PROVO — Even the most casual observer knows that football is in the midst of a renaissance. The passing game and the spread offense have swept the country at every level, and offenses have exploded. Vince Lombardi and Bear Bryant wouldn’t recognize today’s game.
Just look at the NCAA record books: There’s hardly a player on the various all-time passing lists who played in the last 20 years.
Ty Detmer, BYU’s 1990 Heisman Trophy winner, sent a video to Hawaii quarterback Timmy Chang in 2004 to congratulate him after he broke Detmer’s career pass yardage record. He sent video congratulations again when another of his records fell, but discontinued the courtesy after that. Nowadays, it would be a fulltime job. Asked if he ever checks to see where he ranks on the record lists, Detmer says, “I haven’t checked recently.”
If he did, he would see that his once seemingly unassailable records have been surpassed several times in the last decade. If you’re thinking all of this is simply a normal consequence with the passage of time, consider this: The all-time rushing lists contain plenty of players who played 20 years ago or more.
“The game has changed significantly,” says Detmer.
• In 2016, 41 teams called more pass plays than run plays — once considered unthinkable — compared to three in 2003. Another dozen teams passed 48-49 percent of the time.
• In 2016, 62 teams passed for more than 3,000 yards, compared to 28 in 2008 and 18 in 1999. That’s a 71 percent increase in 18 years.
As a result of the proliferation of passing, everything else has changed.
• Last season, a whopping 77 teams produced 5,000 yards of total offense, compared to 41 in 2008 and eight in 1999.
• In 2016, for the first time in the history of college football, FCS teams averaged more than 30 points per game, with more than half the teams (58) exceeding that benchmark. How steeply have scoring averages climbed? From 23.24 in 1987, to 25.57 in 1997, to 28.23 in 2007, to 30.04 in 2016.
• According to CBS Sports, the team scoring average record has been set seven times since 2000 — every 2.2 years.
• Eleven teams averaged more than 40 points in 2016, compared to two in 1997 and two in 1987.
Already this season, Texas Tech has thrown for 992 yards and 10 touchdowns in just two games; UCLA has thrown for 1,327 yards and 13 touchdowns in three games. Eight teams are averaging more than 10 yards per pass attempt and seven teams are totalling more than 400 passing yards per game.
The offensive fireworks can be traced to the rise of the passing game and the spread offense. Several schools pioneered the passing game, but none more than BYU. You wouldn't know it by watching the current Cougars struggle just to complete a pass, but they were throwing the ball long before it was fashionable and doing it better than anyone.
Ask Detmer about the changes the game has undergone, and immediately he recalls the steady stream of coaches who passed through Provo in the '80s and '90s to learn what BYU was doing — Hal Mumme and his assistant Mike Leach, June Jones and his assistant Mouse Davis, and many others who would go on to make their mark in the evolution of offensive football and development of the spread offense.
“They studied BYU,” says Detmer. “I was here (at BYU) and I remember they were coming in and learning about it. That was the thing to do back then — high school and college coaches coming in to look at what BYU was doing.”
As Detmer tells it, those coaches took what BYU was doing and tweaked it. “They ran similar versions of the things we ran but with more speed and more spread out,” says Detmer.
Instead of using two receivers, a tight end and a pair of running backs, they employed four receivers to put more speed on the field, and then spread them out to force the defense to cover more open space.
This new brand of football launched the proliferation of seven-on-seven camps and tournaments. It changed the way quarterbacks and receivers viewed the game and they showed up on college campuses ready to play immediately.
“They’re way ahead of the game now,” says Detmer. “More freshmen come out ready to play. They’ve had a thousand reps of seven-on-seven in one summer. They understand the pass game. We had a kid come to our camp who brought his own set of plays. These kids are ready.”
The result is that the offensive record book has been swept almost clean. It is a testament to BYU’s forward thinking and the play at quarterback that the Cougars still appear high on several lists two or three decades later when virtually every other player on those record lists played the game in the last few years.
“BYU was definitely ahead of its time,” says Detmer. “They were running a pro-style offense back then. NFL teams were running similar things, but not many colleges were doing it.”
What would Detmer, Jim McMahon, Steve Young and the other BYU quarterbacks of that era — Robbie Bosco, Marc Wilson, Gifford Nielsen, Gary Sheide, Steve Sarkisian — have done if they had played in today’s offenses?
“People tend to think we threw a lot more than we did back then, but we threw only about 30 passes a game,” says Detmer. For the record, Detmer threw an average of 33 passes a game, which is modest by current standards.
Chang averaged 46 passes per game. Last season 38 schools attempted 35 or more passes per game and three of them more than 50. Detmer’s NCAA record for single-season pass attempts (1,530) has been surpassed by 42 players, all of them since 1999. Detmer didn’t even play out of a shotgun formation until his senior season and never experienced the no-huddle offense.
And yet Detmer — and several other BYU quarterbacks (McMahon, Young, Sarkisian, John Walsh) — posted marks that still appear in several passing categories.
• Among the top 25 career total offense leaders, Detmer (ninth) is the only player who didn’t play in the last 14 years, including 15 players who played in the last seven years. Detmer’s senior season was 25 years ago.
• On the list of the top 25 single-season total offense leaders, all but two players — Detmer and Houston's David Klingler — played since 2002 (15 since 2010).
• Detmer threw for an NCAA career record 15,031 yards from 1988-91, breaking the previous record by a huge margin — 3,606 yards. He’s now fifth on the list and the only player in the top 20 who didn’t play in the last 14 years. The record is now a dazzling 19,217 by Houston’s Case Keenum (2007-11). In 1981, a decade before Detmer, the career record was 9,536 yards — held by McMahon. Do the math — in exactly 30 years, the record more than doubled.
• Detmer threw for an NCAA single-season record 5,188 yards in 1988. He is now sixth on that list. All but two players in the top 10 played in the last 15 years.
• McMahon threw 47 touchdown passes in 1980 — an NCAA record that stood for a decade. He has now been surpassed by nine players, all but one of them since 2003.
• Detmer threw 121 career touchdown passes, which stood as an NCAA record for 16 years. Now he ranks seventh behind players who all played in the last 10 years.
• Steve Young set an NCAA record for single-season completion percentage in 1983 (71.33). He is now 21st.
It is worth noting that Detmer still ranks second in career yards per passing attempt (9.82) — one of the two most important, but highly underrated, measures of a quarterback’s performance (the other being the TDs-to-interception ratio). Boise State’s Ryan Dinwiddie ranks first (9.90), but threw 538 fewer passes than Detmer. McMahon is seventh on the list.
These days Detmer finds himself again trying to stay ahead of the modern passing attack. He is BYU’s offensive coordinator and, given the nature of today’s game — with its no-huddle spread offenses and bombs-away passing attack — the pressure is on to score and score again.
“No doubt about it,” says Detmer. “That’s the pressure we all feel, the need to score more and keep your team in the game.”