SMQ: A century of scoring trends in college football


In 1912, scoring conventions were codified to the familiar point system we are familiar with in the 21st century. How have scoring trends changed over time?

As I discussed earlier this month, we are in the highest-scoring era in college football history. A look at the scoreboard in any given week will show teams topping 50 points with regularity; in Week 5 alone, a dozen different teams crossed the 50-point barrier on the scoreboard.

But while there have been some stellar performances, it is worth considering two factors on a more empirical level. First, how has average scoring changed over time? And second, how have scoring averages changed over time for the top-scoring team in any given season?

This is what we are going to examine in this week’s Sunday Morning Quarterback. Taking annual standings data from Sports Reference, I have compiled the mean points per game and top points per game for every season between 1912 and 2018. For the current season, the data has been pulled from the official NCAA stats site.

Why start at 1912, rather than extending the study back to the beginning of college football in . 1869? The 1912 season marked the point when scoring rules were updated and modernized to the form we understand now in the 21st century, where a touchdown is worth six points, an extra point counts for one point, and a field goal nets three points.

With this data, we can then chart trendlines to see how scoring has increased or decreased over time.

The above chart shows the points per game for the top-scoring team in each season in purple, and the mean points per game is displayed in blue. Trendlines for each dataset are displayed in red.

So what can we learn from this scoring data?

For the first three decades after the scoring rules were altered to their modern format, average scoring remained relatively flat up until World War II. Yet at the same time, some of the highest-scoring seasons in college football history occurred right when the rules first altered to privilege touchdowns over the kicking game.

The highest season average in college football history took place not in the 21st century, but rather 101 years ago. Georgia Tech, led by legendary coach John Heisman, was one of the most dominant teams of the early 20th century. In 1916, the Yellow Jackets pulled off their legendary 222-0 victory over Cumberland that remains the largest margin of victory in the sport’s long history. But it wasn’t the 1916 team but rather Georgia Tech’s 1918 roster that still holds the mark for the highest-scoring team ever.

Known at the time as the Golden Tornado, that 1918 Georgia Tech team topped 100 points on three different occasions — beating Furman 118-0, taking down the 11th Cavalry 123-0 (in an era when college football teams scheduled military teams and even high-school squads), and pulling off a 128-0 blowout of NC State. Even accounting for a 32-0 shutout loss at Pittsburgh, Heisman’s highest-scoring Tech team averaged 66.6 points per game over its seven-game season.

This was the high mark of a period between 1915 and 1920 when the national leader topped 50 points per game each season. By 1921, however, defenses had started to adjust to the new scoring rules and were able to depress the scoring averages of the top teams in the country. Over the Roaring Twenties and through the Great Depression, college football teams on average scored between 13 and 16 points per game.

That trend followed for the top teams in the country. In 1926, for instance, Minnesota led the nation in scoring with 33.8 points per game; a decade earlier, that mark would have put the Golden Gophers outside the 10 highest-scoring teams in the country. The 1933 Fordham team that led the country scored just 24.4 points per game, the lowest average by the highest-scoring team in a season since scoring was normalized two decades prior.

What is old is new again when it comes to scoring in college football

World War II ramped up scoring, as talent flocked to service academies. The 1944 Army team, led by Heisman winners Glenn Davis and Doc Blanchard, became the first since California in 1920 to top 50 points per game over the course of a season. The next time a team broke the 50-point mark for their season average was nearly four decades later, when Nebraska’s 1983 roster averaged 50.3 points per game on the way to their Orange Bowl loss against Miami.

After the Cornhuskers posted their huge offensive stats in 1983, the 50-point mark started to be breached more frequently again. The prolific Houston Cougars, led by Heisman-winning quarterback Andre Ware, averaged 53.5 points per game in 1989. Nebraska replicated the feat with their 1995 national championship-winning team as they averaged 53.2 points each outing.

It is a trend that repeats itself now every few years in college football. Topping 50 points is hardly a given, as it doesn’t happen every year, but since 2001 it has occurred four times in an 18-year span. The 2005 Texas Longhorns that downed USC at the Rose Bowl in perhaps the greatest national championship game in the sport’s history averaged 50.2 points over the course of the year. Three years later, Oklahoma averaged 51.1 points as Sam Bradford and crew played their way into a date with Florida in the BCS title game.

In 2012, it was mid-major Louisiana Tech that eclipsed the mark with 51.5 points per game. A year later, the 2013 Baylor team did one better as they finished with a scoring average of 52.4 points. All told, only 18 teams have ever managed to keep up that level of scoring over an entire season.

This season, five different teams are currently above the 50-point threshold after the first month of the season. (Those teams are shown above italicized in red.) LSU leads the way with 57.8 points per game, followed by Oklahoma, Ohio State, Alabama, and Penn State. As they get into conference play those numbers will likely go down for most of these programs. But if the top-scoring Tigers manage to continue posting nearly 58 points per outing they will finish second to only that legendary 1918 Georgia Tech team in average scoring.

While we like to talk about “point-a-minute” offenses, only one team has actually managed to maintain that level of offensive productivity over the course of an entire season and 101 years later, we are still waiting to see another team pull off the feat.

Next. Week 6 AP Top 25 Projections. dark

No more than two teams in a given season have topped 50 points. Could this be the year when at least three different programs break that mark? The likelihood is low, but it will be fun to keep an eye on the situation as the season progresses deeper into autumn.