Talking Tempo

The Big 12 is known as an up-tempo league. So let's analyze just what exactly tempo accomplishes for the league's offenses in terms of plays per game.

"Up-tempo." If you live somewhere within the Big 12's geographic footprint, you've probably heard the term tossed about as much as a football in Lubbock. But what exactly does up-tempo mean? Does it mean a team's efforts to maximize its plays per game? How about how many seconds a team takes per play. The answer, on both, is yes, though the way that we get there can be interesting. Running a blistering fast pace isn't necessarily a guarantee to get a ton of plays. What do I mean? Check it out.

All numbers come courtesy of Football Study Hall.


TEAM PLAYS PER GAME SECONDS PER PLAY NATIONAL RANK (Sec/P)
Oklahoma State 74.0 plays per game 19.9 seconds 7th
Texas Tech 80.7 20.0 8th
Baylor 76.0 20.3 11th
Texas 76.0 22.2 24th
Iowa State 69.5 23.2 32nd
West Virginia 73.0 23.9 43rd
Kansas 67.0 24.1 48th
Oklahoma 80.7 25.4 65th
TCU 67.3 26.7 84th
Kansas State 60.3 28.4 106th

I like this because it gives two very different looks at tempo. Some people will cite tempo as how quickly a team snaps the ball, because of the way that puts pressure on defenses. But a common metric for discerning tempo is to count the number of plays a team gets. The Texas staff, for instance, said before the season that the Longhorns wanted to get 10 or so more plays per game than last year.

But that's not necessarily an indication of "tempo" as much as it is how successful a team is at holding onto the ball. Take Rice as an example. The Owls are 73rd nationally in seconds per play. But so far, they've gotten a whopping 83 plays per game, thanks largely to the fact that Rice has held onto the ball for nearly 36 minutes per contest with the Owls' ball-control running game. On the other hand, BYU leads the nation in both plays per game and seconds per play, the result of when a fairly ball-control offense (BYU has held the ball for about 28 and a half minutes per game) goes way up-tempo (the Cougars have a lightning quick 17.8 seconds per play, the fastest rate in the country). As a result, BYU has seen 96 plays per contest so far this season.

For a Big 12 example of the Rice effect, look at Oklahoma. The Sooners are eighth in the Big 12 in seconds per play, but are currently tied for first in the league in plays per game. The Sooners aren't using much tempo — they're in the bottom half of FBS teams in general, and certainly near the bottom of the Big 12 — but they're still getting more plays than a team like Oklahoma State, which is snapping the ball almost six seconds faster on average. Here's the thing: the Sooners are controlling the ball for more than 34 minutes per game. Oklahoma State is at a little more than 24 and a half. That almost 10 minute difference more than makes up for the huge gap in tempo.

Still, for the most part, the teams that are expected to go up-tempo have done so. I was interested to see what Texas's tempo numbers looked like with David Ash as opposed to Case McCoy, because the general feeling is that the game grinds down quite a bit with McCoy in the game. It turns out, that was absolutely the case. In the two games started by Ash, Texas averaged 20.4 seconds per play. In the Ole Miss game, started by McCoy, Texas averaged 26.2 seconds per play. The Longhorns were almost six full seconds faster per play with Ash than they were with McCoy. That's the difference between being near the top of the Big 12 in tempo and near the bottom.

Kansas is sort of a mini-reverse Oklahoma. The Jayhawks snapped the ball, on average, 1.3 seconds faster than the Sooners. But Kansas's offense has struggled to hold onto the ball, resulting in the Jayhawk O, only getting 67 plays per game, a mark that puts Kansas second-to-last in the league in that category.

And of course, Kansas State wins the Dennis Green award because they are who we thought they were. Long known for coach Bill Snyder's desire to stretch out the game and play a slower tempo, the Wildcats were last in the Big 12 in both seconds per play and in plays per game.


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