In my last installment of “Fixing the Sooners,” I covered the evolution of the Big 12 during the course of Bob Stoops’ 13-year tenure.
The league-wide predominance of the spread offense essentially means that traditional metrics and methods of evaluating offensive and defensive effectiveness – scoring, total defense – have little utility. They’re playing a different brand of football in the Big 12 relative to other major conferences like the SEC and Big Ten.
Luckily, we have some handy metrics at our disposal to help us achieve a more “apples-to-apples” comparison between teams from different conferences: our friend Bill Connelly’s S&P+ Ratings. (Rather than me explaining how the S&P+ numbers are derived, see the definitions provided in the link.)
(Note that the statistics for 2011 season do not include the Insight Bowl game against Iowa.)
The S&P+ efficiency metrics tell a much different story about the Sooner D than the standard stats. They suggest that when put in proper context, OU consistently has one of the best defenses in the country. In fact, from an efficiency standpoint, OU historically does a superlative job slowing down the Big 12′s high-powered attacks.
Of course, stats don’t erase the memories of receivers running free and DBs clad in crimson and cream getting their heads handed to them on fade pattens – repeatedly. It’s hard to imagine that a defense that gave up so many yards and points this year was one of the best in the nation. How can we reconcile that disconnect?
(And I’ll head this one off at the pass: The S&P+ stats are not junk.)
Credit Where it’s Due
First, I know this is painful, OU fans, but you have to give the Sooners’ opponents credit. OU faced some of the best offenses, led by some of the best quarterbacks, in the country.
Robert Griffin III, a Heisman winner and probable top-10 selection in the NFL draft, blasted the Sooner D to smithereens, but it’s not like he didn’t do that to well-coached defenses such as TCU and Texas, too. Brandon Weeden and Ryan Tannehill will likely be drafted within the first three or four rounds. EJ Manuel should get a shot in the NFL when all is said and done. Maybe even GJ, Kinne, too.
At some point, you have to accept that other teams have quality players, too.
Big Rewards and Big Risks
Another variable in the equation is how OU’s defense is designed.
Bob Stoops has always emphasized stopping the run first. Even as a coordinator, he focused on crowding the line of scrimmage on first down. The objective: Get the offense off schedule, pressuring the opponent to convert in second- and third-and-long situations.
It’s a high-risk, high-reward scheme that produces plenty of short drives and three-and-outs. It also leaves OU susceptible to big plays, especially on early downs.
No Methodical to the Madness
Bill’s colleague at Football Outsiders, Brian Fremeau, has developed a series of stats that might give us a more robust “profile” of OU’s defense. Whereas the S&P+ metrics use play-by-play data, Fremeau’s FEI system takes drives into account. (Again, for a thorough explanation of FEI, check out the previous link. Brian and Bill combine their rankings systems to form the F+ rankings.)
The FEI numbers illustrate both the strengths and shortcomings of OU’s defensive philosophy. The Sooners rarely allow sustained drives – just 9.2 percent of opponents’ drives last season consisted of 10 plays or more. They also force three-and-outs exceedingly well. Last year, for example, opponents failed to generate a first down or score on 43 percent of their drives.
On the other hand, the relatively high percentage of explosive drives reflects OU’s vulnerability to big plays. In 2011, 14.5 percent of the drives completed by the Sooners’ opponents averaged at least 10 yards per play. OU gave up 17 plays of 40 yards or more in 2011, ranking 100th nationally.
Although I couldn’t find stats to back this up, I’d bet a disproprtionate number of the big plays allowed by OU came on first down. In upset losses to Texas Tech and Baylor last season, OU gave up a combined 16 plays of 20 yards or more. Nine occurred on first down.
OK, so that’s a lot of numbers. What should we take away from all that data?
The examples of OU getting burned may stick out in our minds, but they have proven to be more of the exceptions to the rule. For every game like Baylor last year, the Sooner D has had a performance like the one against Florida State in 2010 or Texas Tech in 2008. As such, it’s hard to make the case that OU needs to completely junk its current defensive schemes.
However, the susceptibility to big plays does leave plenty of cause for concern. Is it simply a matter of the Sooners slacking off in terms of fundamentals and attention to detail? If so, the addition of Mike Stoops could add some focus and discipline to the D.
Stoops also should consider whether his emphasis on stopping the run is still an effective strategy in the pass-happy Big 12.
The good news for OU fans is that Stoops and his staff have demonstrated more of a willingness to adapt and evolve than they get credit for. Of course, most of OU’s major facelifts have come on the offensive side of the ball.
How – or if – Stoops addresses the defense’s problems with big plays is definitely a big story to follow in the offseason.