After three NFL seasons of kicking off from the 35-yard line, what has been the impact on touchbacks, returns, field position, scoring and injuries? Also, is this rule responsible for a record number of big comebacks?
21 Oct 2013
by Matt Hinton
The ultimate goal of Nick Saban's "process" oriented approach at Alabama is to produce a team that plays exactly the same game week-in, week-out, regardless of opponent, and it's a testament to his success that Bama's ongoing reign over the rest of college football is so easily taken for granted. On an average weekend, the assembly-line quality of the Crimson Tide's success just makes them that much safer to ignore. Last year's final score against Arkansas? 52–0, and could have been a lot worse. This year's final score against Arkansas? 52–0, and could have been a lot worse. Why even bother watching? Beginning with the last game of 2007, Saban's first season, Alabama has won 42 in a row against unranked teams, the last 23 by at least 17 points. Of its seven losses in that span, all but one (at South Carolina in 2010) came at the hands of a team that went on to finish in the top ten. When you flip away from a random Alabama game with the score 14–0 early in the second quarter, you can pretty much guarantee you're not going to wind up flipping back an hour later, wondering what you missed after the game you're watching breaks in with an "Upset Alert." You're not going to miss anything you haven't seen a couple dozen times before.
You know all that, of course, but it's worth mentioning in light of a weekend that drove home just how rare that kind of consistency really is. Aside from Alabama, the other five favorites in SEC games all lost, every single one of them in potentially season-crippling fashion. Florida, presented with a golden opportunity to take control of the SEC East, limped through the motions in a 36–17 flop at Missouri, a team starting a redshirt freshman quarterback in his first extended action. Georgia, ravaged by injuries on offense, finished with just 221 yards and blew a double-digit lead in the fourth quarter at Vanderbilt, effectively eliminating any goal the Bulldogs would have considered worthwhile two weeks ago. South Carolina, having just watched UGA narrowly escape an upset bid at Tennessee, walked right into a 23–21 ambush in Knoxville itself, dropping the Gamecocks two games behind Missouri in the East Division. LSU committed three turnovers in the first half at Ole Miss and couldn't climb out of a 17–0 hole in the second, dropping the Tigers two games behind Alabama in the West. Texas A&M couldn't stop Auburn, effectively eliminating the Aggies from any next-level goals with their second conference loss.
Outside of the SEC, Central Florida knocked Louisville from darkhorse to also-ran in the AAC by rallying from a three-touchdown deficit in the second half, UCLA showed no signs of life offensively in a 24–10 loss at Stanford and Clemson fell flat on its face against Florida State on its biggest stage of the season. That's seven of the top 15 in the Associated Press poll, all losers on the same day, all but UCLA in a fashion that instantly lowers the ceiling on the rest of the year.
Occasionally there's a glitch in the system that suggests Alabama is vulnerable in some fundamental, replicable way. Last year it was Johnny Manziel's unpredictability; this year, it was Manziel again, inflicting unprecedented damage on a Saban defense in the most un-Saban-like victory in his entire tenure. A few weeks before, Virginia Tech held the Bama offense to its worst output in terms of total yards in the Saban era. But then here we are again, eight weeks into the season, and while the sky is falling on the rest of the conference Alabama is meeting every quota with room to spare. Even with the A&M shootout on their resumé, the Tide are fifth nationally in total defense and first in scoring, having yielded just two touchdowns and 26 points to their other six opponents combined. Even with the Virginia Tech debacle, the offense is averaging 40 points per game -– up from the average in last year's championship run, which was up from the average in the 2011 championship run -– and ranks eighth nationally in yards per play. In the most recent F/+ ratings, Bama's special teams come in at No. 2. It's almost automatic. And if there's a lapse in this team's future prior to the BCS title game, it is automatically the upset of the year.
