Those who toll on such things point to the muddying meaning of superlatives as an example foretelling the death of the English language.
Good, Better, Best has evolved into Cool, Primo, and Shiznit just to name a few, and all can mean the same thing.
Influenced by the modern age of marketing, the language we utilize to convey degrees of quality have become interchangeable and diluted.
Rampant use of superlatives has moved their implications towards more poignant definition: “He was the best kid,” or “She was the greatest student.” Those are emotive and have little to do with any type of numerical modeling.
Sports Fans are no different.
Who is the greatest hitter? What fans are the worst? Which is the best division?
Our casual relationship to such conversations and the passions they inspire only further proves the point that we use superlatives as an identifier for things we believe, not things we know—as point of fact—to be true.
The SEC has the toughest defenses?
That question is no different either.
Most of the money I have earned in my life is due to a simple talent for taking any group of numbers and making them say what other people want to hear.
No, I am not an accountant or banking executive.
It is really no different than building a proper paragraph. You have to know the rules, and you have to know how to challenge them.
As regards the topic, we could just look at the Total Defense statistic for the last few years to learn that—since the start of the 2006 season—SEC teams have a combined 16 appearances in the Top 20.
But so does the ACC.
Have you ever heard a credible argument for the ACC being the best defensive football conference?
Neither have I.
Any that did would be dismissed because it does not reconcile with our experience. We have not seen the ACC’s best teams beat top tier programs from other conferences, as evidenced by their 2-10 BCS Bowl record.
However, we should also realize the invalidity of using the statistic as support for the SEC’s 14-5 mark in BCS Bowls.
The number 16 is the number 16 and both conferences have equal claim.
I use this example to illustrate a fallacy that many of us—myself included—are guilty of perpetuating. We take numbers like Total Defense or Rushing Yards per Game to manufacture comparisons where there are none.
These numbers are only units of measurement. More specific, they are averages of movement along a linear plane.
They are compiled with no affective regard—i.e., quality of competition, style of play, injuries—and produce no relational value.
Trying to do so is like determining the price of a car based solely on miles per gallon.
Anyone want to give ninety grand for a Prius?
I do not mean to imply that the numbers are useless; they can reveal a lot of different things. We can learn if a team is pass heavy, stops the run well, or is prone to giving up a big play. Such information helps teams prepare game plans and influences personnel packages.
And that is about it.
Those uses have a set framework and a defined area of application. What they lack—and what we need to be to be on the lookout for—are comparative inferences.
In researching this piece, I came across a very serious article by a well know sports journalist that claimed Pac 10 defenses were better than ones found in the SEC due to the Washington Huskies hanging 400 plus yards on the LSU Tigers but not gaining that much on average in conference play.
That no more sheds light on the matter than McDonald’s “Six Billion Served” told us what their hamburgers tasted like.
We love numbers for the flexibility they provide and the finality they imply. We plant them like tent stakes to shape our arguments and claim solid construction, hoping others buy into the idea objectivity is proven by the use of decimal points.
This is not a personal inquisition against statistical analysis; I just want us all to know that simply using a statistic does not qualify as such.
The question of whether or not the SEC is the toughest defensive conference in the nation is not answered by algorithmic game-play. It is not about the stats we compute or corollaries we claim to discover.
Answers on this matter—like all others—are determined by the questions we ask.
Socrates told us that a long time ago.
How we go about defining what it means to be the best—which I hope you take the time to do in the comment section because it is something I am genuinely interested in—ultimately tells us whether or not the statement is true.
I happen to think the best defense in the country is played in the Southeastern Conference.
This is the path that got me there.
For the majority of teams in the conference, is their defense the primary obstacle that needs to be overcome in order for an opponent to win?
That is an obvious filter question.
When an opponent starts to game plan, if the greatest challenge is figuring out a way to score, that is a pretty good sign you are playing a good defense. On the flip side, if the toughest challenge is figuring out how to stop a team from scoring, you are playing an offensive-first team.
When looking at styles of play around the country, the prevalence of spread-type offenses—which inherently put so much pressure on their own defenses—eliminates a lot of teams.
It takes out the Big 12 and the WAC, and it takes out enough of the Mountain West and the Big East to eliminate them as well.
There are two things that I need to note:
First, I quickly admit there are individual exceptions in each one of those leagues. But we are not talking teams, we are talking conferences. There is no way to legitimize an argument that claims a conference is better due to the strength of one or two members.
Second—and this applies to any argument—there is an intuitive test that must be passed.
Does it make sense to eliminate the Big 12 from the conversation based on what we have seen on the field of play?
I argue yes. When we look at last year’s National Championship game, or relevant bowl games like the Cotton Bowl, or even last year’s Big 12 Championship game, there is plenty of experience to tell us that—even the best—Big 12 teams struggle mightily against strong defensive teams.
We can reasonably induce that better defense is played outside the Big 12.
The same is true for the others as well. We have enough of a record to show that—on the whole—good offensive-first teams seldom beat good defensive-first teams.
“Defense Wins,” is a cliché for a reason, folks.
Of the remaining, do enough offenses in the league provide a high level of competitive play that challenges good defensive teams to also play at a high level in order to win week in and week out?
The aforementioned 2-10 in BCS Bowls tells us the ACC does not belong in the conversation, something—intuitively—we all know.
Moreover, while the ACC did have 16 teams appear in the Top 20 Total Defensive statistic since the start of the 2006 season, only one team appeared in the Top 20 for Total Offense.
Note the proper use of statistics in this argument. I am not inferring a relationship to another conference based on a comparison of averages. I am using a statistical anomaly to prove or disprove the premise.
The ACC does not have enough teams with a high level of offensive firepower for us to say that conference defenses are challenged to be at their best in order to win.
We can make the same argument against the Big Ten, which gave us only three offenses in the Top 20 for the same time span. Conversely, the SEC placed nine times and the Pac 10 placed six times.
The lack of offensive capability in the ACC and Big Ten fails to test in conference defenses on a weekly basis.
For me, a prerequisite for being considered the best is a high level of consistent play needed in order to win a conference title. Only needing to play well in three or four conference games and still win a championship does not cut it.
I will admit it is a close call as concerns the Big Ten on this one, but an intuitive test—say, performance in recent National Championship games—slides them out the door.
Of the remaining — in this case the SEC and the Pac 10 — is there a performance by one team whose removal from the conference would effectively eliminate the conference from contention?
Thanks for playing, Pac 10.
USC is the Achilles heel of nearly all other arguments the Pac 10 makes when claiming superiority, why would this be any different?
I have already hinted at the argument in examining the first question. You cannot have one team from the league as a primary example of why your conference should be consider the best.
Does the Pac 10 play pretty good defense? I think they are underrated on the whole.
Does the Pac 10 play better defense than the SEC? Without USC we do not even ask the question.
Is there an arcing theme that supports (or disproves) the conference left standing?
Here, SEC fans, is the appropriate place to mention four consecutive national titles with an average margin of victory of almost seventeen points.
Whether or not you agree with the argument I have constructed, it is a real argument. It does not rely on misapplication and misunderstanding of statistics in order to prove its points.
Is the SEC the best defensive conference in college football?
In proper use of the superlative, when you are better at it than everyone else it makes you the best.
Jeb Williamson covers the Ole Miss Rebels as a Featured Columnist for the Bleacher Report. He appreciates and welcomes all comments. Click here to view his other articles.