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Tempo in college football

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A look at the tempo trend in college football.


Tempo is increasingly becoming an important part aspect of offensive philosophy. From 2008 to 2012, 63% of FCS teams increased the number of plays they ran per minute of possession. I thought it would be interesting to take a look at this subject in a few different ways:

  • Who are the fastest & slowest teams in college football?
  • Who are the fastest & slowest conferences?
  • Which teams are really pushing the envelope?

First, I'll explain my methodology. Let's use Oregon's 2012 team as an example.

Oregon ran 1,058 plays during the 2012 season. They controlled the football for 361 minutes and 50 seconds over the course of their 13-game season. Therefore, the Ducks ran 1058 / 361.83 = 2.92 plays per minute of possession (MOP) during the season. This was good for the 7th-fastest spot in 2012 and the 11th-fastest spot in the 2008 to 2012 time period (599 teams). The NCAA average over the last five seasons is 2.31 plays / MOP.

I took each program's average over this five-season period and ranked them by plays / MOP. Let's look at the fastest teams first:

  • Houston clocks in with the fastest average over this time period, and the only team with an average exceeding 3.0 plays per MOP.
  • I don't think anyone will be surprised to see Oregon near the top of the list. While other programs have become as fast (and even faster) than Oregon in recent years, they have been playing at a very fast level for a long time. They led the country in plays / MOP in the first year of this study, 2008.
  • Notice that 7 out of the top 20 teams played in the Big 12 for most of the time covered in this study. A&M and Mizzou are taking this style of play to the "old-man football" SEC.

Now let's look at the slowest teams:

  • Hey, I found something that Alabama is last in the country in -- offensive tempo. Also: losing.
  • Teams that play at tempos well below their conference colleagues: Stanford and Kansas State. Something tells me Bill Snyder doesn't really care what the trends are in college football.

Now let's take a look at conferences as a whole. These are the averages for each conference during this five-year period:

  • Obviously the independents have a small sample size, but they bring in the rear right in front of the SEC.
  • Once again, as a reference -- the NCAA average over this time period is 2.31.

NCAA averages by season:

2008: 2.26 plays / minute of possession

2009: 2.27 (+0.40% over previous season)

2010: 2.29 (+1.07%)

2011: 2.34 (+2.03%)

2012: 2.40 (+2.61%)

To help visualize these speed changes a little bit better, I set the NCAA's speed limit to 60 MPH in 2008. Given the percentage changes in each year, the NCAA is now driving about 63.7 miles per hour.

Now, let's look at which teams in this time period really pushed the envelope. I took a slightly different approach here. It's not fair to compare a team in 2008 against a team in 2012 straight I demonstrated above, all of college football is faster now than it was a few years ago. So I took each teams' plays / MOP figure and divided it by the league average for that season. As an example, Oregon's 2.92 in 2012 gets divided by the national average in 2012:

2.92 / 2.40 = 122% of the average

Using this calculation, here are the fastest and slowest teams from 2008 to 2012:

Houston ran a play every 18.3 seconds last year. That is ‘Chuck Yeager in 1947' fast. By contrast, New Mexico ran a play every 31.3 seconds. Count 13 seconds in your head and think about how much that adds up over the course of a game.

There are plenty of coordinators out there promising to push tempo even more next season, so it will be interesting to see how long this upward trend in tempo can last.

If you're curious about where your team stands, here are the speeds for each team in the 2012 season: