Is up-tempo offense the key to knocking off the defensive powers?


The up-tempo offense is riding high right now in college football. Chip Kelly’s Oregon teams have been the standard bearer for the up-tempo offense in recent years, and this year is no different. Many consider Oregon the best team in the country, and their 82.4 plays per game ranks 2nd nationally among BCS conference teams.

Nick Saban made news last month when he made some critical comments about the no-huddle, up-tempo offense that is obviously designed to make life difficult for Saban-like defenses.

It’s only fitting that Texas A&M – the far and away leader in the SEC with regards to plays per game – knocked off the Crimson Tide last week. The Aggies are running 80.9 plays per game this season. The next highest in conference would be the Vols at 75 per game. Alabama? 63.2 per game.

It’s also worth noting that LSU ran 85 offensive plays against Alabama the week before. Well above the LSU season average of 69.2 plays per game. Give credit to A&M, but 85 plays against the athletes of LSU the week before absolutely softened up the Crimson Tide defense for Johnny Manziel and Co.

As a flurry of Saban disciplines like Will Muschamp attempt to recreate the Saban “process” and pro-style offense combined with stingy defense, the solution to overcoming the Saban era in the SEC might not be in replicating Saban, but being the Anti-Saban.

Clearly, a high-powered, up-tempo offense needs to be backed by a legitimate defense. Nobody thinks that West Virginia is ready for prime time, but Texas A&M and Oregon provide a glimpse at teams with dynamic, higher-powered offenses with enough athletes on defense to avoid being a liability. Both the Aggies and Ducks are giving up around 380 yards per game on defense which will put them around 50th nationally.

One overlooked aspect of the up-tempo offense is that not only does it put a strain on the opposing defense, it can also strain your own defense, as they too will play more snaps. it’s a point that ESPN’s Ivan Maisel recently discussed:

When an offense goes up-tempo, the defense pays the price. Not just the opposing defense, either. The defenses at Arizona and No. 2 Oregon are playing 82 and 76 plays, respectively, per game. The wear-and-tear is exacting a toll in mid-November. The Ducks are playing freshmen on their defensive line, and Arizona is playing four walk-ons and two true freshmen on its defense. They are playing because that’s who’s healthy.

Staying healthy defensively in the Pac-12 is difficult. Lining up for 72.8 defensive snaps per game (as Texas A&M is doing) in the SEC and staying healthy is nearly impossible.

What the Aggies are doing is very unique to the conference

What the Aggies are doing is very unique to the conference. To find an SEC team that averaged over 75 plays per game, you would have to go back to the 2007 LSU Tigers which ran 75.3 plays per game. At 81 plays a game and  6.74 yards per play, it’s no wonder the Aggies are gaining nearly 550 yards every single game. Against Mississippi State two weeks ago, the Aggies punished the Bulldogs with 97 offensive snaps!

The emergence of the up-tempo offense in the SEC – led by Kevin Sumlin’s Aggies – is not a guarantee to take the team from College Station to the top, but it is a guarantee to make SEC football more dynamic and more interesting.

Having a conference full of Saban-clones isn’t interesting. Frankly, hinting at the idea that Saban can be replicated with ease around the conference is disrespectful to Nick Saban. Saban’s success isn’t just the process he uses, but more the man driving that process. There’s no simple formula to knocking off Saban and the power teams in the conference, but as long as Alabama is getting superior athletes, competing with them head-on with inferior talent will have mixed results at best.

For the teams heading for a reboot to regain relevance and competitiveness in the SEC, the Aggies may be showing the way forward, especially for teams that will find it difficult to recruit the same caliber of athlete as Alabama, LSU Georgia and Florida.

As an Arkansas blogger recently discussed, perhaps Arkansas should hire an anti-Saban. The available talent to a team like Arkansas is a major factor in this discussion:

When you live in a state that produces an abundance of defensive football players it isn’t a difficult model to follow. But Arkansas can’t compare to the state of Alabama where six of the state’s Top 15 players in the Class of 2013 (as rated by are defenders. Louisiana’s Top 15 includes eight defensive players. Florida has seven of its Top 15 on defense. And having that sort of talent at home makes recruiting regionally and nationally easier.

Arkansas? Its top recruits each year are almost exclusively offensive skill prospects. Look at the class of 2013 where 11 of the Top 15 players are projected on offense.

The same blogger later mentions how if you’re not convinced that the no-huddle and up-tempo style of offense is for real, consider the following:

Still not convinced at where the game is headed? Consider that Bill Belichick, regarded as one of the top football minds in the NFL — and a mentor to Saban —has implemented elements of the no-huddle with the New England Patriots. He’s picked the brain of the Ducks’ Chip Kelly to figure out how to best utilize a fast-paced attack.

Kliff Kingsbury

As Bill Belichick shows in the NFL, the best coaches don’t necessary dismiss everything they believe about winning football games, but they do make adjustments.

It’s too early to judge the impact of the Aggie upset in Tuscaloosa last weekend. It could very well be an isolated upset; merely, a big win for the Aggies’ first year in the SEC. Or, it could be a defining moment when the up-tempo offense is revealed as a legitimate alternative to Saban’s defense-first, ball control style of football in the SEC.

A look at the hires for the expected head coach openings at programs like Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas and Auburn will show us whether this materializes into a real trend within the SEC. It’s no surprise that Texas A&M offensive coordinator Kliff Kingsbury (also known as the most stylish on-field assistant in college football) has been one of the names mentioned for a potential head coaching job.

For me, I’m just giddy at these developments. Even with the SEC potentially shut out of the BCS Championship Game in 2012, I can’t remember a time when the SEC was this interesting.

Photo credit: John David Mercer-US PRESSWIRE



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  • Having a playmaker at quarterback is huge. It’s yet another player that the opposing defense has to account for.

  • With regards to the up-tempo making it hard on your own defense, it’s true. Oregon’s defense is VERY beat up. They have a bunch of guys out.

  • I feel like the up tempo offense that TAMU brought is new and impressive. It works well. But it is new to the SEC relatively. I think that when other teams start preparing earlier for it, maybe mixing in some aspects of it, it won’t be as effective and dynamic.

    • You are absolutely right. Last year Georgia Southern brought a style of offense that Bama doesn’t ever practice for and put up 21 points, more than anyone else the entire year against Bama. By next year all of these SEC teams will have plenty of practice time to make these offenses less powerful. Not saying that they won’t be effective still but if Bama had practiced for A&M this year then that game last week would’ve had a different winner.

  • An answer to the question stated in the title of the article might be:
    LSU & Florida vs. A&M this year.
    LSU vs. Oregon 2011 opener.
    Auburn vs. Oregon 2010-11 NCG.

    These SEC defenses can hang with the up-tempo offense. LSU made great adjustments in their game, bringing in speed guys to work with the Oregon & A&M offenses.

    That said, it certainly does make for some exciting football.

  • The reason they were able to keep the tempo going is cause alabama has no pass rush.if they did they wouldve killed them.

  • Louisiana Tech is averaging 86.4 plays per game. They’re 2nd in the country in scoring and put up 57 points against Texas A&M. Other than losing by 2 points to TAMU, they’ve won every other game and are 9-1. Sonny Dykes… hello SEC job?

    • Charlie Strong, Kirby Smart, Gary Patterson, Gus Malzahn, Todd Granthem, and a couple other names would have to step out of the way for him to get a job here.

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