Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The Auburn Defense is Neither Auburn, nor a Defense. Discuss.

It’s been a fun few weeks reading stories about Alabama’s underground economy,* but Camkampf has obscured a more pressing issue for those of us who love SEC football: is the Auburn defense good enough to win a national title?  We know that the offense is outstanding.  We know that Nick Fairley is both inappropriately named and also an immovable object in the center of the defensive line.  We know that the Auburn secondary is suspect and facing a senior quarterback, Julio Jones, and a road game against the defending national champions.  So where does this defense stack up?  As ESPN’s Eliminator points out, the defense makes Auburn dissimilar from recent national champions. ($)  But I don’t like their numbers, so I thought that I would use a few of my own.

* – The story of the various scandals involving Auburn’s and Alabama’s NCAA violations would make for a great fourth section in Eric Schlosser’s Reefer Madness.  An economist would look at college football in Alabama and would not be surprised in the slightest that the state’s two major programs have both been hit by major sanctions on numerous occasions.  You have a state where there are no pro sports teams, so all of the sports interest is funneled into college football.  Evolution has given the state a bipolar set-up in which there are two major programs: a historically successful alpha program and a not-quite-as-good, but striving oh so hard second program.  The state is relatively poor and looked down upon by the rest of the country, so its college football teams become a matter of great importance and pride.  Put on top of that cauldron the ineffective lid of the NCAA’s weak, subpoena-free enforcement apparatus that isn’t a major deterrent to paying players and you have a situation in which it would be surprising if Auburn and Alabama were not forking out $200,000 for quarterbacks.  As my copy of Fab Five looks down from my bookshelf and snickers, I’m not saying that Auburn and Alabama are the only schools that flout NCAA rules.  I’m just saying that the state’s set-up makes that phenomenon likelier than in other places.

Last summer, I took a look at the yards per play numbers for national champions over the course of the decade.  Here’s what that list looked like in terms of yards per play allowed (with 2009 Alabama added in):

2009 Alabama – 4.05
2008 Florida - 4.46
2007 LSU - 4.42
2006 Florida - 4.32
2005 Texas - 4.39
2004 USC - 4.27
2003 USC - 4.41
2003 LSU - 4.02
2002 Ohio State - 4.66
2001 Miami - 3.93
2000 Oklahoma - 4.14

And here is yards gained per play:

2009 Alabama – 5.96
2008 Florida - 7.13
2007 LSU - 5.84
2006 Florida - 6.34
2005 Texas - 7.07
2004 USC - 6.33
2003 USC - 6.49
2003 LSU - 5.89
2002 Ohio State - 5.61
2001 Miami - 6.57
2000 Oklahoma - 5.99

And here’s what those ten national champions looked like in terms of yards per play margin:

2009 Alabama – 1.91
2008 Florida - 2.67
2007 LSU - 1.42
2006 Florida - 2.02
2005 Texas - 2.68
2004 USC - 2.06
2003 USC - 2.08
2003 LSU - 1.87
2002 Ohio State - 0.95
2001 Miami - 2.64
2000 Oklahoma - 1.85

Auburn is currently gaining 7.6 yards per play and allowing 5.18,  giving the Tigers a yards per play margin of 2.42.  So there are two conclusions to be made here.  First, Auburn’s defense is weaker than any of the ten teams to win national titles in the aughts.  The Tigers allow a half a yard per play more than any of those ten teams.  On the other hand, Auburn’s offense is better than any of those ten teams.  Only 2005 Texas and 2008 Florida gained over seven yards per play; Auburn is almost a full half-yard per play better than either of them.  (Note for Gary Danielson: what do 2005 Texas and 2008 Florida have in common?  You know, in terms of the offenses that they ran?  Take a wild guess.)  So while Auburn’s defense doesn’t look like a national championship defense, the team as a whole would fit in with 2008 Florida, 2005 Texas, and 2001 Miami in the cluster of the best national champions of the decade.  (Caveat: Auburn hasn’t yet played the toughest game on its schedule.  After the Iron Bowl, the SEC Championship Game, and a bowl game, one would expect the Tigers’ number to be lower.)  Despite playing several close games against inferior opponents, 2010 Auburn does not have the statistical profile of the insanely fortunate 2002 Ohio State team.

So here’s the takeaway (and one that I was not thinking when fingers hit keyboard this morning): the focus on Auburn’s defense is a little myopic.  A defense doesn’t exist in isolation; it’s part of a team.  If the team is producing great numbers overall, then do the individual components really matter that much?  This is the problem with ESPN’s Eliminator analysis.  It penalizes Auburn for not meeting certain defensive benchmarks, but it doesn’t reward the Tigers for blowing past the offensive benchmarks like Usain Bolt at middle school field day.  It’s possible that a team could be so extreme in terms of offensive strength and defensive weakness that it could have a good yardage margin, but would still be unlikely to win a national title.  A team that gained 13 yards per play and allowed ten would be better in yardage margin than any of the last ten national champions, but we would expect a team like that to lose a game or two 63-59.  It doesn’t seem to me that Auburn is quite that extreme.

By the way, this post has done nothing to push me off the position that Gus Malzahn is more valuable than Gene Chizik.  If Auburn were faced with a choice between the two, it should keep the former.  It would be insane for the Tigers to fire a coach who just won the SEC, but there is a precedent for that from their friends in Tuscaloosa. 


JasonC said...

Just out of curiosity, how do Oregon, BSU and TCU stack up with these stats?

Francisco Castelo Branco said...


Michael said...

Oregon: 6.8/4.35/+2.45
Boise: 7.52/3.67/+3.85
TCU: 6.67/4.19/+2.48

Oregon's defense is right in line with prior national champions. Kudos to Chip Kelly and Nick Aliotti for sorting out that side of the ball. Boise's numbers are off the charts, although you have to account for their strength of schedule. TCU's numbers are equivalent to Oregon's, which won't cut the mustard against a Mountain West schedule. If Oregon or Auburn lose a game, then Boise ought to get the nod. They have dominated their schedule, so they should go ahead of any one-loss team.

Anonymous said...

Boise to the MNC game, TCU to the Orange Bowl vs. Virginia Tech?

Michael said...

I doubt that the Orange Bowl takes TCU. They'll need to sell tickets, especially with the VT fan base not traveling THAT well and having been to two Orange Bowls recently. I'd bet that the Orange Bowl will take Wisconsin, Ohio State, LSU, or Arkansas over TCU. It's not about merit.

Anonymous said...

BobbyPentz says:

You were right on Alabama being favored. 4 point favorites last I saw. About right in my eyes.