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Senior College Football Columnist

Offensive numbers are exploding, but some defensive coaches not ready to rest case

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Vince Dooley is 80 now. The vagaries of age have barely touched the great coach's vault of knowledge. Conviction and class still mix with that sweet, smooth Southern drawl.

When Dooley speaks, it can argued that his words carry more weight these days. The man dominated the SEC and won a national championship borne on the massive legs of one of the greatest athletes of our time.

"Maybe," the great Georgia coach said this week, "there won't be any Herschels anymore."

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That's not heresy. It's Football 2012. Last week Dooley witnessed part of the game's latest offensive upheaval, watching his former employer (Georgia) beat his son Derek's current employer (Tennessee) in a combined 95-point shootout. Like a lot of us, he also relived the defensive carnage of West Virginia's 70-63 win over Baylor.

"Everybody is talking about it," Dooley said. "I guess there are a lot of reasons."

The shame -- in some folks' eyes -- is that those reasons are like receivers who outnumber the defensive backs covering them. There are too many. In one historic day last week, coaches both great and insignificant realized how futile their efforts have become. A game built through the decades on a philosophy of physical intimidation has evolved into a game of touch.

"Is this," Nick Saban asked this week, "what football wants to be?"

That's the central question as offenses and scoring have caused a football imbalance. The trend is at least 15 years old in college football. Since 2007, all-time records have been set in 12 of the 14 offensive statistical trends tracked by the NCAA since 1937. But something happened all at once Saturday that forced the game to examine itself.

In its first year in the Big 12, West Virginia's program and the league's unstated philosophy are perfectly matched. The Mountaineers could outscore everyone on their way to a championship.

Defensive coordinators have been forced to reevaluate what "good" is. The statistics are screaming that holding a team to 30 isn't so bad. That's the average number of points teams are scoring through Week 5. If that number holds, it would break a time-worn five-year-old record.

Much was made of Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel on Saturday becoming the first quarterback in history to throw for at least 450 yards and run for 100 in the same game. What wasn't so publicized was that his record lasted approximately three hours. Later in the day, Miami (Ohio)'s Zac Dysert became the first quarterback to throw for 500 and rush for 100 against Akron.

Take your pick: Tackling is a lost art. Too much emphasis on seven-on-seven. For purists, too many rules against defenders "targeting" offensive players. Defense, they say, wasn't made to be played selectively.

"Too many new hot-shot offensive gurus," one veteran FBS coach texted.

The great pounders of the past -- Walker, Earl Campbell, perhaps even Bo Jackson -- certainly wouldn't have played their traditional roles in modern spread offenses -- if they played in them at all. They would likely be fed a couple of extra pizzas and turned into linebackers or run-stuffing nose guards. If they were playing in the schemes of today, imagine their roles: Running the ball maybe 10 times a game, catching it a few times out of the slot and being asked to pass block. Well.

No more Herschels? It has taken two tailbacks and a clever rhyming nickname at Georgia just to get close to the subject.

Is this what football wants to be?

"Sure is," Missouri receiver T.J. Moe tweeted after hearing Saban's words.

So, there it is. A battle within a revolution within a conference. Alabama leads the country in scoring defense (seven points per game). Missouri was 12th last year in total offense playing the Big 12. Now they're in the same league.

If the SEC is holding the line on the conference's defense-first philosophy, six national championships is a hell of a statement. But where is the explanation for Georgia 51, Tennessee 44?

Like the statistics are shouting this week, giving up 30 could be the new normal.

"You have to put your ego aside, because it's more fun to win anyway," Texas defensive coordinator Manny Diaz said.

Diaz is the next man up this week trying to stop West Virginia's Geno Smith. That, a week after Texas gave up 36 points and 576 yards to Oklahoma State.

"I've been down there three times," Texas coach Mack Brown said on Monday. "He's got his door closed and he's under the desk."

