NORMAN — We’ve all seen the statistics: using the College Football Playoff’s small sample size, no team has won a national championship with a defense ranked outside the top 20.
The last three years, no champion has been crowned with a defense worse than No. 8 nationally.
As close as Oklahoma was to winning a national championship last year — one more stop or one more first down in a semifinal overtime loss to Georgia, who suffered an overtime loss to Alabama in the title game — the Sooners would have had a chance with a serviceable defense.
OU ranked 67th in the country in yards per game allowed in 2017.
The other three participants in the CFP ranked first, fourth and sixth.
Certainly, a significant part of that speaks to the magnitude of quarterback Baker Mayfield. He elevated a one-dimensional team (the most prolific offense in the country is a pretty good dimension to have) to within inches of playing for the Sooners’ eighth national championship.
Instead, Georgia’s offense could not be stopped and the Sooners fell in Pasadena.
So what will it take? How does Oklahoma build a championship-worthy defense after years of languishing in mediocrity?
“Recruiting,” head coach Lincoln Riley said.
Sounds simple enough — unless you’re the team trying to climb out of the hole, that is.
“We could have a week-long discussion on recruiting,” said defensive coordinator Mike Stoops, “but getting those guys and developing them is critical to your success.”
Is it possible for OU, while playing at the top of the Big 12 Conference, to put together the kind of defense we see at the top of the Southeastern Conference or the Atlantic Coast Conference or the Big Ten Conference?
“I knew that was coming,” Riley said. “It’s possible to have a defense as good as anywhere. There’s no magic league for defenses. Like I’ve said many times, I think it’s more challenging numbers-wise to have one of the best defenses in our league because of the offenses. But absolutely, you can have a defense that you know is a top-five defense that plays the way we did in Columbus last year. That’s kind of what we envision against a top offense and a top team that can go in there and have the capability to shut somebody down.
“We’ve got to do it more consistently, but that’s absolutely the goal.”
Many defensive coaches say they have eschewed the NCAA’s traditional ranking for total defense — yards allowed per game. To an extent, that’s fair. FBS teams now numbering 130 play vastly different schedules against wildly ranging talent in conferences that play endlessly varied styles. Forget comparing apples and oranges, FBS football looks like the whole produce section.
“Statistics, in certain situations, are drastically different because of who you play. There are a lot of variables go into playing good defense,” Stoops said.
And yet, don’t be fooled. Traditional numbers still mean something.
In fact, ranking the four years of College Football Playoff participants, total defense closely reflects one of the coaches’ favorite new analytics: points per possession.
In the 2014 field, only Oregon was an outlier, ranking 87th in yards per game and 36th in points per possession. Alabama, Florida State and Ohio State’s numbers were similar.
In 2015, only Oklahoma, with an overall ranking of 39th and a points-per-possession ranking of 15th, was different.
In 2016, all four CFP teams’ rankings were virtually identical. They were even more similar in 2017.
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College Football Playoff defenses
2014 Yds/Gm Pts/Play NFL Draft
- Alabama 12 17 2
- Oregon 87 36 2
- Florida State 61 62 4
- * Ohio State 19 21 2
- Clemson 10 18 7
- * Alabama 3 2 4
- Michigan State 26 37 1
- Oklahoma 39 15 3
- Alabama 2 1 7
- * Clemson 8 6 2
- Ohio State 6 3 4
- Washington 12 8 3
- Clemson 4 2 1
- Oklahoma 67 70 1
- Georgia 6 7 2
- * Alabama 1 1 8
* won national championship
Fast-tempo offenses have changed the game. But among teams who make the playoff, it seems to matter little more than the old standard of yards per game.
Got an offense that runs lot of plays? Get a lot of possessions and a lot of points? Fine, you’d still better stop somebody once in a while.
And that means you’d better have talent.
“I think that’s been an issue,” Riley said. “I think we’ve had good talent, but we haven’t had the talent to be elite on defense, and I think we’re getting back close to that. I don’t feel like we’re far off there at all.”
So is it possible in 2018 for Oklahoma to have a top-five defense playing against the likes of Florida Atlantic and UCLA and Army in the non-conference schedule and the quick-thinking mad tinkerers calling plays throughout the conference schedule?
“Being a top-15 or top-20 defense might be more realistic in our league because of the efficiency that (Big 12 offenses) work at,” Stoops said. “The type of personnel we’ve had to deal with, those are the areas I think we need to make up the most ground.”
Stoops said the defensive line should be improved this year, and the linebackers look solid. There is real competition in the secondary, but also plenty of scorch marks from one big play after another. The back end could end up being a strength, Stoops said, and that’s why he expects to utilize more five-DB sets this year. That could get interesting.
“I’m excited about it,” Riley said. “I think we have a hungry group, I think we have a talented group. We’re not going to have many seniors playing, which is a concern, but these guys are ready to go out and prove themselves.”
Columnist John E. Hoover is co-host of “The Franchise Drive” every weeknight from 6-8 on The Franchise in Oklahoma City and Tulsa, and appears throughout the day on other shows on The Franchise. Listen at fm107.7 in OKC, fm107.9/am1270 in Tulsa, on The Franchise app, or click the “Listen” tab on The Franchise home page. Hoover also covers the Big 12 for Sporting News and Lindy’s magazine and is a feature writer for Sooner Spectator magazine. Visit his personal page at johnehoover.com.