Each of the top four teams in college football won this weekend, but wins are not created equally. It’s not hard to argue that Alabama’s 21-17 victory at LSU was more impressive than Notre Dame’s 29-26 triple-overtime win at home against the unranked Pitt Panthers. Considering the margins of victory were essentially the same, what distinguishes those two wins were venue and strength of opponent. These are two aspects the BCS computers pretty much get right—venue and strength of opponents. However, those two things are unable to help distinguish wins when we look at Kansas State and Oregon. Oregon is likely to get some flak for giving up two games worth of points, despite the fact that it (and Kansas State) actually won its game by two scores.
Kansas State and Oregon are not only winning tackle football games. They are pummeling the competition. Oregon’s 11-point win at USC was its smallest margin of victory this season, and KSU routed West Virginia, Texas Tech and Oklahoma State by an average of 29 points. Oregon was able to leap Notre Dame in the BCS polls, likely due to a boost in strength of schedule from playing USC, but Kansas State will never be allowed to take over the #1 ranking unless Alabama loses.
I’d love to say that Oregon is the best team in the country, but it’s hard to argue against Alabama and Kansas State. So instead I’ll preemptively defend the Ducks against harsh scrutiny of their defense after allowing 51 points last weekend.
Oregon’s defense was obviously called into question in the Coliseum Saturday night. Win or loss, allowing 51 points is a lot. But was it all that bad? I don’t think so. Remember that Oregon plays at an incredibly fast pace and generates a lot of possessions, and that USC is a pretty very good offensive team. USC is ranked 24th in the country in points per game (36.8), but 4th in the country in yards per play (7.1). USC is an efficient football team that, when given extra possessions, can score in bunches.
USC got 13 drives in against the Oregon defense this weekend, and it average 7.69 yards per play. USC did outperform its own efficiency against the Ducks, but not enormously.
How about the Alabama-LSU game? LSU ranks 57th in college football with 29.4 points per game, and 69th with 5.6 yards per play. It got 11 full drives against Alabama this weekend, scoring 17 points and recording 5.1 yards per play.
KSU-OK State? The Cowboys are 8th in the country with 42.5 points per game, and 3rd with 7.2 yards per play—better than USC in both categories. KSU faced that potent offense 13 times, and relinquished just 30 points and 7.1 yards per play. Despite almost average per-play efficiency, five forced turnovers allowed KSU to hold the Cowboys well below their average scoring output.
And that ND-Pitt game? Pitt ranks 62nd in points per game with 27.8 and 32nd in yards per play with 6.2. Those numbers have to be taken with a grain of salt, as the Panthers don’t quite play the same schedule some of these other teams play. Their marquee win, an 18-point win over then #13 Virginia Tech, has lost its luster now that the Hokies are 4-5. Against the Fighting Irish, Pitt scored 20 points in regulation on 11 possessions, averaging 5.0 yards per play.
Oregon’s defense might have had the worst weekend of the bunch, though it’s not as obvious after you look past the 51 points for a moment. A couple extra possessions for a good offense with constant incentive to pass could easily add two touchdowns to a 36.8-points-per-game team like USC. I’m not too concerned about that blip. Additionally, the cliché that defense wins championships is, simply put, unsupported by any data. This study of the NFL found no evidence that defense is any more important than offense. If college football is any different, I would hypothesize that the edge actually to go offense being more important. But that’s for another article. About the best simple predictor of success is margin of victory, the difference between offense and defense, and the Ducks rank 2nd in the country in that stat right now.
So am I concerned about the Ducks defense? No. Regardless if its above or below average, scoring margin is (nearly) everything, and the Ducks are doing just fine there.