West Virginia's 70-63 win over Baylor, a game that brought us 1,507 yards, 67 first downs, 19 touchdowns, three 200-plus-yard receivers and the direct personification of major-conference MACtion, also created a bit of an existential crisis in the world of college football. It was an extreme vision of the utmost limits of what some call "basketball on grass," of what college football has become in the second wave of the spread offense. If Billy Tubbs and Paul Westhead had decided to take up coaching football instead of basketball four decades ago, this is how it would have been played.
This was also, to say the least, not the same game that a lot of college football fans, analysts and coaches grew up playing. Nick Saban, head coach of the No. 1 Alabama Crimson Tide and overseer of what has been, to date, by far the most effective defense in the country in 2012, shared his own conflicted thoughts on this offensive explosion with the media this week.
"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," Saban said on today's SEC teleconference. "The team gets in the same formation group, you can't substitute defensive players, you go on a 14-, 16-, 18-play drive and they're snapping the ball as fast as you can go and you look out there and all your players are walking around and can't even get lined up. That's when guys have a much greater chance of getting hurt when they're not ready to play."
As a man making an absurd amount of money to coach a game, Nick Saban has done very well in terms of getting his defense "ready to play." It is, after all, part of coaching.
And it bears mentioning, of course, that the no-huddle offense has been around for quite a while. It worked pretty well for offensive coordinator Ted Marchibroda and the Buffalo Bills in the typically staid, risk-resistant NFL a couple of decades ago (and at a time when Saban was an NFL defensive coordinator, no less). It is a tactic, not a strategy (Marchibroda: "There's no guarantee that you're going to win the game by using the no-huddle. There is nothing magical about the offense."), and it is utilized by teams like Oregon, West Virginia and Baylor precisely because defenses struggle with it. When (not if) defenses better adapt, through some combination of coaching and the ability to stop the plays offenses are running so quickly, it will cease to be as effective a tactic.
(And by the way, the injuries claim seems ludicrous to me, as it does to others. Call me crazy, but I'm pretty sure quite a few players tend to get hurt in massive, power football scrums, too.)
"I think that's something that can be looked at. It's obviously created a tremendous advantage for the offense when teams are scoring 70 points and we're averaging 49.5 points a game. With people that do those kinds of things. More and more people are going to do it."
Alabama is averaging 49.5 points per game because they are very, very talented and well-coached. They typically operate at a very slow pace, and Saban bringing his own offense up in the middle of this argument was confusing.
"I just think there's got to be some sense of fairness in terms of asking is this what we want football to be?"
This quote created a brief Twitter firestorm on Wednesday. My own instinctive reaction on Twitter was not very measured and analytical. (I was not alone.) Offense is, after all, fun. People like fun. Eighty-yard touchdowns are infinitely more thrilling for the casual viewer than a suffocating three-and-out. Multiple long touchdowns are better than games with 15 punts.
That said, one of the primary draws of football in general is competition, both team-to-team and man-to-man. Baylor-West Virginia had plenty of the former, but not much of the latter. Of the 10 best players in the game, probably nine were playing on the offensive side of the ball. (It bears noting that, against all odds, Baylor linebacker Eddie Lackey recorded four tackles for loss.) It was like watching offenses play against scout-team defenses. It was indeed unfair, but not quite in the way Saban intended. And by the third quarter, I found it a bit tough to watch; it was almost morbid. I am as big an advocate of the MACtion style as anybody, but what made those 2011 MAC games so ridiculously entertaining was the mixture of great offenses with randomly explosive plays on defense and special teams. Aside from a sack by Baylor and an interception by West Virginia early in the game, the defenses were complete and total bystanders.
"You just try to get your players ready to do it the best way that you can," Saban said. "I don't think anybody really ever thought we'd go no-huddle and the coach could control the game from the sidelines and call the plays based on how the defense was lined up. That's a real advantage for the offense."
