The rough-and-tumble Big Ten can put up gaudy score lines, too.
Ohio State scored 63 points last weekend, Michigan 44. After a paltry start, Penn State is pouring it on with 34 points or more in three of its last four games. Nebraska has yet to dip below the 30-point mark. As the season approaches its midway point, half of the teams in the conference so gritty the colors of its logo are black and blue are averaging 30 points or more.
"I think that's where college football is today," Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said Tuesday. "Just to watch the way everybody is in a spread mentality, is playing with tempo, it's just a matter of time until teams score when you've got the defense out there as long as you are."
Scoring has been on the rise across the nation, thanks largely to the proliferation of spread and pro-style offenses and the introduction of the running 40-second clock. Three years after Boise State and Houston were the only two teams to average more than 40 points a game, at 42.2 each, 17 schools are scoring 40 or more. Five teams are scoring in the 50s, led by Oklahoma State with 55.8 points per game.
It's not only the traditionally prolific schools piling up the points, either. Texas A&M, better known for its "Wrecking Crew" defense, is averaging almost 45 points a game, eighth most in the country.
"Football is a trendy sport, by nature," Penn State coach Bill O'Brien said.
Yes, but trendy and Big Ten don't usually go together.
Scan the yearly list of the Big Ten's leader in scoring offense, and you'll see a lot of numbers in the 20s and 30s. Oh, sure, a 40 would show up every once in a while (40.0 by Ohio State in 1969 or 48.1 by Penn State in 1994). Most years, however, reflected the conference and its grind-it-out nature.
Then, in 1997, Joe Tiller arrived at Purdue, bringing his "basketball on grass" offense — and a kid named Drew Brees — with him. Pretty soon, that old notion that pro-style, pass-happy offenses couldn't work in the snow and cold of the Midwest had been turned on its head. Same for the idea that the only good football game was a 9-6 slugfest.
Wisconsin led the league with 43 points per conference game last year, and 45.2 the year before that. It was the first time ever the league's scoring average leader had topped 40 in back-to-back years. And it could be three in a row, with Nebraska currently averaging almost 44 points a game, 10th highest in the country.
"With the rise in talent level offensively and the things people are doing conceptually, it's been a big positive," Michigan State coach Mark D'Antonio said. "The defense is working in those same realms. But ... since I was a defensive coordinator back in '02, 03, the game has changed dramatically."
Now, not every Big Ten team looks like a WAC wannabe. Wisconsin's offense is still built around the ground game, and probably always will be. Yes, the Badgers had Russell Wilson last year, but that was an oddity. The year before, when Wisconsin was scoring in bunches, it was thanks to a behemoth offensive line that bulldozed such big holes the Badgers almost couldn't help but score.
But the league is no longer running different own versions of the same offense, either. Look at Ohio State. The school that produced Eddie George and Archie Griffin has opened things up under Urban Meyer, and is scoring 30 or more points in all but two games this year with its spread offense.
Nebraska runs a lot of option out of the shotgun. Illinois' aim is to run the spread. Michigan State and Iowa are more traditional.
And then there's Michigan, which changes from week to week depending on the kind of game Denard Robinson is having.
That variety, rather than the offenses themselves, are what has the most impact, D'Antonio said.
"It's not that one particular philosophy is good, bad or indifferent. It's that every week in college football, offenses change dramatically," he said. "You only have three, four days max to prepare for that offense, and what you're seeing is people not executing on the defensive side of ball as well due to the complexities and changes. ... It's tough for a young player to (adapt)."
In the end, though, good football will always trump glitzy schemes. Just look at last year's Big Ten title game, which featured Wisconsin and Michigan State, two of the conference's most traditional offenses.
"If you can control the football and play good defense, play great on special teams, good things are going to happen for you," D'Antonio said. "There are all different ways of getting to the top. It's just a matter of, philosophically, what direction you're going to take. In the end, it's about how you execute and your ability to adapt."