When you think about the Big 12 now, it's about the passing quarterbacks. But that was somewhat of a recent development. From its inception, the league was meant to be all about the single back.
The league's schools have produced some of the country's greatest backs, especially historically. There's Billy Vessels, Gale Sayers, John Riggins, Earl Campbell, Billy Sims, Thurman Thomas and Barry Sanders, to name a few. And the Big 12 era itself has seen Troy Davis, Byron Hanspard, Ricky Williams, Darren Sproles, Cedric Benson and Adrian Peterson. Additionally, new member TCU has LaDanian Tomlinson, the NCAA's leader in rushing yards in a game, while West Virginia has Avon Cobourne (11th nationally in career yards), Amos Zareoue and Steve Slaton.
But the advent of the spread, and its quick proliferation through the Big 12 changed all of that. The Big 12 had three 2,000-plus yard rushers in its first three years: Davis, Hanspard and Williams. In those three years, there was only one quarterback to even top the 3,000-yard mark as a passer, Koy Detmer of Colorado, and barely.
It took until 2001, the league's sixth year, for any quarterback to go over 3,500 yards passing in a season — Texas Tech's Kliff Kingsbury. The next year, Kingsburg became the first to top the 4,000 and 5,000-yard mark.*
* Right here is where I make the obligatory Mike Leach-Big 12 spread remark. By most accounts, Leach was the first to bring a successful pass-first spread to the league. He left Oklahoma after a year, but not before passing knowledge on for future OU quarterbacks, and coaches. In fact, it took until 2006 for a Big 12 quarterback not from Texas Tech or Oklahoma to pass for more than 3,500 yards: Missouri's Chase Daniel.
That's not to say that other schools didn't also try to imitate that success. Missouri had a balanced spread with Brad Smith that took off through the air when Daniel earned the reins in 2006. And Kansas's Todd Reesing and Texas's Colt McCoy both entered at around the same time.
Despite the fact that Leach had been coaching Big 12 offenses from the 1999 season on, experiencing success with the pass wasn't a drawn out process. In 2004, there were four backs who had 250 or more carries. Stevie Hicks of Iowa State hit the 1,000-yard mark despite averaging just 3.9 yards per tote. He received 270 carries. And two players in 2004: Benson and Peterson, had more than 300 carries.
Just two years later, in 2006, only one player received 250 carries or more: Kansas's Jon Cornish, who carried the ball exactly 250 times. There were only two 1,000-yard rushers in the entire league: Cornish and Missouri back Tony Temple.
And two years after that saw the golden age of Big 12 quarterbacks. Seven players threw for 3,000 yards or more (remember, there was only one player to do that in the first three years of the league), and six passed for 3,500-plus. Oklahoma QB Sam Bradford won the Heisman, but you also had McCoy at Texas, Daniel at Missouri, Reesing at Kansas, Graham Harrell at Texas Tech and Joe Ganz at Nebraska. All were school record-breakers. Zac Robinson of Oklahoma State also topped 3,000 yards. And that doesn't count players like Kansas State's Josh Freeman, or a first-year Baylor quarterback named Robert Griffin III. The former went on to be a first-round draft pick and an NFL starter, and the latter won the Heisman last year.
The way teams ran the ball also changed. No longer was it in vogue to line up a 215-220-pound back and hammer him 25 times per game. Instead, teams utilizing the spread began using a by-committee approach, often bringing in fresh legs to maximize a player's impact. In 2008, no player had 250 carries or more, and only two carries the ball more than 200 times. And no player even averaged 20 carries per contest. And two of the four 1,000-yard rushers in 2008 only got there because of extra games played. DeMarco Murray had 1,002 yards in 13 games, while
It was totally at odds with the old adage about running backs getting stronger the more they carried the ball, but was no less effective. The top five running backs in the Big 12 that year averaged 5.9 yards per carry between them.
So where does that leave us now? For starters, it's important to note that football is cyclical. In the 1960s, teams went to more of a pro-based passing attack to take advantage of teams loading up to stop the run. And in the mid-to-late 1960s, the veer and the wishbone emerged to take advantage of teams that were now gearing up to stop the pass. Then schools like Miami loaded up on speed and started throwing the ball again. And those quicker defenses were met, and defeated, by the Nebraska I. And around and around we go.
Because of the spread, defenses have sold out trying to get smaller players who can play in space. Other than schools like Texas, that can get a 240-pounder who can run, teams are now loaded up with 220-pound (or smaller) linebackers. It isn't unusual to see 250-pound defensive ends who are built just to pin their ears back and go get the quarterback. And many safeties are now sub-200 pounds, so that they can adjust to their coverage responsibilities.
All of which means we're due to see a comeback of the running game, with offenses building bigger to take advantage of defenses with smaller defenders. Texas fans saw that first-hand in games against Kansas and Texas Tech last year, two teams the Longhorns steamrolled with the running game by lining up and blowing smaller defenders off the ball.
But such shifts usually see some sort of innovation. When teams wanted to run the ball following the passing proliferation in the 1960s, they didn't go back to the split-T or the Notre Dame Box. And right now we're seeing teams like Kansas in 2007, or Baylor last year, have running success by putting a 235-pound back (Brandon McAnderson, Terrance Ganaway) in the spread and watching him pound through a less-crowded box with fewer numbers and smaller defenders.
Still, while the run-first spread will certainly continue its effectiveness, it's the innovation of the NFL, something that filtered down to the college level that will probably make the biggest difference: the aforementioned rushing by-committee.
When Troy Davis, Byron Hanspard and Ricky Williams put up those monster seasons, they didn't have competition for carries. Williams's backup, Shon Mitchell, carried the ball just 23 times for 111 yards. And neither Davis nor Hanspard had a co-pilot who rushed for 350 or more yards.
But in 2011, the league known for spitting out single backs saw nine of its 10 teams have two or more players rush for 400-plus. Texas Tech was the lone school not to have some sort of rushing combination, be it multiple running backs or running back/quarterback.
The 1,800-to-2,000-yard solo act isn't there. He hasn't been seen in the Big 12 since 2004, when both Peterson and Benson topped the 1,800-yard mark.
He might not come back. As of right now, at least, it's more efficient to share. Just ask Missouri. The Tigers averaged 5.4 carries and rushed for a league-best 244 yards per game by employing a rushing quarterback and pairing him with a cavalry of slick, quick running backs.
And while the Tigers are now headed to the SEC, the by-committee approach to sharing carries is likely in the Big 12 to stay.