Chip Kelly's motto as head coach at Oregon was Win the Day. More often than not Oregon's recipe for success was to jump on top early and wear down opposing defenses as much as possible with an up-tempo style of offense not afraid to take any chances. As a result Oregon scored more points in the first quarter than any other team in major college football dating back to the 2003 season.
Last season the Ducks averaged 15.8 points in the first quarter in each game they played. If getting out to a quick lead is the objective, nobody was better at doing so than Kelly's Ducks. Oregon not only became the highest scoring team in the first quarter over the past decade, but they became just the third team in that span to average more than 14 points in a first quarter, joining Bowling Green (2004 averaging 15.5 ppg in the first quarter) and Oklahoma (2008, 15.2 ppg in the first quarter).
With Kelly as head coach Oregon's offense has captured almost as much attention as the weekly uniform assignments, but the success and record speaks for itself. Oregon has gone 46-7 over the past four seasons under Kelly utilizing this style of offense. Success like that leads to other programs around the country trying to emulate the system in hopes of building their own winning reputation. If the 2012 season is any indication, up-tempo offenses are indeed spreading around and turning out wins.
Louisiana Tech's Sonny Dykes, a former assistant of Mike Leach at Texas Tech, has found a way to get the Bulldogs to pick up the pace of their offense. In Derek Dooley's final season with Louisiana Tech (2009) the Bulldogs averaged 70.2 plays per game with an average time of possession of 29 minutes and 23 seconds in a 4-8 season. Under Dykes the Bulldogs have executed more plays per game (88.6 plays per game in 2012) while trimming approximately 90 seconds off of their average time of possession per game. Last season Louisiana Tech averaged 13.5 points per game in the first quarter and made a push for a BCS spot before falling short of the spot that eventually was awarded to MAC champion Northern Illinois.
In the ACC last season North Carolina nearly doubled their first quarter scoring output from 2011. In the first season with Larry Fedora and his Red Bull fueled enthusiasm on the sidelines the Tar Heels went from 6.1 points per game in the first quarter to averaging 11.5 points per game in the first quarter. In the ACC we saw three schools average over 10 points per first quarter, with Clemson (11.9 ppg) and Miami (10.6 ppg).
The 2012 season saw more schools average at least 10 first quarter points than any other season over the past decade. Just five teams averaged double-digit scoring outputs in the first quarter in 2011, compared to 11 in 2012. On a year-to-year basis the total number of teams seeing this kind of scoring tends to go up and down, but the 2012 season saw higher scoring averages than any other season. The question remains, how much does this matter in the grand scheme of things?
First Quarter Points Per Game (2012)
Rank. First Quarter Points Per Game - Team (2012 record)
- 15.8 - Oregon (12-1)
- 13.5 - Louisiana Tech (9-3)
- 11.9 - Clemson (11-2)
- 11.8 - Fresno State (9-4)
11.8 - Texas A&M (11-2)
- 11.5 - North Carolina (8-4)
- 11.2 - Baylor (8-5)
- 10.9 - Arizona State (8-5)
- 10.6 - Miami, FL (7-5)
10.6 - UCLA (9-5)
- 10.1 - Oklahoma State (8-5)
- 9.8 - Alabama (13-1)
The two-time defending BCS champions from Alabama prove a solid point when you look at these numbers. Getting off to a quick start in college football is still a key to success, but defense is what will separate the really good teams from the great teams.
Alabama averaged nearly 10 points per first quarter last season but it was the defense that truly set the tone form the start of the game. The Crimson Tide allowed just 2.2 points per game in the first quarter, averaging out to giving Alabama a touchdown lead at the end of the first quarter on a weekly basis. Only two teams listed in the ranking above besides Alabama managed to land in the top ten for first quarter points allowed. Oregon ranked 10th in the nation by allowing three points per first quarter, which on average gave the Ducks nearly a 13-point lead after one quarter. Texas A&M allowed 2.7 first-quarter points per game, which averaged out to a 9.1-point lead after one quarter (Alabama fans now this all too well).
First Quarter Points Per Game (2012)
Rank. First Quarter Points Per Game Allowed - Team (2012 record)
- 0.8 - Notre Dame (12-1)
0.8 - Utah State (11-2)
- 1.7 - Penn State (8-4)
- 2.1 - Boise State (11-2)
- 2.2 - Alabama (13-1)
2.2 - Bowling Green (8-5)
- 2.3 - Kent State (11-3)
- 2.4 - Stanford (12-2)
- 2.7 - Texas A&M (11-2)
- 3.0 - Oregon (12-1)
3.0 - Florida State (12-2)
3.0 - Connecticut (5-7)
- 3.1 - Rutgers (9-4)
- 3.3 - South Carolina (11-2)
As good as Oregon's offense can be - and it can be very good - it appears that a strong defensive effort will still be more important factor in college football. Take, for instance, this past season when Oregon battled Stanford in a key Pac 12 North match-up. Oregon's offense had their way with most of their opponents but when stacked up against a defense as fundamentally sound and skillful as much as physical as Stanford's defense was, the Ducks ran in to problems. The Cardinal allowed just 2.4 points per game in the first quarter and the only team all season to keep Oregon off the scoreboard in the first quarter. That may or may not be a coincidence in a small sample size, but take a look at the numbers above.
Notre Dame led the nation in first quarter scoring defense and - fraudulent or not - the Fighting Irish completed an unbeaten regular season and played for a BCS championship. They lost to Alabama, who ranked fifth overall and had the fourth best first quarter scoring defense. Utah State won the WAC because their defense was able to throw Louisiana Tech a curve ball the Bulldogs just could not hit.
Stanford won a Pac 12 title largely because of their defense. Rutgers played at a defensive level that would have led to a Big East championship and BCS berth if it could avoid a rally by Louisville's Teddy Bridgewater. Kent State plays in the MAC but played some of the best defense in the conference.
Offense is nice. Offense is sexy. Offense is fun.
But defense separates the contenders from the pretenders in college football. That trend may never truly change.
Statistics provided by Team Rankings.