The Case Against the No-Huddle in College Football

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The Case Against the No-Huddle in College Football
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The big trend across college football is the utilization of the no-huddle offense. Made famous by teams such as the Oregon Ducks and the Oklahoma State Cowboys, uptempo styles of offense have become more and more popular with each passing year. 

“I think it’s the trend on offense right now across the country, and I think it’s where everybody’s headed," said Texas Longhorns head coach Mack Brown, who is transitioning his team to a no-huddle style in 2013. "And I don’t see it changing.”

But is it the best answer? 

Alabama Crimson Tide head coach Nick Saban, who has led his team to three national titles in the last four years, doesn't think so. Jerry Hinnen of CBS Sports reported on Saban's comments regarding the no-huddle. 

"I just think there's got to be some sense of fairness in terms of asking, 'Is this what we want football to be?'" Saban said. 

All issues of fairness aside, the proof is in the pudding as to whether or not team with uptempo offenses can have the type of success that Saban and other teams that are consistently national title contenders have. 

The answer is that teams can't. 

The only team that won a national title in the BCS era (1998-present) that utilized the no-huddle as a primary offense was the 2005 Longhorns squad led by Vince Young. So of the 16 BCS national champions, only one has used no-huddle consistently. 

In 2012, only one of the top five teams in the BCS standings heading into the bowl season ran an uptempo offense, and that was Oregon. However, Notre Dame, Alabama, Florida and Kansas State did not run no-huddle.

Notre Dame finished the season undefeated, while Alabama and Kansas State won the SEC and Big 12 respectively. However the Ducks failed to even make the Pac-12 title game. Although they did handily beat Kansas State in the Fiesta Bowl.

Chip Kelly made the no-huddle famous at Oregon, so much so that it was featured in a UPS "logistics" commercial. But he never won a national title. 

Against the Auburn Tigers in the 2010 title game though, the Tigers won 22-19 and showed the entire country the weaknesses that a no-huddle offense poses.

The biggest weakness in the scheme is that if the offense is running uptempo but unable to put up points, then there is simply too much pressure put on the defense. 

Just ask Mike Gundy, the head coach at Oklahoma State who has also found a great deal of success running his offense at a fast pace. 

“If you’re not moving the ball and scoring points, it stinks,” Gundy said. “That’s really what it is. Because your defense is on the field the whole time and you’re down by three touchdowns.”

Obviously, teams never want to have their defenses on the field for long periods of time, especially if its trailing in the game. 

“If our offense is scoring quick, then yes it’s an advantage because we’re winning,” said TCU safety Sam Carter. “But if they’re going super fast and they’re not getting anything out of it, then it makes the defense go out there really fast.”

Another negative effect of having the defense on the field more often is fatigue. With no-huddle offenses getting on and off the field so quickly, defensive units are forced to stay on the field for more plays as well. 

“It gets you tired,” said West Virginia safety Karl Joseph. 

Simply put—fast offenses are bad for a team's defense. 

In 2012, eight teams that ranked in the top 25 of team plays per game also had a total defense ranking outside the top 100 in the FBS. Louisiana Tech in particular ranked second in number of plays but dead last in total defense. 

However, Tulsa was the only team in the nation to have both a top 25 total defense and rank in the top 25 of most offensive plays per game.  

 

Team Team Plays per Game Rank (No. of Plays) Total Defense Rank (Yards per Game)
Marshall 1 (92.8) 101 (456.58)
Louisiana Tech 2 (88.6) 120 (526.08)
Baylor 5 (84.0) 119 (502.23)
Houston 7 (83.5) 115 (483.00)
Arizona 10 (83.2) 118 (499.00)
Ball State 16 (80.7) 102 (462.38)
Indiana 22 (79.4) 103 (463.50)
West Virginia 25 (79.2) 108 (472.46)

 

And while Gundy has certainly created another powerhouse to rival the likes of Oklahoma and Texas in the Big 12, the flaws of the no-huddle showed themselves in 2011. 

With the Cowboys undefeated and heading into Ames, Iowa, the Iowa State Cyclones found a way to shutdown Gundy's offense in regulation and force overtime. There, the Cyclones beat the Cowboys 37-31.

The Cyclones clearly had the advantage in overtime, as uptempo teams are generally not as good with short fields. And in overtime, teams start on the 25-yard line. 

