Tuesday, December 27, 2011

It’s the defense, Bruce!

image We really hate picking on CBSSports.com’s Bruce Feldman because as college sports writers go, there aren’t many  better. He has remarkable insight, great sources and a great nose for “the story.”

But like most of his colleagues, he doesn’t “get it” when it comes to figuring out why certain teams will do better or worse than others. In preseason prognostications, most sports media analysts look for flash, and flash is always on the offensive side of the ball. But after the regular season has ended, many of those prognostications usually look silly and it’s usually because the forecaster forgot or ignored the single most important aspect of college football.

It’s the defense.

Defense has always been much more important in college football than offense. Always. There have been quirky seasons where freaks of nature like Cam Newton take a great offensive game plan and make solid defenses look silly. Those are exceptions. They are not the rule and the 2010 season didn’t herald any paradigm shift in how the game of college football is played. Unlike the NFL, the greatest teams play the greatest defense and the teams that do play great defense win championships. Look at each of the last five SEC squads to bring home the hardware, and you will find speedy and physical defensive units.

Look at Bruce’s preseason top ten best and worst predictions and you’ll see a familiar pattern emerging. To wit:

1. Oklahoma to win it all: Oklahoma finished 61st in total defense. The Sooners gave up 383 yards per game.

2. FSU is back and ready to play in a BCS bowl:  Florida State was sixth in total defense, but in each of its four losses losses the Seminoles gave up 300+ yards. Clemson and Wake Forest hung 35 points on the board and those two teams combined to rack up 760 yards.

3. Maryland could go 8-4:  Maryland ended the season 108th in total defense and gave up a whopping 457 yards of total defense and yielded 34 points per game.

4. Texas A&M is a top 15 team: The Aggies were 65th in total defense and yielded 386 yards per game. In each of their six losses this season, Sherman’s team had comfortable leads going into the third and fourth quarter, only to see the defense disappear and the opponent rack up whatever points needed to win.

5. Gus Malzahn - the hottest assistant in college football: Malzahn is a heck of an offensive football coach and he is responsible for at least two (if not four) of Auburn’s seven wins this season. But under defensive coordinator Ted Roof, Auburn has had the worst three year run of defensive production in program history. When the offense is sitting on the sidelines watching the opponent convert third down after third down, it’s hard to get your stock up as a head coaching candidate. Roof was soft-fired and left to take the Central Florida job. See below…

6. Nebraska is going to win the Big Ten: The Huskers were 36th in total defense and gave up 350+ yards per game. Most glaringly, Pelini’s defense gave up 160 yards per game on the ground, good for only 66th in the country. When you needed a first down on third and three, you handed off the ball and the defense gave it up.

7. Notre Dame will win 10 games and make the BCS:  Kelly’s Fighting Irish defense fought their way to 34th in the country in total defense and 349 yards per game. Against the best offenses they played, Notre Dame gave up 35 points to Michigan, 31 points to USC and 28 points to Stanford.

8. At worst, Tennessee will go 7-5: Dooley’s Vols were 28th nationally in total defense at 340 yards per game. That’s quite pedestrian even on the national level but in the SEC, the Vols were in the lower half of the conference in every defensive category. Rushing defense—always a strength in Knoxville—turned out to be the team’s weakness. They gave up 163 yards per game on the ground, good for 69th in the country and 8th in the SEC.

9. Clemson will struggle again and Dabo Swinney may be forced out: Clemson had a great early run, starting 8-0 before a visit to Bobby Dodd Stadium and Georgia Tech. The Yellow Jackets racked up 383 yards on the ground and late in the fourth quarter, Clemson’s defense couldn’t get a third down stop and get off the field. In the 8-0 start that took the Tigers to a No. 6 ranking, Clemson simply outscored their opponents. Had Chad Morris’ offense not carried the day, Bruce probably would have been right on this one.

10. UCF would be a borderline Top 25 team: O’Leary’s Knights had a statistically sound defense, finishing the season as the 11th best in the country overall and best in Conference USA. But at the end of the season, O’Leary fired defensive coordinator John Skladany and linebackers coach Al Seamonson. O’Leary dismissed the statistics and called the team’s defensive performance “misleading.” How misleading? Well, letting UAB hang around long enough to kick a winning FG with seconds left on the clock misleading. Don’t look for any significant upswing in the 2012 Knight defense. They hired Ted Roof from Auburn…

In late summer of 2012, a whole new round of predictions will be written, published and discussed. As the season plays out between September and early December, the biggest disappointments will almost certainly be the prognostications made without careful consideration of the teams’ expected defensive performance.

Indeed, last summer the buzz about Alabama and LSU centered on quarterback controversies. Those two teams went a combined 24-1 and will square off for the second time this season in the BCS Championship Game. Who would have seen that coming?

Anyone who understood and expected the two teams to field the staunchest, most ferocious defenses in the country. In college football, offense sells tickets but defense wins championships. When making predictions, ignore that rule at your own peril.

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