Points have never been more plentiful in college football. If touchdowns could be weighed they’d be measured in tons. And yards? On some Saturdays it seems you could get to the moon and back with all the ground that gets covered.
Quarterbacks are better trained than ever before and their skills more diverse. The days when a QB was a rare commodity if he could run AND pass are long gone.
Offensive coordinators aren’t afraid to blend eras and philosophies if it’ll get them a first down. A little triple-option here. A little West Coast there. A dash of run-and-shoot for flavor.
“Every Saturday you’re seeing all of football history in every game,” said Chris B. Brown, the author of The Essential Smart Football and the Smart Football blog.
Outside of Tuscaloosa, Ala., and a few other spots, defenses have become defenseless.
“In the early 90s, the defenses were ahead and Miami was dominating defensively. Things kind of evolved,” said Arizona State coach Todd Graham, a former defensive coordinator. “But I will tell you, the last 10 years, man, it’s been steadily, steadily, steadily the offenses having the edge. The game has changed.”
Defensive innovators haven’t been able to counter with Xs and Os. They’re hoping a different approach in recruiting might help or possibly doubling down on fundamentals. Something to turn around a trend that’s been developing for years.
In 2008, FBS teams averaged 27 points per game and 371.6 yards. Last year, those figures jumped to 29.5 points per game and 409 yards. Plays per game from scrimmage have increased from 67.7 to 71.5 per team. And yards per play has risen from 5.48 to 5.72.
Even in the Southeastern Conference the offenses are taking over. SEC’s teams averaged a league-record 402.4 yards per game and 30.4 points, a bit shy of the record of 31 per game set in 2010.
So what in the name of former SEC defensive guru Joe Lee Dunn can be done to shift the balance of power back the guys on the other side of ball?
Three areas need to be addressed: player development, recruiting/personnel and schemes.
The rise of seven-on-seven football, a scaled down version of the game played by high schoolers during the off-season without linemen, full pads or tackling to the ground has coincided with improvements in the passing game.
“It’s all about the development of quarterbacks,” said Cincinnati coach Tommy Tuberville, who rose through the ranks as a defensive assistant at Miami and Texas A&M.
While quarterbacks are working on their games year-round, defensive players are tackling less and less because of injury concerns.
“The thing I really see in college football is the missed tackles,” said Dunn, who was one of the most successful defensive coordinators in college football in the 1990s and early 2000s. “So many missed tackles.”
The missed tackles stand out more than ever before because offenses are forcing defenses to defend so much more of the field, stretching them out both vertically and horizontally.
Tuberville was part of Jimmy Johnson’s staff at Miami in the 1980s that helped revolutionize college football defense by using smaller lineups and more aggressive schemes. Linebackers became defensive ends, safeties became linebackers, and cornerbacks forced the run at the line of scrimmage. As a result, the Hurricanes wrecked wishbone and triple-option offenses that posed little threat with the pass.
Now teams need more defensive backs than ever to defend four and five wide receiver sets and Tuberville is looking at offenses to find them.
“What we have done is we signed a couple of kids this year that played offense. That could run, that could jump, but they’ve never covered anybody,” he said. “We’re going to switch them from offense to corners.”
This might be the biggest problem for defenses.
Brown said the ability of offenses to attack so well in so many ways has defenses losing the most basic numbers game. To stop the run, defenses need to have more players closer to the line, but that leaves them exposed to downfield throws. Move those safeties and linebackers back and here comes the run.
It’s not quite that simple, of course. Schemes vary and many ways to solve the same problems – or at least try to solve them.
Coaches talk about redefining what it means to play good defense. Don’t worry so much about yards between the 20s, but stiffen in the red zone and cause turnovers. The problem with that is turnovers are often as much about luck as they are skill. Not very reliable.
It seems hopeless, but the game is cyclical and at some point someone will figure out how to turn this around.
Dunn has decided to take at least a couple years off from coaching to follow his son’s high school career in Georgia.
For now, when asked the most important thing a defense needs these days, he concedes: “No. 1 thing is you’re going to have to have a good offense yourself.”