The more things change
Last October, college football’s iciest character lit a match.
“I think that the way people are going no-huddle right now, that at some point in time, we should look at how fast we allow the game to go in terms of player safety,” Alabama head coach Nick Saban opined, with the air of a parent concerned his kids really shouldn’t be watching the Video Music Awards anymore, days after West Virginia and Baylor combined for 133 points in a regulation game.
“… I just think there’s got to be some sense of fairness in terms of asking, ‘Is this what we want football to be?’”
In June, new Arkansas coach Bret Bielema answered Saban’s query with a vigorous “Heck no” by proposing a rule to the NCAA Playing Rules Oversight Panel that would mandate a 15-second substitution period for defensive players after each first down. This regulation, he argued, would protect players from fatigue-induced harm, never mentioning that such a directive would also neutralize the whirling dervish offenses anathema to Bielema’s style.
And now, the ember that Saban ignited last year has turned into a small firestorm with questions about the debate circulating the nation’s press conferences and spread proponents Mike Gundy dismissing Bielema and Saban’s concerns.
Sure, self-interest and stick-in-the-mud traditionalism likely fueled the coaches’ protests: Alabama and Bielema’s Wisconsin teams ranked slowest and 5th-slowest in terms of plays per minute of possession from 2008-2012, still going a combined 108-27 in that stretch with their hard-nosed, defensively-oriented brand of “North American Football.” Still, Sports Illustrated reporter Stewart Mendel cited researchers who concur with Bielema’s general premise about player safety.
As it turns out, virtually no empirical data exist to illuminate some link between no-huddle offense and injury risk. But their comments merit our attention for a different reason. Namely, the implication behind their words that the sport as they know will become a bastardization of its former self invites a really fascinating discussion.
The game is undoubtedly changing. On average, FBS teams have increased their plays per minute by 2.61 percent since 2008, with more and more – including Brigham Young, Virginia’s opponent this Saturday – vowing to emulate the breakneck pace popularized by Oregon, the nation’s second fastest team in the past five years and Virginia’s second foe.
“It seems like the way college football is going,” redshirt senior defensive end Jake Snyder said at Monday’s press conference. “It’s a lot more this style of football, so we have to prepare for that.”
Few, too, can deny the allure of the hurry-up offense’s philosophical underpinnings. Revving things up confounds a defense, forcing them into mistakes that would make even an ABC agent confronting a case of LaCroix blush. Intuitively, it just makes sense: tired, bamboozled defenses will typically fare worse than energetic, cognizant ones.
Nor can anyone dispute the rave results enjoyed by many of its proponents. Oregon compiled 46 wins and averaged 43.5 points in four years – less than only Alabama and Boise State – with its spread running onslaught, while coaches such as Gundy and Johnny Autograph caretaker Kevin Sumlin have torched defenses with more traditional spread-passing attacks. What’s more, the best of these offenses burn out scoreboards without sacrificing efficiency: of the 10 teams with the highest points per play last season, according to adjustedstats.com, four ran some variation of a no-huddle, guns-blazing spread.
But installing a speedy offense has proven neither necessary nor sufficient to secure instant success. Saban, after all, sits comfortably at the zenith of the college football world after his Alabama teams won three of the past four championships thanks to stifling defense, efficient offense and quarterbacks with unfortunate chest tattoos. Bielema’s glacial Wisconsin teams have reached the last three Rose Bowls. Even Georgia Tech has treaded water running the triple option, the antithesis of the spread in some ways.
Meanwhile, Indiana and Western Michigan achieved minimal success running far more plays per minute of possession, primarily because those teams feature deficient talent and pedestrian tactics. And that’s the whole point.
Because the talent pool is so much larger and more disparate in the college game compared to its professional counterpart, simply being bigger, stronger and more skilled matters immensely. Virginia will be hard-pressed to beat Oregon no matter how flawless a gameplan London and his coordinators devise, just as Alabama could rout Western Michigan with the Saban-ator 3000 turned to hibernate mode for the evening. I mean, Gene Chizik won a championship, and he makes Lane Kiffin look like Bill Belichick.
But the sport’s most able coaches have married marquee talent with sound tactics, meshing the two together to optimize production. Sumlin, for instance, added a zone-read component to Texas A&M’s offense to augment the spread passing style he patented at Houston, in order to highlight Johnny Manziel’s skill set. In the end, if a coach can acquire the sufficient talent, enable players to maximize that talent through preparation, and enjoy a little luck, he will probably succeed no matter what kind of schemes he runs.
Change is as inevitable in college football as it is in life, a fact confronting Mike London and Virginia as they open the season bracing for a once-gimmicky type of offense now verging on ubiquity. As football has evolved constantly during the past several decades, however, one simple rule has remained constant: quality wins. No one can predict how exactly the burgeoning trend toward no-huddle and fast-pace offenses will transform the game, or whether the injury link will manifest itself, or how Saban, Bielema and our beloved Cavaliers will adjust. But at its best, the sport will always showcase gifted individuals creating something magical through diligence and sheer luck. That’s all I could ever want college football to be.