On a peripheral level, things don't look that much different now than they did a year ago at this time. Six weeks into the 2012 season, Alabama was a clear No. 1 in the AP poll, Oregon was a clear No. 2, and undefeated teams took up seven of the other eight spots in the top 10. We had plenty of contrasts -- Oregon and West Virginia taking up the offensive cause, Alabama and Florida standing up for defense, old hands like Notre Dame and Ohio State, and relative newcomers like South Carolina and Oregon State.
This year, it's basically the same: the top two, the offense (Clemson, Oregon, Texas A&M), the defense (Alabama, Stanford), the old, the new (Clemson, Louisville). Only seven of the top 10 teams are undefeated this time around, but that's balanced a bit by the fact that, of the 15 teams ranked between 11th and 25th, nine are undefeated. Last year, that number was five.
This year feels different, though, doesn't it? First of all, though Alabama is still receiving 55 of 60 first-place votes, the Tide have appeared far less invincible. The offensive line isn't the best in the country, the offense as a whole is a bit hit or miss, and at the very least the defense showed some mortality against Texas A&M (and barely since, of course).
Beyond Bama, things feel less certain this time around. Last year, we knew that South Carolina and Florida would soon play an elimination game, and that Bama loomed against either one. We knew West Virginia had a ridiculously shaky defense, and we knew that WVU and Kansas State would be playing soon. And of course, undefeated Oregon State was probably going to be hindered by undefeated Oregon. So of the nine undefeated teams up top, we figured that the race was still down to three or four teams: Alabama, Oregon, maybe KSU/WVU, and maybe Notre Dame. (And then all hell broke loose in November, as it is wont to do.)
This year, it's harder to eliminate teams. Alabama's still there, but between the Oregon-Stanford winner, the Clemson-Florida State winner, Louisville, Ohio State, and perhaps the Oklahoma-Baylor winner, you can talk yourself into the national title race playing out with a lot more than two undefeated teams.
So for a moment, let's talk about a BCS title game matchup that, while improbable, might have the most lasting effect on college football if it were to come to fruition. Let's pretend that Baylor and Oregon face off in the Rose Bowl on January 6.
Why would Oregon-Baylor matter?
When Alabama head coach Nick Saban asked "Is this what we want football to be?" last year in response to questions about offensive pace, the answer from many, including a few in our corner of the Internet, was a resounding "YES."
Even before the video game era, yards and points have been fun. Maybe you don't need them every week, but a shootout is gripping in ways that a 10-7 game cannot usually be. Think back to some of college football's classic games. For every 1987 Fiesta Bowl (Penn State 14, Miami 7), there's a 1984 Hail Mary game (BC 47, Miami 45). For every 1979 Orange Bowl (Alabama 14, Penn State 7), there's a Game of the Century (Nebraska 35, Oklahoma 31). For every 1995 Orange Bowl (Florida State 18, Nebraska 16), there's a 1984 Orange Bowl (Miami 31, Nebraska 30).
And in recent times, points are all but a requirement for perceived greatness. Boise State 43, Oklahoma 42 (2006). Texas 41, USC 38 (2005). USC 34, Notre Dame 31 (2005). Northwestern 54, Michigan 51 (2000). LSU's 9-6 win over Alabama in 2011 was full of elite talent and defensive play-making, but it was considered dreadful football.
As fun as great offense can be, however, and as incredible as the spread-and-pace era has been for points and scoreboards, defense has still mostly ruled when it comes to the national title race. Alabama allowed 9.6 points per game in 2011-12 and won both titles. The Tide allowed just 11.7 points per game in their 2009 title run. Florida, with incredible offensive talent in 2008, still won the national title by holding Oklahoma's poisonous offense to just 14 points. The best defenses typically reside in the South, and it's probably not a coincidence, then, that the SEC has won the last seven national titles.
(The outlier, of course: 2010, when Auburn won a national title with the nation's best offense and a defense that, while not terrible, was only good.)
