A Wrapup On Pace in 2008

The past four days I’ve posted topics on how pace affected football in 2008. The primary impetus for doing the series was to put Oklahoma and Tulsa in their proper historical context.

Oklahoma scored the most points ever in a season, and Tulsa gained the most total yards ever in a season. When two records like that fall in the same season, especially one where a clock rule change reduced plays per game and scoring from the old rules, it’s worth taking a look to see why that might have happened.

The easiest answer is that both OU and Tulsa played in 14 games. The twelfth game added to the schedule earlier this decade, when combined with conference championship games and bowls stats counting towards season totals, basically meant that it was a matter of time before some of these records fell. Anything set back when the season had only 11 games and bowl stats didn’t count towards season stats was doomed.

The extra game doesn’t tell the whole story, though. Each of these records, both points scored and yards gained, were set by 2006 Hawai’i. That team played 14 games, and that season’s clock rules lowered plays per game and scoring even more than 2008’s clock rules did. The extra game helped OU and Tulsa pass most teams, but it was not the deciding factor in breaking the records.

That is where playing at a faster pace comes in.

There are distinct advantages to running a hurry-up offense full-time beyond just getting more opportunities to score. When you go at a faster pace, you can disrupt the defense and gain an advantage. The defense may not be set every time and it will not be able to substitute as often. Plus, your team is better conditioned to play at the faster pace than a team that doesn’t, so you can tire out the other side too.

Whether each team has six drives apiece or 15 drives apiece during a game, you still want to score on more of them than the other guy. Cranking up the pace is done with the idea of gaining an advantage that you cannot get at a normal pace and exploiting it to score more often than the other team.

Oklahoma chose to turn up the pace in response to the new 40 second play clock. Gus Malzahn of Tulsa has long been a proponent of the hurry-up, and you can purchase his book on the topic on Amazon. The end result of each team’s fast paced attacks was two big records falling.

As I mentioned yesterday, 1989 Houston still holds the record for points per game. That 2006 Hawai’i team that used to hold the total yards and points records still holds the yards per play record at 8.6 as well. Since Tulsa and Oklahoma do not now hold the rate records, only the total records, it is reasonable to conclude that the records fell almost entirely because of each team’s fast pace allowing them to run more plays than teams in the past.

I want to be clear about one thing though. I am not trying to bring down either of these teams. Each turned in remarkable offensive seasons that are among the greatest college football has ever seen.

There also is no way of knowing if those Houston and Hawai’i teams of the past could have kept up their rates at the faster pace either. After all, 1970 Notre Dame holds the plays per game record at an astonishing 92.4, but that Irish team doesn’t hold any other records to go with it. It’s one thing to theorize what a team could do, but it’s another to actually do it.

Bill Simmons of ESPN.com wrote a piece recently on the way that Mike D’Antoni’s “seven seconds or less” offense affected stats in the NBA. The most dramatic effect was taking Steve Nash and turning him from a good point guard into one of only nine players ever to win back-to-back MVPs. Simmons then showed that Nash’s stats from this year without D’Antoni are nearly identical to his stats from his pre-D’Antoni Dallas days.

As a fan, I have absolutely nothing against fast-paced offenses. I loved watching D’Antoni’s Phoenix Suns teams, and what I got to see from Oklahoma and Tulsa this year was very exciting as well. Kevin Wilson and Gus Malzahn appeared to maximize the talent they had with their uptempo schemes, and that’s a beautiful thing to see any time it happens.

At the same time, it’s important to realize the distinction between the NBA and college football. What people think doesn’t matter in the team sense in the NBA thanks to the league having a playoff. College football determines its champion largely thanks to opinion polls, so what people think does matter.

I can’t think of a year in which what people thought mattered more than it did with Oklahoma and Texas this year. I don’t mean to rehash old news, but Oklahoma’s impressive scores were largely the reason why it passed up the Texas team that beat it earlier in the year. That then allowed Oklahoma to go to the Big 12 title game and on to the BCS title game.

It’s possible that had OU operated at a slower pace and didn’t put up 60 points in five straight games, it might not have passed up UT. If that doesn’t happen, Texas likely beats Mizzou in the Big 12 title game and goes on to play Florida for the national title.

There’s no way to know, but Texas could have beaten Florida and won the national title. If Texas makes the national title game, then Colt McCoy probably wins the Heisman trophy as well. So, not only did pace potentially affect the Heisman race as it affected the NBA’s MVP race, but it potentially affected the championship.

It’s not likely we’ll ever get all of the voters to look at efficiency stats like points per play or points per drive instead of final scores, so as long as the BCS exists, this same thing can happen again. The moral of the story is that cranking up the pace is a fantastic way to game the system if you can pull it off, and for the record, I’m all for gaming the system.

The 2008 Oklahoma and Tulsa offenses are the two most prolific we’ve ever seen at generating points and yards. They were special, and no one can deny that. They were not uniquely special in the annals of the game though, and that’s the takeaway for thinking about the ’08 season in historical context.

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