– The SEC record for total offense in a career (12,327 yards), set by Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray in the Bulldogs' loss to Vanderbilt, his 48th consecutive start;
– The FBS record for rushing yards by a quarterback (316), set by Northern Illinois' Jordan Lynch in a 38–17 win over Central Michigan;
– The FBS record for offensive plays (115), set by BYU in a wild, 47–46 win over Houston, in which QB Taysom Hill passed 44 times and ran 34 more for 545 total yards;
– The team record for total offense at Michigan (751 yards), set in a 62–47 win over Indiana, as well as the individual record for total offense at Michigan (584 yards), set by quarterback Devin Gardner;
– The Big Ten record for receiving yards (369), set by Michigan's Jeremy Gallon on 14 receptions;
– The FBS record for passes in a game (89 ... seriously, 89!), set by Washington State QB Connor Halliday in a 62–38 loss at Oregon that wasn't nearly that close. Halliday also set conference records for completions (58) and passing yards (557), most of them coming in obvious futility with the game well out of reach. (Oregon's defensive coordinator was not impressed.) The previous standard for pass-happiness was held by Purdue's Drew Brees, who launched 83 passes in a 31–24 loss at Wisconsin in 1998.
1. ALABAMA (7–0). Bama has 111 unanswered points against Arkansas since the Razorbacks' last score in the series, in 2011.
2. FLORIDA STATE (6–0). Noles look BCS-ready, for now, but remember that from 2005-12, ranked FSU teams lost at least one game to an unranked opponent in eight consecutive seasons.
3. OREGON (7–0). Marcus Mariota lost a pair of fumbles against Washington State, one of which was returned for a touchdown, but still hasn't thrown an interception since last November.
4. MISSOURI (7–0). If they make it three in row this weekend over Georgia, Florida and South Carolina –- the last two with a backup freshman quarterback -– the Tigers are in the national discussion for the long haul.
5. OHIO STATE (7–0). Buckeyes scored on six of their first seven offensive possessions against Iowa and didn't punt once -- a first under Urban Meyer -– but still had to pull away late in another Big Ten nail-biter.
6. STANFORD (6–1). Routine, defensively-driven win over UCLA has Cardinal right back in the BCS mix after last week's flop at Utah, although mainly because everyone immediately in front of them bit the dust.
7. BAYLOR (6–0). Defense held Iowa State to 174 yards and came within 47 seconds of its first in-conference shutout since 1985. (Oh, and the offense broke the 70-point/700-yard barrier for the fourth time in six games.)
8. MIAMI (6–0). Best start here since 2004, the Canes' first year in the ACC, but anyone who watched last Thursday's win over North Carolina knows speculation over conference titles and BCS bowls is still premature.
9. TEXAS TECH (7–0). Raiders escaped a bizarre, back-and-forth test at West Virginia that similarly fast-starting outfits in 2010-11 probably would have let slip away. Now things start to get interesting.
10. CLEMSON (6–1). Tigers not only blew their shot at national relevance down the stretch; Georgia's nosedive at Vandy means they also lost the Bulldogs as a validating, "quality" win at the top of the resumé.
11. LSU (6–2). Zach Mettenberger threw more interceptions in his first dozen passes at Ole Miss (3) than he threw in his first 195 passes this season, but in the end the Tigers' flop in Oxford only confirmed the mediocrity of this defense.
12. AUBURN (6–1). It says a lot about the nature of Texas A&M's offense that the Tigers yielded 41 points on 602 total yards and still left the impression that the front seven on defense played pretty well.
13. UCLA (6–1). Bruins are better than expected on defense, but Stanford exposed the offensive line as exactly the liability everyone predicted.
14. VIRGINIA TECH (6–1). Barring a lapse against one of the scrubbier members of the ACC, Hokies are one win at Miami away from taking an eleven-game winning streak into the ACC title game.
15. OKLAHOMA (6–1). Sooners' 34–19 win over Kansas wasn't as close as it seemed after OU fell behind 13–0 (Jayhawk QB Jake Heaps finished 5-of-13 passing for 16 yards, the fewest by any FBS offense this season), but it wasn't exactly reassuring after last week's flop against Texas, either.
16. OKLAHOMA STATE (5–1). In a league suddenly devoid of reliable quarterbacks, Cowboys are leaning more heavily on the defense by the week.
17. ARIZONA STATE (5–2). Sun Devils were slight favorites to beat Washington, but the 29-point margin was a shocking as anything else that happened this weekend.