Cracks have begun to form. What began in 2010 when Cam Newton was laying waste to the SEC has picked back up over the last 12 months. Alabama's legendary defense has twice fallen victim to Johnny Football; the Tide beat Texas A&M in September, but Johnny Manziel and the Aggies gained 628 yards and scored 42 points in the process, proving that even SEC defenses are susceptible to elite spread offenses. Fewer and fewer defenses appear immune to the effects of pace. Only Florida and Michigan State appear to have truly dominant defenses in 2013, and those two teams have combined to play only one good offense (Florida held Miami to 212 yards on September 7).
Still, the divide between aesthetics and perceived quality persists. No. 15 Baylor's current poll ranking is proof of that. But in the battle for the soul and identity of college football, the next two months of the BCS race could be a defining time. We could still conceivably get a defense-heavy matchup like Alabama vs. Stanford. And we could still get a shootout in pro-style form if a team like Florida State or Louisville makes it to the championship games.
But the spread is the weapon of choice for quite a few title contenders (including Clemson and Ohio State). Most importantly, the two teams taking spread and pace to (and past) their logical extremes, Oregon and Baylor, have been untouchable so far in 2013.
We've long heard that the NFL is a copycat league. It's how we were long stuck in a "pro-style" rut, with a majority of teams running variations of the exact same sets. But now that spread concepts have begun to proliferate, and now that Chip Kelly is an NFL head coach, we're expecting the spread-'em-out style to gain traction in the pros.
Meanwhile, the college ranks just keep taking things further. Pace has become the topic of the year in college football. And in Kelly's absence, and with De'Anthony Thomas sidelined with an injury, Oregon's offense continues apace. The Ducks have scored between 55 and 66 points every game this season. The upcoming schedule is rough -- the Pac-12 is really, really strong this year -- but top to bottom (and yes, by that I mean "on both offense and defense"), the Ducks have been the best team in the country so far.
Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY.
For Baylor, perceptions are a bit more complicated.
How does Oregon-Baylor happen?
For Oregon, the recipe is simple: Wins. The Ducks are No. 2 in the country and will have their ticket to the promised land punched if they can remain undefeated. That means winning at No. 16 Washington this Saturday and at No. 5 Stanford on November 7. That means taking down No. 11 UCLA at home on October 26. And it obviously means winning the Pac-12 title game on December 7. The Pac-12 is a damn stout conference this season, but all Oregon has to do to make the big game is keep winning. The Ducks control their destiny.
Baylor, on the other hand, needs some help.
At this point, the fact that Baylor is ranked 15th in the country is criminal. No, the Bears have not played anybody worth mentioning. Yes, the defense is still glitchy versus the pass. Of course. But it has become something of a mantra for me to point out that the way you dominate lesser teams is as telling of your general prowess as how you handle good teams. And at this moment, Baylor is handling lesser teams in a nearly unprecedented way.
Against Wofford, a pretty good FCS team (the Terriers are currently ranked 17th in the FCS polls), Baylor led 28-0 after the first quarter. Against Buffalo, a team that lost to Ohio State by 20, it was 28-13. Against ULM, a disappointing team that still only lost to Oklahoma by 34, it was 35-0. Against West Virginia, a shaky team nevertheless coming off of a big win over Oklahoma State, it was 28-7. Average halftime score in these four games: Baylor 49.8, Opponent 8.5.
If Baylor never once scored after halftime, it would be fourth in the country in scoring average.
Baylor is averaging 779.5 yards per game.
Let me repeat that: Baylor is averaging 779.5 yards per game.
The difference between the Bears and Oregon (the No. 2 offense on the list) is 149.1 yards. The difference between Baylor and No. 3 Texas A&M is 193.1 yards per game. (For a frame of reference, FIU gains a total of 188.2 yards per game.) Oh yeah, and quarterback Bryce Petty has yet to play in a fourth quarter.
But Baylor's 15th in the AP poll. Historic offensive pace in a historic offensive era, no game decided by fewer than 31 points (and that one was only that close because of garbage-time touchdowns) ...15th. The Bears have a better offense and better defense than West Virginia did last season, but because a) WVU fell apart in 2012 (which almost certainly clouds people's perceptions of Baylor, at least a little bit), and b) Baylor wasn't irrationally ranked in the top 10 like WVU was to start the 2012 season, Baylor still has a lot of ground to cover. (I've said it 100 times already, but one benefit to a College Football Playoff committee, no matter who's on it, is that it will negate the importance of polls.)
So what will it take for Baylor to reach the BCS title game? A lot.
