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Top Offenses vs. ELITE(ish) Defenses: What Happens?

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Does the theory that 2015's best offenses were better than the top defensive units hold water when we look at last season's games?

Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Improving the defense has been the hottest of hot topics this offseason - is Brian Van Gorder the right man for the job? How can the defense improve to championship caliber after losing Jaylon Smith, Sheldon Day, Romeo Okwara and KeiVarae Russell? And how difficult is it in the modern era to field a solid defense when the advancement of spread, hurry-up offenses has pushed scoring to an all-time high? Do our standards for defense need adjusting?

To take a deeper look at these last couple questions, I pulled some numbers. For simplicity's sake, I used a combination of traditional and advanced stats to define the top 20 offenses and defenses from the Power 5 conferences. What happened in 2015 when top P5 offenses faced off against top P5 defenses? Did either side of the ball have a substantial edge?

The teams

I ranked the top 20 P5 offenses by forming a composite based on national ranks for Offensive S&P+, FEI, Yards Per Play, and Points Per Game. The exact order isn't how I would rank them, but the teams included here seem to generally be accurate with those that have qualitatively been considered the best in the country in 2015.

Rank

S&P+

FEI

YPP

PPG

Composite

1

Texas Tech

3

7

4

5

4.75

2

Oregon

6

8

2

7

5.75

3

Baylor

2

11

11

3

6.75

4

Stanford

5

4

13

11

8.25

5

UNC

17

9

1

7

8.5

6

Oklahoma

7

15

13

4

9.75

7

Arkansas

1

5

17

19

10.5

8

Clemson

10

12

12

10

11

9

ND

8

6

3

30

11.75

10

Ole Miss

9

10

18

20

14.25

11

Ohio State

14

26

4

14

14.5

12

Cal

13

19

7

24

15.75

13

Oklahoma St

22

24

22

9

19.25

14

LSU

12

17

15

34

19.5

15

TCU

18

38

16

11

20.75

16

Indiana

19

25

24

16

21

17

Miss. State

16

21

25

38

25

18

Alabama

25

29

30

23

26.75

19

USC

15

14

46

35

27.5

20

UCLA

23

39

21

27

27.5

An identical process was used to determine the top 20 defenses from the Power 5 conferences. It's a little B1G heavy, but again seems to generally match the consensus top defenses.

Rank

Team

S&P+

FEI

YPP (P5)

PPG (P5)

Composite

1

Alabama

1

2

12

8

5.75

2

Boston College

3

5

5

11

6

3

Wisconsin

7

11

7

6

7.75

4

Ohio State

8

10

13

4

8.75

5

Northwestern

5

8

6

17

9

6

Florida

6

6

17

13

10.5

7

Michigan

2

20

10

15

11.75

8

Oklahoma

16

3

11

21

12.75

9

Missouri

13

21

7

13

13.5

10

Washington

9

1

30

16

14

11

FSU

10

26

15

5

14

12

UGA

11

16

22

9

14.5

13

Clemson

4

7

21

29

15.25

14

Utah

15

9

26

22

18

15

Penn State

14

19

17

27

19.25

16

Michigan State

12

15

38

23

22

17

Iowa

31

24

24

18

24.25

18

Texas A&M

29

14

43

19

26.25

19

Louisville

23

40

17

33

28.25

20

West Virginia

28

4

40

43

28.75

The only teams that ranked in the top 20 for both offense and defense? The national champs, runner-up, and a playoff team, and one that probably should have been - Alabama, Clemson, Oklahoma, and Ohio State. One elite unit can take you very far, but without balance eventually a bad day on that side of the ball will catch up to you.

The results: Dead even

My hypothesis before digging up these stats (which are imperfect, but interesting nonetheless) was that most top offenses would be able to score and generally win more when matched up against top defensive teams. I dissected the scores a number of ways, but each time at most the offense held a slight edge over the defense, and overall it was just a winning percentage of 51% for top offenses while averaging 28.3 points per game.

Matchup

Offense Wins

Defense Wins

Offense PPG

T20 O vs. T20 D

29

28

28.3

T10 O vs. T10 D

5

6

29.2

T11-20 O vs. T11-20 D

11

7

28.2

T10 O vs. T11-20 D

5

7

32.4

T11-20 O. vs. T10 D

6

8

26.9

While wins and losses isn't the clearest measure - Clemson scoring 40 on Alabama's defense in a loss was one of the most impressive performances of the season in my mind - the PPG numbers are extremely similar across the board even with relatively small sample sizes. After looking at the overall numbers I suspected that maybe the bottom 10 teams in each category might be weighing things down - after all, offenses like Indiana and Mississippi State and defenses like Louisville and Texas A&M were good in 2015, but definitely not great. Still, the results were extremely similar. For as much credit as we've given explosive offenses like Baylor and Oregon over the past several years, they've struggled to maintain those numbers (and been betrayed by their defenses) against elite defenses.

