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Does Speed Really Kill?

By Jim Johnson
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They say speed kills in college football. Florida State will be the ultimate test case for that old axiom this year.

They say speed kills in college football. Florida State will be the ultimate test case for that old axiom this year.

With Willie Taggart instituting his “Gulf Coast Offense” in Tallahassee, suffice it to say, the squad that ranked 127th in adjusted pace, last year, will look much different.

Taking over what was one of the five slowest groups in the country, in 2017, Taggart’s Oregon Ducks ranked 8th in adjusted pace, while the South Florida team he had just departed ranked first.

For fans, it’s easy to get excited about a more up-tempo offense, and with good reason: it’s an attractive, aesthetically pleasing brand of football. However, is it truly any more conducive to on-field success than a traditional approach?

One long held potential concern with those full tilt offenses is the perceived impact on said team’s own defense. It’s important when evaluating the impact of offensive pace on defensive performance to measure defensive efficiency as, especially now, when there has never been a more heightened disparity in college football philosphies, raw volume numbers are largely uninformative and occasionally even misleading.

For example, Notre Dame, in 2017, ranked 31st in points allowed per game and 46th in total defense per game, but they faced the 23rd most plays in the country, in part due to their own style of play on the other side of the ball, which ranked 17th in adjusted pace. Between their top 25 ranking in both S&P+ and points per drive allowed, whilst finishing just outside the top 25 in defensive FEI, it’s clear that the Fighting Irish defense was better than the basic metrics made it appear.

To further examine the impact, or lackthereof, of offensive pace on defensive efficiency, let’s look at college football’s best defenses from a year ago. In order to determine the list, we’ll do a pure aggregate ranking of however many schools finished in the top 50 of defensive S&P+, FEI, and points allowed per drive. While not, in itself, especially scientific, it should be sufficient in determing roughly the top third of FBS defenses from 2017.

Under those parameters, 41 schools are eligible and can be found in the chart below.

So, 19 of college football’s best 41 defenses’ offenses, or 46.3%, played at an above average adjusted pace last season. When separated into tiers (fast being #1-43, average being #44-88, and slow being #89-130) 13 were faster (31.7%), 12 were more middling (29.3%), and 16 were slower (39%).

In other words, there may be sound reasoning within the idea that fast-paced offenses hurt their own defenses because of quicker drives and, subsequently, more fatigued players, but in reality, at least using last season’s data set, it’s a logical fallacy with, at most, a minimal correlation. Even just looking at the cream of the crop, 50% of the ten best defenses in America played alongside offenses of above average tempo.

As the Seminoles, or any team looking to move more quickly, transition into this new scheme, they have nothing to worry about in the way of hurting themselves on the other side of the ball -- at least according to what happened in 2017. Perhaps a larger sample size would indicate otherwise, but one could argue that, as rapidly as the landscape of the game evolves, even a few years back would hold borderline antiquated information.

Then again, just because something doesn’t hurt, doesn’t necessarily mean it helps, either. There’s something about those Taggart-y offenses that are sexier to the naked eye, and the box score, but that doesn’t inherently make them more effective.

Taggart’s own offense, at Oregon, was a prime example of that. They ended up in the top 20 in points per game and the top 30 in yards per game but fell outside the top 30 in S&P+, outside the top 40 in points scored per drive, and were not even in the top 50 offenses according to FEI. Of course teams will score more points and pick up more yards with more opportunities, but does that mean their offenses are better? Hardly.

To examine the affect of pace on offensive efficiency, let’s do the same thing we did for the defenses. This time, 38 offenses were top 50 in each of the aforementioned categories.

Turns out, again using just last year’s data, that there was, in fact, a moderate correlation between speed and efficiency. 24 (63.2%) of the 38 best offenses in 2017 had an above average adjusted pace (Navy was exactly average). Beyond that, 18 were in the top third (47.4%), while 15 were more in the middle (39.5%), and just 5 were considered slower (13.2%).

Taggart and those of a similar inclination may actually be onto something. Granted, as he saw with his own squad, faster does not, by default, equal better, but when six of the sport’s ten most potent offenses all boasted top 22 adjusted pace rankings, it’s obviously a worthwhile pursuit.

While not especially surprising or revelatory, this information is not nothing. Out of curiousity, let’s see if we can’t further understand why so many of the best offenses also happen to be the most up-tempo.

Logic, here, would dictate that the root cause is probably a state of disarray, on behalf of opposing defenses, as a result of how early those hurry-up offenses get aligned and snap the ball. This would, theoretically, lead to more big plays and long touchdowns. Under this thought process, the faster teams would be more effective on offense because they are more explosive.

