It is a shame that the Big 12 gets this reputation, because it is vastly unwarranted. Now, I grant you, some of the numbers are not really on the side of the Big 12 if all you look at is total defensive yardage, which is what many of the talking heads rely. And, if total yardage allowed is your barometer for a good defense, then the Big 12 really is awful. Consider the following numbers:
The Big 12 definitely seems to be the worst when you look at total yards in a season, averaging 5,282 yards given up in the year for all ten teams. The SEC, by contrast, has only given up an average of 4,309 this year, over 18% less! That comes out to be about 81 yards per game less over a 12 game regular season.
These numbers can be a bit deceiving though, because if you look at the next column it will show the total amount of plays the defenses have played this year. Currently the Big 12 has been on the field for 922 plays, which breaks down to allowing 5.72 yards per play. All in all that’s only 11% worse than the SEC’s vaunted defensive reputation on a per play comparison. If the Big 12 defense had as many plays as the SEC, they’d only have given up 4,787 yards. While still worse over all, three extra first downs a game it isn’t as drastic of a story as 1,000 yards given up in a season.
But even that is only part of the picture. As you can tell from the chart, the top six leagues seem to play two different styles of football. The ACC, Big Ten and SEC run less plays than the others. Variations of the Air Raid offense, which is a variation of the West Coast offense itself, permeate through the AAC, Big 12 and Pac 12 conferences more than the other three.
The premise of the Air Raid is that, even if a defense stops you, you go so fast that you’ll eventually out score your opponent by the extra possessions alone. The two fastest teams in the Top Six conferences we’re looking at here are Baylor and Texas Tech, who both average around 19 seconds per play. Arkansas, on the other hand, averages 30 seconds per play. To claim defenses are going up against the same offenses with that massive division in ball control concepts would be a mistake. In order to look at how these defenses compare, we have to also look at the offenses they are facing week in and week out.
Like was indicated in the defensive numbers, the offenses the AAC, Pac 12 and Big 12 run are much more proficient than the other three conferences. It makes a lot of sense that the number of plays from offense to defense would mimic each other, since the conference season takes up over two thirds of the games, but look at the difference in yards gained by the offenses as well.
The Pac 12 and Big 12 average over six yards a play, which is more than everyone else in a standard offense, but, considering there are also 5-6 extra plays per game on top of that, you start to see what the defenses are going up against. It is apparent that the total yards comparison is, simply, an offensive ball control conversation. Of course the Big Ten defenses look better against offenses that average a half yard less per play. That’s like it being easier to dunk if you’re 6’6” instead of just six foot tall.
However, we cannot assume that a Big Ten team would hold a Pac 12 team to 5.51 yards per play or that they’d slow them down to take less plays per game. So, in order to really compare how defenses perform, we need to look at how they perform against the offenses playing against it.
There isn’t a really good way of doing this, since each conference plays a different style of football. The most obvious answer is just review how much they held their own offenses under their average. When we look at that, some strange things develop from the previous charts.
In the total yardage within the first chart, the Big Ten’s defenses look stout, until you realize, in the second chart, that their offenses are anemic in comparison to the rest of the conferences. Are they connected? Yes, but mostly because conference offenses and defenses are designed to handle each other. It doesn’t make sense for Michigan to style their defense to stop Baylor, when they may never play them. Stopping Michigan State and Ohio State, on the other hand, is the priority.
When looking at how the Big Ten’s defenses do holding back Big Ten offenses, that 5.229 yards per play average doesn’t seem as impressive, once you realize they are only limiting Big Ten offenses by about 5%. The SEC, by comparison, is limiting theirs by 10%. However, I would speculate that has more to do with the SEC offenses being inferior and having an extra game against subpar talent. Don’t start writing me more hate mail, SEC fanboys. The SEC is still loaded with powerful defenses, but if you adjusted for those two settings they would probably be around 7-8% instead of the glaring difference they show now.
The Big 12 and Pac 12, where the flashy offenses exist, may not have the best defenses, but they look much better by comparison. The Big 12 is limiting its opponents to 6.11% under their average, which is also higher than the six conference average. I am not sure how you could state the Big 12 doesn’t play defense when they are holding some of the best offenses in the country 6% under their average, unless you don’t understand football or math or both.
All in all this doesn’t matter too much, outside the talking heads basically being flat out wrong. The only sure fire test is to line up two teams and see if they can stop each other, not if Florida held Vandy to six points or Baylor held Texas Tech to thirty five. However, that does beg the question; is it more impressive that Florida held Vandy to 7.9 points under their average or that the Bears kept Tech 11.6 points under their average?
Come to the forums and let me know how you’d answer that question.
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