Ask anyone in the know about college football to play word association and describe the Big 12, and your likely to receive responses like offensive-minded, big passing yardage, quarterback-dominated and huge offensive displays, but not a word related to defense.
The Southeastern Conference, where Texas A&M and Missouri are headed in 2012, is considered by most experts to be the best and most competitive conference in college football. The SEC has earned that reputation on the basis of producing six of the past eight national champions, including the last five in a row (Florida, 2007; LSU, 2008; Florida, 2009, Alabama, 2010 and Auburn, 2011). Unlike the Big 12, the success generated by SEC schools over the past decade has been built largely on the strength of outstanding defense, not offensive superiority.
You always hear the cliché: Great offenses win games, but great defenses win championships. SEC schools have proven that to be true with their defensive dominance during the past decade in the national championship, beating some pretty impressive offensive teams, like Oregon last season, Ohio State in 2007 and 2008, Texas in 2010 and Oklahoma in 2003 and 2009.
Although the Big 12 takes a back seat to nobody when it comes to moving the football and putting up gaudy offensive numbers and lots and lots of points - six of the country's top 14 offensive teams reside in the conference - that doesn't mean Big 12 teams totally abandon defense.
Arkansas has the best team offensive numbers in the SEC this season, averaging 445.8 yards a game. That would rank seventh in the Big 12 behind Baylor, Oklahoma State, Oklahoma, Texas A&M, Missouri and Texas Tech. By contrast, five SEC teams rank in the nation's top 10 in total defense. Texas is the Big 12's best representative in this category at No. 9 nationally, but no one else in the conference is among the top 50.
It's true that the Big 12 isn't even on the same planet with the best teams in the SEC when it comes to playing solid, unforgiving defense, especially the smothering, lockdown brand of defense you find in the SEC. But it would be a mistake to characterize the best teams the Big 12 has to offer as no-shows on the defensive side of the ball.
Teams in the Big 12 generally give up what would be considered well-above-average yardage numbers on defense, close to 400 yards a game this season, excluding Texas. The trouble with evaluating a team's defense on the basis of total yardage given up is that it is not the most meaningful measure of how good or bad a defense really is. Thye scoreboard is where games ultimately are won or lost. Thus, preventing an opponent from scoring or limiting the total points and winning the turnover ratio are probably the two most important criteria for measuring defensive effectiveness.
Take Oklahoma State, for example, arguably the best team in the Big 12 this season. The Cowboys, who own the third most prolific offense in the country, have only the seventh best defense in the conference based on yardage yielded. They are winning games simply by putting up nearly 50 points a game and outscoring all their opponents (all except one, Iowa State, so far). The Cowboys have given up an average of 453 yards a game, but an average of only 27.3 points a game. That's a scoring margin of almost 23 points, and many of those were garbage points scored by Oklahoma State's opponents late in games against second and third-team personnel after the Cowboys had substituted for their starters.
The same can be said for Oklahoma. The Sooners have yielded 373 yards a game going into their Bedlam rivalry game this weekend against Oklahoma State, but they are only giving up 21 points a game, 28th best in the country and tops in the Big 12, while averaging 43 points of their own.
The scoring margins for Alabama and LSU, considered the two best defensive teams not only in the SEC but in the nation, are both right at 27 points a game.
In addition to owning the best scoring differential in the Big 12, Oklahoma State has used its often-maligned defense to create turnovers and add to scoring opportunities for its explosive offense. The Cowboys are far and away the leader in the Big 12 in the all-important turnover category at plus-18, second in the country to guess who? LSU, which has created 19 more turnovers than it has committed.
The bottom line is that good defenses don't have to be great so long as they positively complement a better-than-good offense and the special teams unit and can be counted on to get the job done and make the stops on the field when they have to.
Then let the points fall as they may.
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