Is the Big 12 the Future of Professional Football?

MORGANTOWN, WV - OCTOBER 14: An end zone pylon with both the Big 12 and West Virginia logos in the end zone prior to the college football game between the Texas Tech Red Raiders and the West Virginia Mountaineers on October 14, 2017, at Mountaineer Field at Milan Puskar Stadium in Morgantown, WV. West Virginia defeated Texas Tech 46-35. (Photo by Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
“People want to see passes, touchdowns, high scores. That’s the game today.”
-Christina Pagniacci (played by Cameron Diaz), Any Given Sunday

In a couple of sentences, Cameron Diaz’s character of the owner in Any Given Sunday succinctly summarized what NFL audiences want these days. Fans want high octane offenses. Super Bowl LIII, ironically, broke records for being the lowest-scoring Super Bowl of all time. But most fans agreed: it was also the most boring. And it juxtaposed perfectly the biggest storyline of the 2018 season: the offense. Fans want offense, and, increasingly, NFL teams are completely revamping their look to give it to them. Look at this offseason’s coaching carousel. Kliff Kingsbury was fired by Texas Tech, then he was named Head Coach of the Arizona Cardinals (after a very brief detour as USC’s offensive coordinator). Matt Rhule came off a mediocre season at Baylor and was interviewed by the New York Jets. Big 12 coaches are in high demand right now in the NFL. But why? And is the Big 12 the future of professional football?

The 2018 NFL Story: Mahomes and Mayfield

The 2018 NFL season featured, among others, two tantalizing storylines.

First, Patrick Mahomes shredded record books. He finished with the highest passing yards, most touchdowns, and highest passer rating in a single season for any quarterback in his 20s. His 50-touchdown season is tied for the second-best season for any quarterback. The 50 touchdowns complemented his 5,097 yards (eighth-best season of all time) and 113.8 passer rating (also the eighth-best season of all time).

This success rejuvenated Andy Reid’s offense and led the Chiefs to a 12-4 season. The Chiefs’ offense finished first in the NFL in both points and yards (the first time it has ever done so). They also smashed their own single-season point total by nearly 100 points. Finally, the Chiefs finished the season with the third highest-scoring offense of all time.

Baker Mayfield did not post nearly the same individual totals as Mahomes did. He had about 1,300 less yards, a passer rating 20 points lower, and over 35 fewer touchdowns. That said, Mayfield led a team that hasn’t had a leader in years. The Browns were 4-51-1 in the 56 games played before Mayfield saw a regular season snap. Eight different signal callers started a game for the Browns in that span. Once Mayfield entered the lineup, however, the Browns went 7-7. That is a remarkably immediate reversal.

Both were starters in the Big 12. As a result, both quarterbacks led proficient offensive attacks in college. And that’s where the 2018 story gets even more interesting.

Rams and Chiefs Put on a Show

To many, the highlight of the 2018 NFL season was the Monday night matchup between the Los Angeles Rams and Kansas City Chiefs. Dubbed an instant classic by many, the game featured 1,001 yards and 105 points between the two teams. The teams averaged 7 yards per play and 2.5 plays per minute. Both teams’ play-calling skewed well in favor of the pass. And fans loved every minute.

Big 12 fans, however, had a different take. The Big 12, you see, has been criticized for years for its perceived lack of defense (more on that in a minute). The offensive explosions are not praised for the dynamic masterminds who put together the game plans and skill players who make them work. They are instead lauded as sloppy performances against inadequate defenses. But the Rams-Chiefs showdown was another story entirely. TCU head coach Gary Patterson voiced this well, openly questioning why Big 12 games are viewed so negatively while the praise for this matchup was so prominent.

Ironically enough, however, defense ultimately won the game for the Rams. The Rams scored 14 defensive points (to Kansas City’s 7), and the Rams also ended the Chiefs’ final two drives with critical interceptions. While neither defense played well overall, both defenses heavily altered momentum at critical moments.

The Big 12 Comparison

Again, the NFL media and fans celebrated the Chiefs-Rams showdown as one of the most entertaining professional football games of all time. The game looked like a few of the most entertaining Big 12 matchups this season.

The 93 points scored by the Longhorns and Sooners during the regular season came close.  The 83 points scored by the Longhorns and Mountaineers a few weeks later also provided similar entertainment value. And the 115 points scored by the Sooners and the Mountaineers in the regular season finale eclipsed the Rams-Chiefs showdown in terms of total offense. And, ironically, the Sooners won that game thanks to a couple of game-breaking big plays by the defense.

More NFL teams than ever run multiple series of no-huddle, spread offense that produces high snap counts and efficient offensive production. And even more teams have shown interest in moving in that direction.

Are the Big 12 Numbers Legitimate?

The Big 12 has specialized in this type of football for years. As a result, the Big 12 has entertained by putting lots of points on the board. For years, however, fans have suggested two things. First, they claim that the NFL defenses were too physical and too fast for this style of play to succeed. Second, they claim that Big 12 offensive production was a product of poor defensive play.

Tackling the second point first, statistics support the contrary. The Big 12’s top three offensive teams in 2018 collectively played ten out-of-conference games against Division 1 opponents. Seven of those games featured Power Five opponents. In all but two of those games, the Big 12 team scored more than their opponents allowed on average. In fact, the Big 12 teams surpassed their opponents’ averages by just under 10 points per game.

Surprisingly, the defenses for those teams also held the opponents below their season averages in all but one of those games. The Big 12 team held their out-of-conference opponents below their averages by 7.6 points per game. Carrying this analysis through the entire conference and going back several years produces similar results. Thus, the theory that Big 12 offense is really a product of poor defense is demonstrably wrong.

As for the first suggestion—that Big 12 offenses wouldn’t fly (pun intended) in the NFL? More offenses than ever are proving that theory wrong. The Chiefs, in particular, have utilized the same pre-snap movement, spread formations, and speedy skill players with great success. The Steelers, Saints, and Buccaneers have also been moving in that direction.  And each of those teams (well, except the Buccaneers) has had real success playing this style of offense.

Is it the Future?

There is little reason to believe the trend will reverse. This offseason demonstrates the opposite. The Arizona Cardinals just hired Kingsbury, who led the Red Raiders to a 35-40 record over six seasons. And they tried to hire Jake Spavital as their offensive coordinator.

Meanwhile, the New York Jets tried hard to lure Rhule from Baylor. Rhule has only coached two seasons of Power Five football, and he has gone 8-17. To be fair, Rhule took over a program broken by scandal. Still, eight wins in two seasons hardly proves an NFL pedigree.

Finally, Matt Campbell was approached by at least six NFL teams this offseason for head coaching positions. Campbell declined to interview for those positions. Campbell, of course, has turned around the Iowa State program in just a few years. Interest in him was, therefore, more understandable.

Nonetheless, the hiring of Kingsbury and the attempted hirings of Rhule and Campbell show that NFL teams are increasingly interested in hiring Big 12 coaches. And if the rule changes continue to emphasize the offense, there is no reason to believe this trend will cease. In fact, as we cruise into the 2019 NFL Draft and see Big 12 skill players rising rapidly up the boards, we see reason to believe the trend will accelerate.

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