The game of tomorrow
Welcome to the Institute of American Football Studies. We continue our ongoing lecture series, "Pigskin Past, Football Future," with an examination of a collegiate program in the middle of the United States, the Nebraska Cornhuskers. As with all of the studies in this series, we begin 40 years ago, in 1994.
Part one of our lecture will zero in on the first 20 years of this era, from the heights of three national titles in what fans of that program called "A Decade of Dominance" to a plateau of successful-but-not-entirely-satisfying seasons at the end of this period.
We begin with a two-part question: What cultural and strategic dynamics ushered Nebraska out of the top echelon of college football, and how was the man who coached the team in 2014, one Bo Pelini, trying to combat them?
Is Nebraska evolving quickly enough?
It had almost become a birthright, hadn't it? A tradition handed down through decades, from Baby Boomers to Gen Xers, who could often agree on little except this: That, at an appointed hour on fall Saturday afternoons, Nebraska football would play, and it would probably win. In fact, it would likely dominate.
This wasn't by luck or hope. The Huskers the players, the coaches, the fans, the state had poured themselves into the culture. The weight room and strength program were of such renown that "Husker Power" trickled beyond state lines. The walk-on program was filled to the brim with boys willing to play at Nebraska for little more than the pleasure of helping the program.
The assistant coaches believed in the head man, Tom Osborne, and did not leave for greener recruiting pastures. Top prospects of whom Nebraska secured many saw only a handful of programs on TV each month, and Nebraska was one of them. The red "N" on the helmet was unremarkable by itself but unmistakable when stuck to a white helmet. Had there been a playoff in the 1980s or 1990s, you would have seen that helmet, repeatedly, in the mix of the event.
Nebraska was the Midwestern cover boy of the college football soap opera. Few programs anywhere were anything quite like Nebraska.
And 2014 coach Bo Pelini who himself played for Ohio State in the 1980s, who raised NU's program from the scowling self-doubt it faced in 2007, who had never been able to lose fewer than four games each year still believed this.
"When people come here, I believe they recognize that this place is different," Pelini said in 2014. "It's unique. That's the sell we have."
But the modern world of college football the exposure, the recruiting, the rise of once-whipped programs all over the sport democratized the game and eroded the sales pitch of traditional powers.
Every game played by a Big Ten team no matter how awful that team was was on TV. Every coach had access to recruiting websites and Hudl video sites to locate players. Many programs beefed up recruiting staffs even when they couldn't fill their stadiums, for their conference affiliation and the money their TV contracts brought delivered the dollars to create those staffs.
"There is a lot more parity," Pelini said. "The finding of athletes is more readily available. All you have to do is look at NFL draft day guys who were highly rated who don't get drafted and two-stars who are drafted and you can see there's a spreading out of talent."
That's not all that spread out.
“There is a lot more parity. The finding of athletes is more readily available. All you have to do is look at NFL draft day guys who were highly rated who don't get drafted and two-stars who are drafted and you can see there's a spreading out of talent.”
Nebraska coach Bo Pelini
Nebraska's option game was once both old school and cutting edge sets of tightly bunched, giant men who could fan out with the swiftness of angry boars, while speedsters at running back swept around their walls, hugging the sidelines. Blending power and precision born out of hours of repping something as simple as a 5-yard pitch Osborne had crafted an offense more diverse and explosive than the plodding, between-the-hash-marks offenses run by many programs.
His concepts were replicated by countless teams, including Nebraska's 2014 staff. The "read option" was a staple of many top teams. Programs like Baylor and Oregon where Osborne's last quarterback, Scott Frost, called plays adopted systematic approaches to offense, bundling run and pass plays together, operating those plays at a breakneck speed and daring defenses to do something about it.
"It's unbelievable how much it's changed and evolved," Pelini said. "There's still some old-school football in there, but it's so much more multiple. The field being stretched every which way you can, so defenses have to catch up with that."
Nebraska kept up with the curve strategically or technologically. Pelini inserted a running quarterback into his offense in 2010 and had a distinct option flavor to the attack. Citing conversations with coaches and people he trusted, Pelini and his staff installed a new practice regimen faster, less wear and tear, more repetition that bore considerable resemblance to Chip Kelly's methods at Oregon and with the Eagles in the NFL. Many Huskers wore GPS devices under their pads to track health progress during practice.
