Posted: Wednesday October 3, 2012 12:00PM ; Updated: Saturday October 6, 2012 11:52AM
Stewart Mandel

High-scoring games part of college football culture shift; more Mailbag

Story Highlights

The proliferation of shootouts stems primarily from revamped offensive thinking

'System quarterback' label is outdated; many offenses throw 40 times per game

Plus: Miami's resurgence, Arkansas' defensive decline, La. Tech's BCS shot, more

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Baylor's Nick Florence
Baylor quarterback Nick Florence has thrown for 1,585 yards and 16 touchdowns through just four games in 2012.
Justin K. Aller/Getty Images
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High-scoring, defense-optional contests are certainly not new to college football, but it does seem like last Saturday's 70-63 West Virginia-Baylor game -- coming on a weekend when 44 percent of FBS games involved at least one team scoring 42 or more points, 11 of which surpassed the 50-point mark -- was something of a tipping point.

So what exactly do you attribute all the incredible scoring binges that we're seeing in college football to? I find it hard to believe that offensive coaches have suddenly become smarter than their defensive counterparts or that talent on the offensive side of the ball has suddenly become so superior. So what gives?
-- Alex, Chicago

Is it just me or are there more and more 600-plus yard games this year (by one team)? Every time I look up, a team has gone for over 600 or 700 yards for the game. I'm assuming this is because the offenses are fast-paced and running more plays, but where did the D go? Even 'Bama gave up 14 points to a "fast-paced" Ole Miss team over the weekend. What gives?
Brian, Huntsville, Ala.

This is college football in 2012 -- and I don't see it changing anytime soon. Over the past decade or so, a generation of offensive coaches that either played in or helped implement the first wave of mainstream spread offenses have grown up and dispersed across the country. Now they're refining and advancing those schemes. Mind you, there are vast differences between Chip Kelly's spread-option attack and Dana Holgorsen's Air Raid 2.0, but all are designed with the same intent: Get playmakers in space to exploit mismatches, and then do it over and over again. Add in the no-huddle craze on top of these well-executed offenses and it's putting defenses under tremendous stress.

Of course, you can't disentangle the explosion of big-play offenses from the evolution of offensive talent that now begins even before high school. Quarterbacks are more skilled than they've ever been. Case in point: 10 first- or second-year players were opening day NFL starting quarterbacks this season, and six of them (Russell Wilson, Robert Griffin III, Andrew Luck, Brandon Weeden, Cam Newton and Andy Dalton) had higher pass efficiency ratings during their last years in college than the highest-rated passer in 2002. Furthermore, fast but diminutive players like Oregon's De'Anthony Thomas and Miami's Duke Johnson would never have played offense in college 15 years ago. They would have immediately been labeled as cornerbacks. Now, if you're fast and can make guys miss in space, you're playing offense, end of story.

As for the defense, ESPN analyst David Pollack -- a former Georgia defensive star who is horrified by what he's seeing -- said on a podcast this week he believes NCAA rules reducing the number of contact periods in preseason camp, as well as coaches' preferences to cut down on hitting to minimize injuries, have led to an epidemic of poor tackling. It's true, you do see a lot of missed tackles when you watch a full day of games on TV like I did last Saturday. Even last Thursday's Washington-Stanford game was essentially decided by two Cardinal missed tackles. But I don't believe defenses as a whole are unequivocally worse than they were a decade ago, it's more that high-powered offenses like West Virginia's or Oklahoma State's make average-to-mediocre defenses look worse. Defenders often have to play far more snaps, and are thus put in one-on-one situations far more frequently. This only increases the odds of an eventual busted tackle and, in turn, a long touchdown. And that's exactly what offenses like Oregon's are trying to achieve.

