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Are Big 12 defenses underrated?

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Or they do face a tougher challenge than teams elsewhere in college football?

Valero Alamo Bowl - Oklahoma State v Colorado Photo by Ronald Cortes/Getty Images

A funny thing happened in the last bowl season. The Big 12, which was generally regarded as the weakest Power-5 conference in 2016, went 4-2 in their bowl games and 4-2 against the spread.

Noteworthy performances included Oklahoma State crushing Colorado 38-8 and Oklahoma making easy work of Auburn’s highly rated defense in a 35-19 triumph. TCU and WVU struggled with Georgia and Miami but Baylor surged with freshman QB Zach Smith and demolished Boise State and Kansas State shocked Texas A&M. Perhaps most surprisingly, there wasn’t a single game in which a Big 12 defense was abused by their opponent.

Another notable theme from the bowl season was the supremacy of passing attacks in general with Penn State vs USC providing a highly entertaining shootout and Clemson taking down Alabama with their spread passing attack.

Overall when teams with high level passing games went into bowl games against good defenses, the passing attacks dominated the contests. Based on all of those results, I began to seriously wonder whether the Big 12’s poor reputation and poor statistical resume on defense might be somewhat inflated.

For instance, our own Bill Connelly produces the best adjusted stats that I’m aware of with his S&P+ system. However S&P+ hated Big 12 defenses this year and watching other conferences struggle with Big 12 passing games or a similar approach by Penn State made me wonder if perhaps S&P+ was missing a crucial factor.

So I developed the hypothesis that Big 12 defenses are underrated because while they do indeed give up more yards, more points, and allow more efficient offense, that’s due to facing more efficiently designed offenses. In particular, offenses that regularly attack down the field in the passing game.

In the NBA if there were stricter divisions with less cross-divisional play, and only one of the divisions was engaging in the modern art of spreading the floor with three point shooters and running pick’n’roll, then that division’s defenses would rank comparatively low against the rest of the league. But as we’ve seen over this decade, spread pick’n’roll is the most efficient way to run offense and if you face it, you’re going to give up more points. Three is one more than two, after all, and players have become increasingly more skilled at exploiting that mathematical advantage..

It took a while for the NBA to reach this point but now that increasing numbers of players are adept jump-shooters it’s become the more efficient way to play offense.

Well what if the increase in high school summer 7-on-7 competition and overall skills development is creating a generation of quarterbacks that are more efficient throwing down the field? And what if there was a particular college conference that recruited from a big state known for taking HS football and 7-on-7 very seriously? What if that conference was filled with coaches that were always pushing the envelop for what you can do with a modern passing game?

Well if that league was really good at throwing the ball down the field you’d see major returns in terms of points scored and overall efficiency, because the explosive gains you can create in the passing game are well beyond what even the best running teams can achieve with hand-offs.

So I began to increasingly suspect that facing a much greater volume of dig/post play-action plays from highly efficient offenses might serve to make the Big 12’s defenses look worse than they really are. Just as an NBA team that had to regularly face spread pick’n’roll would look statistically worse than one that was defending post-ups.

That’s before we even talk about tempo and how hard it is to stop a high-level passing game when you’re defending tons and tons of snaps. Even if you adjust for the increased snaps an offense gets from tempo it’s difficult to adjust for how hard it is to maintain a relentless pass-rush after 70+ snaps.

But let’s get back to my three point analogy. Although using the Big 12’s six bowl games is a rather limited sample size, we might as well take a look at the numbers from those games to see how my hypothesis holds up.

If my hypothesis is right, we should expect to see that Big 12 offenses lit up non-Big 12 defenses in the bowl games. We should also expect to see Big 12 defenses exceeded expectations against non-Big 12 offenses because they wouldn’t be facing so many lethal vertical passing attempts.

In particular we should expect to see high YPA (yards per attempt) numbers in the bowl games for Big 12 offenses and less impressive YPA numbers for their opponents.

So...let’s see whether my hypothesis holds up to what our admittedly limited sample size can tell us:

The team with the higher YPA number won every game, which obviously favored the Big 12 save for TCU and WVU, who were shut down. Incidentally, Big 12 defenses didn’t necessarily struggle too much with TCU or WVU’s offenses either this past season.

The average margin of difference between the B12 team’s YPA and that of the bowl opponent was 1.6 and if we remove the two losing efforts by WVU and TCU it rises to 2.55. The average Big 12 YPA number was 8.42 while their opponents averaged only 6.83 yards per pass.

The picture this paints of the last bowl season is one in which Big 12 teams went in, took their shots with the passing game, scored, and forced their style and tempo on the games. Within that pass-heavy tempo, Big 12 defenses found stuffing their opponents’ passing attacks to be much simpler than doing so against the league’s offenses.

Granted that these aren’t the best passing attacks from outside of the Big 12, but these teams were supposed to be competitive with the Big 12 schools thanks to defense and that simply wasn’t the case.

Originally this was the Mike Leach effect. The rest of the league found it highly taxing to stop his Texas Tech offenses and surely noted that he was causing them headaches with athletes that were readily available to everyone else.

Then Art Briles came along and did even more damage with similarly low-rated players by combining the run game and vertical passing attack from spread formations and now that has started to take hold in non-Baylor offenses around the league as well. The idea of using two-back run play-action just to throw it deep to a slot or outside WR is now becoming ubiquitous across the Big 12. It’s not pleasant to deal with and defenses are still adapting to the development. Oklahoma determined long ago that while they’d still emphasize D they were never going to be a team that allowed themselves to be outscored and that shone through brightly in 2016 when they engaged in multiple shootouts en route to a perfect 9-0 finish in league play.

To return to the issue of tempo, this style can give Big 12 teams a major advantage in bowl games or other non-conference battles because the nature of the spread passing game is such that it’s hard to knock a team out of the game. Just ask the Falcons.

If you don’t keep scoring or successfully run a lot of clock, you inevitably start to yield completed passes and scores as the offense figures out the blitz package you brought into the game, figures out your coverage plans, and starts to wear out the legs of your pass-rushers and team pursuit.

Two things to watch for in the short-term future of college football:

1) Do more and more teams from other conferences determine to incorporate more vertical passing in imitation of the Big 12 style?

2) Can the Big 12 field a team in the coming years that combines this style with elite (or at least top 20) defense and leverage the style advantage to win a national title? If that happens, you can be sure the style will start to catch on elsewhere.

In the meantime, we should probably all be at least a little bit less confident that Big 12 defenses are just a wretched bunch that can’t stop anything. There’s at least a plausible hypothesis that says they have a tougher job than your average collegiate unit.