"I talked to a lot of different people, asked why, asked how they did it. We did some things as far as workloads," Pelini said, without disclosing whom he talked to. "How much can somebody handle? We're starting to get ready to put some things in place where we can actually measure that. We're trying to stay on the cutting edge of things and continue to find better ways to do things."
In recruiting, NU spent more than ever $1.2 million in cobbling together the 2015 class. The program had more private planes, more recruiting-specific staff, and made more forays into traditional SEC football states like Georgia, Florida and Louisiana. Signees played in a stadium that expanded its capacity, with a new sound system and upgraded wireless capability. With the athletic department budget rising above $100 million in 2014 and a full share of the Big Ten's TV money coming after contracts were renegotiated the program positioned itself well for potential drastic changes in how players were compensated.
And while Pelini once approached the media with distrust, he opened up spring and August workouts for the first time in his tenure. His staff persuaded him to dive headfirst into social media with furry cats, pranks and something resembling an easygoing spirit.
Nebraska football seemed, at that stage, perfectly modern. Up to date. With it.
Still, it began the season as an underdog in its own division and with a preseason ranking that suggested more of the same. In the first year of the College Football Playoff, two icons of Nebraska's glory years Osborne and former Husker player-turned-Wisconsin-coach Barry Alvarez sat on the selection committee.
They were reminders of where Nebraska had been.
Where did it go?
That's part two of the study.
Let's see what the Huskers did and how instrumental Pelini was in the second half of the story.
Contact the writer:
402-202-9766, firstname.lastname@example.org, twitter.com/swmckewonOWH
Bigger, badder and plugged in
Twenty years from now, college football will absorb you and overwhelm you. It will be bigger, badder, more plugged in and more advanced than ever. Super-sized recruiting. Super-sized stadium experiences. Super-sized facilities for super-fast players. The future of the sport, as imagined by World-Herald writers, is both dark and bright.
The future is so bright, they have to wear visors.
Football players, that is. Whereas visors fitted into helmets were once just useful for glare protection, technology will advance so far in 20 years that coaches can upload their play calls both a primary play and several audibles, based on the defense to screens anchored inside visors. The computers run by a chip embedded deep in the helmet, so as to avoid damage will help the quarterback identify the middle linebacker and check safety depth. The defense will have the same screens, instantly updating them on how many times a wideout in motion resulted in a certain play. And no more confusion about play clocks; it's right there, counting down in front of a player's eyes. Coaches call plays not from a sheet, but a digital menu attached to a small personal transport system. Only two scooters per team and there's a weight limit.
The game will be played on SmartTurf, a new synthetic grass with variable settings that automatically adjusts to the weather and opponent at hand. Teams have to declare 24 hours before kickoff which depth of grass will be used. Will it be a fast, almost AstroTurf-style track built for speed, or a thick, bushy grade of turf built to thwart fast teams?
First-down markers and chain gangs will be a thing of the past. In their place: down-to-the-centimeter lasers that take the guesswork out of spotting the ball, since referees have their own visors that automatically direct them to the exact placement. Hovering 50 yards above the field, drones not only film the game from a unique perspective, but have the capability of detecting illegal contact or pass interference down the field. Teams now station two of their referees in the press box to view the drones' perspective, and they push a button when they detect a penalty.
All athletes wear a PTS Player Tracking System set to a variety of performances and medical metrics. Those readings will become the most coveted information by journalists and fans on message boards, available only to team personnel and the NFL, which has created a partnership with what everyone knew college football always was: a developmental league.
How can Nebraska football keep its sellout streak alive another 20 years? Take a page from the Omaha Storm Chasers.
Free bobbleheads. Bounce houses in the parking lots. Fireworks after touchdowns.
Traditionalists scoff at such tactics. But the football itself isn't good enough anymore to merit $70 tickets and five hours at the stadium. No, administrators like Dave Brandon say the game day experience needs improvement.
In 1971, undefeated Michigan beat Ohio State on the season's final Saturday, clinching a Big Ten crown and qualifying for the Rose Bowl.
Brandon, a reserve Wolverine quarterback on that team, said three of those games were televised. And TV screens were the size of a potholder.
