Proposed Defensive Substitution Rule Would Impact Pac-12 Football the Most

Kyle KensingContributor IFebruary 13, 2014

Oct 19, 2013; Eugene, OR, USA; Oregon Ducks quarterback Marcus Mariota (8) runs the ball for a touchdown against the Washington State Cougars int he first half at Autzen Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Scott Olmos-USA TODAY Sports
Scott Olmos-USA TODAY Sports

If you can't beat 'em...change the rules? Such is one interpretation of the NCAA's proposed defensive substitution rule revealed Wednesday, a proposal that emanates from the SEC but that would most profoundly impact the Pac-12, home to seven hurry-up offensive teams. 

Among its critics is Arizona head coach Rich Rodriguez, a pioneer of the hurry-up offense. Rodriguez took to Twitter Wednesday to lament the suggested 10-second snap delay, designed to allow defenses to substitute. 

Hurry-up and spread systems are designed to give the offense an advantage, forcing defenders out of position and taking advantage of personnel mismatches.  

My colleague Michael Felder notes that any perceived advantage defenses might garner from the 10-second window is just that: perceived.  

Rather than the proposed rule change taking schematic advantages out of Pac-12 coaches' hands, the larger issue is that it doesn't stem from concerns brought up in the Pac-12 when it's the conference with the most exposure to that particular brand of football.   

Football Study Hall compiled a five-year snapshot of offensive tempo. The entire look is fascinating, but the key takeaway for this debate is that the most uptempo team in the nation from 2008 to 2012, Houston, was running approximately three plays every minute. Oregon was right behind.

Among power conferences, the Pac-12's collective tempo ranks below the Big 12 in FSH's report, but the study ends after the 2012 season. That was the first season that the Pac-12 experienced the proliferation of hurry-up offenses with Rodriguez, Todd Graham (Arizona State), Jim Mora (UCLA) and Mike Leach (Washington State) all turning their teams' dials to warp speed.  

Oregon is the archetype for hurry-up offenses in the Pac-12, and the success the Ducks had with their version prompted the conference's move in that direction. Seven teams ran variations of the hurry-up in the Pac-12 last season—more than half the conference. USC is likely next, with Steve Sarkisian taking over the Trojans this season. 

Sarkisian knows a thing or two about the traditional offense. He coached Heisman Trophy winners as an assistant at USC, and his Trojans offenses were the gold standard of the pro-style in the college game.  

But with his Washington team needing a kick-start after a three-season, seven-win plateau, Sarkisian recognized the need to turn to the hurry-up offense. For coaches faced with the hurry-up offense, Sarkisian offered this advice at last summer's Pac-12 media day: "They have 85 them."

Of course, the driving force behind the proposed rule is to allow coaches to do just that. But rather than the matter being one of strategy, the groundswell for this proposed 10-second substitution period began with rumblings last summer that hurry-up offenses heightened injury risk. 

A debate that may well be about gamesmanship is repackaged into something much more serious. The popular term to describe this tactic on the Internet is "concern trolling." 

"There's no safety issue," Graham, a self-described two-decade veteran of the hurry-up offense, said dismissively when I asked him about it last July. 

Long before his arrival at Arizona State, Graham worked with such offensive luminaries as Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris and Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn. 

Malzahn's version of the hurry-up spread offense helped Auburn to a BCS Championship in 2010, and the SEC crown and title game appearance this season. Malzahn was also going against the grain by running such a system as Auburn's offensive coordinator.

Danny Johnston/Associated Press

Others in conference followed suit: Texas A&M hired Kevin Sumlin from Houston upon its move from the Big 12. Ole Miss hired Hugh Freeze from Arkansas State, Missouri brought it over from the Big 12 and Auburn handed over the keys to Malzahn as its head coach.  

It's a decided shift for a conference that was dead last in tempo per FSH, but the pro-style offense remains the offense of choice for the majority of SEC programs. Among those teams favoring tradition are Alabama and Arkansas, where head coaches Nick Saban and Bret Bielema are at the forefront of the hurry-up offensive debate.   

Each conference can't dictate its own rules—we're talking college football substitution and not state vs. federal rights. But before concerns coming from other leagues impact the conference most known for a certain style turn into regulations, it's best to find a solution within the parameters of the existing rulebook. 

Stanford defensive end Ben Gardner saw and slowed plenty of hurry-up offenses in the Pac-12. His proposed solution? 


Kyle Kensing is the Pac-12 Lead Writer. Quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.