Which Program Is Winning College Football's Historic Offensive Arms Race?

David KenyonFeatured ColumnistFebruary 22, 2019

Tee Higgins and Justyn Ross are key pieces of the offensive juggernaut at Clemson.
Tee Higgins and Justyn Ross are key pieces of the offensive juggernaut at Clemson.Harry How/Getty Images

If high-scoring offenses provide peak entertainment for college football, we're living in the greatest era of the sport.

Never before has the Football Bowl Subdivision featured more scoring.

In 2016, the 128 teams set a record with 30.04 combined points per game. The 130-team FBS has collectively averaged 28.78 and 29.59 points in 2017 and 2018, respectively.

Looking even further back, the FBS crested the 26-point barrier for the first time in 2000. Since then, it only dipped below the mark in 2006 and has surpassed 28 points in 10 of the last 12 years.

But which offense is the standard?

There are several meaningful ways to explore that question. The "right now" is most relevant. The answer for the 2019 season is different than it will be in 2021, and it isn't the same as it was in 2015. Players are the most important factor, but coaches can also significantly impact an offense.

Plus, while elite production is imperative, having that translate to wins is essential. For example, Ole Miss has earned top-10 rankings in yards per snap during three of the last four seasons, yet the Rebels have only mustered a 26-23 record over that span. Similar top-tier offenses aren't always enough to win.

Using data since 2015the most productive four-year stretch in FBS historywe've organized the most recent highest-performing offenses. Those statistics combined with returning production and top incoming talent aid the subjective process of determining which programs are best built for the future.

You likely won't be surprised at the overlapping answers.


What Do the Stats Say?

Lincoln Riley has turned Oklahoma's offense into the nation's most dominant unit.
Lincoln Riley has turned Oklahoma's offense into the nation's most dominant unit.Michael Reaves/Getty Images

One basic way to distinguish an offense's performance is comparing it directly to the competition. 

Since 2015, the following 10 programs have the highest average national ranking in points per game:

1. Oklahoma
2. Memphis
3. Texas Tech
4. Oklahoma State
5. Ohio State
6. Alabama
7. Clemson
T-8. Oregon
T-8. Toledo
10. Western Michigan

Now, yards per play:

1. Oklahoma
2. Ole Miss
3. Oklahoma State
4. Memphis
5. Toledo
6. Appalachian State
7. Alabama
8. Arizona
9. Ohio State
10. West Virginia

Most college football fans likely anticipated Oklahoma, Ohio State and Alabama would be on both lists. Over the last four seasons, the blue-blood programs have combined for eight College Football Playoff berths and three narrow misses.

As far as recent perennial contenders are concerned, perhaps the only school missing from the expected group is Clemson. But combining the average rankings of points per game and yards per play brings Dabo Swinney's club back into the picture.

1. Oklahoma
2. Memphis
3. Oklahoma State
T-4. Alabama
T-4. Toledo
T-6. Ohio State
T-6. Texas Tech
8. Ole Miss
9. Clemson
10. Appalachian State

Those four teams have accounted for every national championship in our data set (plus Ohio State's 2014 crown, for good measure). They've won 13 of 16 possible conference titles, too. These are unquestionably national powers.

Oklahoma also has a mastermind in head coach Lincoln Riley orchestrating its offense. Based on system, the data inarguably shows his value. Riley served as the coordinator in 2015 and 2016 before replacing Bob Stoops in 2017.

The six remaining programs fit into two buckets.

Oklahoma State, Texas Tech and Ole Miss annually show off high-powered offenses, but inefficient or downright awful defenses have plagued them.

In 2018, none ranked higher than 86th nationally in either yards allowed per snap or points allowed per game. Only the 2015 Ole Miss defense held top-50 ranks in either category.

The other threeAppalachian State, Memphis and Toledoare Group of Five programs. Fair or not, that means they aren't national contenders. Still, they've collectively averaged 9.4 wins per season since 2015 and hold a common bond.