Now Brandon is Michigan athletic director, responsible for filling Michigan Stadium seven Saturdays a year. And his rival isn't Ohio State or Nebraska.
"The biggest competitor we all have is the flat-screen television set," Brandon said.
Michigan led the nation in attendance in 2013, but pockets of the stadium were vacant during many games. The Wolverines' subpar performances didn't help. But more than that, Brandon says, it's the quality of experience fans receive on their couches.
They don't have to fight traffic. They don't have to stand in lines for the bathroom. They don't have to pay $5 for a hot dog. And their view of the action? Thanks to HD and instant replay, it's arguably better than being in the stadium.
"We have to come up with ways to make that day in Michigan Stadium more than just exactly what you'd see on TV only you're out in the weather."
Brandon says balancing tradition and modernization is like "dancing on the head of the pin."
Fans in their 20s and 30s have shorter attention spans and newer ways to consume information. New generations enjoy getting info on a screen as much as if not more than getting it directly.
"Go to a college campus. They're all walking down the sidewalk staring into a handheld. They're not talking to one another. If they are, they're talking to one another through these handhelds."
Brandon challenges his marketing department to respect traditions colors, fight song, band, tunnel, etc. But everything else is fair game. It means spicing up pregame parties, tailgates, TV timeouts, halftime shows, postgame shows. What can Michigan offer that a fan won't get on TV?
Could a 100,000-seat stadium ever be too big?
"I hope not," Brandon said. "I hope not."
But more and more, he encounters fans who don't want bench seats. They will pay for a premium experience, though. He foresees the possibility of a school like Michigan reducing the capacity of its stadium by putting in wider cushioned seats from end zone to end zone and charging more per ticket. A luxury experience.
It won't be quite as comfy as your couch. But you'll be able to smell the popcorn.
There's an arms race developing within the sports apparel industry now that uniform design can play such an integral role in recruiting. Players want to look good, yes.
But as the technology advances, they're learning that what they wear can impact their performance.
The soccer jersey worn by the U.S. national team during the World Cup this year featured Nike's laser-cut ventilation holes and its mesh fabric in the areas where heat is most often created.
Dry-fit technology seems to be nearly commonplace now the material pulls moisture off the skin to the outside of the jersey so it can evaporate faster (thus hastening the body's cooling process).
So what's next?
How about uniforms that actually cool the athlete down? Instead of just speeding up the biological process, perhaps in 20 years football players' jerseys and pants act as their own portable air conditioners.
Maybe you've heard of a microclimate cooling vest. It's on the market now. It circulates ice-cold water from a backpack reservoir through tubes within the garment.
By 2034, though, this concept could be used for football players at least during preseason camp. Perhaps there'll be a way for the uniforms to heat themselves, too.
The race for No. 1
It's a different world in 2034. Most insist it's better. Some aren't sure. A few that loud minority argue that it's paradise lost.
Whatever was quaint about college football is gone. It's a business, nobody argues otherwise, and the purpose of engaging in business isn't merely profit but perfection. The perfect game. The perfect team. The perfect program. Coaches still preach the journey, but, at the end, it's perfection.
Perfect is immediate as much information at the fingertips of players and coaches as fast as possible. Perfect is ubiquitous 25 mobile player refreshment stations, underwritten by some of the nation's largest food processors, on campus. Perfect is secretive reporters must sign three privacy documents before covering the team, and teams have surveillance officers to protect player tracking system data so closely held by teams. Perfect is control the PTS data, now a near-requirement for any job in pro football, is not released to the players themselves until and unless they complete their three-year contract in the program.
Perfect is big. General managers now work in each football office. Staff size has exploded. University presidents, strapped for financial support from taxpayers, have long farmed out operation of college football to two shoe companies and three technology companies that can bear the cost and reap the rewards at prep levels and the NFL, which benefits from the developmental league. The Big Six, as they are called, form a governing board that infuses the sport with advancements but tweaks rules as necessary, so as to benefit their bottom lines.
And perfect is exciting. The College Football Playoff, the bracket up to 16 teams, is wildly successful. The season is longer and more propulsive than ever. Since the Internet spawns most of the viral ideas in 2034, marketing officials were not surprised when the 2034 poster for the playoff was a literal tower of football players, all scratching and crawling over each other, while one mounted the peak, victorious, arms skyward into the heavens, as if a god.
