Whether you take your Pac-12 football after dark or while the sun is still up, it’s almost impossible not to notice a trend that’s been building for more than half a decade.
Scoring is up in the league. Big time.
Since 2009, when the league averaged 27.8 points per game, there has been a sharp increase in offensive production to the tune of almost a full touchdown per contest. In 2014, the league averaged 33.5 points per game -- tops among all conferences in college football. The year before, the scoring average was 33.4 points -- also best in the country.
Over the last five seasons, 10 of the 12 teams in the league (starting in 2011 with Utah and Colorado) have increased their scoring, sometimes quite dramatically. Washington State, for example, went from 12 points per game in 2009 to 31.8 last year, a difference of 19.8 points per game. UCLA is up 11.5 points per game over that stretch and Cal, Oregon and USC are all better by at least nine points per contest over five years ago.
The only teams to decline were Oregon State and Stanford. The Mike Riley teams were well known for up-and-down seasons (34.8 in 2013, 25.7 in 2014). And Stanford, well, they just ran out of Luck.
There are multiple explanations for the scoring surge, but it starts with the most obvious.
“There have been some great quarterbacks in the last five years,” Stanford coach David Shaw said. “Some guys haven’t translated yet to the NFL. But the quarterbacks we’ve had in the conference the last five years as far as college football is concerned, it’s been an all-star cast. Coaches are good, but we’re all better coaches with better players.”
From Heisman winner Marcus Mariota to Andrew Luck and Matt Barkley to record-setters Sean Mannion and Connor Halliday, offensive production is as high across the board as its been in league history. Even the last couple of seasons, the league has experienced a quarterbacking golden age of sorts, with great starters in 2013 and 10 of them returning in 2014.
“That’s a huge deal,” Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez said. “Not just having a guy back. It’s not like there were a bunch of bums coming back. Those were some really, really good players. It starts with that.”
Another explanation is the infusion of high-end coaching talent and the systems they bring with them. You need look no further than the 2012 coaching class that introduced the league to Rodriguez, Mike Leach, Jim Mora and Todd Graham. Arizona, ASU and UCLA saw huge gains in scoring between 2011 and 2012. Arizona jumped from 30.8 to 38.2; ASU from 33.2 to 38.4 and UCLA from 23.1 to 34.4. Washington State took a step back in Leach’s first year, falling from 29.8 in 2011 to 20.4 in 2012. But the last two years, the Cougars have reached 31 points in 2013 and 31.8 in 2014.
All four coaches brought a variation of the spread offense with them -- and each considerably different than the next.
“It’s very open from an offensive standpoint as far as scheme,” Rodriguez said. “Frankly in this league, you have to score a lot to win some games. You have to keep scoring because you know the other team can score points. You’re not shutting anybody out in this league.”
So scoring surged, and records fell.
But that’s to be expected when so many teams run spread and up-tempo offenses. Every team in the league either bases out of the spread or has a spread package that they incorporate throughout the game (yes, even Stanford can go up-tempo spread if it has to). This generates more offensive possessions and more opportunities to score. The end result are games like Cal and WSU’s 60-59 shootout or the Bears’ 59-56 2OT thriller against Colorado.
Last season a Pac-12 team scored at least 50 points 22 times and at least 40 points 26 times.
“You have two up-tempo teams, both are getting a lot of possessions and both are getting a lot of opportunities to score -- it’s dizzying,” Shaw said.
This has been a national trend the last half decade, though less dramatic in other leagues. The Big 12 was averaging 28.4 points per game in 2009 and 32.3 last year. The Big Ten went from 26.8 to 29.7. The SEC jumped from 28.4 to 31.5 and the ACC increased from 27.5 to 28.7. But the largest gains have come out west.
Rodriguez and Shaw added that a lot more West Coast skill players are choosing to stay closer to home. The left side of the country always has been a recruiting hot bed for the rest of the country. But with better television contracts and the ongoing one-upmanship when it comes to facilities, the need to go east to be “seen” is no longer an issue.
“The old-school thinking was if you want to be on national TV, you have to go to Notre Dame or Texas or Alabama,” Shaw said. “Now everybody is on national TV every week. You can come to Stanford and play big-time college football. You can go to Arizona or Arizona State and be on national TV. It’s not just a few schools in the Midwest and Southeast that get on TV. There is that ability to play at a high level without having to leave the West Coast.”
Despite the exodus of said big-time quarterbacks, the thinking is that this just might be the beginning of the league’s offensive uptick.
“I think it’s going to keep getting better,” Rodriguez said. “You see it at the high school level with the 7-on-7s and all of the talent that’s developing at a younger age. I think the Pac-12 is better now than it’s ever been. I’ve only been here three years, but I think it’s going to be even better in the next eight to 10 years than it is now.
“I’d hate to be a defensive coordinator nowadays.”