All three schools have recently lost a respected offensive-minded head coach to a power-conference team. Scott Satterfield (Appalachian State) left for Louisville, Justin Fuente (Memphis) went to Virginia Tech and Matt Campbell (Toledo) headed to Iowa State.


How About Personnel?

Henry Ruggs III, Jerry Jeudy and DeVonta Smith are three members of Alabama's electrifying WR quartet.
Henry Ruggs III, Jerry Jeudy and DeVonta Smith are three members of Alabama's electrifying WR quartet.Harry How/Getty Images

Remember the four national powers? Three of them boast the most impressive collection of talent in a specific class, too.

The best group of seniors is the toughest to choose because most stars head to the NFL after their junior year. As far as pure production goes, Houston and North Texas have legitimate claims here. But Ohio State's trio of receiversK.J. Hill, Binjimen Victor and Austin Mackat least merit a mention.

Alabama undoubtedly reigns the junior class.

Tua Tagovailoa is an elite quarterback, and Jerry Jeudy earned the Biletnikoff Award with 68 receptions for 1,315 yards and 14 touchdowns last year. Henry Ruggs and DeVonta Smith combined for 88 catches, 1,434 yards and 17 scores, while Najee Harris ran for 783 yards last year. He'll be the starter in 2019.

Clemson's hold on sophomores is equally as strong.

Ross caught three touchdowns from Lawrence during the 2018 CFP.
Ross caught three touchdowns from Lawrence during the 2018 CFP.Harry How/Getty Images

Trevor Lawrence guided the Tigers to the national title and could practically crush any other argument himself. But the Tigers also have Justyn Ross, the most explosive receiver in the country. Lyn-J Dixon scampered for 547 yards as a backup last year, and Derion Kendrick is headed for a larger role next season.

Oklahoma has the strongest incoming group. Lincoln Riley and his staff signed a 5-star quarterback (Spencer Rattler), two 5-star wideouts (Jadon Haselwood and Theo Wease), a 4-star receiver (Trejan Bridges), a 4-star back (Marcus Major) and a 4-star tight end (Austin Stogner).

While those are individual classes, the contenders are the same when looking at overall rosters.

Potential doesn't outweigh established production, though. That's what keeps Georgia and Texas out of the discussion, and it's part of the reason Oklahoma is a small step below.

Although the Sooners return a healthy chunk of their offense, the departures of Heisman Trophy winner Kyler Murray and AP All-America wideout Marquise Brown are hugely impactful. Oklahoma is well-positioned to excel, but with fresh talent.

Similarly, Ohio State is replacing quarterback Dwayne Haskins with a likely star in Justin Fields. Still, he's unproven, and receivers Parris Campbell, Terry McLaurin and Johnnie Dixon all graduated. Running back J.K. Dobbins isn't enough to propel a talented Buckeyes offense past the nation's other elite programs.

That leaves Alabama and Clemson.

Both offenses are exceptionally prepared to dominate in 2019. They've consistently proved as much lately, and there's little reason to anticipate a change.

Why? Basically everyone is back.

Alabama's tremendous scoring attack lost only tight end Irv Smith Jr. and running backs Damien Harris and Josh Jacobs. Tight end is a slight concern, but Najee Harris, Brian Robinson and 5-star newcomer Trey Sanders can handle the running game.

Clemson's returning talent is a bit slimmer. Receiver Hunter Renfrow finally used up his eligibility, as did reserve running back Adam Choice. Kendrick and Dixon are easy replacements. But this is also the first time we've mentioned All-American running back Travis Etienne, whose return boosts Clemson over Bama.

Think of it this way: Lawrence has the edge on Tagovailoa. Etienne has a stronger resume than Bama's talented backs. Alabama gets the nod at receiver, but not enough to make up the difference.

Even if you disagree with this subjective conclusion, the overall takeaway is easy: Poor defense can ruin a program's level of success, yet elite offense is most important.

And as the 2018 campaign just showed, the nation is chasing Clemson.


All recruiting information via 247Sports. Stats from NCAA.com, cfbstats.com or B/R research. Quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Follow Bleacher Report CFB Writer David Kenyon on Twitter @Kenyon19_BR.


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