All Riley-ed up

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?


Filed under Big 12 Football, Strategery And Mechanics

23 responses to “All Riley-ed up

  1. Derek

    It’s football stupid. The vast majority of the time the more physical team at the LOS will win the game. These teams that spread out and become finesse risk being soft on defense. You can adapt some spread aspects to your team, but when you give up on physicality to refine a complex and challenging offense you’re at risk when you face a team that plays a physical brand of football. You can call it old man football or boring or whatever. It’s winning football and that’s what counts.

    There was a reason OK’s DB passed on hitting Sony and just let him run free to the end zone. There’s a reason their corner allowed himself to be blocked by a qb. They were soft and in the end it cost them. That’s football stupid.


    • Greg

      ^^this……..more about the players you are fielding, especially at the LOS. Football starts upfront then you build around it, The smoke and mirrors approach will eventually catch up to you against a more talented team….not a hard game.


      • Derek

        And it’s better to have 5 star talent up front than at receiver.

        WRs and RB’s are pretty fungible commodities. QBs, OT’s and DL’s are difference makers and if there’s a mismatch there you’re in trouble.


  2. Everyone said SEC offenses sucked a few years ago as the league was winning national championships, but no one outside the league would admit the defenses probably made them look worse than they really were.

    I’m not saying Georgia or Alabama would go into the Big 12 and hold those offenses to single digits per game. What I am saying is that the SEC blueprint of start at the line of scrimmage works regardless of the league.

    The team that is best on the line of scrimmage usually wins.


  3. gastr1

    Ultimately both Kanell and Riley have a brand they want to sell. I can’t get too upset with people making biased statements that support their agendas, that’s just them repping themselves and their constituents…though, admittedly, the ensuing debate in this case has been fun.

    In fact, the great fun and appeal about college football is this variation in styles and inability for teams to truly, accurately compare because they can’t play each other but once every 40 years, in some cases. No one’s even talking about the adjustments Georgia’s defense made in the second half and/or how much Mayfield’s wooziness played into OU’s vaunted offense getting held to one td.

    So much to unpack, always. 🙂


    • Once we started attacking the LOS on defense, we shut the Sooners down. They had a great offense … one of the few Air Raid teams that could run the ball with authority. Once we took away the run, they couldn’t maintain balance and we started attacking Mayfield. He didn’t like being hit at all.


    • Russ

      Yeah, when Riley says “they had a good run” against Georgia, he’s talking about the first half only. After that, they were absolutely shut down. But that first half was a buzz saw, no doubt. I actually took a picture of them punting in the first half because I wasn’t sure I’d see again that day.


  4. heyberto

    For me, the notion about the SEC being great on defense and the Big XII being great on offense has always been less about how that manifests on the field and head to head play…. but more about how teams are built because of history and the talent base in the recruiting area they inhabit. You touched on that above. It’s not about one conference being outright superior at one over the other. Bottom line is it’s not that black and white, and I feel like Kannell is trying to say that, but isn’t articulating it properly because he’s always trying to take a shot at the SEC in the process.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. 81Dog

    I have wondered, in retrospect, if OU didn’t basically punch itself out on offense in the first half, and then in the second half, when they were beat up and beaten on by our larger, deeper D, they suddenly had trouble moving the ball.

    Maybe they were George Foreman to our Muhammad Ali. I’m sure we didn’t go in there thinking “Yeah, let’s let them get up by 17 and roll up 300 or so yards in the first half, and wear themselves out,” but didn’t Kirby say afterwards that we didn’t really make any big adjustments in the second half, we just started playing harder?


    • Macallanlover

      Interesting, but I don’t think so, at least not physically. I think they were giddy with happiness at halftime and felt they could score at will, and maybe had enough of a lead to just match us. That caused them to lose momentum and let us get up off the deck.

      I fell it is exactly what we did in Atlanta against Bama, except that we had not been wildly successful on offense, it was on defense. Both UGA and OU took their foot off of the gas and let the other team narrow the gap and build momentum. In UGA’s case, we let Bama close the gap and a couple of horribly blown calls did the rest. Both Smart and Riley went conservative too early and their teams blew games they should have won.


  6. Otto

    They seem to knock SEC offenses, how many yards and points did UGA put on OU?

    Didn’t care for Kanell as a QB at FSU don’t care for him now.

    Liked by 1 person

    • This. The vaunted offense out of the league that out-offenses everyone and we scored more points than they did. Seems SEC offenses can be pretty good too. And we don’t have to always “spread it out” to do so.


  7. ASEF

    B12 teams typically score less when they step outside of conference and give up just as much.



  8. Cojones

    So, superior athletes is part of the answer? One thing I haven’t read is the impact on a wide open offense of a QB who can also run and create the 12th man on the field that makes the big offensive engine go. We have had that difference in the SEC such that an in-house comparison of wide-open offenses(intraconference) can be made without going interconference with this point. It would be interesting to see how scoring differences can escalate when comparing a Mansell as QB vs other defenses in the SEC. What were the stats when Cam Newton ran Auburn’s offense? Would think that comparisons of defensive S&Ps against particular athletes who run an open spread offense within the SEC would be a good start.