The poster reads, "From many, comes one." Fans call it perfect.
For 50 years, football fans have relied on a set of statistics as simple and arbitrary as RBI and ERA in baseball. Get ready for new metrics.
Ameer Abdullah's tackle-breaking frequency. Corey Cooper's coverage range. Kenny Bell's wins above replacement.
Baseball has already ushered in its statistical revolution sabermetrics. Basketball is working on its own. Football has been slow to the party. With 22 players in a relatively small space, there are too many moving parts to quantitatively analyze each player's impact.
But that's sure to change as technology supplies mathematicians with more sophisticated data. GPS trackers in helmets will tell us every player's speed. We'll know their fatigue levels by testing their saliva.
Sacks? Forget it. Randy Gregory's primary statistic will be pressure efficiency. Analysts will calculate it by considering the offensive lineman's skill, the quarterback's mobility, the quarterback's time in the pocket.
Rushing yards? That'll be a relic, too, replaced by rushing efficiency. Analysts will calculate it by considering the defense's ability, the size of holes, even the turf conditions.
New data will give us new ways to analyze the value of players. But that's not all.
"Artificial intelligence is going to play a big role in college football," said David Marx, who teaches sports statistics at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
We'll be able to look at a team or coach and predict his next action based on past experience, Marx said. We'll be able to look at probabilities of plays working in specific situations, how many yards they're expected to gain. After each play, we'll be able to see the probability of Team A or Team B winning the game.
One of the most fascinating battlegrounds of the statistical revolution will be fourth-down strategy. Will coaches make decisions based on conventional wisdom? Or analytics?
The successful ones, Marx said, will use the best data at their disposal. Advanced statistics will never replace blocking and tackling as the keys to football. But "at the highest levels, the difference between teams is so marginal," Marx said. It'll be worth coaches' time to study more information.
In 2013, the New York Times unveiled a "4th Down Bot" showing every conceivable fourth-down situation on a football field and what an NFL coach should do.
Go for it? Kick a field goal? Punt?
The 4th Down Bot built a chart with the answers, based on years of NFL data and intricate statistical formulas. Fourth-and-3 from your opponent's 19-yard line? Go for it. Fourth-and-12 from your opponent's 36? Kick a field goal.
Every team and game are slightly different, of course, but the chart is a fascinating study of football strategy. Its most obvious conclusion is that football coaches are far too conservative, punting and kicking field goals when they should be going for it.
For example, based on the data, a coach should go for it on fourth-and-1 and fourth-and-2 at every spot on the field, including his own 9-yard line. Fourth-and-7 at your own 48? Go for it. Fourth-and-4 at your opponent's 13? Go for it.
Going for it on fourth down sounds like a lot of fun from your couch. But imagine the criticism a coach would endure for failing on fourth-and-1 from his own 10. A coach must base his decision on the game's circumstances. It's still highly subjective.
In 2013, San Diego State coach Rocky Long went for it 38 times on fourth down.
Old-school Bill Snyder? He went for it just seven times. Kansas State ranked 124th nationally in fourth-down attempts, second to last. Who was 125th?
Florida State. Jimbo Fisher went for it on fourth down only four times all season. Of course one of those attempts was in the BCS national championship game, when, trailing 21-3 in the second quarter, he called a fake punt on fourth-and-4 from his own 40-yard line.
The Seminoles converted, scored seven plays later and flipped the game's momentum. So maybe it's too simple to label a coach "conservative" based on fourth-down attempts.
In 2034, we'll have a new stat to measure it.
Is Joe College Football a student first? An athlete first? It is a burning question in 2014. It will be answered in the easiest of ways.
He is a student majoring in athletics.
He can add a major to athletics if he likes or choose to major in something else entirely. But most athletes, having been raised for 12 years to excel in the field of their parents' choice, find themselves gravitating toward the athletics major. Who knew there was so much to learn about the business of it, the history, coaching, performance maintenance and how supplements and medicines work?
