Radio sideline reporter Jed Drenning is providing periodic commentary on the Mountaineer football program for WVUsports.com. Be sure to order a copy of Jed’s 2013 Big 12 preview magazine, available here: http://bit.ly/lNmvO0. For more from Jed, you can follow him on Twitter @TheSignalCaller
It’s been said that numbers are like people - if you torture them enough they’ll tell you anything you want to know. With that in mind, you’ll probably view this article in one of two ways: either as a compelling analysis, or as a statistical thumbscrew.
Of all the questions I was asked by West Virginia fans during the offseason, one surfaced more than any other: “Do you think the defense will be any better?”
The short answer? Yes, but not because I think “it can’t get any worse.” Trust me, in the Big 12 it can always get worse.
It was apparent throughout fall camp that the promising new energy the Mountaineer defense played with during the spring had indeed carried over into August. But let’s reel things back in for a moment. The days of consistently holding teams to 280 yards and 17 points per game are over. That fact is less the result of an inadequate scheme or a short-handed roster than it is the simple cost of doing business in the Big 12 - perhaps the most dynamic offensive league in college football.
We’ll get back to that in a bit.***
Dana Holgorsen drew national headlines at Big 12 Media Days in July when he was asked about comments made by Alabama’s Nick Saban and Arkansas coach Bret Bielema that up-tempo offenses lead to an increase in injuries.
The West Virginia head man minced no words, saying this fast-paced style of play isn’t going away so folks better just “get over it.”
Few would know better than Holgorsen. There’s no data to support a claim that a fast-paced style of play leads to increased injuries, but there’s plenty of anecdotal proof that it does lead to a greater strain on defenses. That is, after all, why it exists – and nowhere is this style more en vogue than in the Big 12 Conference.***
Do you remember that Oklahoma State team two years ago that was the toast of the league? The 12-1 squad led by Brandon Weeden and Justin Blackmon that came within an OT interception at Iowa State of playing for the BCS title and had to instead ‘settle’ for a Fiesta Bowl win over Andrew Luck’s Stanford Cardinal? Well, that OSU team – which won its first outright conference title since 1948 - finished that season ranked 107th nationally in total defense. That’s right: 107th. West Virginia a year ago – with its countless defensive issues – was 108th. The difference? Oklahoma State forced 44 turnovers in 2011. The 2012 Mountaineers forced just 20.
From a yardage standpoint, the WVU defense didn’t finish in the Big 12 cellar last season. In fact, it wasn’t even close. Two teams limped in with a ranking lower than West Virginia’s. One of those teams – a Baylor squad that allowed almost 400 yards more than the Mountaineers on the year – won eight games and blasted a very good UCLA team in the Holiday Bowl.
The inescapable truth is that the Mountaineers are trying to gain ground in a league in which every defense – not just their own – has been forced to play with a cinder block strapped to its ankle.
The numbers listed below indicate the relative dominance enjoyed by the top defense in each major conference. They might be viewed by some as Exhibit A in the case for demonstrating the strain that playing in the Big 12 can put on a defense – even a talented, veteran-laden unit like the one Kansas State fielded last season.
TOP-RANKED SCORING DEFENSE IN EACH CONFERENCE – 2012 SEASON
SEC: Alabama (10.9 Points/game allowed)
Big East: Rutgers (14.2 Points/game allowed)
ACC: Florida State (14.7 Points/game allowed)
Big Ten: Michigan State (16.3 Points/game allowed)
Pac-12: Stanford (17.2 Points/game allowed)
Big 12: Kansas State (22.1 Points/game allowed)
And here is Exhibit B. The top offenses, from a scoring standpoint, from each major conference.
TOP-RANKED SCORING OFFENSE IN EACH CONFERENCE – 2012 SEASON
Pac-12: Oregon (49.5 Points/game)
Big 12: Oklahoma State (45.7 Points/game)
SEC: Texas A&M (44.5 Points/game)
ACC: Clemson (41.0 Points/game)
Big Ten: Ohio State (37.2 Points/game)
Big East: Cincinnati (32.3 Points/game)
Those figures are interesting, but they’re also somewhat limited in what they can truly reveal. After all, judging the challenges that a defense faces within its own league based merely on the most productive offense in that league is a little short sighted.
To more accurately gauge the difficulty placed on a defense, it’s critical to consider the offensive depth each league wields – or doesn’t wield. That, more than anything, is representative of the challenges defenses face on a weekly basis. To do this, I ran the numbers not just on each league’s top scoring team, but I also gathered the figures for each conference’s fifth–highest scoring team. Why fifth? Because generally speaking, nothing says ‘average’ like fifth place.
5th-RANKED SCORING OFFENSE IN EACH CONFERENCE – 2012 SEASON
Big 12: Oklahoma (38.2 Points/game)
Pac-12: Oregon State (32.5 Points/game)
ACC: Duke (31.5 Points/game)
SEC: South Carolina (31.5/game)
Big Ten: Michigan (29.9 Points/game)
Big East: Temple (24.7 Points/game)
Taking things a step further, here are the top offenses by yardage production:
TOP-RANKED OFFENSE BY YARDAGE IN EACH CONFERENCE – 2012 SEASON
Big 12: Baylor (572 Yards/game)
SEC: Texas A&M (559 Yards/game)
Pac-12: Oregon (537 Yards/game)
ACC: Clemson (513 Yards/game)
Big East: Syracuse (476 Yards/game)
Big Ten: Nebraska (461 Yards/game)
To once again demonstrate the level of offensive depth that each league features I also took a look at the fifth place team in each conference based on yardage. In doing so, I discovered that the Big 12 team that ranked fifth in the conference in that category (Texas Tech – 496 yards/game) averaged 53 yards per contest more than the closest fifth place team from any other league. In addition, the Red Raiders averaged nearly 100 yards per game more than the Big Ten’s fifth ranked offense (Purdue) and came in at nearly 130 yards per game ahead of the Big East’s fifth ranked offense (South Florida).