In a sense, Diaz is the tip of the spear, part of a group of young defensive guns under 40 who could shape the game's future. Consider Diaz, 38, Washington's Justin Wilcox, 35, and Alabama's Kirby Smart, 36. At a tender age, Wilcox already has been at Boise State and Tennessee. His D shut down No. 8 Stanford last week by stacking the line against quarterback Josh Nunes. High-scoring Oregon is next. Smart might be the hottest assistant coach property in the country. He already has two national championship rings under Saban.

They work in three different worlds. All three have SEC backgrounds. Smart lives in a realm where he is judged by shutouts. His defenses have pitched zeroes in five of their past 16 games, including the BCS title-game smothering of LSU. Wilcox is trying to return Washington to the glorious defensive days of Don James. Diaz? He worked on Dan Mullen's staff in that defensive-minded SEC at Mississippi State. But this is the Big 12. Sometimes you have to put your ego aside.

Last season, the Horns finished 11th nationally in total defense in a five-loss season. This season the Horns have slipped to 63rd, but are undefeated.

"At some point, somebody has to stump for the defensive players," Diaz said. "The way the game has changed with the attacking of space and tempo with which it's done, has made defense harder than ever."

Texas won't give up 70 this week because it won't play football ping-pong with the Mountaineers. Baylor seemed content to drop eight on each play and keep the West Virginia receivers under an "umbrella." One problem: Those wideouts seemed to be behind the secondary on every play.

Playing from behind most of the day, Art Briles' offense ran 92 plays snapping the ball, on average, every 17 seconds. West Virginia won because it eventually broke serve and won 10 touchdowns to nine. Think of a world where the winning defensive coordinator -- Joe DeForest -- gave up 63 points.

"Welcome to the Big 12 …," DeForest said."You have to measure success differently in this league."

"Everybody can play [in the Big 12] and just about everybody can score," Diaz said. "Everybody's got a triggerman."

Yes, it's a quarterback game. If you've got one, you've got a chance. Duh, right? It's not that easy. Texas Tech's Tommy Tuberville coaches in the wild-and-wacky Big 12, too. Within its walls, he has been able to construct the nation's No. 1 total defense five weeks in.

"You're not going to win championships unless you play defense," Tuberville said from the school that Mike Leach made famous. "You can win some games, but unless you can stop people when you're having a bad [offensive] night ..."

Tubs has not wallowed in the glory of that No. 1 defense. He knows better. His next five games are against Oklahoma, West Virginia, TCU, Kansas State and Texas. As an assistant at Miami from 1986-93, he helped win three national championships, seeing some of the greatest defensive players of the era pass through Coral Gables. One of his favorites was Rohan Marley, a 5-foot-9, 175-pound linebacker who could tackle. Imagine that.

Today, Tuberville doesn't conduct live scrimmages during two-a-days. There's too much liability, he says -- legally and physically. Injuries, or even worse -- head injuries.

"You don't have as much contact in practice," he said. "Obviously what you're going to lack is your [tackling] fundamentals. You can teach technique but the best athletes tackle well. A lot of these high school coaches are putting their best athletes with their spread offenses. You don't have as many athletes on defense."

Saban went on the offensive (sorry, couldn't help it) during this week's SEC conference call, connecting no-huddle offenses to a different kind of player safety.

"You can't substitute defensive players," he said. "You go on a 14-, 16-, 18-play drive and they're snapping the ball as fast as they can ... all your players are walking around can't even get lined up.

"That's when guys have a much greater chance of getting hurt when they're not ready to play."

That's kind of the idea, Nick -- getting the other team tired out. It's up to you to get the matchups right. And for the moment, Alabama is one of the few places in the country where they have figured it out, making the game what it used to be -- one of physical intimidation.

It is -- in the mind of the Great Saban and his followers -- what football wants to be.

"Most of us are little amazed right now," Dooley said. "We may be ancient, but we can't be that ancient."


Anyone in need of a credential from all the BCS title games? Dennis Dodd has them. In three decades in the business, he's covered everything from the Olympics to Stanley Cup to conference realignment. Just get him on campus in a press box in the fall. His heart lies with college football.
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