For the past couple of weeks, when asked about the topic multiple times, West Virginia coach Neal Brown and his Big 12 coaching brethren have insisted that their conference is changing.
But nationally, no one seems to be listening or, apparently, paying attention.
It has always fascinated me, the see-saw between perception and reality in football. Is a low-scoring game good defense or bad offense? Is a shootout a case of a prolific attack or Swiss-cheese coverages?
And they’re not always judged the same, are they?
For instance, one national college football analyst sent out a tweet Saturday night about Tulsa’s 34-26 win over then-No. 11 Central Florida, referring to the victory as a nice rebound after “that painful offensive performance” in a 16-7 loss to Oklahoma State.
He wasn’t wrong. Central Florida was 0 for 12 on third down against the Cowboys and accounted for just 277 offensive yards.
But ask yourself this: Had Tulsa played at Texas A&M or Auburn or Georgia and had the same statistics and lost by the same score, what do you think the national story would’ve been? Those SEC shutdown defenses? Yeah, me too.
Here is the story on Oklahoma State. The Cowboys returned 10 of 11 starters and rank seventh nationally in total defense (274 yards per game) and sixth in scoring defense (9 points per game). On third downs? No team is better, with opponents finding success just 16.3 percent of the time.
Sure, Oklahoma State hasn’t exactly run a gantlet through its first three games, topping Tulsa, Kansas and a WVU offense that is having its struggles. But just look how unbalanced the judgment of teams — depending largely on conference affiliation — really is.
After the Tulsa result, Oklahoma State fell from 11th to 15th in the AP poll despite winning at home by more than one score, largely without its starting quarterback Spencer Sanders, who was injured early. It wasn’t the explosive Cowboys offense we’re accustomed to seeing.
OK, fine. But now note that LSU is ranked 17th. That’s an LSU team that lost 19 starters, albeit from a national-championship team a year ago, and gave up (checks notes) 623 yards passing in a 44-34 home loss to Mississippi State in its first game. That was a Bulldogs team that was playing its first game under Mike Leach in a completely revamped offense, and quarterback KJ Costello threw for nearly the equivalent of the distance between our office building on Virginia Street and the Town Center Mall.
After OSU’s win over Tulsa, the Golden Hurricane beat a team ranked just on the fringe of the top 10 on the road. Mississippi State followed up its throttling of the Tigers by getting dropped 21-14 at home by Arkansas, a team that hadn’t won a conference game since a 38-37 decision over Ole Miss on Oct. 28, 2017.
But look at a current poll and you’ll find the Cowboys (10th) ranked just seven spots above LSU (17th), which is also ranked above undefeated SMU, Virginia Tech and Louisiana Lafayette.
To quote Timothy B. Schmit, “I can’t tell you why.”
In fairness, it’s probably partially because of the reputation the Big 12 has built over the course of the last decade plus in which points per game often outnumbered current political posts on your Facebook wall. Was that good offense or bad defense? With only 33 Big 12 defensive players drafted in the last decade, which is less than half of any of the other four Power Five conferences, it’s pretty easy to make a legitimate case that it was the latter.
But is that changing? Brown certainly thinks so.
“I think the league has already changed a great deal,” Brown said. “I think the defenses and the special teams play — this is still a really innovative league offensively and it’s a league in certain games you’re going to have to score a lot of points to win, but I think the defenses have really innovated as well.”
And look at the coaches that have come in recently. Baylor’s Dave Aranda was the defensive coordinator for that LSU team that won a title a year ago. Kansas State’s Chris Klieman piloted North Dakota State teams that ranked in the top five nationally five times in scoring defense and four times in total defense over his last five years there. Now Kansas State is starting to show some of those same stingy characteristics.
While Matt Wells at Texas Tech has an offensive background, his teams at Utah State were known for solid defenses and in particular their ball-hawking tendencies as the Aggies forced 152 turnovers in his seven years as head coach, fifth-most in the country over that time. And Brown is guiding a WVU unit that ranks sixth in total defense.
Sure, the Big 12 will still have its shootouts (see Saturday’s 37-30 win for Iowa State over Oklahoma). But if one didn’t know any better, the SEC looks like the new Big 12 with games decided by scores of 52-24 (Alabama over Texas A&M), 38-24 (Florida over South Carolina) and 42-41 (Ole Miss over Kentucky) on Saturday. Four Big 12 teams rank in the top 20 in total defense (Oklahoma State, WVU, Oklahoma and Baylor), while just two SEC teams (Georgia and Mississippi State) can say the same.
Indeed, things do seem to be changing, even if minds aren’t necessarily changing with them.