College football defenses finally claw back as some offensive averages reach lowest points in a decade

There were indicators all over the country: This season, we got the second lowest-scoring College Football Playoff in the history of the event. Georgia fielded a generational defense. For only the second time in CFP history, four teams that finished in the top 20 in total defense faced off. A defensive lineman finished second in Heisman Trophy voting for the first time in 41 years. 

The transformative 2021 college football season can be viewed two ways: Either defenses clawed back some of the turf they had lost during the ongoing offensive revolution, or offenses leveled off. Perhaps it was a bit of both. Either way, offense took a collective step back in 2021.

Scoring, total offense and rushing offense were at their lowest averages in a decade. The declines were minimal but significant in context. Scoring was down to 28.51 points per team, lowest since the 2011 average of 28.29, according to NCAA statistics. Total offense dipped below 400 yards per game (397.95) for the first time since teams averaged 392.4 in 2011. Similarly, rushing was down to 163.8 yards per game, the lowest in 10 years.

During the last decade, offense has spiked. Targeting penalties evolved, too, forcing defenses to use more finesse than force. Quarterbacks were already on their way to becoming the central figures in every program.

But in 2021, defenses drew a line in the artificial turf. They didn’t stop the offensive revolution, but they at least slowed it.

“Football has always been this way, cyclical,” said new SMU coach Rhett Lashlee. “For the last several years, offenses have been soaring. There’s really good coaches in our game on defense, too. What do they do all offseason? They find ways to adapt, evolve, change, [saying,] ‘How are we going to stop this…

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