There's no question, lousy defenses on both sides played a big part in the West Virginia-Baylor score. But not every 40-point output or 500-yard day is the same. Given how much the sport has changed, what we really need is for the NCAA and the media to seriously rethink traditional statistical metrics. I don't know if anyone noticed, but in the last two Weekend Pickoffs I've almost exclusively used yards-per-play when referencing national statistical rankings. It better accounts for the discrepancy between different offenses' tempos and the ensuing snaps played by defenses. But at this point, fans still recognize 400 total yards as a significant benchmark much more readily than four yards per play, and they automatically assume a defense did not play well based on the former number. News flash: Save for a handful of truly elite defenses (Alabama, LSU, TCU, etc.), no one is going to hold West Virginia or Oklahoma State to 250 yards or 14 points this season.

College football has seen a number of QBs put up big numbers in recent memory. Most of them have been dismissed as "system QBs." What, if anything, makes Geno Smith different? Does he deserve all of the hype he's getting?
Martin, Nashville

Again, I would argue the phrase "system quarterback" has also been rendered archaic. Either that, or it now applies to 80 percent of college quarterbacks. That phrase dates to a time when offenses that threw the ball 40 times a game were an anomaly, and thus, a quarterback's big numbers might be discounted as a product of the system. By my count, 25 teams are currently averaging that pace, with several more coming awfully close. In 2002, there were just eight schools that threw the ball that frequently. While there are several very good quarterbacks thriving in more traditional pro-style offenses (Georgia's Aaron Murray, Alabama's AJ McCarron, Florida State's E.J. Manuel and USC's Matt Barkley, to name a few), most of the guys putting up big numbers are doing so in some sort of new-fangled "system." That doesn't mean they're easily replaceable pawns -- especially not in the case of Smith.

With quarterbacks that throw 40-50 times a game, the key stat is not yards, but accuracy. Smith is completing an insane 83.4 percent of his attempts, with a 20-to-0 touchdown-to-interception ratio. You can put a guy in the most conducive system imaginable, with a great offensive line and a stable of dynamic receivers (which Smith has), but he still needs to make the right reads and place the ball in just the right spots. I don't necessarily consider NFL draft projections as a gold standard of talent evaluation, but Smith is right behind Barkley on most early boards, which is a marked difference from all those Texas Tech quarterbacks that got hit with the dreaded "system" tag.

Hi Stewart, great Mailbag, always enjoy your writing. It may just be me, but how is Miami (4-1) seemingly flying so far under the radar? Sure, the 'Canes got blown out by K-State, but that loss looks better now that the Wildcats are in the hunt for the Big 12 title. As an Irish fan, I'm a little worried about the game this weekend. Stephen Morris looks great and Al Golden has done a phenomenal job with the freshmen. What chances do you give the 'Canes on Saturday?
-- Mark, Lynchburg, Va.

No question, Golden has done one of the best coaching jobs in the country so far. Based on offseason attrition (six starters turned pro off a 6-6 team, and eight others graduated), massive reliance on youth (12 freshmen or sophomores start, including four true freshmen) and what one might assume would be a dark cloud hanging over the program with looming NCAA sanctions, Miami has no business competing in the ACC, much less sitting at 3-0 in the conference. Still, it's won the last two games -- against Georgia Tech (in overtime) and NC State (on a last-second bomb) -- and that pretty much embodies the resilience Golden has fostered there.

Not to be a party pooper, though, but Miami is ranked 109th nationally in total defense, allowing 6.36 yards per play. Its three ACC wins came against foes with a combined record of 6-8. Therefore, I don't give the 'Canes much of a chance against the Irish unless they flat out overwhelm them with offensive speed. More realistically, the Notre Dame front seven will shut down the run and put the most pressure on Morris he's seen since K-State. Notre Dame's offensive limitations will probably preclude anything like that 52-13 rout in Manhattan, but this game could be an opportunity for Brian Kelly to open things up a little for Everett Golson.

Is it me or was last weekend the worst college day ever? I mean like nobody played anybody!! I looked at the schedule, laughed and picked up my golf bag and went to the range.
Gabriel, San Jose

Well, you only missed the wildest shootout in recent memory, two game-winning bombs, a huge Nebraska comeback and a last-second Texas victory. Hope you shot a 63.
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