On the first night of the new century, Tony Franklin was sitting at home in Lexington, Ky., watching two traditional giants tangle in the Orange Bowl.
Alabama vs. Michigan. Both were top 10 teams with old-school, pro-style offenses — Tom Brady started for the Wolverines. Both had won national championships in the days of the leather helmet.
Franklin, 42 years old and newly promoted to Kentucky's offensive coordinator, was a disciple of Hal Mumme's Air Raid passing system and on track to be a big name in college football.
But he noticed something on TV that night — Jan. 1, 2000 — that changed his career.
Occasionally, Alabama lined up quickly and ran a simple zone handoff to Shaun Alexander. Then the Tide did it again. And again. It looked like they were moving downhill on Michigan's weary defense.
“I wonder if we could do that,” Franklin thought.
He took it to Mumme, who nixed the idea, content that Kentucky's offense was prolific enough without a fast tempo. But Franklin was sold. Fourteen years later, he's preparing for another new gig — offensive coordinator at California. And with Chip Kelly gone to the NFL, Franklin may be the No. 1 trailblazer in the college game when it comes to up-tempo offenses.
Last year at Louisiana Tech, his offense led the nation in scoring and total offense. Its 51.5 points per game were college football's most since 1995 Nebraska.
How did the Bulldogs do it? Same way Alabama did it the first night of the 21st century.
The World-Herald interviewed coordinators at six of the highest-scoring, fastest-moving offenses in college football, hoping to learn what makes speed sublime.
The century's first decade — 2000 to '09 — was all about who could spread the field the most. Coaches, ambitious to blend the principles of Barry Switzer and LaVell Edwards, developed quarterbacks who could run and throw. But once defenses made a little progress, offenses found a new trick.
|MORE BIG RED TODAY UPDATES|
|Want the latest Husker headlines delivered straight to your inbox? Sign up for email alerts!|
Now the frontier for offenses is who can snap the ball fastest.
“We're kinda like old race-car drivers,” said Chris Hatcher, Murray State head coach and an up-tempo disciple. “You can only go so fast, but all those guys in the garage every week, they're trying to figure out a way to shave off a tenth of a second.”
For Franklin, tempo is the great equalizer. He recalls Troy's 41-23 upset of Oklahoma State in 2007 — you might remember it as the game that inspired Mike Gundy's “I'm a man, I'm 40” rant. That night with Franklin as its offensive coordinator, Troy piled up 562 yards of total offense.
“We probably didn't have four players that Oklahoma State would've ever thought about recruiting,” Franklin said, “but what we did was something they'd never seen.”
You can use the same offensive plans Alabama and Michigan use, Franklin said. But you'll be “sacrificial lambs.” Or you can do as Texas A&M did at Alabama last November and show them something different. Quicken the pace. By the time 'Bama collected itself, Johnny Football and Co. were ahead 20-0.
“We were kind of hoping nobody else would ever do it,” Franklin said, “because we had a nice little gimmick. Now you've got about 35 to 40 schools that are trying to do it.”
That includes Oklahoma State, where Gundy handed the offense to Dana Holgorsen in 2010 and won 11 games for the first time in school history. It includes Baylor, where Art Briles' quick pace helped Robert Griffin III win the Heisman.
It includes Ohio State, Texas A&M, Arizona, Clemson and, of course, Oregon, where Scott Frost takes over as play-caller.
“The word is fast,” the former Nebraska quarterback said. “We try to be as efficient as possible every single day. Obviously, more and more people are doing it and we're trying to stay one or two steps ahead.”
Hatcher, who worked alongside Franklin at Kentucky in the late '90s, discovered the up-tempo offense at Valdosta State in the early 2000s.
“We were kinda just bored with what we were doing and were just looking for ways to spice it up,” he said.
Hatcher had a package of eight or nine up-tempo plays that he ran periodically. Eventually, that became the core of the playbook. The basis is simple: Take as much power from the defensive guru as possible.
If you're running plays every 15 to 20 seconds, the coordinator on the other sideline doesn't have time to substitute as he wants. And he must stay basic in order to avoid confusion.
“I would be less apt to call a ton of pressure against someone who's going really fast,” Nebraska defensive coordinator John Papuchis said last fall. “That's a big play waiting to happen.”
Basically, offensive coordinators have two options in designing strategy, Nevada play-caller Nick Rolovich said.
1. Take your time, diagnose exactly what the defense is doing and try to call the perfect play — or coach the quarterback into the perfect play through audibles. (Think Peyton Manning at the line of scrimmage, pointing at linebackers.)
This is the traditional chess game, usually conducted between two guys in headsets sitting up in the press box. This is football pre-2010.
2. Don't bother trying to pick the perfect play. Be simple. Go as fast as you can. Beat defenders by wearing them out.
Eventually, it's like an avalanche. The offense is so fast, so relentless, that a defender's mind and body can't keep up. One miscommunication or missed tackle in space and — boom — it's a touchdown.
Offensive coordinators have taken the complex playbooks of the West Coast offense era and whittled them down to the bare essentials. They've cut verbiage. Found ways to signal faster. It takes longer for a catcher to tell his pitcher “fastball” than it does for an offensive coordinator to call a play.
How long will up-tempo offenses last? Are they just a 10-year fad? It depends how long it takes for defensive coordinators to find solutions.
“They don't have a lot of answers to the things that are going on in college football right now,” Rolovich said.
It's interesting that 14 years after Tony Franklin watched Shaun Alexander dart through the Michigan secondary, he and his peers are chasing the Crimson Tide again. Not Nick Saban's offense (which moves relatively slowly), but his defense.
How do you score consistently against all of those elite athletes? How do you find an edge on 'Bama? Think, think, think ...
Ah, forget it. Time's a wastin'. Snap the ball and go.