitations? Maybe their entrance requirements are stricter than at other schools; I don't know. The last major school to use the wishbone was probably Oklahoma in the early 1990s right after Barry Switzer was fired. They were pretty mediocre, but that could be due to the coach who inherited the offense. Dec 26, 2012 at 22:51
  • @MichealMyers - Oklahoma got out of the bone during Switzer's tenure when they got Marcus Dupree.
    – JeffO
    Jan 3, 2013 at 17:43
  • 1
    No one ran the wishbone better at quarterback than two of the first: James Street of Texas and Jack Mildren of Oklahoma. What made them so good was not just their ability to run the triple option, but also their knack for making big plays in the pass game, even though neither would be considered a high-completion percentage passer. The 1969 Texas-Arkansas and 1971 Oklahoma-Nebraska games show how they were able to overcome great defenses with the pass. It seems that wishbone qbs of the 1980s were not able to make those kind of passing plays.
    – user1828
    Oct 11, 2013 at 18:23

7 Answers 7


Defenses have indeed, "figured it out". The top 4 rushing teams that run the Wishbone/Triple-Option—Georgia Tech, Air Force, Army, and Navy—are a combined 21-35.

However, they are successful running the ball with all four being in the top 6 in rushing in the FBS.

Teams approach this offense by containing the rush and funneling the play up the middle. This limits big gains and forces the offense to put together drives of 10-15 plays. Inevitably, a penalty or error derails a drive and they are left in a 3rd and long situation. This offense is not built to overcome long down and distances.

In response to comments below..

The legitimacy and effectiveness of an offensive system can be measured by the number of points it is able to produce. The object of the game, after all, is to score more points than your opponent. Wins and losses is an easy, but maybe too simple, way of judging this.

The four prominent Wishbone/Triple-Option teams have scored 1,334 points. That's good for 333 on average which would place them on the list of FBS scoring offense at 71 out of 134. Teams that have finished 71st in scoring offense in the past 5 years have combined for a win loss record of 29 - 33.

The last time a Wishbone led offense won a National Championship was in 1986.

Frankly, the speed of the game has made the Wishbone obsolete. Even ultra conservative teams like Alabama use offenses that look like a Spread in comparison to the Wishbone.

  • 1
    I can see where defenses have "figured it out" but how does a losing record from those teams translate to such? Quasi-legit answer, yet I don't think a losing record legitimately backs up how defenses have "figured it out."
    – user527
    Nov 26, 2012 at 1:02
  • Good point, doing some more homework to expand my answer.
    – Jerrod
    Nov 26, 2012 at 4:05
  • I tried, but I'm not sure if my edits will satisfy you.
    – Jerrod
    Nov 26, 2012 at 4:37
  • 2
    Not that I dispute your conclusions but all the service academies field teams that are physically smaller than the powerhouses and they are none the less moderately successful with the triple option. Personally, I suspect philosophical reasons for choosing a offense that puts a heavy emphasis on coordinated team action. Dec 1, 2012 at 2:21
  • 1
    I completely disagree with this entire answer. The wishbone is used in the NFL. If it were ineffective I wouldn't think it would be used for over 40 years. Your PPG and yardage info are flawed. It is PPP not PPG that measure an offense. If your offensive drives are on average twice as long then of course you will have lower PPG. Also you need to measure the teams against like teams (their conference is a good start) not the entire BCS.
    – Coach-D
    Oct 12, 2015 at 15:05

There are an awful lot of contributing reasons that the wishbone is not used more often. Here are a few top reasons:

  1. Quarterbacks take a lot of hits in the wishbone. The offense requires the QB to run with the ball on outside options and take hits from linebackers/lineman even when they pitch the ball. For this reason, QB's get hurt often in the wishbone.
  2. Related to #1, with most pro-offenses being pass heavy spread or west coast style, QB's are reluctant to be featured in the wishbone as it hurts their chances of advancing to the NFL.
  3. Related to #2, because QB's are reluctant to be wishbone QB's, college teams are reluctant to feature the offense as it could damage recruiting. This effect runs down to the high school levels as well.
  4. The wishbone excelled in a time where linebackers were considerably slower than today. Without hard 40 time stats, it is generally accepted that defensive linebackers move much better today than in previous eras. The wishbone requires the QB and RB to get to the corner in many of their bread and butter plays in order to force a DE to choose the QB or RB, and then have the QB or RB beat the corner back for large plays. Faster linebackers require more blocking on the outside, and spoil the top plays of the wishbone.
  5. There are few stars in a wishbone offense. The QB may be the biggest benefactor stats wise (and we covered why they don't want to be featured in the offense) and the remaining skill players spread touches more than in modern day offenses.
  6. Time. If you fall behind in a game, the wishbone takes a long time to score points. Most plays are running plays, and a team with a weak defense will find themselves with no plays in the arsenal (and perhaps not the right talent to execute even if they did) to catch up against large deficits.
  • What about spread teams that rely heavily on the option including the triple option? Points 1-4 don't really hold up. Denard Robinson carries the ball a lot in Michigan's offense and took quite a beating.
    – JeffO
    Dec 26, 2012 at 18:58

Wishbone requires a tough quarterback. Like stated earlier, they get hit A LOT. The offense can still work with smart disciplined offense players. My high school ran it sometimes and it opens up play-action passes quite well. Play to your strengths. If you have big road-grader lineman, a big tough fullback, a smart QB with speed, along with a fast HB, you can run it effectively. We always put our fast and more athletic guys on defense and hoped to win 14-7 or something similar to that. Definitely not a sexy offense but it can be effective still if run right. Maybe I'm just old school but I still think there's room for it in football.

