Athletes who cover great spans of turf quicker than other humans.
Speed: Forty-yard-dash times that make your eyes bug out.
If you don't have speed, if you can't deal with it, are you destined to lose? Is TCU, sporting the nation's No. 1 defense in 2008, picked to reign the Mountain West because of speed? Is Utah's speed, thanks to Texas recruiting, approaching TCU's realm? Did BYU get picked second in the MWC because of a lack of speed? Does speed rule supreme? It's debatable.
I interviewed two MWC football beat writers, Greg Archuleta of the Albuquerque Journal and Steve Guiremand, editor of Rebel Nation, and asked why they voted TCU No. 1. Both said speed. Both were very impressed with how TCU handled BYU a year ago.
Said Guiremand, "I thought TCU was the best team in the league last year but let it get away at the end at Utah. Speed-wise, I think they are the quickest defensive team I've seen this side of USC. The Oct. 24 game with BYU in Provo could be a classic."
"What separated it for me was TCU's dominance of the Cougars in their game last season," he said. "The difference in athleticism in that game made me lean towards the Frogs. I'm not sure BYU can make up that difference in one season. I thought TCU was the best team in the league last year but fell victim to a destined Utah team."
If appropriately coached, speed rises to the top in the MWC, and TCU and Utah should rule in years to come. BYU, some claim, is the red-headed stepchild until it finds another Bryan Kehl.
TCU's squad is blistering quick. Utah is progressively getting a quicker roster. Ask Alabama. BYU has historically won a lot of WAC and MWC championships without much speed, including back-to-backs in 2007-08. San Diego State and New Mexico have had a truckload of athletes with speed but always battle to get to .500.
Speed is also relative. How does Stanford beat USC in the modern era? How does Florida lose to Mississippi at home? In that famous 2008 fourth-and-18 at LaVell Edwards Stadium, Ute corner Brice McCain, a 4.3 sprinter, got beat deep by a 4.6 Austin Collie, a play that helped change the outcome of the game. It was a fluke, a hesitation, a wrong step by McCain and the slower Collie made the play.
In 2009, a fired-up Horned Frog team absolutely splayed and roasted a 6-0 BYU squad in Fort Worth. It looked like hares vs. turtles, molasses against thunderbolts.
But did speed do all that damage? Utah coach Kyle Whittingham respects speed. And if he had a vote, he would pick TCU this year.
"They've got a lot of speed coming back, a lot of athleticism, and an excellent quarterback in Andy Dalton," Whittingham said. "It's very easy to see why they were picked first."
BYU's Bronco Mendenhall is all about deployment. He remembers in 2003, SDSU's defense selling out with a blitz when BYU had the ball against the Cougars' goal line at San Diego. That's when Ray Braithwaite broke through for a 95-yard touchdown run, the longest in BYU history.
"It's not only speed, but how it's being used," said the Cougars' coach. "Last year they (TCU) did a very nice job against us in putting as many athletes on the field as spread out as they could, knowing the quarterback isn't just a quarterback but a potential ball-carrier. When you are a zone-based team and a relatively conservative point-management team, that now puts you at a numbers disadvantage."
Mendenhall said TCU scored on a BYU turnover on the second play of the game.
That easy, early score contributed to the blowout. The Cougars also allowed TCU sack artist Jerry Hughes to go unblocked multiple times.
And on defense?
"Not only, at times, did we not make the tackle, but we didn't touch the player with the ball," Mendenhall said. "So, possibly, there is more risk at times, but it also takes increased effort and execution and we needed to get more players to the ball."
Mendenhall said all kinds of things broke down for BYU at TCU a year ago, including losing the field position battle all night.
"If you are defending speed and making them start further away, the better. Managing the entire game better with execution can offset that," said Mendenhall, who hinted that some slight scheme changes — nothing radical — could have also helped.
With the Cougars, speed stock has primarily been the same, even in the days of Robbie Bosco, Steve Young and Ty Detmer, who pulled off a win against defending national champion Miami.
BYU does have a returned missionary, sophomore McKay Jacobson, who won't be the typical Cougar possession receiver this fall. He once finished eighth in the 5A Texas state 200-meter dash as a sophomore, earning a medal in a preliminary field of more than 244 athletes.
Jacobson has been clocked at 10.5 for 100 meters and 21.56 in the 200. At age 16, at a University of Texas sprinter camp that drew 600 athletes to the Longhorn indoor facility, he finished in the top three behind Penn State-bound senior Derrick Williams.
That day Williams wore track shoes; Jacobson had on football cleats. If speed is a necessary element, why is BYU among only six Division I programs to have won 10 games the past three seasons? What's it all mean? Speed is absolutely a relative factor. If applied correctly, it helps. If not, it is quickly cancelled out.
TCU is Speed City — and is using it correctly. At the MWC Outdoor Track Championships in May, the top five 100-meter sprinters were all Frogs.
Andon Mitchell took first with a 10.26, followed by Otis Mitchell, also at 10.26. The slowest, at No. 5, was Mychal Dungey at 10.39.
None are football players. Gary Patterson doesn't need any of them to make his team faster in a relative football player sense. It's already so.
The Cougars blitzed 13 percent of the time a year ago.
"When you choose to do those things, that risk versus reward has to be calculated very effectively," Mendenhall said. "That might jump to 17 percent, based on the team we are playing, or ability to beat a block and make a tackle with our front.
"Ideally, you like to beat a block and make a tackle instead of having an unblocked player. If you do that, your chances of being successful over time increase."
And that has been a key of the last Fred and Kyle Whittingham defenses over the years — both at BYU and Utah: Get pressure from a regular front while covering effectively at the back end. Then, if it gets nuts, like in the Sugar Bowl, you simply have fun and do what you want.
Speed or little speed, it comes down to individual wins up and down the line of scrimmage on game day.