Random facts:

  • Most impressive defensive performance of the year candidates: Alabama holding Mississippi State to 6 points (a 10 sack game), Northwestern holding Stanford to 6 points (what happened David Shaw?), Michigan State holding Ohio State to 14 points at home
  • Most impressive offensive performance candidates: the Buckeyes scoring 42 in the Big House, Clemson in the national championship or scoring 34 against Boston College, Baylor hanging 62 on West Virginia, Ole Miss scoring 43 at Alabama.
  • Alabama's offense faced the #3 (Wisconsin), #6 (Florida), #12(UGA), #13 (Clemson), #16 (Michigan State), and #18 defenses on the list and went 6-0. Indiana faced five of the top defenses and lost all five games, to their credit in some really exciting ways.

The complete list:

Offense

Defense

Winner

Off Points

MOV

Off YPP

Alabama (18)

Clemson (13)

Offense

45

5

6.66

Alabama (18)

Florida (6)

Offense

29

14

5.2

Alabama (18)

Michigan State (16)

Offense

38

38

6.67

Alabama (18)

Texas A&M (18)

Offense

41

18

5.66

Alabama (18)

UGA (12)

Offense

38

28

6.02

Alabama (18)

Wisconsin (3)

Offense

35

18

7.61

Arkansas (7)

Alabama (1)

Defense

14

13

3.86

Arkansas (7)

Mizzou (9)

Offense

28

25

4.49

Arkansas (7)

Texas A&M (18)

Defense

21

7

6.82

Baylor (3)

Oklahoma (8)

Defense

34

10

5.86

Baylor (3)

West Virginia (20)

Offense

62

24

8.25

Cal (12)

Utah (14)

Defense

24

6

6.23

Cal (12)

Washington (10)

Offense

30

6

5.23

Clemson (8)

Alabama (1)

Defense

40

5

6.47

Clemson (8)

Boston College (2)

Offense

34

17

6.82

Clemson (8)

FSU (11)

Offense

23

10

6.02

Clemson (8)

Louisville (19)

Offense

20

3

5.73

Clemson (8)

Oklahoma (8)

Offense

37

20

5.89

Indiana (16)

Iowa (17)

Defense

27

8

5.36

Indiana (16)

Michigan (7)

Defense

41

7

5.92

Indiana (16)

Michigan State (16)

Defense

26

26

6.48

Indiana (16)

Ohio State (4)

Defense

27

7

4.42

Indiana (16)

Penn State (15)

Defense

7

22

3.55

LSU (14)

Alabama (1)

Defense

16

14

4.04

LSU (14)

Florida (6)

Offense

35

7

7.05

LSU (14)

Texas A&M (18)

Offense

19

12

4.81

Mississippi State (17)

Alabama (1)

Defense

6

25

4.52

Mississippi State (17)

Mizzou (9)

Offense

31

18

5.58

Mississippi State (17)

Texas A&M (18)

Defense

17

13

5.97

Notre Dame (9)

Boston College (2)

Offense

19

3

6.21

Notre Dame (9)

Clemson (13)

Defense

22

2

6.45

Notre Dame (9)

Ohio State (4)

Defense

28

16

5.79

Ohio State (11)

Michigan (7)

Offense

42

29

6.99

Ohio State (11)

Michigan State (16)

Defense

14

3

2.93

Ohio State (11)

Penn State (15)

Offense

38

28

6.22

Oklahoma (6)

Clemson (13)

Defense

20

20

4.97

Oklahoma (6)

West Virginia (20)

Offense

44

20

7.36

Oklahoma State (13)

Oklahoma (8)

Defense

23

35

6.18

Oklahoma State (13)

West Virginia (20)

Offense

33

7

4.47

Ole Miss (10)

Alabama (1)

Offense

43

6

6.66

Ole Miss (10)

Florida (6)

Defense

10

28

4.49

Ole Miss (10)

Texas A&M (18)

Offense

23

20

5.12

Oregon (2)

Michigan State (16)

Defense

28

3

5.27

Oregon (2)

Utah (14)

Defense

20

42

5.71

Oregon (2)

Washington (10)

Offense

26

6

5.82

Stanford (4)

Iowa (17)

Offense

45

29

7.8

Stanford (4)

Northwestern (5)

Defense

6

10

3.87

Stanford (4)

Washington (10)

Offense

31

17

6.64

TCU (15)

Oklahoma (8)

Defense

29

1

6

TCU (15)

West Virginia (20)

Offense

40

30

7

Texas Tech (1)

Oklahoma (8)

Defense

27

36

5

Texas Tech (1)

West Virginia (20)

Defense

26

5

4.85

UCLA (20)

Utah (14)

Offense

17

8

4.78

UNC (5)

Clemson (13)

Defense

37

8

5.7

USC (19)

Utah (14)

Offense

42

18

5.14

USC (19)

Washington (10)

Defense

12

5

5.09

USC (19)

Wisconsin (3)

Defense

21

2

4.69