Okay, okay… it’s the dead part of the offseason and bloggers gotta blog, y’all. Even with that as a backdrop, it turns out Allen Kenney, Ian Boyd and I are having a nice, three-cornered hat type of discussion arising from you know what.
Let’s break that down one last time. Kanell is critical of a general perception about Big 12 defenses getting a bum rap because of the unique challenge posed by Big 12 offensive scheming and suggests that good defense should be defined differently based on conference settings. Invited to respond, Riley suggests that the challenge posed by Big 12 offenses is unique, a challenge to which Georgia’s defense would inevitably succumb were it suddenly immersed in Big 12 play. I’ll get back to that in just a sec.
Riley acknowledges the existence of “some” excellent Big 12 defenses, which by extension, I presume, means that there were others not so excellent. A look at Bill Connelly’s defensive S&P+ ratings bears that out, as only TCU and Texas merit spots in the top 25. (Iowa State, which Riley also mentions, finished a quite credible 32nd.) The bulk of the conference is 70th or worse. Defensive S&P+ is supposed to be relatively conference-free, context-wise, so that begs the question of how grounded in reality Riley’s assertion that defenses forced to play Big 12 offenses should be judged on their unique context is.
And this is where things start getting all twisty-turny for me. Here, for example, is something Allen writes that would seem to undercut Riley’s argument:
None of what Riley said negates the reality that a large portion of Big 12 defenses are bad. Case in point, the Sooners.
In a sardonic sense, I have to admit the funniest part of this entire kerfuffle to me is the number of times I read or heard people making detours into extrapolating what the Bulldogs’ offensive mauling of OU meant. UGA lit up the Sooners’ defense… just like six or seven teams did in conference play.
OU’s defense was objectively poor last season. Riley himself has coachspeaked some semblance of that sentiment on multiple occasions since the season ended. (He even did it in response to a question during the same interview in which he made his comments about Georgia’s defense.)
In fact, it’s strange to me that Riley’s comments are being read in some corners as an argument that OU’s defense was better than it looked. There is not one word about that in his response. Notably, he brought up other Big 12 teams’ defenses – TCU and Iowa St. – as examples of quality units, but there was no mention of his own.
There are probably more bad defenses in the Big 12 than there are good ones. That shouldn’t come as a shock to anyone. Again, Riley was talking about how to identify the good ones.
I’m not sure I agree with that last sentence there; my perception of Riley’s comments is that he was arguing that Big 12 defenses — all Big 12 defenses — have to be judged differently from how the conventional wisdom tends to judge them. That’s why he threw Georgia out as an example to make his point.
In other words, while we already have some idea of how to evaluate defenses, even if imperfectly, via advanced stats like defensive S&P+, Riley is attempting to make a bigger case with his “consistency and challenge” point, which is about the Big 12 as a whole, something more universal than Allen seems willing to accept. (I agree with Allen, for what it’s worth.)
The other part of this conversation I want to introduce comes from Ian Boyd’s post yesterday in response to something I wrote yesterday. (I said this was three-cornered.) Ian is a far better Xs-and-Os analyst than I’ll ever hope to be, and I’ll certainly defer to his expertise on the Big 12, given his vastly greater familiarity, so when he writes,
As a Texas guy who’s watched the Longhorns languish the entire decade due to self-made problems while the league’s reputation and leverage across the sport has declined, I’ve got a fairly good view of what exactly the Big 12 is and what it isn’t.
It isn’t the SEC, the passion level and interest isn’t there, the investment isn’t there, and the talent isn’t there. Something this decade has made pretty clear is that when Texas or Oklahoma aren’t good enough to snag the blue chip recruits within Texas, those players don’t then say “we’ll, maybe I’ll give TCU or Baylor a look.” I mean some of the wide receivers have, sure, or the occasional Andrew Billings or other 4-star dude, but the majority of them are instead looking out of state to go to LSU, Alabama, Notre Dame, Stanford, or whoever else is offering something comparable to a Texas or OU offer when Texas and OU are on top.
In particular, the SEC has a massive demographic advantage over the B12 which tends to manifest in the SEC having a much larger supply of 250+ pound plus athletes to man their DL. They also tend to have better athletes on the OL and more freak athletes in general.
The SEC generally plays better football than the Big 12, but not really because of tactics or other factors but because of superior resources and talent.
… I’m not inclined to argue. He goes on to make the point that the Big 12 attempts to make up for the talent disparity through a combination of reliance on experience and coaching innovation. It’s a making lemonade out of lemons argument (one that, by the way, is something I consider to be one of college football’s great strengths), but, again, it’s not relevant to Riley’s point that Big 12 offenses in general operate as a leveler of college football defenses. That’s why I made the snarky comment that concluded my post, which presumably led Ian to write,
It’s silly for the SEC and their fans to sit back and laugh at the Big 12 all the while stealing all of their tactical innovations, it just is.
I’m not laughing at the Big 12. I do think Riley is guilty of a fair amount of exaggeration, though. (I should probably mention the irony of citing theft of the Big 12’s tactical innovations in the context of Riley being a branch of the Air Raid coaching tree, which received its P5 planting at Kentucky. But I digress.)
There’s a lot of interesting stuff in Boyd’s post, so take a minute to read it in its entirety. That being said, I’m going to circle around to what I still think is my bottom line in discussing Riley’s answer, from a post of a few days ago.
I hate to be like this, but the idea that “any team would struggle with the consistency and challenge you do week in and week out in this league” is as indefensible for the Big 12 as it is for any P5 conference (and, yes, that includes the SEC, unless you think I’m totally off base about the greatness of Arkansas and Vanderbilt, for example).
No conference is close to being the way Riley describes, not the Big 12, not the SEC. So that’s one thing.
Another consideration from Ching that’s spot on is this:
… Defending a Big 12 offense is different from defending an SEC offense, although the groups have grown more similar in recent years.
Georgia’s defense is constructed to face bigger opponents who are physical along the line of scrimmage, as those traits characterize the toughest teams the Bulldogs will meet in conference play. Oklahoma’s is smaller and quicker in order to defend offenses that are generally more likely to spread out their defensive opponents with a wide-open passing attack.
You defend to win the conference you play in. That’s where everything starts. If Georgia were in the Big 12, is it that unreasonable to assume Kirby would recruit successfully to build a defense in a way best suited for that type of play? I sure don’t think so, and that’s a reason I don’t think Riley is being as profound making his point as he thinks he is.
To put it more succinctly,
That’s why I think this whole “it’s the conference, stupid” argument is… well, kinda stupid. Yeah, there’s a lot of innovation in the Big 12, but it’s not like Georgia’s staff can’t coach a little, either. To speculate on the hypothetical Riley suggests ultimately is a waste of time, because there’s no way to know how Georgia would tailor its offensive and defensive schemes, although there’s no reason to think Kirby’s recruiting would slow down.
That’s where I’ll leave things, at least until Allen and Ian weigh in again. Who said the offseason has to be boring?