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Dick Harmon: Traditionalists fear advent of up-tempo football

Published: Friday, June 21 2013 6:10 p.m. MDT

EUGENE, OR - OCTOBER 2: Defensive end Kenny Rowe #58 of the Oregon Ducks celebrates after sacking quarterback Andrew Luck of the Stanford Cardinal in the third quarter of the game at Autzen Stadium on October 2, 2010 in Eugene, Oregon. Oregon won the game 52-31. (Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images)

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Just as the game speeds up, the Goliaths of college football want to slow it down.

Don’t know whether to produce crocodile tears or laugh till my tonsils ache.

In the past few seasons, we’ve seen a transition take place. We’ve seen finesse teams that don’t possess mammoth freaks on the defensive line and, at linebacker, speed up the game.

These non-traditionalists do this with the no-huddle offense. They hone and perfect execution and timing. The speed at which they play — up-tempo and no huddle — is designed to give them an advantage over defenses that might be caught unawares, unprepared, unable to substitute and nominalize superior size and depth.

You’ve seen this at work at Oregon. We’ve witnessed this at Arizona with Rich Rodriguez. You saw what Johnny Manziel did to Alabama this past year when Texas A&M used Kevin Sumlin’s Houston offense to spank ‘Bama’s giants.

Dang it. Just isn’t fair, say some of the big boys.

Suppressing a giggle here.

You see, at Alabama, Nick Saban enjoys a unique advantage in college football. So do other SEC schools. It’s the idea that muscle, not formations and matchups on the perimeter, wins. And the SEC has gobs of NFL-bound muscle. The Crimson Tide is able to recruit a unique body type: defensive linemen that are humongous men who run like running backs and can chase down wide receivers. On offense, Saban likes to grind it out, elephants left and elephants right.

He abhors teams that spread it out and dink and dunk. His greatest fear is what Brian Johnson did in leading Utah at a quick pace in the Sugar Bowl. It made him and TV analyst Barry Switzer look foolish.

But you see, this is evolution of football. Those who can’t play elephants right and elephants left spread it out, go quick and fast and hike the ball as quickly as possible.

SEC schools have benefited most from recruiting fast giants. There isn’t enough to go around, so, if they can close the ropes in the ring, limit flair and innovation, they rule. In years past, Alabama had as many as 12 conditioning coaches to help these giants become faster and stronger. Thus, the advantage.

Then comes Oregon. No, the Ducks don’t win all their games, but they do make other teams look silly.

Today, as early as this week, you have Saban and Arkansas coach Bret Bielema — two sworn enemies — coming to a consensus on something: They want the no-huddle slowed down. They cry foul. They cry injuries. They simply cry, "It is not fair."

According to a Monday report by al.com, Bielema, a member of the NCAA’s Playing Rules Oversight Committee, proposed a rule change that would create “15-second substitution periods” after each first down to allow defenses to substitute.

In other words, slow down the game, allow mammoth freaks five-deep to be exchanged, and allow defenses to recover mentally and get coached.

Saban made a similar request last October for a rule change. He also framed it under the guise of a player safety issue.

Saban said after seeing his team face increased chances of getting hurt against Hugh Freeze’s up-tempo Mississippi offense in 2012, he had serious concerns.

“Not to get on the coattails of some of the other coaches, there is a lot of truth that the way offensive philosophies are driven now, there’s times where you can’t get a defensive substitution in for eight, 10, 12 play drives,” Bielema said in Monday’s report.

“That has an effect on safety of that student-athlete, especially the bigger defensive linemen, that is really real,” said Bielema.

Saban called it an issue of “fairness” as he posed the question, “Is this what we want football to be?”

Well, Chip Kelly, Arizona’s Rodriguez, Sumlin, Freeze and BYU’s Robert Anae all answer that without hesitation: Yes.

Heck, yes.

Fact is, offensive players in a no-huddle are playing just as many downs, they’re on the field at the same time, moving, running and colliding at the same rate and frequency. Aren’t they risking the same danger? Exposure?

There is no evidence that supports the plodders-and-grinders theory that the race horses who are dink and dunkers are injured at a higher rate because they play up-tempo.

Saban thinks because you cram in more plays and extend snaps in a drive, not only in games but in practice, you’d have more injuries. But a study by Phil Steele of 2011 injuries showed more injuries occurred with pro-style offenses who run the clock and grind it out. Option, turf-eating, clock-killer Army ranked No. 7 in injuries that season.

Ban the up-tempo strategy by legislating rules to promise an amount of time in between snaps?

It’s like the Spanish armada telling Captain Sir Francis Drake it was unfair for the British fleet to use anything but giant mainsails and outlaw rigging jibs and spankers.

Balderdash.

Give us a break. The non-Alabamas are going to do what they can do with the resources they have.

Don’t be tinkering with the rules to protect your muscle, blue bloods.

Dick Harmon, Deseret News sports columnist, can be found on Twitter as Harmonwrites and can be contacted at dharmon@desnews.com.

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