As a result, athletes are unusually informed about their trade. They ask better questions, get hooked on painkillers less often, handle their money better, appreciate the method behind a drill and need far less tutoring for what their body has already prepared them to know so well. The "athletics information and administration" immediately becomes the hardest major to get into at most schools. The entire school, along with any "athletics" major, is housed in its own building on the edge of campus. There, they live and train. Entrance requirements an athletic scholarship or passing a rigorous set of tests are fierce. Major college football programs like Nebraska, Oklahoma, Ohio State and Texas quickly become the "Ivy Leagues" of their field, attracting the best faculty and students. In the future, it's all about the program.
It has to start with the helmet. Research on concussions diagnosis and prevention will be a primary focus over the next two decades. And that's why equipment designers believe they're just now scratching the surface on the creation of safer football helmets.
Riddell introduced its new SpeedFlex helmet this year, which has a face mask that can disperse some of the force from a direct hit to the head and also features padding on its interior to limit the impact on the head. The crown of the helmet is supposedly more flexible as well.
It's possible that the helmet shape won't change too much over the next 20 years, but the way they're manufactured with concussions in mind certainly will evolve.
Also, you can expect systems that use data-gathering sensors in the helmet to help inform medical personnel of a concussion threat. Riddell just introduced new diagnosis software called InSite, which sends alerts to a hand-held device on the sideline if an impact is potentially severe.
Everyone will be using something like that in 20 years. And maybe each sideline will have a neurologist who has advanced equipment to accurately and instantly diagnose concussions.
It's likely, too, that uniforms will contain other sensors of their own within the fabric to help athletic trainers monitor heart rate, body temperature and hydration levels. Maybe they'll even be able to predict muscle or ligament strain, based on the readings they get.
This year begins the College Football Playoff, consisting of four teams chosen by a selection committee. The contract with ESPN runs 12 years, but many experts believe the tournament will expand sooner than that. Here's our vision for the playoff in 2034:
Welcome to the 2034 College Football Playoff selection show, sponsored by iPlanes. We're here at Apple Network headquarters in Shanghai, where Commissioner Mark Cuban is ready to announce the field of 16.
Before we release the bracket, a few reminders: This is the first year the championship game will be in Mumbai's 205,000-seat stadium. Hopefully we get the same drama as last year's finale in Dubai, when freshman Matthew Mark Luke John Tebow threw for 648 yards and Central Florida upset Arizona State to win it all and extend the Sunshine League's title streak.
Is Commissioner Cuban ready? OK, here we go.
First on the board, playing in 91-year-old Jerry Jones' brand-new Cowboys Stadium, No. 1 seed UCLA of the SoCal Conference vs. 16th seed Rutgers. What a story the Scarlet Knights are. After getting banished from the Big Ten in 2019 for poor performance, they'll make their first playoff appearance.
The winner of that game will face the winner of this matchup: No. 8 Texas vs. No. 9 Nebraska. These rivals go way back to the days of Bo Pelini and Mack Brown. Pelini, of course, is now a Fox media personality. You can catch his new reality show, "Herding Cats," on Wednesday nights at 8. Pelini's successor, Scott Frost, says this is his best team at Nebraska.
Moving on to the Buenos Aries region: No. 4 seed Mississippi, with coach Peyton Manning, will face No. 13 Southern Mississippi, led by Brett Favre. And No. 5 seed Florida will meet 12th-seeded Alabama. Remember the power struggle between these two that led to the famous commissioner's coup in 2026 and eventual dissolution of the SEC?
In the Mars region, we'll see No. 3 Bahamas Tech, which just locked up its fifth-consecutive top-ranked recruiting class, against No. 14 Ohio State. The Buckeyes are coming off NFLP probation following former coach Urban Meyer's drone strike on a Clemson Tiger linebacker. And No. 6 seed LSU will meet conference rival Baylor, whose invisible uniforms were the talk of college football this year.
The No. 2 seed? Following their controversial 74-68 win over Michigan in the Big Ten championship game, it's Missouri. The Tigers will tangle with 15th-seeded University of Phoenix in University of Phoenix Stadium. The nightcap will match No. 7 Oregon Nikes, the Pac-8 champion, against Under Armour State, making its first appearance in the playoff.
All in all, it's hard to ask for a better bracket. And now for analysis, here's our expert, five-time Super Bowl MVP Johnny Manziel.