So who is correct—the coach who aspires to be boring or the one who thinks his breakneck offense will win games and excite recruits? Gundy, using the hurry-up style, won the Big 12 and came within a missed field goal of playing for the national title in 2011. Oregon reached the BCS title game in '10. On the flip side Florida won national titles in '06 and '08 by milking the play clock as Borges hopes to do in Ann Arbor. The '08 Gators should have been called the Tortoises; they averaged 62.4 plays, 5.3 below the national average. Meanwhile, Alabama has won three of the past four BCS titles by huddling most of the time and averaging 64 to 68 plays. Of course, the Gators and the Crimson Tide owe much of the credit for those titles to suffocating defenses.
AS COACH HAMLET would say, there's the rub.
"There is a residual effect to all that," Borges says of the up-tempo offense. Everything a team's offense does affects its defense and its special teams. Unlike basketball, in which the five players on offense also play defense, a football coach can make a choice on offense that helps or hinders an entirely different group. In general, the faster a team's offense moves, the more plays its defense must face. Those defenders eventually fatigue and allow more yards and points. In a more specific sense, Borges worries that if he tried to run 80 plays a game, Michigan defensive coordinator Greg Mattison might walk down the hallway and strangle him.
Using the numbers that have populated football box scores for nearly a century, defenses that inhabit the same locker rooms as today's light-speed offenses, it would appear, are abject failures. The defenses attached to the top 10 teams in total offense in 2012 allowed an average of 447.4 yards a game. That's terrible, isn't it? When Marshall went nuclear last year, catapulting from 65.6 plays a game to 90.6 plays, its total defense ranking plunged from No. 78 in '11 to No. 119 (of 120) in '12.
So why would any coach want to go faster on offense? Because when the offense goes into hyperdrive, it renders the old numbers fairly meaningless. Yes, Gundy's Cowboys allowed 421.7 yards a game last year, but they also finished seventh in the nation in plays faced per game (79.5) because their offense and most of the offenses they played elected to go up-tempo. In all, Oklahoma State gave up 5.3 yards per play, which ranked 42nd nationally. That means we need to throw out the old numbers when looking at no-huddle teams and use different metrics.
Bill Connelly has developed just such a statistic. Connelly, author of Study Hall: College Football and Its Numbers, used to crunch data for the state of Missouri's school system. Six years ago he started a Missouri football blog. Connelly wanted to find advanced, Bill James--style stats to help him interpret the on-field performance of the Tigers, but he found few available. "I loved baseball stats," Connelly says. "They just made a lot of sense to me. But I didn't love baseball."
So Connelly began developing his own football stats. It's difficult to make an apples-to-apples comparison of college football teams because offensive schemes vary so widely. Texas Tech (Air Raid) and Navy (triple option) play the same sport in the way that a Chihuahua and a Saint Bernard are members of Canis familiarias. If not for the spectrum of breeds between them, they'd have no obvious link. In 2007, Connelly hit upon a formula that helped provide more accurate comparisons of teams running disparate schemes. He calls it S&P+, and it measures the success of each play after adjusting for differences in tempo. (Connelly borrowed the tempo-adjustment idea from college basketball stats guru Ken Pomeroy, whose advancements in pace-adjusted data make it possible to compare Louisville's run-and-gun squads to Wisconsin's grind-it-out teams.) In S&P+, teams are measured by the following criteria.
SUCCESS RATE Success is defined as gaining 50% of the necessary yardage on first down (i.e., five yards on first-and-10), 70% on second down and 100% on third or fourth down. To measure defensive success, use the inverse. Did the defense stop the offense from gaining the necessary percentage of required yardage?
EQPTS PER PLAY (PPP) Every yard line is assigned a point value based on the expected number of points scored by an offense playing from that spot. (The closer to the end zone, the higher the value.)
DRIVE EFFICIENCY Last February, Connelly added a component that measures how successful teams are based on the field position they create.