To test this hypothesis, let’s use the top 25 most explosive offenses, by IsoPPP+, from each of the last three years.

As denoted in the graphic above, 16 (64%) of the top 25 most explosive offenses in 2017 had an above average adjusted pace -- 10 (40%) were in the top third, 9 (36%) in the middle, and 6 (24%) in the bottom.

In 2016, 13 (52%) had an above average pace, but only 4 (16%) of which were in the top third, while 12 (48%) were in the middle, and 9 (36%) in the bottom.

Finally, in 2015, just 12 (48%) had an above average pace, but, coincidentally, the fast-average-slow splits shook out just as they did last year, with 10, 9, and 6.

2016 may have simply been an outlier, but it is, in all likelihood, a bit more nuanced than that.

Faster offenses are not more effective because they create more big play opportunities. Well, they are, but they aren’t. The increased efficiency comes from them forcing defenses to make a choice and live with it -- there’s not enough time to solve all the problems.

On the one hand, defenses can go more conservative -- stay patient, not give up anything over the top, and hope the offense makes a mistake. This, however, can play right into these offenses’ hands. Not across the board, but, by and large, the faster the offense, the simpler it is, conceptually. A defense that is overly concerned with getting caught out of position due to the opposition’s pace will end up letting that same offense dink and dunk in the shallow part of the field without consequence. This leads to higher success rates, and, eventually, points.

On the other hand, if a defense does try to stay aggressive, our original hypothesis can come to fruition. Players get fatigued, get caught out of position, blow assignments, don’t get the call, etc. Any number of things can go wrong in a hurry, and these offenses are designed to take advantage. This leads to those higher IsoPPP numbers, and, again, although this time more hastily, points.

Both can be true.

Florida State has a lot to be excited about.

Taggart has said that he will utilize standout running backs Cam Akers, Jacquez Patrick, and company simultaeously in certain packages, which is a godsend. There’s nothing worse than coaches refusing to put the best players on the field out of some sort of misplaced reverance or adherance to positional conventions.

There are two quarterbacks more than capable of running the offense.

There’s a host of promising young recievers, which, speaking of speed, can absolutely fly.

The offensive line can’t be any worse, right? So they’ve got that going for them, which is nice.

Defensively, even with some key losses at all three levels, the talent is undeniable. Levonta Taylor could be the best cornerback in the ACC, in 2017. With Demarcus Christmas, Brian Burns, Joshua Kaindoh, and Marvin Wilson, the defensive line could be as devastating as any non-Clemson group in the league. The upgrade from Charles Kelly to Harlon Barnett, alone, should warrant some modicum of hopefulness throughout ‘Nole country.

Last year was like something out of the Twilight Zone for Florida State. They weren’t as bad as their record, and, even if there’s a bit of a learning curve under the new staff, there will almost certainly be improvement, at least in the way of wins and losses.

That may, in part, be on account of a dramatically faster offense, as we learned earlier. Still, it’s important to maintain the importance of context. Tempo is great when the personnel matches the philosophy, but going fast for the sake of going fast is helpful to no one.

Even with a moderate correlation between offensive efficiency and pace, in 2017, and the minimal, arguably nonexistent impact of it on defensive efficiency, it’s still imperative to be schematically tailored to maximize the strengths and minimize the weaknesses of the actual players.

As Willie Taggart recruits and develops players that fit into the system that he would ultimately want to run, it may be more beneficial, in the immediacy, to give his team, especially given the pace disparity from a year ago, some breathing room. As these young, developing quarterbacks learn the offense, efficiency may come more in the 30-40 adjusted pace range, as opposed to the top ten. Hopefully he learned that at Oregon.

Numbers and scatter plots and high octane, up tempo offenses are great. Wins are better. Speed does kill in college football; both logic and evidence back that up. It’s the guys with the numbers on their backs, though, that decide the outcome of games.

At the end of the day, if there’s a moderate correlation between offensive efficiency and pace, no evidence that it impacts defensive efficiency, negatively or otherwise, and simple, obvious reasons as to why those statements are true, it makes sense to go fast. Taggart goes fast.

It may not pay dividends right away, but it probably will. Regardless, if the data from 2017 is any indication, once his “Gulf Coast Offense” is full steam ahead, the Seminoles will be a breakneck force to be reckoned with.

Jim Johnson - Editor of Southern Pigskin, Producer of "Three & Out", and host of "Explosive Recruiting" on the Southern Pigskin Radio Network. E-mail: Twitter: @JimJohnsonSP