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Does Defense Still Win Championships In College Football?

 Brett Beaird

Two weeks do not a season make, but the picture becomes a little clearer in obtaining the true identity of a team. Normally they have either played the first conference game of the season or traveled for the first time to see how teams handle a hostile environment. It is clear after two weeks in the SEC that top two teams are Alabama and LSU. Why, because they play defense. Only time will tell if either team represents the SEC in the BCS National Championship game in New Orleans, but if defense still wins championships then Alabama and LSU have a leg up on their competition.

LSU’s defense played remarkable well in slowing down the vaunted Oregon running game. The Ducks finished the game with just 95 net rushing yards. All-America back LaMichael James was held to 54 yards on 18 attempts. The Tigers won the game 40-27 and the score was not indicative of how well the LSU defense played. LSU defenders were perhaps even more impressive on Thursday night, holding Mississippi State, which had been averaging more than 300 yards per game on the ground, to just 52 yards on 34 carries.

Alabama is now 2-0 after their defense suffocated Penn State 27-11. While Penn State’s offense will never be mistaken for Oregon or Oklahoma State, the Nittany Lions struggled mightily even burning three time outs in their first offensive series.  Alabama leads the SEC and is ranked fifth nationally in total defense. The Crimson Tide is allowing just 170.5 yards per game. Tide opponents are averaging just 2.45 yards per play, which ranks second nationally.

Ironically, the SEC defense with the best statistics  through two games is Florida. This will probably change Saturday since the Gators will host the SEC’s best passing attack Tennessee in its first true test of the season. The Gators are as talented as any team in the league in their front seven and should get even better this week with sophomore defensive end Sharrif Floyd returning from his two-game suspension. Florida has yet to give up a touchdown through two games and leads the country in third-down defense. The Gators have allowed just three third-down conversions in 23 attempts and are allowing only 174.5 yards per game.

College football has changed dramatically in the past decade on-and-off-the-field. However, what doesn’t change is the importance of playing good defense if you’re going to have a chance to win a championship in any conference, especially the SEC. In fact, the only SEC national champion in the BCS era that hasn’t finished in the top 10 nationally in either total defense or scoring defense was Auburn last season. The Tigers were the exception to the norm last season. They weren’t a dominant defense, but when it came to “crunch-time” they were lights-out in the second half and had the most dominant interior defensive lineman in college football last season in Nick Fairley.

Through two games this season, the Tigers have won both games 38-34 over Utah State and  41-34 over Mississippi State . Barrett Trotter has been impressive engineering Gus Malzahn’s offense in the two Tigers win. However, their defense has been abysmal. The Tigers gave up 531 yards, 31 first downs on an astounding 97 plays to Mississippi State. Utah State ran 84 players the previous week.

There are many theories as to why offense has taken a major leap in the past decade.

The advent of the spread formations – The spread formation was invented to allow teams to compensate for less talent. The spread allows an offense to create one-on-one match ups with speedy receivers. It limits defensive formations and reduces blitzing. The spread formation also reduces the number of blocks offensive lineman need to made.

Coaches are placing their best athletes on offense now instead of defense. Former University of Alabama coach Gene Stallings always placed his best players on defense. You only have to ask former Miami quarterback Gino Torretta how did that work out. Former Alabama defensive coordinator Bill “Brother” Oliver hatched a tremendous game plan against Miami in the 1993 Sugar Bowl as the Tide won in a route 34-13 and claimed the 1992 National Championship. The “book ends” John Copeland and Eric Curry disrupted the Miami offense and allowed Alabama to win the game the “”old fashioned” way, stop the run, run the ball and be sound in the kicking game. Torretta had to call a time-out once because he wasn’t prepared to face an eleven man front.

Seven-on-seven camps – Some coaches despise seven-on-seven camps because it is not real football. A center snaps the ball without any guards or tackles positioned at his side.  While the national summer seven-on-seven camps have led to problems associated with sponsors and street agents who sponsor some of the camps, coaches do not dispute that these camps have improved timing between quarterbacks, wide receivers and running backs.

Year round conditioning programs - Coaches on any level of football agree the biggest change in high school and college sports in the past 20 years is the year-round conditioning programs. These programs normally under the supervision of an accredited athletic training staff helps develop muscle mass, flexibility and athleticism in today’s athlete.

Even though many coaches are placing their more talented players on offense, one position where the SEC is a level above any conference in the nation is defensive line play. The SEC clones defensive tackles and ends to combat spread formation offenses run by talented quarterback and skill players from other conferences. The past five MVP’s of the BCS Championship games have been defensive lineman, Florida’s Derrick Harvey, LSU’s Ricky Jean-Francois, Florida’s Carlos Dunlap, Alabama’s Marcell Dareus and Auburn’s Nick Fairley.

What data will back up the theory defense still wins championships? Based on findings by Bleacher Report, the BCS and NCAA regarding the past seven BCS Champions:

1. Only once in seven years has the national champion ranked out of the top 10 in either defensive category, points allowed per game and yardage gained per game (2007 LSU defense ranked No. 16 in points allowed).

2. Six of the last seven national champions have ranked out of the top 10 in at least one of the offensive categories (points scored per game and yardage gained per game) . Additionally, four of these BCS title holders have ranked out of the top 10 in BOTH offensive categories.

3. The average ranking across all four categories for all seven BCS champions in 10.46.

4. The most “balanced” championship team in terms of rankings over the past seven years is the 2005 Texas squad, which ranked an average of 3.5 over the four categories.

5. The least “balanced” championship team in terms of rankings over the past seven years is the 2009 Alabama Crimson Tide team, which ranked No. 1 and No. 2 defensively and No. 24 and No. 33 offensively.

In conclusion, based on findings by the BCS and the NCAA , several distinctions can be made:

1. Teams that rank first in one of the offensive or defensive categories have a better opportunity to win a conference championship than teams who do not.

2. Teams that are defensively dominant rather than offensively dominant are ultimately more successful.

3. Teams that are stronger defensively are more likely to obtain a BCS bowl bid and then are more likely to win the BCS bowl game.

4. Defensive teams are more likely to reach the BCS Championship and then are more likely to win the title.

5. Teams are more likely to win the BCS Championship if they are ranked in the top five defensively and in the top 15 offensively (combined).

In conclusion, defense still wins championships.

Brett Beaird and Harold Bugg co-host the Boomo Bugg Show on WYTK 93.9 FM The Score weekdays from 12:00-2:00 pm and the Sportsbuzz on WZTV weekdays at 5:30 and 11:00 pm CT. Brett is also a free-lance writer for

Our Overtime section is a collection of columns, opinions and posts from outside parties.  The views expressed on this page do not reflect those of

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