John Hoover

John E. Hoover: Can Mike Stoops, Sooners build a championship defense in 2018?

John E. Hoover: Can Mike Stoops, Sooners build a championship defense in 2018?

Georgia running back Sony Michel (1) scores a touchdown in overtime against Oklahoma in the Rose Bowl. Fueled by massive gaps in the Oklahoma defense just like this one, Georgia won 54-48. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

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.

(column continues below)

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College Football Playoff defenses

                                                                                                     Defenders in

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

2015

  • Clemson                  10                           18                           7
  • * Alabama                 3                             2                           4
  • Michigan State      26                           37                            1
  • Oklahoma               39                           15                            3

2016

  • Alabama                    2                              1                              7
  • * Clemson                 8                              6                              2
  • Ohio State                 6                              3                              4
  • Washington            12                              8                              3

2017

  • Clemson                    4                             2                              1
  • Oklahoma               67                           70                              1
  • Georgia                      6                             7                              2
  • * Alabama                  1                             1                              8

* won national championship

Georgia running back Nick Chubb (27) scores a touchdown untouched against Oklahoma late in the second half of the Rose Bowl. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)

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.”

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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.

John Hoover

Hoover wrote for the Tulsa World for 24 years before joining The Franchise, where he's now co-host of "Further Review" on The Franchise Tulsa (weekdays 12-3, fm107.9/am1270) . In his time at the World, Hoover won numerous writing and reporting awards, including in 2011 National Beat Writer of the Year from the Associated Press Sports Editors for his work covering the Oklahoma Sooners. Hoover also covered Oklahoma State, Arkansas, Oral Roberts and the NFL as a beat writer. From 2012 to 2016, Hoover was the World's lead sports columnist. As a columnist, Hoover won national awards in 2012 and 2014 from the National Athletic Trainers Association for reporting on sports medicine and in 2015 won first place in sports columns from the Oklahoma Society of Professional Journalists. After receiving a journalism degree from East Central University, Hoover worked at newspapers in Ada, Okmulgee, Tahlequah and Waynesville, Mo. He played football at Ada High School and grew up in North Pole, Alaska. Hoover and his family live in Broken Arrow.

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