Is Defense Dying in College Football?

Amy DaughtersFeatured ColumnistJanuary 17, 2014

Alabama and Texas A&M hooked up for 91 combined points in 2013.
Alabama and Texas A&M hooked up for 91 combined points in 2013.Scott Halleran/Getty Images

In 2013, only 11 of 125 FBS defenses held opponents to fewer than 20 points per game.

Compare that to 2009, when 22 FBS teams touted a defense which gave up fewer than 20 points a game.

That decline is indicative of a wider trend in college football: The rise of offense and the fall of defense.

It’s not so much that defense no longer wins championships—Florida State had the No. 1 scoring defense in the FBS in 2013—it’s more that the game is in the midst of an offensive upswing.


The Statistical Demise

Scoring is the best indicator of defensive performance, because yards without points are meaningless to the bottom line of wins and losses.

Take a look at the trends in scoring defense since 2007:

FBS Scoring Defense: 2007-2013
Avg. Points Per GameTeams Allowing 30+Teams Allowing 40+
College Football Statistics

Other than 2009 being an up year for defense, the stats make a clear case that production is down over the last seven seasons.

The 2.12-points-per-game increase from 2008 to 2013 might not seem significant, but when you multiply the number by 13 games, it amounts to roughly 28 additional points given up to opponents per season.

Considering how many high-profile games come down to the wire, those 28 extra points could end up haunting a team at a very inopportune time.

The real kicker is how many more teams in 2013 allowed opponents to score 40 or more points per game versus their counterparts in 2007. That number quadrupled in only seven years (two in 2007; eight in 2013), making what might happen in the future seem like science fiction.

While not as significant, the trend also showed up with total defense, or total yards allowed:

FBS Total Defense: 2007-2013
Avg. YPGTeams Allowing 400+Teams Allowing 500+
College Football Statistics

In this case, there is a 41-yard-per-game difference from 2008 to 2013, or 533 additional yards allowed over a 13-game season.

Again, the biggest change is in defenses giving up big averages: More than twice as many teams allowed 400-plus and 500-plus yards over that six-year span.

So, is the trend fueled by passing or rushing?

Here’s the scoop:

FBS Rush Defense vs. Pass Defense: 2007-2013
Avg. Rushing YPGAvg. Passing YPG
College Football Statistics

Though there might have been a tendency to think that the advancements in offensive passing strategy powered the trend, in truth, it’s an even mix.

To illustrate, from 2008-2013, FBS teams gave up an average of 21 additional rushing yards per game versus 19 passing.


The Culprit

Now that the trend has been identified, why are defensive numbers declining?

Though the answer to this could vary from the nature of personnel turnover in college sports to changes in technology, what makes the most sense is that offensive strategy is cycling ahead of defensive scheming.

Here’s what South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier had to say, according to Paul Myerberg of USA Today:

The more you look at it the more you see that the offenses are difficult to stop. They really are…The offenses do have a little bit of an advantage. I think the really good teams are going to have to play some offense. Defenses may give up a few more points than they used to.

Oklahoma ran a record 1,211 offensive plays in 2010.
Oklahoma ran a record 1,211 offensive plays in 2010.Tom Pennington/Getty Images

Statistically speaking, what’s changed about offense in college football is the number of plays teams run.  This is due to the “hurry-up,” “no-huddle” or “NASCAR” fad that is sweeping the nation.

Here’s what Alabama’s Nick Saban had to say about the craze, according to Andrew Gribble at

It’s obviously created a tremendous advantage for the offense when teams are scoring 70 points and we’re averaging 49.5 points per game. With people that do those kinds of things. More and more people are going to do it.

I don’t think anybody really ever thought we’d go no-huddle and the coach would control the game from the sidelines and call the plays based on how the defense was lined up. That’s a real advantage for the offense.

To quantify this, take a look at the average total number of plays FBS teams have run per season since 2007:

FBS Average Total Plays Per Season: 2007-2013
College Football Statistics

In 2013, defenses are giving up roughly 28 more points and 533 more total yards compared to 2008, but they’re also facing offenses that run an 54 additional plays over the course of the season.

It’s logical: The more plays you run, the more points you can potentially score, and the more points and yards the opposing defense will allow.


The Future

Other than establishing the trend, the numbers also make a clear case that the offensive explosion won’t last forever. In other words, don’t look for these numbers to continue to rise without an inevitable adjustment.

To show how this works, take a look at the ’07 stats versus those in 2013:

FBS Average Defense: 2007 vs. 2013
Points Per Game27.2227.78
Yards Per Game386401
Rushing Yards Per Game156169
Passing Yards Per Game230232
Total Plays909911
College Football Statistics

The two seasons—seven years apart—almost mirror each other, both telling a tale of the decline of defense.  Between these bookends, defenses regrouped in 2008 for a banner year and then began to lose their grip.

This is all set to change—once again—when defensive schemers catch up with their counterparts on the O.

This is a natural reaction from a statistical standpoint and it mirrors the nature of the sport.

Here’s Saban’s explanation of the defensive decline and the future, according to Myerberg at USA Today:

I think every year you have different strengths and weaknesses relative to the various teams in your conference. This year [2013], we have some really high-powered offensive teams...I just think it’s a circumstance of this particular year relative to the number of good quarterbacks and good offensive teams that we have in our league.

With Johnny Manziel, Teddy Bridgewater, Blake Bortles and others heading to the NFL, will defenses rebound in 2014? The numbers presented here suggest that a regression to the mean is certainly due soon enough. 


Statistics courtesy of College Football Statistics.



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