The following statement can be filed under the very large label, “opinions that feel like facts”:
More 20-point-or-more counter-runs have occurred this season than in any previous college football season dating back to the sport’s birth in 1869.
First, a definitional note: a scoring counter-run is a run which occurs in response to another team’s run. In other words, a team which begins a game by taking a 35-0 lead has not authored a counter-run. It is an initial run. A team responding to a 35-0 run to make the score 35-31 has forged a 31-point “counter-run.”
It really does feel (the facts might indicate otherwise) that the 2016 college football season has overdosed on large counter-runs through five weeks.
This past weekend, Oklahoma fell behind TCU, 21-7, but then uncorked a 42-3 blitzkrieg to take a 49-24 lead. TCU answered with a 22-0 surge. Two 20-plus counter-runs occurred in one game.
Another Week 5 game replicated that larger turn of events: Clemson uncorked a 28-3 ambush against Louisville, only for the Cardinals to punch back with a 26-0 freight train. Clemson won the game with a “minor” 14-0 run in the final minutes.
Plenty of other 20-point counter-runs dotted the landscape of Week 5.
If you checked out late Saturday and didn’t stay up for Mountain West or Pac-12 football, you missed Wyoming falling behind Colorado State, 14-3, only to unload a 35-3 supernova the rest of the way.
Florida State pulled off a 28-7 burst after North Carolina took a 21-0 lead.
Oklahoma State trailed Texas, 25-23, and then scored 20 straight points to put away the Longhorns.
South Alabama, trailing 24-21 at home to San Diego State, scored the game’s final 21 points to win by 18.
That was just Week 5… and merely a sampling (not a full account) of all the 20-point-or-more counter-runs this past weekend.
This notion of the counter-run is so prominent in college football — so front-and-center in the mind’s eye — because so many of the season’s biggest games have been defined (and in most cases decided) by them.
Texas overcame a 21-0 Notre Dame run to beat the Irish, but the next night, Florida State used a 33-0 run to come back and stun Ole Miss.
Speaking of Ole Miss, the Rebels blew another huge halftime lead weeks later. Alabama unfurled a 45-6 Tidal wave to leave the Magnolia State victorious.
Florida State fell behind South Florida, 14-7, and then scored the next 38 points.
Tennessee fell behind Florida, 21-0, and unsheathed its own 38-0 storm of death. The Vols also dug a 14-0 ditch against Virginia Tech in Bristol (Tennessee, not Connecticut) and then went on a 31-0 rampage. Tennessee is the counter-run king of college football this season, the reason the Vols are somehow unbeaten despite being a consistently poor first-half team.
Nebraska, down 20-7 to Oregon, needed a 21-0 run to turn that game around and avoid a loss which — in hindsight — would look so much worse than it did at the time.
It’s one thing to string together two straight touchdowns. It’s quite another to go on a big scoring binge after being outplayed or — at the very least — slightly outscored in a relatively even contest for the better part of two quarters.
The first 20 to 30 minutes of a college football game this season seem to mean as much as the Tim Kaine-Mike Pence debate means to the outcome of the presidential election.
Is this, scientifically, “The Year Of The Counter-Run” in college football? No. More research would be needed to establish that claim.
Nevertheless, when central contests — not just the late Mountain West game or that zany MACTION game in the late-morning hours — are turning based on 31-0 runs, it’s worth taking notice. As soon as a good team — struggling in the first and second quarters — has found a brief spark, it has often (though certainly not always) found a way to flip the switch. Teams that have been extremely well prepared to play in first quarters have, on the other hand, collapsed.
This is the volatility of college athletics, not just college sports. This is the centrality of psychology at work, at a point in athletes’ evolution when they haven’t received as much training and aren’t able to respond as fluidly in moments of crisis and suffocating pressure.
This is the pain of college football, but it’s also a source of the wonderment fans and observers derive from this sprawling theater of competition.
The (unofficial) Year Of the Counter-Run can be a headache for fans, but from a neutral perspective, college football wouldn’t be as fun without this fragile, frail and fascinating dynamic.