18. SOUTH CAROLINA (5–2).
19. CENTRAL FLORIDA (5–1). Trailing Louisville 28–7 in the third quarter, UCF rallied to tie the game with three consecutive touchdowns in a little over four minutes heading into the fourth.
20. TEXAS A&M (5–2).
21. OREGON STATE (6–1). With 232 yards against Cal, receiver Brandin Cooks extended his national leads for receptions (76), yards (1,176) and touchdowns (12), and put himself on pace to set the single-season FBS record for receiving yards.
22. FRESNO STATE (6–0). Bulldogs have nothing between them and a BCS bowl except their own consistency.
23. MICHIGAN (6–1). A win is a win, but after close calls against Akron, Connecticut and Indiana, no other team with a record this good feels as badly about it.
24. NOTRE DAME (5–2). After combining for 24 points in the first half, the offenses for Notre Dame and USC failed to score at all in the second, combining for ten punts, eight three-and-outs, two turnovers, one third-down conversion and two turnovers on downs in the final two quarters alone. The Irish sealed a 14–10 win in appropriate fashion, on three straight incomplete passes by Trojan QB Cody Kessler to put the game out of its misery.
25. MICHIGAN STATE (6–1). After a couple of offensive outbursts against Iowa and Indiana, Spartans reverted to form in a 14–0 bludgeoning of Purdue -– they even scored a touchdown on defense, for old times' sake.
– – –
In: Arizona State, Central Florida, Michigan, Notre Dame.
Out: Georgia, Louisville, Washington, Utah.
Waiting: Ole Miss, Louisville, Wisconsin, BYU, Georgia
The weekend's most outstanding linemen, defenders and other darkhorses.
1. LAMARCUS JOYNER • DB, Florida State
Jameis Winston was the headliner, but the initial spark in FSU's 51–14 obliteration of Clemson came from Joyner, who caused a pair of fumbles in the first quarter that led directly to the Seminoles' first two touchdowns –- one of them an easy scoop-and-score for defensive end Mario Edwards caused by Joyner's blindside sack of Tajh Boyd off the corner. For the game, Joyner finished with eight tackles (all solo) and an interception that set up another score, at the head of a defense that held Clemson to arguably its worst offensive game since Boyd took over as the starting quarterback in 2011.
2. MICHAEL SAM • DE, Missouri.
For the second week in a row, Sam stood out in a validating upset for the Tigers, looking every bit the prototypical Ess Ee See pass rusher with three sacks in the win over Florida. (Fellow end Kony Ealy made his mark from the other side, as well, with a sack, a forced fumble and three hurries.) Unable to deal with the rush, the Gator offense crossed midfield just once and finished with their worst output in terms of total yards (155) since the 1999 SEC Championship Game.
3. WILL SUTTON • DT, Arizona State
Through ASU's first six games, Sutton was another preseason All-American who looked more like a bust, coming in for criticism from scouts over the "bad weight" he put on over the offseason and his rough night at Stanford opposite NFL-bound guard David Yankey. Against Washington, he was back to his old, disruptive self in the middle of the line, keeping the Huskies in the red via three tackles for loss, a sack and a pass broken up. As a team, the Devils recorded a dozen tackles for loss, easily their best effort of the season after leading the nation in TFLs in 2012.
4. JORDAN RICHARDS • S, Stanford
Richards was credited with a team-high ten tackles and a pair of interceptions against UCLA, both leading to short-field touchdowns for the Cardinal offense in a 24–10 win. Altogether, the Bruins managed just 266 yards of total offense in Palo Alto, less than half of their season average through the first five games and their worst single-game output since October 2010. Seven of UCLA's eleven offensive possessions ended in a punt, and six ended without a single first down.
5. JADEVEON CLOWNEY • DE, South Carolina
Finally. College football's answer to Paul Bunyan lived up to the legend for the first time this season, finishing with three tackles for loss and generally harassing the Tennessee backfield throughout the afternoon. He even turned in a highlight-worthy hit on the Vols' Rajion Neal, who later denied Clowney another TFL in the box score by awkwardly pitching the ball forward for an incomplete pass on his way to the turf. Any other backs who think about trying that might want to work on getting the pass out before they get rocked.
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