“I don’t think we’re as good as we need to be on short yards and goal lines,” Gundy said. “One of the hardest things in football nowadays is to get that much. And it’s so important, and we’re not very good at it because we’re not set up, we’re not suited for that. And most teams that play like we do aren’t.”

Had Oklahoma State won that game against Iowa State, they would've played for a national title against LSU.

The West Virginia Mountaineers' 2012 season bottomed out when teams figured out how to stop their no-huddle. 

Even head coach Dana Holgorsen saw early signs that his team, which started out 5-0 and reached a No. 5 ranking, was in trouble. 

“When you’re giving up 63 points and barely winning and giving up 47 points and barely winning, there’s stress,” Holgorsen said. 

After the 5-0 start, a 49-14 loss in Lubbock, Texas to the Texas Tech Red Raiders kicked off a five-game losing streak. 

“I know you’re not able to win a championship being that one-sided,” Holgorsen said. “It’s just not going to happen. So I knew we had some issues. And those issues have been addressed.”

The Mountaineers finished 2012 7-6 overall and lost in the Pinstripe Bowl to Syracuse. 

In their first season in the Big 12, the TCU Horned Frogs displayed another weakness of the no-huddle offense. 

When quarterback Casey Pachall left the team just four games into the year, freshman quarterback Trevone Boykin had to take the reins. That forced head coach Gary Patterson to back off the no-huddle and adjust his scheme midseason. 

“Last year we got away from it with a redshirt freshman quarterback,” Patterson said. “We used to be one of the guys that would go pretty fast.”

However, Patterson said that slowing the game down is what actually gave his team a better chance of winning as the season progressed. 

“I think it’s more just the quarterback play. If you look at Trevone [Boykin], the Texas game we threw the ball nine times, played good defense, shortened the game, found a way to win on the road,” Patterson said.

The Longhorns also have experience with the no-huddle backfiring on them. In 2010, when they played in the national championship against Alabama, star quarterback Colt McCoy got injured, forcing Garrett Gilbert to play the rest of the game. 

“The receivers were so good that we didn’t have to run any, and it caught us up when [Colt] got hurt, it cost us a chance to win the national championship.”

At Big 12 media days, Patterson also said that in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl against Michigan State last season, his defense struggled to adjust to a team that ran a more traditional style of offense. 

“One of the most frustrating things for me was the Michigan State game,” said Patterson. “I just spent the last the last three months in the Big 12, people lining up at the line of scrimmage going no-huddle, then people are coming out of the huddle. And you had to change your whole mindset.”

The Horned Frogs lost to Michigan State 17-16. 

The ability for teams to run the ball also suffers when offenses go no huddle. 

“You’re just limited at running the ball,” said TCU running back Waymon James. 

The 2009-10 Texas team that couldn't run the ball against Alabama and therefore lost the national title game perfectly illustrates the point. If a team is so focused on the pass in the no-huddle and can't run the ball, teams will suffer on the field. 

In 2013, the Longhorns are going back to an uptempo offense. But it's forcing Brown, one of college football's most well-known coaches, to change up his coaching style. 

"You don’t want to wear kids out in practice so much that they’re worn out by game time," Brown said. "For instance, we’re not going to go split practices this year, we’re planning on only having one practice because of the tempo.”

The Longhorns have 19 returning starters this season, the most of any team not just in the Big 12 but in the entire country, according to David Ubben of ESPN. For a coach to change up his style with a team that he's been around for a while doesn't seem like a recipe for success. 

There's no doubting that there are positives for teams that run offenses at a fast pace. It's a big equalizer and gives teams with a lot of speed but maybe not as much size a big edge. 

If you were a head coach, would you run a no-huddle offense?

Submit Vote vote to see results

"High tempo and spread offenses have been the single thing that's created parity in college football," Gundy said at Big 12 media days. "And over the last eight or ten years, when coaches have essentially started playing basketball on grass is really what we're playing now by spreading the court and getting the ball to young men that years ago wouldn't have an opportunity to play because they weren't maybe as big or as strong or as fast."

But the downsides of going no-huddle are simply too big to ignore. 

While teams may win 10 or more games or even grab a conference title, it's been shown that no-huddle teams can't win consistently enough to grab a national title. 

Uptempo offenses not only limit the running game, but they also create a plethora of issues for a defense. If the offense is going fast but not scoring enough points, then the game could be lost early. 

“You can’t just sit there and try to outscore somebody, it’s just not going to work,” Holgorsen said.

*All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted

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