OPPONENT ADJUSTMENTS Because no one wants that Week 2 matchup with Savannah State to skew the data.
Using this more advanced data and the S&P+ formula, that same Oklahoma State defense that finished ranked 80th in total defense last year now ranks No. 12. Oregon's defense, which ranked 44th in yards allowed because opponents got so many possessions following Ducks touchdowns, moves up to No. 2. Oregon's defense is especially interesting because coordinator Nick Aliotti has created a system that seems to go hand in hand with the up-tempo offense designed by Chip Kelly and inherited by new coach Mark Helfrich.
While most defensive coordinators generally play the same cornerbacks, safeties and linebackers and rotate only defensive linemen and the occasional extra defensive back, Aliotti rotates everyone. He has compared his substitution patterns with hockey line changes. With more than 20 players logging snaps, fatigue is less of a factor. Aliotti's scheme also helps the Ducks pile on points. His defense takes risks by sending heavy pressure in an attempt to force the opposing quarterback to throw interceptions.
For those who don't trust proprietary formulas, there is a quick-and-dirty statistical analysis that identifies efficient teams almost as well as S&P+. Subtract a team's average yards per play allowed from the average yards per play gained. For example, national champion Alabama's offense gained 2.77 more yards on each play than its defense allowed (6.95 gained--4.18 allowed=2.77). At the other end of the spectrum, Pac-12 doormat Colorado fielded a defense that allowed 2.73 more yards per play than its offense gained.
SI went back over the last five years' worth of data to cross-reference these efficiency numbers with the average number of plays run by each team. (Teams that won fewer than six games in a season were eliminated; an awful offense can skew the data because no matter how fast it wants to go, it must give the ball away after three plays if it doesn't gain 10 yards.) For teams that won at least six games between 2008 and '12, the ones that averaged more than 75 plays had a median per-play differential of +.64 yards. Teams that won at least six games and averaged fewer than 75 plays a game during that period had a median per-play differential of +.66 yards. The slower offenses, which allowed their defenses to stay off the field longer, did slightly better. Score one for Borges and boring.
USING POINT differential offers a different result. The 75-plus-play teams had a median point differential of +9.9, while the slower teams had a median point differential of +6.5. Since the goal of the game is to produce more points than the other team, that's a 3.4-point advantage for guys such as Gundy and Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris, whose Tigers ran a whopping 100 plays in their Chick-fil-a Bowl win against LSU last season.
Morris believes in the no-huddle because its flexibility at the line of scrimmage gives coaches and quarterbacks a larger margin for error. "As a play-caller, back in the huddle days, you always tried to get in the perfect play," Morris says. "It was all predicated on how the defense lined up. Now we don't care how the defense lines up. We've got answers. That's the key." Morris doesn't need the perfect play now. He needs only for a linebacker to set up out of position or a safety to be so tired that he misses the coverage call. As long as quarterback Tajh Boyd can recognize those defensive deficiencies, the Tigers will be successful. This is especially true as the defense fatigues. "We can get anybody to play a quarter or a half of football against us," Morris says. "But what do you do in the third and fourth quarters? That's the staple to the hurry-up, no-huddle offense. The third and fourth quarters."
There are no stats to check Morris's claim, but a huddle coach would argue that such a pace would wear down Clemson's defense as well—especially if the Tigers' offense can't connect on consecutive drives. "That's the nightmare of a team that wants to go fast," Georgia coach Mark Richt says. "You go three and out twice and the other team grinds it out for five minutes apiece, you're in trouble." Richt, whose team opens at Clemson, essentially described the way rival South Carolina beat the Tigers the past two seasons. Gamecocks coach Steve Spurrier scrapped his pass-happy Fun 'n' Gun for a read-option-heavy, clock-control offense that has allowed the Gamecocks to go 22--4 the past two seasons. In its wins against Clemson in 2011 and '12, South Carolina's offense held the ball for 77 minutes, 15 seconds, including 23:19 of the second half of last season's 27--17 win. So how could South Carolina stop such a powerful offense? Simple. The Gamecocks' defense didn't need the perfect play call, either. It had Jadeveon Clowney.
Clowney, the 6'6", 274-pound defensive end who is the favorite to be the first selection in the 2014 NFL draft, is such a disruptive force that he alters almost every play. Add some excellent defensive teammates, and the Gamecocks don't need to make massive strategic adjustments between plays. They could play an offense such as Clemson's straight up because, at least in the past two seasons, their players were better than Clemson's players.
That may sound like an argument against a hurry-up offense, but it actually could work in favor of the hurry-up for teams capable of recruiting elite athletes at nearly every position. Texas coach Brown remembers a conversation with his then defensive coordinator Will Muschamp during his team's 2008 matchup against Oklahoma, which averaged 79 plays that season. Muschamp would signal a play, and his players would consult their wristbands for their assignment. "The ball was being snapped, and they're running 20 yards, and we're still looking at the wristbands," Brown says. "Will and I decided let's throw out all the calls, play base defense and let's play." After falling behind 21--10, the Longhorns rallied for a 45--35 win. In the end Texas leveraged its superior athletes on both sides of the ball. A team in that position increases its advantage by moving faster on offense because it can stop other fast-moving offenses by playing base defense with athletically superior defenders.