    These comparisons could be uploaded into the S&Ps to factor in what a particular QB (as OU had last year) can do to the perception that the SEC defenses are superior. Or not.


  9. The other Doug

    I’m sure a lot of y’all had these same thoughts while watching the Rose Bowl:
    1. Baker Mayfield is a playa. Yeah, he might be a jerk, but he can play. I was impressed.
    2. I liked Riley’s offense. I think he has a very bright future.
    3. I loved Smart and Company’s halftime adjustment and getting his team back in the game. Win or lose what he did was imppressive.
    4. When Sonny came around that edge with the game on the line I expected him to set his jaw and bring the result of all those squats, all those bench presses, all those sprints, and all those SEC snaps, but instead I saw an OU defense that wanted no part of him. We can all snicker about Bill Bates getting trucked, but he didn’t try to arm tackle or take a shitty line. OU’s defense sucks. An average defense with that offense gets them a Natty.


    • Scott

      Yeah, Bates also wouldn’t have let himself get blocked out of the play by a true freshman QB the way the OU defensive back did. That was embarrassing.


      • Got Cowdog

        Bates took that one like a man, sure. But I’m not sure when he broke down to make the stop he was aware of what was going to happen.
        The Okie DB had the thousand yard stare of the veteran and obviously decided discretion was the better part of valor. That, I think, is the first time I’ve ever seen an opposing QB used as a human shield but I am also not sure I would not have done the same thing had I seen #1 make the corner spying my jersey number.


  10. stoopnagle

    This is fun.

    Vanderbilt: 14
    Kansas State: 7

    Every week, they say?


    • ASEF

      Yeah, same Vandy that surrendered 43 a game to SEC offenses.

      Forty-freaking 3.

      Too bad Vandy isn’t in the B12. Might have improved their D’s stats considerably.


  11. S&P+ supports what Riley is saying about the challenge of playing defense in the Big 12. From an offensive efficiency standpoint, Big 12 teams had to play either 4 or 5 teams in conference games that ranked in the top 40 of Off S&P+. (Not to mention, eight of 10 teams have to play two of the top three teams in Off S&P+ in the country.) That’s why a team like Texas can rank 37th in yards allowed per play, but 21st in Def S&P+.

    Imbalanced scheduling mucks up how many you had to play from that same stratum in conference games if you’re in the SEC. There were 3 teams (Mississippi St, Auburn, Vandy) that had to play 4 conference games against teams ranked in top 40 of Off S&P+. There were 6 teams (Alabama, Georgia, Mizzou, Florida, Ole Miss, S Carolina) that played only 2. No teams from the SEC had to play 5 of those games.

    (The conference that should be griping about what Riley said from that standpoint is the Pac-12.)

    If you did the same exercise using Def S&P+ as a gauge of how hard it is to play offense in the two conferences, you’d find there’s a more steady diet of good defenses in the SEC. If Kirby Smart had said something about how much harder it is to move the ball in the SEC than in the Big 12 week in and week out, he’d be correct.

    Georgia would have been the best team in the Big 12 last season – it would have had the best defense in the Big 12 and the third-best offense. It would have bad better raw stats on offense and worse raw stats on defense. These aren’t controversial statements, and they’re not in conflict with what Riley said.


    • ASEF

      These aren’t controversial statements, and they’re not in conflict with what Riley said.

      Taking Riley literally, you have a case for those observations to be accurate. Because what Riley had to say on the matter was limited enough to fit a variety of interpretations and agendas.

      It’s quite easy to take what he said and fit it into a common construct (which is what Kanell did): “SEC defenses are overrated because they get to face big, dumb, slow, obsolete SEC offenses.” There’s no real substance behind that construct and plenty of statistical data arrayed against it, making it just SEC fatigue masquerading as analysis (Kanell’s career in a nutshell). Riley didn’t say that, but Kanell handed it to the world on a platter which encouraged that inference,

      It’s also quite easy to take what Riley said and fit it into this narrative: “Facing 9 B12 offenses requires a special kind of defense, and that kind of defense can’t be appreciated through the prism of normal metrics, even ones adjusted for pace and opponents.” That’s a rough approximation of what I hear from rational B12/Riley supporters. And given the unique nature of college football’s inter-conference sampling, debating it is largely philosophical. There’s some evidence to support it, some evidence against it, and nothing conclusive.

      When I look at SEC and B12 head to head, I don’t really see anything to support the idea that B12 offenses on average prove any more problematic to SEC defenses than other conference offenses or the SEC’s own. In fact, the only two anecdotes over the past 2 years that would support that claim are the two highest profile encounters – Mayfield’s OU against Auburn’s and Georgia’s defense. In every other match up, the SEC defense usually gave up about as many points as they averaged in conference, and in 2 cases gave up substantially less than they did in conference. Yes, those are just anecdotal reference points. But if Narrative B is true, how would you expect it to manifest out of conference? What would we see, on average? B12 offense scoring averages a bit higher P5 OOC? B12 defenses giving up a bit more P5 OOC? An inverse of either of those two scenarios?


  12. UGA '97

    Beware of conference homers, they are bad for the soul. Just stand by thy dogs and give Riley the crickets he deserves.