The Big 12 Football Lab is Up and Running at the Running Back Position
While so much Big 12 talk over recent weeks has rightfully revolved around its renewed role as the epicenter of conference realignment, it is easy to forget that the Big 12 has for years been the epicenter of innovation in college football, particularly on offense. How many years did SEC fans and the talking heads on ESPN complain that the Big 12 doesn’t play defense before the NFL and then the SEC started photocopying Big 12 playbooks wholesale?
Satan’s ESPN’s narrative, when Alabama beat Ole Miss 63-48 last season, that was just great offense overcoming stellar, magnificent, super-awesome SEC defense. But if you were to substitute Alabama with Oklahoma State and Ole Miss with Texas Tech, then the narrative changes: it’s clearly an open and shut case of bad defense, end of story.
When Georgia needed two overtimes to beat Oklahoma 54-48 in the 2018 Rose Bowl, only one thing was truly clear: Oklahoma (and the Big 12 in general) just didn’t play any defense whatsoever. The 45 points OU racked up on UGA in regulation were totally different than the 45 points UGA racked up on OU in regulation.
How? It’s simple ESPN logic: OU gave up points due to playing poor Big 12 defense. UGA gave up points despite playing stellar, unbeatable SEC defense.
No, that’s not hypocritical at all. It’s totally fair because SEC! SEC! SEC!
Copying the Big 12
Despite the cultish devotion by ESPN and others to the SEC, the Big 12 is the only league where a head coach can be fired one day for not producing enough wins and get an NFL head coaching gig the next for having so much offensive acumen. For all the wise cracks and outright kicking the Big 12 has taken in the media and among fans of opposing leagues, no league has transformed the way the game is played over the past twenty to thirty years more than the Big 12.
While the Big 10 plays a lot of beefy boredom ball and the SEC plays in a snake pit where universities sell their souls for wins, the Big 12 has both pioneered prolific spread attacks that strike like lightning and fostered antigens to the spread, such as the ball control game plans of developmental programs like K-State and Iowa State. Through these innovations and counter-innovations the Big 12 has transformed the way football is played from high schools to the NFL.
A lesser-known part of the story came in the early years of the Big 12 when Bill Snyder and K-State cultivated a hybrid of Pop Warner’s Single Wing offense and the West Coast offense that gave birth to the Wildcat formation, the zone-read, and the run-pass option (RPO). Though not a Big 12 member at the time, West Virginia and Rich Rodriguez concurrently worked with the same concepts from a more pass-oriented perspective. Urban Meyer borrowed heavily from both Snyder and Rodriguez to create the offenses that would propel Bowling Green into the Top 25 and Florida to national prominence.
Meanwhile, a much better-known story was unfolding as Texas Tech’s Mike Leach and others got pass-happy with the Air Raid offense. No-huddle spread offenses took a particular hold over the Big 12 and wreaked absolute havoc on Big 12 defenses.
Over the years, the Big 12 laboratory perfected, permutated, and cross-bred variations of the no-huddle spread and the RPO/zone-read while defenses simply tried to keep up by making philosophical changes regarding personnel and alignment. For example, the nickelback, formerly considered a somewhat exotic position only to be used on third-and-long if at all, has become a starting position for many Big 12 defenses that requires more athleticism than most.
What was created in the Big 12 football lab resulted in enormous aftershocks that have changed the complexion of football from Friday nights to Super Bowl Sunday. As Mike Finger of the San Antonio Express-News writes, “Everyone, it seems, has recognized the Big 12 was ahead of its time.” Everyone except ESPN, anyway.
All of this is not just to say that the chronic criticism the Big 12 has received over the years is unjust, it’s also to say, watch this space: the Big 12 is the laboratory where the future trends in football are born.
2021 Will be No Different
As another Big 12 football season approaches, the conference appears to be evolving even further. Defenses are getting more positive reviews, tight ends are being utilized more, and the league synonymous with high-flying passing attacks may actually be more loaded at running back than at quarterback.
Here’s a look at some, but certainly not all, of the running backs who will help define this season in the Big 12:
Iowa State’s Breece Hall returns after rushing for 1,572 yards last season, and 935 of those yards, nearly 60%, came after contact. Oh, and by the way, Hall led the nation in rushing last season including topping Alabama’s Najee Harris by more than 100 yards despite Harris playing an extra game.
K-State’s Deuce Vaughn, a true freshman last season, rushed for 642 yards and collected passes for an additional 434 for a total of 1,076 yards in only ten games. Nearly 58% of those rushing yards came after contact (370 yards), and a whopping 85% of his receiving yards came after the catch (369 yards).
Oklahoma’s Kennedy Brooks opted out of the 2020 season, but in 2019, he rushed for 1,011 yards with over 54% of those yards coming after contact (549 yards). Meanwhile, Eric Gray, who transferred from Tennessee to Oklahoma, had just under 53% of his 758 rushing yards with the Vols in 2020 come after contact (401 yards).
West Virginia’s Leddie Brown rushed for 1,010 yards last season in only ten games with just under 58% of his yards coming after contact (585 yards).
Texas’ Bijan Robison was underutilized for most of last season, but he came on in the last four games of the season to collect 521 rushing yards and finish with 705 yards on the season with over 75% of those yards coming after contact (530 yards). Roschon Johnson added 418 rushing yards for UT with over 78% coming after contact (328).
Other running backs to keep an eye on this season include several who have yet to take a prominent role in their offenses or are looking to overcome injury: Oklahoma State’s LD Brown, TCU’s former five-star recruit Zack Evans, Texas Tech’s SaRodorick Thompson and Xavier White, and Baylor’s Craig Williams.
While the Big 12 laboratory is hopefully getting creative to handle the major headline of this offseason, conference realignment, charting the performances and uses of the Big 12’s outstanding stable of running backs this season may provide a glimpse into the future of college football.
Despite all those declaring the Big 12 dead, there are plenty of reasons to believe the conference will survive. While Oklahoma and Texas may have always driven the most viewers to the Big 12, it’s been teams like Kansas State, Texas Tech, Oklahoma State, Baylor, Iowa State, and West Virginia that carried the load of changing how the game is actually played and stamping the Big 12 all over contemporary football.
With so much innovation coming from the Other Eight (the Irate 8), the survival of the Big 12 would be good news for the sport in general, and the trend towards prominent running backs might be a key indicator of where the most innovative X’s and O’s conference in the nation is heading.