Translation? The Big 12 isn’t just offensively dynamic – it’s also offensively deep.
So what kind of real world impact does this pseudo-science have on a team’s defense over the course of a season? It’s as simple as considering the prowess of the offenses that defense is asked to tangle with on a weekly basis.
Contemplate the following. Vanderbilt – which finished seventh in the SEC standings last year - gained notoriety with an overachieving defense that ranked 19th in the country (334 yards/game allowed) and helped the Commodores win nine games. That’s what a quick glance at the national statistics tells you. What that quick glance doesn’t reveal is the production – or not – of the offenses Vandy faced. This is where things get interesting. The average national ranking of the offenses the Commodores squared off against in their eight Southeastern Conference games was 74th – including tilts against No. 82 ranked South Carolina, No. 96 ranked Missouri, No. 103 Florida, No. 113 Kentucky and No. 115 Auburn.
Let that sink in for a minute. When Vanderbilt, lauded for its lofty defensive achievements in 2012, lined up to play an SEC game they were facing – on average - an offense ranked 74th in the country. Now compare that to the average national ranking of the offenses that the Big 12’s seventh place team - TCU - faced in its nine conference games last year: 36th. That included No. 2 ranked Baylor, No. 4 ranked Oklahoma State, No. 10 West Virginia, No. 12 Oklahoma and No. 13 Texas Tech. Quite a difference.
Some skeptics will suggest that this is simply the result of good offenses playing wretched defenses each week in the Big 12; not the result of undervalued and overworked defenses playing exceptional offenses.
For those folks, here are a few fun facts. The Big 12 sent nine teams bowling last season. When they stepped out of conference to play those bowl games, two-thirds of those nine teams held the opposition to *fewer* points than their overall season average and more than half of those teams held the opponent to *fewer* yards than they had allowed on average for the year. On the flipside, the SEC also sent nine teams to bowl games last season. The difference? When those nine defenses stepped outside their conference to play non-SEC offenses in the postseason, seven of them allowed *more* points in their bowls than they did on average for the season and seven of the nine also allowed *more* yards in their bowl games than they allowed on average for the year. In other words, unlike the Big 12 defenses - which had greater success against non-Big 12 offenses - when SEC defenses played against non-SEC offenses in the postseason they were typically less effective, not more.
No one is disputing the SEC’s place as college football’s premier league in recent years. With seven straight BCS titles, they’ve won the right on the field to make whatever claims they choose. The focus of this discussion isn't to diminish the SEC or any other league. Instead, this analysis is merely meant to provide some perspective and to illustrate the increased level of difficulty a defense is saddled with when trying to slow down the competition in the Big 12.
I recall watching the Oklahoma defense – up close and personal - last November in Morgantown. The Sooners entered their matchup against West Virginia with a Top 20 unit (325 yards/game allowed) that featured no fewer than 10 players who were just months away from landing invitations to NFL camps. OU’s secondary was deep and athletic, from All-Big 12 cornerbacks Aaron Colvin (1st team) and Demontre Hurst (2nd) to All-American free safety Tony Jefferson. Coordinator Mike Stoops’ defense showcased talented players at every level, including defensive tackle Stacy McGee, explosive defensive ends David King and R.J. Washington and former Freshman All-American middle linebacker Tom Wort.
Did I mention Tavon Austin turned that defense to ash? As we all of course remember, paced by Austin’s historic 344-yard rushing performance, West Virginia – in a losing effort - shredded that talent-rich Sooners’ defense for nearly 800 yards.
Oklahoma’s, of course, wasn’t the only formidable defense to feel the wrath of the Big 12 last year. TCU’s star-studded unit, led by All-American cornerback Jason Verrett and Big 12 sacks leader Devonte Fields, surrendered 130 points in one three-game stretch, including a 56-point meltdown against Texas Tech in which Red Raiders quarterback Seth Doege torched the Frogs with seven touchdown passes. Even co-Big 12 champ Kansas State, a team that fielded one of the most talented, seasoned, disciplined and well coached defenses in college football in recent years, took a shot or two on the chin in league play. With a national title berth hanging in the balance, the Wildcats – with nine senior starters on a defense that entered the game ranked as the eighth stingiest in the nation – visited Baylor in week 11 and were bludgeoned for 52 points and nearly 600 total yards, including 342 on the ground.
The moral of the story? The weekly landmines that the Big 12 schedule presents to defenses, even top rate defenses, are daunting – and they aren’t going away any time soon.
In other words, even when the West Virginia defense does find its way to overcoming the limitations it demonstrated a year ago, these are the types of potential pitfalls it has to look forward to.
For defenses in this league, the challenges are here to stay. If Texas (42-plus points allowed against four different Big 12 opponents last year) and Oklahoma can’t recruit their way around these problems, it’s doubtful the rest of the league can either. What they can do, however, much like the 2011 OSU Cowboys – is toss the stat sheet into the shredder and still find ugly but opportunistic ways defensively to help their team win.
Based on what I saw from Keith Patterson’s troops during the spring and through August camp, this WVU defense might, in fact, have a chance to pull that off.
With opening day vs. William & Mary looming, we’ll find out soon enough.
Until then, I’ll see you at the fifty.