As the Big 12 Conference prepares for the closing few weeks of conference play, the defensive renaissance of the league continues to be a storyline.
It was shown again in West Virginia’s loss at Texas on Saturday as the Longhorns held on to beat the Mountaineers 17-13, a score that would’ve been unfathomable in the Big 12 just a few years ago.
As has become almost a weekly rite of passage, the league’s coaches were asked again during the Big 12 Conference coaches call on Monday about the numbers and possible reasons for the surge in defenses.
Included in that was TCU coach Gary Patterson, whose Horned Frogs (3-3 overall, 3-3 Big 12) are set to invade Morgantown at noon Saturday for a game against WVU (4-3, 3-3). The contest will be televised on Fox.
When it comes to defensive prowess, there’s likely not a better mind to pick than Patterson’s in the league. In the eight complete seasons since joining the Big 12 in 2012, TCU has ranked first in the conference in total defense five times and never lower than fourth, though that could change this year as the Horned Frogs enter Saturday’s contest in fifth at 364.5 yards per game.
“One side or the other, they change something and a lot of teams in our league are doing the same things,” Patterson said. “You start seeing things that work against the offenses and these guys like their jobs, so they start using some of the thought processes that people have done to become better at stopping what people do in this conference.
“Then you’ll find out that the offenses will change and you’ll get behind and you’ve got to come up with a better idea again. But we’re doing a little bit better job of holding our own in this league this year for whatever reason. I think guys are doing a better job right now of trying to stay ahead of the curves, at least from the film I’ve watched.”
The film — and the numbers — both tell that story. The PAC-12 had its first week of games on Saturday. But among the other four Power Five leagues, the Big 12 is tops in total defense with a league average of 377.3 yards allowed per game. That’s nearly 12 yards better than the Big Ten (389.2), over 26 better than the ACC (403.4) and over 27 better than the SEC (404.6).
The SEC and its fans and supporters have long boasted on the conference’s dominant defenses, but those just aren’t showing up this year. Texas A&M’s average of allowing 338.2 yards per game leads the SEC but ranks 27th nationally, behind three Big 12 teams (West Virginia, Oklahoma State and Oklahoma).
Patterson believes some of the offensive innovation that led to reeling defenses in the Big 12 in recent years is infiltrating the SEC now. And though the caliber of athlete is the same, the league may be in a learning curve in terms of catching up defensively.
“I think that’s one of the things the SEC is going through,” Patterson said. “It was more of a two-back [formation] and you can play more man coverage and get people in the box, and with this wide-open deal you’ve got, you can’t play man everywhere, not in this league. You’ve got to be able to change up.”
Patterson added that defensive flexibility has allowed defenses to flourish in the Big 12 this season.
“There’s good coaches in every league,” Patterson said. “We played a three-down and a four-down front the other night [in a win over Texas Tech] to give ourselves an opportunity to win. You’ve got to have more answers, because these guys are good at what they do on the other side of the ball.”
Patterson has been around long enough to know that conference familiarity usually balances the scales in time. The longest-tenured head coach in the Big 12 in his 21st season with TCU has seen his fair share of trends come and go, and said when things balance out schematically, as they always seem to do, it still will come down to players on the field.
“You’ve got to be able to change because you go against each other and see each other every year and the problem you have with that … that works both ways,” Patterson said. “So, we know what we’re going to do against certain things defensively, but the problem you have is there is only so many different ways you can line up to twins — two-wide receiver sets — and so pretty soon you’ve just got to have as good or better players and execute better. It becomes an interesting three hours, I can say that.”