  • I disagree about the need for good lineman. It is just the opposite. Hawaii was a great triple option team (rushing yardage, not necessarily wins) with hardly any quality lineman. You get angles, double-teams, and a quick-hitting fullback (no need to hold blocks). Combine that with some defenders not getting blocked at all (dive & pitch read) and you can have success with an inferior line.
    – JeffO
    Jul 15, 2019 at 15:12

Some of the other answers make valid points but I would like to give you a coach's take on this. (And I disagree with the effectiveness of the wishbone scheme being ineffective - seriously at least 4-5 NFL teams run wishbone packages)

Given that I have a set of football players at a good high school level or college level, they have been coached for 4-10 years. The chances that these kids were ever taught to drive-block correctly are almost 0%.

The wishbone offense basically lumps a good deal of players close to the ball. It is predicated on mis-direction and offensive lineman getting the defensive players going backwards. So a good wishbone team will have offensive lineman push defensive lineman back. The d-backs not assigned a blocker (most linebackers would be assigned a blocker on most wishbone plays) would get caught up in the scrum of the blocked players. In fact if you watch 8-10 year-old pee-wee teams that run the wishbone this is exactly what happens.

So from a coach's perspective I would have to reteach all of my offensive lineman to quit playing paddy-cake and throw a shoulder into their man and drive block. This can be done but this would take total commitment and a lot of time.

Would the wishbone work? God yes. If Alabama switched to the wishbone right now they would be unstoppable. They have the offensive lineman and the talent at the RB position to do it. They would be just as good or better. The fact is teams that practice against the spread weekly and don't hit as much at practice would get brutalized. There are several top high school programs reverting back to the wishbone, wing, or heavy power I concepts trying to go against the grain.

However... At the college level you need to recruit kids. If Nick Saban decides to go wishbone say goodbye to getting any top WR or QB to commit to his school. Sure he will still do OK but not nearly as well as he did. Remember that more than half the skill position players - QB, RB, WR, FB, and TE are usually recruited based on offensive skills but will be converted to defense over time. So if you cannot recruit top WRs because of the wishbone then your CB/S depth will be far worse.

  • Relative to the other SEC schools, Bama is barely in the middle when it comes to QB ranking especially when it comes to NFL potential. Agree on the WR area. I disagree with the Oline play. The academies are not driving anyone off the ball which is an advantage of the Triple Option.
    – JeffO
    Oct 19, 2015 at 3:25
  • @JeffO They are compared to who they play against. You are missing the point. The talent is relative.
    – Coach-D
    Oct 19, 2015 at 7:22
  • Navy has beaten Notre Dame. They don't play just guppies.
    – JeffO
    Jul 15, 2019 at 15:09

Wishbone style attacks require patience and discipline. That's why the service academies often excel at it. Unfortunately, they don't have the personnel to compete with the big boys. The last great triple option team was actually the 1997 Nebraska team with Scott Frost at QB. They run it from the I formation.

  • I disagree that Nebraska was a triple option team. Double, zone and trap option were their form of the option over the years. Oklahoma under Switzer may have been the last.
    – JeffO
    Jul 15, 2019 at 15:07

The reason it's not used is because coaches are no longer a pillars of their institution. They are always looking for better opportunities and they don't wish to appear like a dinosaur who is isn't up on the latest offensive theory

  • Your answer could be improved with additional supporting information. Please edit to add further details, such as citations or documentation, so that others can confirm that your answer is correct. You can find more information on how to write good answers in the help center.
    – Community Bot
    Sep 28, 2021 at 17:35

Will Cole's point #3 is the closest to an accurate answer. Marketing. College sports is all about the money and the players make it for the college U-Marts. So teams do what they believe will attract talent.

The stupid argument about players being faster nowadays is the same one the pros tried to use for the past fifty years. Joke's on them as SF used a variant of wishbone football all the way to the Super Bowl this year. Georgia Tech has been a scoring machine running the wishbone but their defense was horrible.

Any offense will work with the proper execution and superior talent. Coaches are slaves to fashion and since the wishbone isn't in vogue they don't want to appear out of the loop. So they sheeple on.

Nothing in football looks as artistic as a properly executed triple option. Nothing.
Incessant passing is boring. Nothing as ugly as an incomplete or even completed out route.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.