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Thursday, July 24, 2014

Column: Something in the air

College football scoreboards are soaring like the revolutionary passing game and no one should be complaining.

Oct. 5, 2012

I wanted this column to be all about Missouri’s 21-16 win over UCF, but it won’t be. Truth is, I didn’t even watch that game. West Virginia and Baylor played their game at the same time, and I guess shiny objects easily distract me.

You didn’t have time to change the channel during the Mountaineers’ 70-63 victory in their inaugural Big 12 contest because both teams had a legitimate chance at scoring a touchdown on every play.

It makes sense that this game turned into the ultimate shootout. What else would you expect with college football’s second- and third-ranked scoring offenses going up against the 94th- and 112th-ranked scoring defenses? West Virginia’s made a habit of scoring 70 in big games, doing so against Clemson in last year’s Orange Bowl. The amazing thing about this performance was that it needed every one of those points to win.

The ridiculous stats nearly do the game justice. Each team topped 700 total yards on offense, combining for a total of 1,501 (more than twice the 741 offensive yards Missouri and UCF combined for). West Virginia’s Stedman Bailey had 13 catches for 303 yards and five touchdowns … and he wasn’t even the game’s leading receiver. That honor went to Baylor’s Terrance Williams, who racked up 314 yards on 17 receptions.

West Virginia quarterback Geno Smith cemented his status as an early Heisman Trophy frontrunner with his 656-yard passing performance, featuring eight touchdowns and only six incompletions, seeming entirely unimpressed with his performance the entire way. (Apparently his coaches concurred, as center Joe Madsen was named the team’s offensive player of the week.)

The maniacal West Virginia-Baylor game offered a taste of what Missouri left behind in its move to the Southeastern Conference. The perception — that the Big 12 is a primarily offensive league and the SEC is a dominant defensive conference — is, in this case, a reality. The Big 12 currently has four of the nation’s top-10 scoring offenses and two top-10 defenses, while the SEC has just one top-10 offense and five top-10 defenses.

Missouri’s offense has struggled to adapt to the SEC, ranking 66th in points per game, scoring just 27.4 points per contest. That figure drops to 18.75 points per game when you remove the season-opening 62-10 blowout against Southeastern Louisiana.

West Virginia probably can’t win a national championship solely with offensive firepower. Its defense can’t break as easily as it did on Saturday. Indeed, SEC teams have used dominant defense to claim the last six BCS national championships. But does that mean shootouts should be condemned as some lesser, impure form of football? Is winning 70-63 somehow less legitimate than 6-3?

It shocks me how many people simply dismiss high-scoring offenses as some fad corrupting college football. Even though change is at the essence of the game — after all, players stay no more than five years — many within the game have been slow to accept pass-first spread offenses and the unusual coaches who use them.

Take West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen, the mullet-sporting, Red Bull-drinking divorcee who prefers to live for long stretches in hotel rooms. He may not look or act like what we expect from a football coach, but maybe that different approach is why his teams are so successful and thrilling to watch.

There are signs that the SEC is catching up to the rest of college football in offensive excitement. Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin, Holgorsen’s former boss at Houston, has the Aggies scoring more than 48 points a game. Georgia defeated Tennessee in its own Saturday shootout, a 51-44 Bulldog win. But Missouri still shouldn’t expect too much offensive excitement anytime soon from its own offense or its opponents'.

The SEC is still a league dominated by Nick Saban and Alabama’s first-ranked defense. Asked about the previous weekend’s offensive explosion in a Wednesday teleconference, Saban replied, “Is this what we want football to be?”

If you think football is supposed to be fun, 70-63 is exactly how football should be.

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