There is a myth that exists in college football that some really good teams are great offenses with bad defenses. These teams win games by scores like 62-51 or 45-38, and, so the theory goes, they are just good enough on offense to outscore any opponent.
In reality, all great teams are fairly complete, meaning that they are good in all phases of the game. You can’t really be a great team if you have a bad defense. What apparently fools everybody is the fact that football is a game with no set pacing. A baseball game is nine innings, or twenty-seven outs if you prefer. Golf is eighteen holes. A set in tennis is six games. Games like football and basketball are different. A football game can range, at the extremes, from something like seven possessions (this year, Navy v. Notre Dame) to as many as seventeen or eighteen. The typical range is more like 9-10 for a low-possession game, and perhaps fifteen for a high-possession game. But, as with basketball, certain teams tend to play high-possession games, and certain teams tend to play low-possession games. Teams that play high-possession games generally feature hurry-up offenses, or pass-happy offenses, or defenses that prefer to gamble for stops rather than playing “bend but don’t break”. Teams that play-low possession games will be teams that run the ball a lot, or play conservative defense that seeks to avoid giving up big plays at the expense of allowing lots of first downs. As should be somewhat obvious, teams that play high-possession games tend to score more points, and they allow more points, all else being equal. For some reason, we collectively seem to appreciate this in basketball, and we don’t necessarily consider low scoring teams to be “bad” on offense. We look to efficiency rankings instead.
Football analysis is catching up, but nobody seems to be taking notice. The stats I will be quoting are from Football Outsiders (very good site if you’ve never seen it). This site ranks offenses and defenses as units, based on some advanced per-possession stats that attempt to adjust for quality of opponent. This is obviously an imperfect process, but in my opinion it provides much better information than simply saying that, because a team averages 35.6 points per game, they are “good” on offense.
Oregon has long had a reputation as a high-flying offense and a poor defense. I think it is time to challenge that assumption. Offensively, they’ve been good, no question. Since 2007, their offensive ranks have been 7th, 13th, 11th, 11th, 5th, 2nd, 6th, 1st, 13th, and 18th. This year, their 18th rank is their worst on offense in a decade. That’s pretty good. But what about defense? Since 2007, they have been 19th, 42nd, 22nd, 5th, 9th, 4th, 29th, 28th, 84th, and 126th. Raise your hand if you are surprised, particularly about the stretch for 2010 to 2012 (5th, 9th, and 4th). The 2010 national title game was billed as two great offenses against two bad defenses (Auburn and Oregon), yet somehow, those two defenses held the great offenses to some of their lowest point totals all season (22 to 19). Turns out, when analyzed properly, both were great defenses as well (that just so happened to be playing with extreme, hurry up offenses, so they played many high scoring games).
I still consider the absence of a playoff in 2012 to be a travesty. 2012 Oregon vs. 2012 Alabama would have been a great game, and we needed to see it. If only somebody could have beaten Notre Dame during the regular season… Oh well.
In any event, Oregon’s national-title-contender status from 2010 to 2014 was based upon great offense AND great defense. Last year they still managed to be 9-4, a pretty good year, with the 84th defense. But this year, with a truly terrible defense, they are 4-8, despite still having a great offense.
And that is normal. Many teams follow that formula. For example, 2013 Indiana (8th offense, 105th defense, 5-7 record), 2012 Baylor (5th offense, 94th defense 8-5 record), 2010 Michigan (8th offense, 107th defense, 7-6), 2009 Stanford (4th offense, 104th defense, 8-5 record). Another prominent team that had this reputation was West Virginia under Rich Rodriguez. As a 2007 national title contender that lost in an upset to Pitt to drop out of the title game, then routed Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl, they were 3rd on offense and 9th on defense. Not quite what most people thought.
The bottom line is that you won’t be a great team without being at least good on defense. There may be an exception or two (I haven’t researched every team from all time), but the general rule is pretty clear: if you are an elite offense and a below-average defense, you will be .500 or maybe a little better. 8-5 or 9-4 is about the best you can possibly do, and most do worse. Anybody winning 11 or 12 games has a good defense. Don’t be confused if a team like that sometimes gives up a lot of points. Maybe they are playing against a great offense, and/or defending more possessions than most other teams. If they are 12-2, its virtually guaranteed they’ve got a strong defense. Don’t believe the myth.