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College football: Life in the fast(er) lane

Published: Saturday, Sept. 21, 2013 12:24 a.m. CST

The term “basketball on grass” gets thrown around an awful lot these days. As I watched the Oregon Ducks blast the Tennessee Volunteers this past weekend, I realized that doesn’t even really begin to describe what some of these up-tempo offenses really are.

After a slow start, the Ducks scored touchdowns on five straight possessions to end the first half. Each one of the drives – including the 92-yard one – took fewer than 2 minutes, and chewed up huge chunks of yards both on the ground and through the air.

A lot of teams are trying to run the “fast break” offense, but none are as fluent or fluid in it as Oregon. Chip Kelly bred a monster before leaving Eugene for the Philadelphia Eagles, and it’s barely missed a beat in 3 weeks this fall.

See, it’s not really basketball on turf at Autzen Stadium … because there’s no real back-and-forth. The fast-flowing style really only goes one way – and that’s whichever end zone the Ducks are driving to.

If it is basketball, it’s the breakneck pace one would see in a pickup game on the playground, instead of a carefully choreographed half-court motion offense. There’s the impression that everybody is out there scrambling around all willy-nilly, doing whatever they think will get them open and hoping quarterback Marcus Mariota will throw the ball their way.

In that sense, I’d say it’s more like playground football than basketball. I remember back in elementary school, heading onto the big patch of grass behind Helen Lemme School and having one quarterback, umpteen receivers and a defense consisting of the old 10-Mississippi rushers and kids chasing behind the receivers.

But I liken Oregon’s style of offense more to track than anything else. It’s like watching prelims for sprint races, except they’ve got football pads on and a defense to weave through. It’s all about speed, not only of the individual players, but how fast they can get back up to the line of scrimmage (or starting line) and run another play.

Play-by-play broadcaster Mike Patrick called this “warp speed,” and asked color analyst Ed Cunningham about the physical effects on the opposing defense.

But Cunningham – who I will forever remember from Iowa’a last-second miracle win against LSU in the Capital One Bowl following the 2004 season – made an observation that caught my attention.

Instead of prattling on like all the other talking heads about how tired and winded the Tennessee defense must be getting, he wondered aloud what the emotional and mental effects of Oregon’s offense were.

See, keeping up with the athletic, speedy Ducks physically is a tall task, but every major college football program has guys who can run and tackle.

But what I really started paying attention to was the Vols’ body language. The more points they gave up, the harder it was for them to match the intensity of the Ducks and their cranked-up fans. The faster Oregon went, the more and more Tennessee’s defense could be seen struggling to get to the right spots and read what was coming at them next.

If the hurry-up offense was originally installed to wear teams out physically, it seems Kelly and his protégés at Oregon have taken the next step. The Ducks have amassed enough sheer speed and talent to hurry up the hurry-up, thus making it a war of attrition mentally as well as physically.

I don’t know how this current trend of spread-’em-out, speed-it-up video-game style will play out, but I don’t see it stalling anytime soon. Until then, just have a little sympathy for the defenses on both sidelines, as scores climb ever higher.

As for me, I’ll enjoy watching from my couch … and reminiscing about the good old days back on the playground.

Tennessee at No. 19 Florida

When: 2:30 p.m. Saturday

Where: Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, Gainesville

TV: CBS Line: Florida by 17

What’s up: The Gators’ offense has been somewhat unimpressive, but the Volunteers have struggled on both sides of the ball. Whichever team makes more big plays – on either side of the ball – wins this one.

My pick: Florida 31-17

Michigan St. at No. 22 Notre Dame

When: 2:30 p.m. Saturday

Where: Notre Dame Stadium, South Bend

TV: NBC Line: Notre Dame by 7

What’s up: The Spartans finally got their offense going last week, but it was against an inferior opponent. Tommy Rees has shown he can handle this Irish offense, and the defense is hungry to prove it hasn’t lost as big a step as people think from a year ago.

My pick: Notre Dame 24-10

Purdue at No. 24 Wisconsin

When: 2:30 p.m. Saturday

Where: Camp Randall Stadium, Madison

TV: ABC Line: Wisconsin by 24

What’s up: The Badgers are breathing fire after last week’s bizarre finish cost them a potential win at Arizona State. The Boilermakers are eager to show their success against Notre Dame was no fluke.

My pick: Wisconsin 38-14

Auburn at No. 6 LSU

When: 6:45 p.m. Saturday

Where: Tiger Stadium, Baton Rouge

TV: ESPN Line: LSU by 17˝

What’s up: The annual meeting of the Tigers is usually a hard-fought battle, and this year should no different, despite the programs seemingly going in different directions … but LSU is nearly impossible to beat in Death Valley at night.

My pick: LSU 27-14

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