And it will remain so until defenses adapt. In the early-1970s, the Wishbone offense proliferated throughout the country because of its ability to get speedy players the ball in open areas of the field. Teams like Oklahoma and, yes, Alabama dominated for extended periods of time, in part because of their mastery of this offense. But even by the late-1970s, defenses were adapting, becoming more physical up front and faster in the back. The 'Bone stuck around a while, but only the fastest, most well-recruited teams (i.e. Oklahoma in the mid-1980s) were able to continue dominating with it. But the late-1980s, it was all but finished as a major-college offense. With defenses having adapted, offenses moved on to something else. This is how it works, and this is how it will work with the spread. We've already seen defenses adapting for the spread by sacrificing a little bit of size for speed at linebacker. And we will continue to see adaptation in the coming years.
"You have to adapt on defense, your players have to adapt and it can be stressful in terms of communication and keeping their focus and energy level where it needs to be to play at that pace. It is what it is, so we try to get our players ready to do that."
And one day, that "communication and keeping their focus and energy level where it needs to be" will become second nature, just like it is for some offenses at this point.
Now, while defenses will indeed adapt, I do think we've entered a period in which offenses as a whole have an advantage they didn't have in previous decades. When I was growing up in football-hungry Oklahoma ("Back in my day…"), seventh grade was the earliest you could play football in my school district. Others started in sixth grade. The offense for my seventh-grade team consisted of about six plays, and passing was nothing but a desperation move because it almost never worked. Now, kids start playing organized football at a much earlier age. We can debate whether this is a good thing or not (head injuries, et cetera), but with pee wee football leagues and the like, kids are hitting junior high with a much higher grasp of offensive concepts. Because of this and the fact that spread offense concepts are not incredibly complicated, high school offenses are infinitely more advanced than they used to be.
This is producing a wider array of advanced, young college football players, a vast majority of whom play on the offensive side of the ball. If you recruit like Nick Saban, you will continue to produce elite, dominant defenses; but the pool of elite defenders might be shrinking, at least compared to what is happening on the other side of the ball. Analysts like ESPN's Kirk Herbstreit have used the offensive explosion as a national indictment of defenses, but it certainly bears mentioning that defenses are at a severe disadvantage, both because national adaptation to the spread is still in development, and because of the aforementioned shallow pool.
That said, and I cannot emphasize this point enough, if you are a fan of good defense, there is still plenty to like about the current state of college football. Alabama allowed 8.2 points per game last season and is allowing 7.0 per game so far this year. Stanford is averaging nine tackles for loss per game and completely overwhelmed USC in an upset win a couple of weeks ago. LSU is still ridiculously fast and aggressive. BYU has not allowed more than 261 yards of offense in a single game this season and has not allowed more than 400 in a game in the last calendar year. It is not as if every game finishes 70-63.
When Nick Saban says something, we all notice. He is, after all, currently the best coach in college football. But he is also a grump, and a self-serving one at that. While we can certainly have philosophical discussions about the direction football has taken, we should also remember that Saban doesn't like good offenses because he is a defensive coach. Other coaches like Urban Meyer (not exactly the most effervescent of personalities himself) and Hugh Freeze have no problem with the direction football has taken. It certainly created an opportunity for teams without fantastic across-the-board recruiting to compete at a high level. Oregon's recruiting rankings, after all, have been merely good through the years, not elite. When you are the head coach of an elite recruiting team, you probably have other reasons not to enjoy successful offensive innovation.
So is Baylor-West Virginia "what we want football to be"? No, probably not. As a novelty, it was incredible, but if it were the new norm, that might be a bit much. But the current state of offensive innovation has done wonderful things for the game of college football. It has provided the viewer with a higher level of visceral excitement, and it has provided opportunities for less-than-historical powers to compete with the elites. Defense will continue to matter -- it might severely hinder West Virginia's conference title efforts, even in the yardage-happy Big 12 -- but a few extra points won't hurt anybody, literally or figuratively.
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