Tell ’em to slow the hell down, ref! We can’t stop that Johnny Football fella.
A common topic of discussion throughout the off-season and conference media days has been the ever growing popularity of the no-huddle offense in college football. Some coaches like Nick Saban dislike it because they think it can lead to player safety issues. Others throughout the collegiate coaching landscape are against the no-huddle offense because of the perceived substitution issues it brings about. While it’s quite obvious that defensive coaches and players are having trouble defending this type of offense, there’s no evidence that offensive coordinators will stop upping the tempo any time soon. However, running this type of offense brings about some unintended consequences to your own team, most recognizably, causing your defense to play more possessions. Yes, many football fans and media members are quick to point out that most up-tempo teams have sub-par defenses because of the time spent on the field. With many believing that an elite defense is out of the question with a high octane offense, I set out to prove otherwise.
A few weeks ago, Mr. SEC released an article titled “Sure you wanna speed it up? Faster Offenses lead to weaker defenses in the SEC,” and concluded that up-tempo teams in recent SEC history have all coincidentally had weaker defenses than their slower counterparts. The evidence behind it? Teams who snapped the ball faster gave up more yards and points per game. While this observation confirms the belief that up-tempo teams have weaker defenses than do slower paced teams, it neglects to take something critically important into account, possessions. This was an issue in basketball evaluation for years as many were evaluating teams with points per game. This is a flawed measurement as many teams have different styles of play. However, guys like Dean Oliver and Ken Pomeroy came along and evaluated teams using points per possession and forced us to realize the flaw in traditional evaluations. This new way of evaluation finally put teams on the same scale. Think of it like this; assuming equal competition, if Wisconsin allows 60 points on 60 possessions and Loyola Marymount allows 80 points on 100 possessions who has the better defense? Loyola Marymount as they allowed 0.80 points per possession and Wisconsin allowed 1.00. This same methodology can be applied to football as well.
So how are total team drives calculated? Since this stat isn’t in existence, one must create a formula to derive this number, and I’ve done just that. A football drive can end in one of seven ways; a touchdown, field goal, interception, fumble, turnover on downs, punt, or safety. Knowing this, you simply find and add all these stats for a team to arrive at their total drives for a season. By doing this, garbage drives before halftime and the final horn are eliminated. Once the number is calculated, divide total team points by total drives and you have an idea of how efficient a team was in scoring and preventing scoring. Time and time again, points scored and allowed per possession have proven to be the best predictor of future performance, so I feel comfortable in using it to determine if a defense is elite or not. Now that we’ve accounted for tempo, let’s see if any fast paced teams of the past have had elite defenses to boot.
The above chart may still contain some confusing terms, but fret not, they’re actually easy to interpret. Offensive drives per game tell you how many drives a team averaged per game on the season. Defensive drives tell the same tale, but for defense. Remember drives are calculated with the following formula, (TD+FG+INT+FUM+TOoD+PUNT+SAFETY). Offensive points per drive is simply points divided by drives. Defensive points per drive is the exact same. The rank columns tell you where that specific team was ranked in that respective season.
As you can see from the above table, a handful of teams have, in fact, had elite defenses when they play many more possessions than average. Coincidentally, 2012 Oregon, 2010 Oregon, 2009 TCU, and 2009 Texas had efficient offenses to pair with their stellar defenses. Traditionalists may argue that their point per game totals are higher, but once tempo is accounted for, we can see it’s possible for teams to have elite scoring defenses with high powered offenses. Even though points scored and allowed per possession are the best indicators of future performance, critics would point out that these teams gave up tons of yards. This can also be evaluated using total drives.
In 2012, Chip Kelly’s Oregon Ducks ranked 49th nationally in total yards allowed, eight spots behind Rick Minter’s putrid Kentucky defense. Would anybody in their right mind suggest that Kentucky had a better defense in terms of allowing yards than did Oregon? Of course not. Once drives were considered with the amount of yards surrendered, Oregon ranked 19th nationally, allowing 26.7 yards per drive. Kentucky ranked 89th surrendering 35.6. What about 2010 Oregon, 2009 TCU, and 2009 Texas? The 2010 Ducks allowed 24.9 yards per drive, ranking 7th nationally. The 2009 Horned Frogs and Longhorns ranked 1st and 2nd nationally in yards per drive, surrendering just over 18 a piece. These three teams respectively ranked 36th, 1st, and 5th in traditional yards allowed in their individual seasons.
The problem with traditional style analysis like the one Mr. SEC gave is that it keeps pedaling the same statistics that don’t tell the full story. Once drives are taken into consideration, we can get a true reflection on how a team allows scoring and yardage. Possessions are something that basketball, soccer, and hockey analysts use, so why don’t we start using them for football? Anyway, getting back to the main premise of the article. Can teams with up-tempo offenses have elite defenses despite the amount of drives they must play. In short, yes. In long, yes they can. Once the proper things are considered, and after reviewing the numbers, we can conclude that a handful of teams in recent seasons have played the up-tempo game with an elite defense. Eat your heart out points per game purists.