- The Clemson-Florida State winner will have to lose -- perhaps Clemson falls at Maryland or at South Carolina, or Florida State fails to get past Florida in the Swamp.
- Ohio State will have to lose to … somebody. Michigan, I guess? Michigan State or (gulp) Nebraska in the Big Ten title game?
- Alabama will have to lose, perhaps to No. 10 LSU on November 9 or the SEC East champion on December 7. And hell, the Tide might have to lose twice. And if Florida finishes the season with wins over Florida State and Alabama, the Gators might need to lose another before then (at No. 10 LSU? At No. 25 Missouri?) to make sure they're not able to stay ahead of Baylor despite the loss to Miami. Of course, the Tide winning out could still mean Baylor-Alabama.
- Louisville might have to lose to Rutgers or UCF at home? (To Cincinnati on December 5? Not bloody likely.) Though it's at least semi-conceivable that Baylor could pass the Cardinals in the computer rankings because of an infinitely tougher November schedule.
- Oregon and Stanford will have to lose, but it's a Baylor-Oregon game we're looking to set up here. So disregard this one.
Crazy things happen in November, and while the above list of losses is ambitious, it's not unprecedented. But because polls are polls, and because Baylor's schedule is backloaded, the Bears will need to make some ridiculous late moves to get into the top two. Absolutely dominating Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, TCU, and Texas late in the season wouldn't hurt, none of which is out of the realm of possibility.
It is certainly possible that Baylor's nuclear absurdity of an offense will slow down. Maybe Lache Seastrunk gets hurt, or teams figure out how to both slow Seastrunk down and confuse Petty, who's still a first-year starter (albeit a first-year starter with a passer rating of 229.6). Things could derail at some point.
But realize this: What Baylor's doing right now is unprecedented. West Virginia was not doing this last year. Oregon has never done this. If Baylor's offense continues to hum at this rate, the Bears' defense will only need to make a few stops per game, and right now it appears more than capable of doing that (while still suffering breakdowns). Do not lump Baylor in with previous all-offense, no-defense squads, even those who have played in Waco the last few years. And my goodness, stop ranking them below three one-loss teams and undefeated (and far less proven) teams like Oklahoma, Miami, and Louisville. There is absolutely no excuse for Baylor to rank worse than about seventh right now.
What happens if Oregon-Baylor does take place?
During the game? Points.
Projected Total if Oregon played Baylor? over/under 92 points (via bookmaker @JayKornegay). That would be a record.— RJ Bell (@RJinVegas) October 6, 2013
After the game? Perhaps nothing. The success of both Auburn and Oregon in their own variations of the spread affirmed the message that spread and pace can win ballgames, but Alabama's success over the last couple of years has still bashed home the point that defense is what matters most. (And Florida's success has proven that offense is still relatively optional.)
However, most people pay far too much attention to only who wins the final game. If an Oregon-Baylor matchup were to take place, or if one of these two teams (or maybe Clemson?) were to beat Alabama in the national title game, would that serve as the catalyst for even further movement in favor of spread concepts and pace? Even after beating A&M, Nick Saban admitted that he would probably have to speed up his offense in the future. Would more coaches do the same?
And what happens if this becomes the new, de rigueur offense? First of all, we might forget what a huddle is like 10 years from now. But there's one thing we know for sure: Defenses would adapt. They always do.
The wishbone went from infancy to dominance to passé within about 15-20 years. Defenses got lighter and faster, and they got more experience with the system. A few years of complete spread proliferation would create a college football base defense that has more speed, more hybrid defenders capable of tackling and covering in space, and more exposure to the Baylor types. And when those defenses begin to evolve in that way, some teams will go the Stanford route to find an advantage. When speed becomes the name of the game, power counters it. When passing proliferates, running makes a comeback. It is the awesome nature of football.
Of course, we don't need an Oregon-Baylor title game for this to play out. Things are already heading in that direction. More teams are not only attempting pace, but doing it better; and the Stanford-esque counters are already in place. But we could be fast approaching Peak Spread, and a Baylor-Oregon title game would be the clearest, most visceral personification of that.
And now that I've jinxed the hell out of this, just go ahead and begin mentally preparing yourself for Alabama-Florida State.