No-Huddle. Pace. Tempo (the current buzzy buzzword iteration). Everyone has something to say about the pace of play in college football. From people rightly worrying about increased plays and increased risk for the indentured players, to salty-ass coaches (who embrace up-tempo style when they believe it to help win games), to TV executives worrying about length of games – it finds a way to permeate a lot of discussion. And, no matter how you measure it, offensive pace of play is certainly increasing.
Simplistically, pace of play is typically shown in plays per game (as in the chart above). That’s a pretty clear increase over the last 8 years; hell, Cal just ran 118 plays in a game. Plays per game is fine as a measurement, but there are some issues. First, it doesn’t take into account the offensive pace, explosiveness, or terribleness (lots of 3 and outs) of the opposing team. Secondly, it doesn’t take into account run-pass ratios, teams who pass more often can (not always, though) run more plays as more of their plays result in incompletions, stopping the clock. Spread teams that pass often, also have more plays ending out of bounds, again stopping the clock. Bill Connelly adjusts for run-pass ratios in his Adjusted Pace stat, but that doesn’t account for the opposing team and the team’s defensive ability at getting off the field.
I believe we can remove the opposing team from the equation of calculating a team’s speed. What a team solely has control over with regards to offensive pace is the number of plays run while it possesses the ball. In other words, the average amount of time between plays on offense; or mathematically, Time of Possession divided by number of plays on offense. In fact, if we believe that pass-oriented teams should be “faster” (we do), then this measure – time between plays – should correlate somewhat with pass percentage. It does, slightly. And time between plays correlates better than plays per game.
Time between plays vs Pass Percentage
Plays per game vs Pass Percentage
While plays per game have definitely increased steadily since 2007, it’s not only because of an increase in pass plays. Since 2007, the time between plays has decreased by almost a full 2 seconds, amounting in 4.5 more plays per game. Teams – both rush-oriented and pass-oriented – are literally just playing faster: the overall pass percentage over the entire NCAA has decreased slightly since 2008, but the pace has picked up significantly.
So, I’m measuring pace slightly differently than most but, hopefully more accurately. Who are the fastest teams this year using this metric? Well by time between plays, Missouri is literally off the charts so far this year. They’ve run a play every 17 seconds, the next closest since 2007 is Houston in 2012 at 17.8 seconds and after that is Marhsall in 2012, a full 1.5 seconds more at 18.5 seconds between play. To put into perspective the difference between time between plays and plays per game as measurements, that Marhsall team in 2012 ran 91 plays a game and Missouri this year is averaging 79. Baylor is 2nd in time between plays this year at 19.1 seconds – they’re running 87 plays a game, a full 8 plays more than Missouri. One more example on the difference: Ohio State is 18th in plays per game, but 94th in time between plays – their opponents just haven’t possessed the ball at all. The Buckeyes have lots of time to run plays, they just don’t necessarily do it quickly. Here are the top 25, and bottom 25 teams in terms of time between plays this year (including their plays per game rank):
If you’d like to see the full rankings, the google doc is here.
Investigating time between plays by conference over the years shows that some conferences just have different identities. The SEC, BIG10, and (maybe surprisingly, I blame Boston College as the albatross) ACC play slower on average than most teams. The BIG 12 has always been pretty fast (kinda starting with Mangino and Leach), and the PAC 12 has dramatically increased pace in recent years, only to tick back a little slower this year.
Looking within conferences the last few years, some things stand out.
- Ol’ Nick Saban has somewhat embraced that loathsome tempo style. Go figure.
- Ole Miss was already playing faster under Houston Nutt and has increased their pace even further under Hugh Freeze.
- Mississippi State has consistently played faster under Dan Mullen, save for a couple blip years in 2012 and 2013.
- Missouri has insanely increased their tempo this year.
- The Vols have slowly been getting faster under Butch Davis.
- Kevin Sumlin seems to be adapting to the SEC – pace of play slowing, and starting to value defense more.
- If any of you have watched a BC game the last few years, I’m sorry. Their offense literally sets back college football.
- Clemson has consistently played faster under Dabo
- David Cutcliffe has tinkered with playing fast but has fluctuated a lot.
- Florida State has continued to be slow, but efficient.
- Ga Tech used to play faster, relatively sepaking
- LOL Petrino.
- Michigan abandoned pace with Rich Rod.
- Most teams are middling, speed-wise. Northwestern and Indiana are the only teams that have consistently played fast.
- Kansas State has went back to being slow after that Ron Prince blip.
- Texas is playing a lot faster under this year
- Oklahoma has shied away from their pace game, probably as their high-accuracy passing attack has gone out the window after Sam Bradford graduated.
- Texas Tech has been uber-fast, aside from a Tuberville year.
- TCU has increased their pace recently.
- Stanford has steadily slowed down (or everyone else has gotten faster)
- California and Colorado have really increased pace, starting in 2011.
- Oregon remains fast under Helfrich.
- Washington has slowed under Peterson.
This article is too long at this point to get into the group of 5 conferences, although some of those teams have interesting trends as well. I think everyone should just remember: just because a team is playing more plays per game, that doesn’t mean they’re playing faster. The true measure in what they can directly control in play-calling – time between plays.