Winning is paramount, but winning impressively is almost as important
The Ol' Ball Coach has told the story often, but it's worth retelling. Back in 1987, Steve Spurrier's Duke Blue Devils had it going against Georgia Tech. The Young Ball Coach left his quarterback in the game late and let him set a record with his sixth touchdown pass. A couple of days later, a reporter called Duke athletic director Tom Butters, wanting his reaction.
"I've been the AD here for a long time," said Butters, according to Spurrier. "Not once has anybody ever accused Duke of running up the score. I kind of like it."
The final score that day was 48-14. If it happened today, almost nothing about the result -- or how it was achieved -- would draw much attention. "Nobody worries about scoring a lot of points like they used to," Spurrier said.
If anything, we kind of like it.
You can disagree with Spurrier's philosophy, which has always been to step on an opponent's throat, press firmly and occasionally grind. The idea is that it's their job to stop him. Certainly, many have taken issue with his tactics and there's plenty of room for debate about sportsmanship. But something has changed, even in the last few years. Lopsided scores that once elicited gasps no longer earn second glances. Oregon 72, New Mexico 0. Wisconsin 83, Indiana 20. We could go on and on.
Just last week, Oklahoma State hung 70 points on Kansas -- and if you think the Cowboys ran it up, you didn't see the brakes smoking on their fantastic offensive machine; they took out quarterback Brandon Weeden with four minutes left in the second quarter, or it might have been much worse. This week, there's tremendous potential for more eye-popping blowouts: Oklahoma plays the Jayhawks and Wisconsin hosts the Hoosiers. If Landry Jones and company just rolled rival Texas, what could the Sooners do to Turner Gill's sorry bunch? And with Russell Wilson, Wisconsin's offense is much more potent than it has ever been.
But really, isn't almost everybody's? That's the thing. College football has entered an era where high-powered, fast-paced offenses have become more prolific than ever. Not coincidentally, huge point totals are more common than ever. (Check your local high school's results; it's happening there, too, for the same reasons.) The throttle is set to wide-open -- or maybe it's stuck there. Midway through the season, Oklahoma State and Oregon are averaging more than 50 points per game; a dozen more teams are averaging at least 40. Although those numbers will likely drop as the season moves along, consider that 10 years ago, five teams averaged more than 40 points; last season, nine teams did.
The trend coincides with the proliferation of hurry-up, no-huddle spread attacks, which have stretched the length of games and also our idea of an amazing point total. No one blinks when the score hits 60. Astonishing has become almost routine. When Chip Kelly's Ducks score 70, we just admire the carnage produced by his "blur" offense, all those fast guys in crazy uniforms zipping into the end zone from all angles. And when, say, Bob Stoops' Sooners pile up points against a hapless defense, we explain it away as a necessity of life near the top of the BCS standings, where style points matter more than ever. During the last few years, voters in the polls have demonstrated more volatility, showing a willingness -- even a tendency -- to rearrange the hierarchy based on the previous week's results. (The Coaches' Poll remains more stodgy, and less apt to make changes without losses, but the AP and Harris voters regularly shuffle teams up and down.)
In that context, winning is paramount. But winning impressively is almost as important. And the only minds getting blown these days are those of defensive coordinators.
To be sure, there are still unwritten rules of sportsmanship. But considering it's not written down anywhere, it's perhaps not surprising that the code has become elastic. Pull your starters in the fourth quarter? Or at halftime? OK, but when do you stop passing? And if it's Oregon, which typically runs its way to blowouts, and succeeds because of the frantic pace, should you literally stop running your offense?
"It's one of the more frustrating situations," Stoops told
Stoops knows. Eight years ago, Oklahoma led Texas A&M 49-0 at halftime en route to a 77-0 rout. Jason White was on his way to winning the Heisman Trophy; he didn't play in the second half. The first-team defense stayed in longer and scored a touchdown on a fumble return. The next day, columnist Mike Lupica, on ESPN's
Problem was, Oklahoma did almost all it could to keep the game from ending up 84-0. Or 91-0. Or worse. The Sooners threw only three passes in the second half, all early in the third quarter. By the fourth quarter, they'd stopped running any semblance of their offense. Midway through the fourth quarter, when a unit made up mostly of scout-teamers earned a first down near the A&M goal line, Stoops ordered backup quarterback Paul Thompson to take a knee on first down. Then, he called three straight dive plays to a walk-on fullback, run at half-speed. Oh, and they ran the clock continuously in the fourth quarter. What else, Stoops was asked, could he have done?
"I don't know," he said then, "other than telling them to go in and fall down" -- which is essentially what he'd told them to do.
It was a stunning result and an obvious aberration. And yet, five years later, as the Sooners pushed hard to reach the BCS Championship game, they regularly put up huge numbers. Oklahoma scored at least 58 points in each of its last five regular-season games in 2008 (and more than 60 in five straight, including the Big 12 Championship). The Sooners piled up style points -- even though on his way to winning the Heisman, Sam Bradford rarely played in the fourth quarter.
We heard a little about it -- in the conference championship against Missouri, the Sooners clearly kept the accelerator floored -- but everyone understood the importance. Oklahoma's perceived dominance was a big reason why it was ranked higher in the polls than Texas, which had won the head-to-head matchup. The Sooners' higher position in the BCS rankings broke a three-way tie in the Big 12 South (with Texas and Texas Tech), propelling them into the conference championship game and then into the BCS title game.
Things have changed since then, too. Last year, Oregon's feeding frenzy in Kelly's frenetic offense started with that 72-0 win over New Mexico, and the Ducks' drive to the BCS Championship game included results like 69-0, 60-13 and five more games with at least 48 points. Other high-powered offenses -- Boise State's, and Oklahoma State's, and Wisconsin's -- put up similar numbers. No one blinks anymore; it's the new paradigm.
If Oklahoma hangs 70 on Kansas Saturday, we'll shrug and note how good Jones and his receivers are, and how bad the Jayhawks are. Conversely, if the Sooners win, say, 48-14, some will wonder what went wrong. Meanwhile, The AP has picked Wisconsin to score 90 points on Indiana. If Russell Wilson and the Badgers have a record-setting day against the Hoosiers, will anyone be surprised? Or all that upset?
There's still a debate to be had over how much is too much, and when and how it's best to hit the brakes. But those unwritten rules remain up for interpretation. And like the game, they're also evolving. Maybe 90 points would be too much, but is anyone sure? We know what the Ol' Ball Coach thinks: "As long as you let your backups play, nobody cares (about the score)," he said. Last week, South Carolina's reserves scored three fourth-quarter touchdowns against Kentucky in a 54-3 win. It was something that, to Spurrier's way of thinking, has been all too rare in recent years.
Said Spurrier, "We've had trouble running the score up on anybody."