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Why This Will Be the Fastest Championship Game in College Football History

Urban Meyer

Urban Meyer

From three yards and a cloud of dust, as Woody Hayes might say, to three plays per minute.

Maybe that’s a bit of a stretch, but when Ohio State is in the conversation to be one of the fastest national champions in college football history, the message is clear: The hurry-up, no-huddle is as mainstream as can be.

If Oregon wins the national championship, the Ducks will be the most up-tempo team to win the national title since at least the BCS era.

That’s not a surprise to anyone who follows college football closely.

This, though, is the revelation: If Ohio State wins the national title, the Buckeyes might end up one of the fastest champions since the start of the BCS era, too.

Ohio State still has a way to go to catch up to Oregon in tempo, but the Ducks and Buckeyes are running track meets compared to national champions since 1998.

“(Tempo is) an advantage for the offense,” Ohio State coach Urban Meyer told reporters in Columbus earlier this week. “And if you don't take it, then that's fine. But even Alabama is moving in that direction, and is it full speed all the time? We're not, but certainly that gives us an advantage at times.”

Ohio State might not be the full-time tempo team like Oregon is, but either way, the Buckeyes or Ducks will be the first national champion since the BCS era to run 1,000 plays in a season. And that doesn’t have anything to do with playing a 15th game. Both easily crossed that threshold in the semifinals, their 14th game of the season.

Both teams average more than 72 plays per game — Oregon at 74.8 and Ohio State at 72.5. Only five BCS/AP champions in 16 years averaged more than 70 plays per game — 1999 Florida State (74.5), 2000 Oklahoma (71.9), 2004 USC, 2005 Texas (72.4) and 2007 LSU (71).*

*if that LSU team looks out of place, there’s a good reason for it. The “undefeated in regulation Tigers” played a total of six overtime periods in two games that season.

The plays per minute metric may be even more telling. Oregon averages nearly 2.8 plays per minute, which would be a BCS record by a wide margin.

Ohio State averages over 2.3 plays per minute. As it stands, the Buckeyes would be the fourth-fastest team to win a title since 1998.

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*complete data unavailable

What’s that you say? Auburn-Oregon in 2010 was already the signal that tempo offense had arrived?

Maybe for Oregon. Even with Gus Malzahn running the offense, Auburn ran at a pace not that different from what came earlier in BCS championship history.

Under Chip Kelly, the Ducks averaged 78.8 plays per game and 2.9 plays per minute. Had the Ducks won that game, they would have been the most up-tempo champion by a mile.

Instead, Auburn won. And while Malzahn’s scheme and tempo set the tone for a new era in the SEC, that Tigers team was not as fast as either team in Dallas.

That Cam Newton-led Auburn team ran 67.7 plays per game, well below the 70-play threshold. The Tigers that season averaged 2.31 plays per minute, well behind Oregon’s pace this season and a smidgen behind Ohio State.

Perhaps that’s not the most startling of storylines until you examine where Ohio State and Urban Meyer started.

Meyer’s 2006 and 2008 championship teams at Florida were two of the four slowest champions of the BCS era in terms of plays per game. Ohio State’s 2002 title team ranks 11th of 17 champions in plays per game during that span.

“At Florida, there's a misunderstanding that we were a big tempo team,” Meyer said. “We weren't.”

All things change, and the tempo at Ohio State is among them. Meyer’s last two Buckeyes teams have averaged more than 71 plays per game and 2.28 plays per minute. As recently as 2008, Ohio State averaged 62.1 plays per game and fewer than two plays per minute.

In other words, the Buckeyes have gone from old school to new school in six seasons.

The irony is that Oregon isn’t running at its breakneck pace on every snap. The Ducks’ 2.76 plays per minute this season is their lowest since 2009.

Will this be the wave of the future? Oregon coach Mark Helfrich isn’t quite sure, though the change won’t come from the Ducks.

“People that have one foot in the water of our style or our way,” Helfrich told reportersin Eugene. “A couple of years from now, they’ll do something else.”