Defense, Go Home
Teams Pile on the Points More Than Ever
Newport Beach, Calif. — With apologies to Florida State, the question must be asked: Can anyone out there play defense?
The Seminoles come into the BCS title game ranked first in the country in fewest points allowed.
Auburn and the rest of them? Pretty much every one-liner about busy scoreboard operators and video-game line scores applies.
Including Tuesday night’s Chik-fil-A bowl, there have been nine games this season involving teams from BCS automatic-qualifier conferences that produced 100 or more points, according to STATS. Included among those: Auburn’s 59-42 win over Missouri in the Southeastern Conference title game.
As for anything resembling the “Game of the Century” — the 1946 classic between No. 1 Army and No. 2 Notre Dame that ended in a 0-0 deadlock:
“That’s an impossibility. That won’t happen,” Oklahoma defensive coordinator Mike Stoops said. “It’s trickling down now to where all the Southeastern Conference teams have parts or variations of spread offenses. They’re very difficult to defend because of the space on the field, and then the quarterbacks running with the ball makes it even more challenging.”
The over-under for Monday night’s title game, despite Florida State’s nation-leading 11.1 points-per-game allowed, is 67½.
The average over-under for this season’s bowl games: 58. Through the first 30 games of bowl season, winners averaged 34.6 points.
“Back in the day, games were decided 10-3 and that was great stuff and hopefully we can get back to that,” said Central Florida linebacker Terrance Plummer, a few days before the Knights topped Baylor 52-42 in the Fiesta Bowl. It was the third bowl game this season to produce more than 90 points.
But Plummer’s vision probably won’t materialize anytime soon, at least not with the way the numbers are trending.
Thanks to the influx of spread offenses that don’t huddle, along with a rapid-fire substitution patterns and more athletic quarterbacks, defenses have been taking an increasingly steady drubbing over the past decade or so.
Teams in automatic-qualifier conferences averaged 30.8 points per game this season, according to STATS, continuing an upward trend from that dates to 2006, when the big schools averaged 25.4 points per game.
And by “big schools,” that includes some of the most hallowed programs in football.
Remember tough-nosed Big Ten football? This year, the conference’s marquee matchup produced this score: Ohio State 42, Michigan 41. So much for three yards and a cloud of dust. Another Michigan final from this season: Wolverines 63, Indiana Hoosiers 47 — in football, not hoops.
“With the way the rules have changed and the evolution of the spread offense and all those things, not too much shocks me,” Georgia Tech defensive coordinator Ted Roof said. “I pretty much can roll with it. As long as we win, I’m good.”
The Auburn-Alabama game, another bastion of old-time, grind-it-out football, was a 34-28 blockbuster this season, capped by arguably the most memorable play in the sport’s history — Chris Davis’ 109-yard return of a missed field goal with no time left in regulation.
That was once-in-a-lifetime.
Some of these other 2013 final scores are simply routine:
Duke 58, Pittsburgh 55
Arizona State 62, USC 41
SMU 55, Rutgers 52
The list goes on. It cuts across virtually all the big conferences, led by the Pac-12, where teams averaged 33.5 points a game this season — 6.5 more than they did only five years ago. That’s an increase of 24 percent.
“It’s kind of like fast-break basketball when you’re playing football and get the ball in the playmaker’s hands,” said Charlie Strong, coach of a Louisville team that ranks fourth in the country in points allowed. “They’re looking for mismatches and it’s what you do on offense. Now it’s a mismatched game, so get the ball to your best player’s hand and let him see if he can go make a guy miss just defensively.”
Over the 30 bowl games played through Thursday night’s Sugar Bowl (Final: Oklahoma 45, Alabama 31), Louisville was one of only four teams to hold its opponent to single digits.
Auburn will come into the title game ranked a mediocre 38th in points allowed (24 per game) and a downright bad 88th in yards allowed (423.5).
“We have got terrible-looking overall statistics and some of them are not misleading,” Auburn defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson said. “But we make critical stops at critical times and we’re good on third and fourth down percentage and good in the red zone and good in the fourth quarter.”
Though offense has been slowly, steadily taking over the game for decades, some suggest the most recent uptick originates with Chip Kelly, whose offense at Oregon, at its peak in 2010, averaged 49 points a game. Kelly got snapped up by the Philadelphia Eagles before this season and, in a turnaround from decades past, many an NFL coach is now looking to the college game to find new wrinkles in offense.
The Broncos and Peyton Manning set an NFL record with 606 points this season in part because of a rapid-moving offense that warbles between fast and warp speed.
“I think guys are willing to experiment and then I also think with technology you’re also able to get and watch college games,” Broncos offensive coordinator Adam Gase said. “If you see something you like, you can go pull it up with the click of a button. That’s, to me, a big difference. There’s more crossover, not just people, but ideas.”
Auburn comes into the title game averaging 40 per game, while Florida State puts up 53. Despite FSU’s stout defense, those gaudy numbers are the reason oddsmakers are predicting a game with a final score at around 38-30.
But those who love a good defensive standoff can take heart. The last time the over-under in the title game was in this neighborhood was in 2011, when Auburn played Oregon. The number was 74, though Steve Spurrier said he expected something around a 60-55 final, given that Kelly was matching wits with Gus Malzahn, the now-Auburn coach who was then offensive coordinator.
Final score: Auburn 22, Oregon 19.
Since then, Alabama won back-to-back title games by allowing zero and 14 points, respectively.
Leading to at least a glimmer of hope for all those linebackers and defensive backs out there, to say nothing of those at Auburn and Florida State who have been given more than a month to prepare.
“If a game was 9-3, it wouldn’t bother me at all,” Strong said. “If it was 15-12, it wouldn’t bother me at all. I just know at the end of the day, if you’re going to win, you’re going to win with great defense.”