AUSTIN, Texas — West Virginia has never won a national championship, but make no mistake. The Mountaineers have arrived on the big stage.
No less a national figure than Nick Saban has noticed.
He took one glance at West Virginia's track meet with Baylor last week and couldn't resist weighing in.
“There has to be some sense of fairness in terms of asking, ‘Is this what we want football to be?'” the Alabama coach said this week.
No, we'd all prefer that thrilling 21-0 Tide win in last year's title game. We still haven't caught our breath.
Dana Holgorsen couldn't help but snicker, even though Saban invented football at Tuscaloosa but desperately needs to find an edge for his SEC program. The fact that college football comes in different shapes and sizes — everything from the option at Air Force to the wide-open, high-scoring attacks at Oregon and West Virginia — gives the game much of its unique appeal.
In this day of five-wides and no-huddles, only 10 FBS quarterbacks are completing more than 70 percent of their throws. West Virginia's Geno Smith, who tops the nation with 432 passing yards a game, is just one of 15 quarterbacks who are averaging more than 300 passing yards a game.
“It's what people want to see,” the second-year West Virginia head coach told me Thursday. “It's what sells tickets and what gets people jobs. It's what people want on TV. It's where we're at.”
But it was even more of a stretch when Saban, ever-concerned about player safety facing an up-tempo style, said, “Guys have a much greater chance of getting hurt when they're not ready to play.”
Makes you wonder how the Crimson Tide have enough healthy players to suit up after risking life and limb against Ole Miss and Florida Atlantic.
Asked if he took Saban's comments as a dig, Holgorsen said, “He's a defensive football coach that's got great players on defense. Tempo equalizes that a little bit and reduces what they can do defensively. Spoken like a true defensive coordinator.”
When you get under Nick Saban's skin, you're doing something right. Holgorsen's Mountaineers are doing so much right, they're all but changing the face of college football. The former disciple of Mike Leach downplays his role in the advent of new-age offense, but visits often with Leach and Louisiana Tech's Sonny Dykes and traveled last spring to Texas A&M to share notes with buddies Kevin Sumlin and Kliff Kingsbury.
Holgorsen notices that nearly everyone in the college game is adopting some form of the spread, up-tempo offensive philosophy. Same for the NFL.
“If you look at the NFL, their snaps per game and the times they're in the gun have gone up,” Holgorsen said.
So how many of the 120 FBS teams incorporate facets of the spread? “I'd say a minimum of 75 percent,” he said. “And I think it's going up.” To combat these prolific offenses, teams load up on defensive backs, play six to seven at a time, and design gamelans heavy on clock-milking runs. Maryland ran the ball, held West Virginia to 68 plays — 20 fewer than the ‘Neers snapped against Baylor — and lost by only 10 points, 31-21.
“They huddled, sat over the ball and watched the entire play-clock (run down),” Holgorsen said.
Texas co-offensive coordinator Bryan Harsin said defenses just have to try to match the offense's speed.
“It's ‘My guy is faster than your guy.' That's where the defensive adjustments come,” Harsin said. “It's all about one-on-one matchups.” Holgorsen couldn't help but notice Georgia whipped Tennessee by the unheard-of score of 51-44 in Saban's own SEC backyard, an affront to serious football fans everywhere. Eventually, the pendulum will swing back because defenses will catch up and, of course, Saban will press for change and fairness so the Alabamas of the world will have a prayer.
Holgorsen assumes it will happen, too, because sports, fashion and hairstyles are cyclical. The run game will return. But we hope bell-bottoms and jheri curls do not.
“Spread is the wrong term for these offenses because they're more balanced than ever before,” Texas' Mack Brown said.
“I think they'll have to change some rules to back people off,” Holgorsen said.
In the meantime, Saban will just have to bide his time.
His Crimson Tide will play West Virginia in the 2014 Chick-fil-A Kickoff Classic in Atlanta. Hopefully, Saban won't have to single-platoon.
Distributed by MCT Information Services