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

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.

I enjoy Arkansas getting humiliated as much as anyone, but it annoys me that Bobby Petrino is somehow benefiting from the team's struggles in his absence. Isn't it more accurate to say that he did a terrible job recruiting defensive players and that his presence wouldn't have done much, if anything, to prevent those awful defensive performances?-- J.D. Bolick, Denver, N.C.

In the rush to vilify John L. Smith, there does seem to be some revisionist history regarding Arkansas' defense. It was never particularly great under Petrino. It peaked by ranking fifth in the SEC during the Razorbacks' Sugar Bowl season in 2010 before regressing to ninth last year, and its two key veterans from those teams, defensive end Jake Bequette and linebacker Jerry Franklin, have departed. Also, though it's perceived that Petrino's staff remained intact, that's not entirely accurate. Four-year defensive coordinator Willy Robinson resigned after last season and was replaced by former Ohio State co-defensive coordinator Paul Haynes, who subsequently coached Arkansas in the Cotton Bowl. Linebackers coach Taver Johnson and defensive line coach Kevin Peoples are also brand new.

So it's entirely possible Arkansas' defense would have regressed this season even if Petrino were still at the helm. But I doubt it would be anywhere near this bad (108th in total defense, 116th in scoring defense). One major reason is the Razorbacks would be getting more help from the offense. A Petrino-led Arkansas would score more than 10 points against Texas A&M. Tyler Wilson is not performing at the same level he did last season (he has a 54.5 completion percentage, down from 63.2), which is no surprise since Petrino was one of the absolute best coaches at putting his quarterbacks in position to succeed, dating back to his days with Brian Brohm and Stefan LeFors at Louisville. While I'm sure it bothers people to see retroactive appreciation for such a universally despised figure, few could dispute that Petrino was a good football coach, and, John L. or not, this team would have been hard-pressed to maintain its recent level of success without him. That still doesn't explain such a drastic nosedive.

Stewart, Here's what I don't get about the proposed playoff system and how it will interact with the bowls, especially the Rose Bowl and the new Champions Bowl. If the playoff is played between the top four teams in the country, with a preference for conference champions, then doesn't it figure that at least three of the SEC, Big 12, Pac-12 and Big Ten conference champs stand a very good chance at being in the playoffs? If that's the case, aren't the Rose Bowl and Champions Bowl games really just conference tie-ins? Shouldn't we go back to the original bowl system with the top four teams skimmed off the top instead of BCS 2.0?-- Scott Hottenstein, Lithia, Fla.

If by going back to the original bowl system you mean a return to the days when bowl directors made backroom deals with athletic directors as early as late October -- thanks, I'll pass. In a sense, though, this system has returned closer to the old days in that the free market trumps all. Yes, the Rose Bowl and Champions Bowl aren't likely to pit both leagues' champions very often, but that's not all that different than the BCS. The SEC champion hasn't played in the Sugar Bowl since 2005. The Rose Bowl lost either the Big Ten or Pac-10 champ five times in a six-year span from 2002-07. In nearly every case, those bowls then got to take another team from those conferences, just as they'll be able to do now. The biggest difference is there's no longer a limit to how many teams each conference can place in the system.

But it will be interesting to see how these games are marketed, and, in turn, how the public will consume them. Right now, there's an entrenched brand, the BCS, that delineates the Rose, Sugar, Orange and Fiesta bowls from, say, the Capital One Bowl and the Outback Bowl. Therefore, reaching any BCS bowl is considered prestigious. But beginning in two years, the obvious No. 1 goal for every team will be to reach the playoff; beyond that, we have no idea what perception of each game will be like. Will we assign equal prestige to the other four or five bowls not hosting the semifinal that year? Or do they just become individual bowls that happen to be tied to the playoff system? In other words, if you're an SEC fan whose team does not make the playoff, do you still consider it an achievement to reach a "BCS bowl" (or whatever it will be called now), or will you consider going to the Sugar Bowl, the Orange Bowl or the Capital One Bowl all approximately the same? Do we no longer talk about conferences' BCS bowl records, because there will be no such thing? We won't know 'til we try.

Please explain this to readers: UCLA is 4-1 and Nebraska is 4-1. UCLA lost to undefeated Oregon State and Nebraska lost to UCLA. In the latest AP Poll: No. 21 Nebraska, No. 25 UCLA. Polls are made of crazy tears.-- Zamoro, Monterey, Calif.

You know what? I'm done with these types of questions. Maybe it's because I know the current system is down to its last days, but really, we get the point. He's right, polls are made of crazy tears. Carry on.

I know it's two separate conferences, but does the Sun Belt's string of recent upsets against SEC and ACC teams help Louisiana Tech's hopes of reaching a BCS bowl? Kind of showing the bowl power brokers and pollsters that Boise State isn't the only good non-AQ team? If it goes undefeated, Louisiana Tech will have beaten teams from the mighty SEC (Texas A&M), ACC (Virginia) and Big Ten (Illinois), as well as the Conference USA favorite (Houston). I believe a 12-0 record with that résumé deserves a better fate than a spot in the Idaho Potato Bowl. Don't you?-- Mario Z., Denton, Texas

I don't understand the Sun Belt connection, since Louisiana Tech is still in the WAC. But yes, absolutely. If the Bulldogs go undefeated against that schedule, they should go to the BCS. Frankly, it's ridiculous Boise State is still ranked in the Coaches' Poll but Louisiana Tech is not. It shows how little the pollsters actually pay attention to the mid-majors. All the Broncos have done so far is lose to a Michigan State team that -- as it turns out -- can barely complete a forward pass, fail to score an offensive touchdown against BYU, and, last week, nearly blow a 25-point lead against New Mexico. (New Mexico!) Meanwhile, Sonny Dykes' team is averaging 52 points a game with consecutive road wins over Illinois (52-24) and Virginia (44-38), and it still received fewer votes in the AP Poll this week than 2-2 Michigan (best win: Air Force).

The issue will be resolved soon enough. On Oct. 13 the Bulldogs face Texas A&M in Shreveport, the game that was originally scheduled to open the season. I was fully prepared to pick Louisiana Tech in the upset that week. Now, with the way Johnny Manziel and the Aggies are clicking, I'm not so sure. Louisiana Tech suffered a big loss two weeks ago when freshman running back Tevin King, who was averaging 8.0 yards per carry, tore his ACL. Fellow freshman Kenneth Dixon (80.5 yards per game) will have to pick up the slack. Even if the Bulldogs beat A&M, they won't be out of the woods just yet; Utah State and San Jose State both present legitimate in-conference threats. But if Louisiana Tech manages to escape all that unscathed, they would certainly be more accomplished than that 2007 Hawaii BCS team, among others.

Alabama beat Ole Miss by scoring 33 points and gaining 305 yards against the same team that lost to Texas in a game it surrendered 66 points and 676 yards. Alabama's win over Arkansas no longer looks that impressive, as Texas A&M (a team with a freshman QB and new coaching staff) scored 58 points. Looks like Alabama is overrated.--Victor, Panama, Fla.

According to my readers, pretty much every team in the Top 25 is overrated. Very few, however, bother to suggest who should take their place.

Maybe they should just leave the AP Poll blank.

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