Fifty points a game? Five hundred yards? Ninety plays? College football is on the fast track to a new era. These coaches are among the visionaries leading the way.
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Marshall's Bill Legg picks a team every year. The Indianapolis Colts. Oklahoma State. Nevada. Louisiana Tech.
He finds every game film. He watches every snap. He jots down notes. If he has a question, he contacts someone who knows more than he does.
Last summer, he studied Oregon. He noticed how when the Ducks run a sweep play, they leave an option on the backside. So when the backside linebacker (who's a challenge to block) chases the sweep with too much aggression, the quarterback can keep the ball or find a receiver sneaking into the linebacker's zone.
“I really love that concept,” Legg said.
College football is a “thieves' paradise,” he says. He always finds something he can steal and put in his own offense.
How do the best offensive minds in the game stay on the cutting edge? By watching each other, of course. One play-caller finds a new wrinkle, another man builds off it. Like cars and computers, what's new today is old five years from now.
As Chris Ault, retired Nevada coach and author of the Pistol offense, told Wolfpack offensive coordinator Nick Rolovich last year: “If you're not on the cutting edge, you're taking up too much space.”
Legg isn't the only one who's studied Oregon. Murray State's Chris Hatcher catches the Ducks when he can. It's not so much the innovation he enjoys, but the athleticism.
“Golly, what's fun to watch is they have world-class speed. They're just faaaaast. We play at a tremendous pace, but we don't have seven, eight guys that can run 10-flat 100s like they do.”
Quick dress rehearsals
Players hate the three-hour football practice. But who knew coaches did, too.
More than one offensive wizard said he switched to an up-tempo offense largely to speed up practices. Kids play faster. They concentrate more. Time is more efficient.
“Our practices are an hour and 40 minutes,” Hatcher said. “That's all we practice. I just don't believe in practicing a long time.”
Cal's Tony Franklin, who was offensive coordinator at Louisiana Tech last season, boasts that his team practices less than any in the country, but works harder. It's about reps, not time on the field. As a coach, Franklin said, the key is instructing on the fly.
“There's no stopping, diagramming, talking. We don't have time for that,” he said.
Coaches wear headsets 70 percent of practice so they can communicate — just like on Saturdays. If they don't run three or four plays every minute, the pace isn't fast enough, Franklin said.
“If you don't do it that way, there's no way all of a sudden on game day you'll go fast.”
Mixing pass and run
Think about how many times you've seen an offense struggle throughout a game, get to desperation time and suddenly thrive in a two-minute offense, Marshall's Legg said.
But it was all passing. The trick in going fast for 60 minutes was finding a way to be two-dimensional.
“A lot of research around the country has gone into the question: How can we run the ball playing at that tempo?” Legg said.
For instance, what if the defense has too many tacklers in the box? Through trial and error as well as evolution, offenses have expanded options. A quarterback can read, react and adapt on the fly — sometimes after the snap.
“Now you're finding more and more teams basically running two-minute tempo the entire game because they now have the ability to run the football as well as throw the football,” Legg said.
One of those solutions is packaging plays.
It works like this: Different players run different plays simultaneously. The receivers execute a quick pass play, the tailback and offensive line execute a running play. And the quarterback — without telling his teammates — decides the better option.
At the whistle, the offensive linemen have no clue where the ball is. Doesn't matter if it exposes a defensive weakness. Paired with quick tempo, it's like something off the playground.
What does Nevada offensive coordinator Nick Rolovich call it?
“Spread on steroids.”
Chasing 100 plays
How much has tempo changed in college football? Look at the statistics.
In 2002, only two FBS teams — Washington and Texas Tech — averaged 80 plays per game. The Huskies led the nation at 82.7 per game.
In '07, only 10 teams averaged 80 snaps. Troy led the way at 83.2 per game.
Last fall, 18 teams averaged 80 or more. And Marshall led the nation at 92.8.
Who needs a play clock with an offense like that?
Boring as they want to be
OK, we know what you're thinking. If the up-tempo offense is so great, why aren't the SEC's best teams running it?
It's sort of like asking why Shaq didn't dribble between his legs — he didn't have to.
“There are teams across the country that because of the bells and whistles and tradition and trademark that they're able to put out there, they can pretty much run whatever they want,” Legg said.
“You look at Alabama right now, they can line up in pro-I every single snap if that's what they choose to do.”
Nick Saban is intelligent with his X's and O's. But, Legg said, “you don't have to do a lot of fancy things when you're that talented.”
Skipping the baby steps
The greatest 21st century turnaround in college football is Stanford, which endured seven straight losing seasons before winning 43 games the past four seasons.
That's nothing compared to Old Dominion at the FCS level. The Monarchs didn't even have a team until 2009. They went 9-2 the first year (best-ever mark for a new NCAA team). By year four, they made the FCS quarterfinals and had the nation's best offense and best player.
One key reason: the up-tempo offense.
ODU offensive coordinator Brian Scott fell in love with the fast pace at Maine, where he was a star quarterback and later an assistant coach. One of Maine's top rivals was New Hampshire, whose offense was coordinated by a guy named Chip Kelly.
In those days, Kelly passed more than he ran. But Scott was in awe of the speed. When Kelly went to Oregon, Scott collected video of the Ducks. He also examined West Virginia with Pat White. Scott wanted an up-tempo offense with a shifty quarterback.
Then Old Dominion stumbled on a quarterback from Atlanta, Taylor Heinicke. His gift was throwing. So now ODU runs the air raid, similar to Mike Leach at Texas Tech. Last year, Heinicke won FCS player of the year. He broke Steve McNair's passing yardage record (5,076 yards) and threw for 730 against — coincidentally — New Hampshire.
Scott's “basketball on grass” offense doesn't look much like Chip Kelly's anymore, but the rules favor the passing game.
“You can throw the ball over the middle now and your receiver doesn't have to fear as much as he used to,” Scott said.
Old Dominion will play one final year in the FCS this fall before jumping to FBS, where it will play in Conference USA. Heinicke will be a senior. And maybe — if Scott's offense works properly — everybody will know Old Dominion has a football team.
Osborne's open door
With (approximately) 438 channels on TV, a curious mind can see just about any college football game in the country. But coaches still keep secrets.
Chip Kelly, now head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles, is famously tight-lipped about his methods. New Oregon offensive coordinator Scott Frost doesn't expect any help from Kelly.
“Chip doesn't share anything, really, outside of whatever building he's currently in,” Frost said.
Frost himself is reluctant to share Oregon's tricks. Just about every coach is, he said.
“Coach Osborne was really the only person I knew that had an open-door policy to anybody who wanted to learn what we were doing on offense. That's a testament to the kind of man he is.
“But if you look at the kind of guys we had in the program (at Nebraska), I felt like we worked harder than anyone else did, and you couldn't duplicate our players.”
If only Oregon had a good defense to match its great offense, right? You hear that statement often.
But that’s because critics are measuring the Ducks’ D by total yards and points, up-tempo coaches say. Oregon’s offense is so fast that its defense is on the field more snaps. Which is why the proper way to measure defense, they say, is yards per play.
The Ducks were 48th nationally in total yards allowed. Per play, they were a respectable 30th.
Houston had the most dramatic contrast in 2012. The Cougars were 114th nationally in total defense. Ouch. But Houston was 57th in yards per play.
Can a fast offense have a great defense? Murray State’s Hatcher says yes. At Valdosta State, while his offense was lighting up scoreboards, Kirby Smart and Will Muschamp were leading the defense. It’s a “myth,” Hatcher said, that a defense like LSU’s would suddenly lose its edge if its offense were scoring big.