In 2010, the Oklahoma Sooners ran an average of 86.5 offensive plays per game. Their uptempo, no-huddle sensibilities fit perfectly in the Big 12, which was developing a well-deserved reputation for offensive innovation. At the time, other conference mates like Oklahoma State and Texas Tech routinely ran 80 or more plays in games that often produced final scores in the range of 80-90 total points.
Fast forward 12 years, however, and Big 12 teams have embraced a plodding brand of throwback football. OU is a prime example: The Sooners preferred to take their time on offense under Lincoln Riley’s watch. By 2021, OU was averaging just 65.5 snaps per game.
The chart above illustrates how the slowdown played out for Big 12 teams over time. It tracks the median of the Adjusted Pace rank of conference members for every year from 2015 to 2021. Adjusted Pace is an advanced statistic maintained by ESPN’s Bill Connelly that represents the difference between a team’s actual time of possession per play and what would be expected based on its run-pass rate.
Since this data set consists of rankings, higher numbers imply slower Adjusted Pace. The change in the Big 12 between 2015 and 2021 was remarkable, as the median team ranking rose from 22.5 to 93.5 during the period.
As mentioned previously, offensive plays per game tells a similar story:
This charts depicts the yearly median of Big 12 teams’ offensive plays per game from 2015 to 2021. It shows a clear trend down over time, which also implies members of the conference slowed down on offense in that seven-year period.
Interestingly, both Adjusted Pace and plays per game indicate offensive tempo got noticeably slower in the Big 12 from 2020 to 2021.
Why did Big 12 offenses take their feet off the gas? You could come up with a number of explanations. OSU coach Mike Gundy raised a compelling point at conference media days with respect to quarterback play: “If your quarterback isn’t playing good, playing fast is not a good thing.” Assuming he’s right, perhaps QB play fell off across the league from 2015 to 2021. (That could explain the stark drop-off last year, in particular.)
Then there are the schemers actually designing these offenses. More teams appear to be eschewing spread personnel groupings for base sets with tight ends and H-backs to fit ground-oriented systems. Meanwhile, uptempo gurus such as Art Briles, Kliff Kingsbury and Dana Holgorsen gradually disappeared from the scene, replaced by coaches who preferred to play at a more deliberate pace. For example, West Virgina went from routinely ranking in the top 25 in Adjusted Pace under Holgorsen to a team that has ranked 93rd, 68th and 102nd under Neal Brown.
OU will be zigging into the zag this year following Riley’s departure for USC. New offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby likes to burn rubber, as fans witnessed during the spring game in April. In his three seasons as an offensive coordinator at Central Florida in 2019 and Ole Miss in 2020 and 2021, the teams ranked first, third and third nationally in Adjusted Pace. Meanwhile, they averaged 78.2, 79.7 and 78.2 offensive snaps per game. Those numbers would have ranked first in the Big 12 in each of the last three seasons.
Keep an eye out for other Big 12 teams to rediscover uptempo offenses this year, too. The Sooners aren’t the only ones changing coaching staffs in 2022. New Texas Tech head coach Joey McGuire poached 30-year-old offensive coordinator Zach Kittley away from Western Kentucky in the offseason, and the Hilltoppers ranked 22nd nationally in Adjusted Pace a year ago. New TCU coach Sonny Dykes fielded a squad at SMU that ranked 17th overall in Adjusted Pace in ‘21.
Is this a good thing for the Sooners? If you subscribe to the idea that uptempo offenses advantage teams with superior talent, probably so. The theory in this case holds that playing faster yields more plays in a game, which favors teams with better players. Given that OU generally recruits better than every other team besides Texas in the Big 12, that sounds like a plus.
On the other hand, don’t count on OU gaining some kind of schematic advantage by playing fast. In fact, playing fast tends to work against a team if its offense sputters. Just because Big 12 teams aren’t facing uptempo offenses as frequently doesn’t mean they can’t handle them. Coaching staffs across the league have seen the no-huddle more than enough over the years – it won’t phase their teams when opposing offenses hit the accelerator.