Defense wins championships. It's a saying that's seemingly as old as football itself.
But to an Oregon Ducks fan, it's also been a thorn in the side for much of the team's success over the past 20 years. Simply put, Oregon is known for offense, and has a checkered past of simply outscoring teams to win games. In fact, even the 11-1 (and No.2 ranked) Ducks of 2001 overcame an 81st ranked Total Defense that year—but lost that one game by giving up 49 points (to a back-up QB) at home.
By the same token, the SEC is a truly great conference. After all, having three different teams win the last four National Championships is an astounding accomplishment. But make no mistake about it, the SEC's prolific run has had less to do with dazzling offenses, and more to do with fielding outstanding defensive teams in the BCS Championship Game.
With that said, this year's match-up between Oregon and Auburn has an ironic twist to it. You see, for once, it's actually Oregon who has the better defense...and statistically it's not even close.
To start with, Oregon has the 25th ranked Total Defense (out of 120 FBS teams) and the 14th ranked Scoring Defense—as compared to Auburn's 54th ranking in Total Defense, and 54th ranked Scoring Defense.
And before anyone starts with the whole "SEC" excuses, let's point out that five Pac-10 teams (50 percent) have a Total Offense in the Top 30 of all college football. Meanwhile, the SEC only has four of twelve teams (33 percent) that can boast the same thing.
Then let's add in the fact that the Pac-10 plays a full nine-game conference schedule, while the SEC plays just eight games in conference, thus allowing an added November home game with a over-matched opponent (I'm looking at you Chattanooga) to pad some defensive stats.
With this in mind, you start to see how the SEC can have so many teams that aren't statistically as bad as they should be. After all, it explains how a 4-4 conference team like Mississippi State, with conference wins against Georgia (3-5), Mississippi (1-7), Kentucky (2-6) and Florida (4-4), can suddenly look "good" at 8-4 with OCC games against Memphis (1-11), Alcorn State (5-6), Houston (5-7), and yes, even a five-point win over UAB (4-8).
In the SEC, that's good enough for a No.21 ranking and New Year's Day shellacking of yet another underachieving team from the Big-10!
Let's also point out that because Oregon runs it's "blur" offense and happily gives away the time of possession battle (104th ranked) to the opposing team, it must defend many more plays per game, which leads to skewed "total yards per game" numbers when compared to ball-control SEC teams like Alabama and LSU.
For example, the Crimson Tide defended some 745 plays and the Tigers 757 in 12 games, meanwhile the Ducks defended well over a hundred more (878) in the same amount of contests. So while Alabama and LSU ended up with the No.6 and No.8 ranked defenses...they actually gave up more yards-per-play (4.77 and 4.78 per play) than the Ducks did (4.53). Auburn, on the other hand, gave up 5.29 yards-per-play while defending 890 plays over 13 games.
Somewhat surprisingly though, Auburn's total defense numbers are even mediocre when compared inside their own twelve-team conference. In fact, just THREE TEAMS (Tennessee: 70th, Ole Miss: 80th, and Vanderbilt: 94th) rank lower in Total Defense than the Tigers, and just FOUR have worse scoring defenses than Auburn.
But defense isn't all about total yards, there's also the idea of a team "rallying" inside their own 20-yard line after giving up a long drive. Again, this is an area where the Ducks excel—ranking No.5 in the country for Red Zone Defense, allowing just 68 percent of drives (17 TD's and 8 FG's) to come away with points.
Again, this is far above Auburn, who ranks 95th in Red Zone Defense, allowing a full 88 percent of drives (25 TD's and 10 FG's) to pay off in points for the opposition. To put that number in perspective, Auburn actually GIVES UP a higher percentage of Red Zone scores than it's own offense (87 percent) does.
But what about a defense being "opportunistic" and forcing turnovers? Again, advantage Ducks. Oregon is No.2 in the country, having forced 35 turnovers in just 12 games. Meanwhile, Auburn ranks 68th (and tied with East Carolina, Northwestern, Oregon State, and Temple) with 20 turnovers forced in 13 games.
But it doesn't stop there, the Ducks are better than the Tigers in a host of other defensive categories too:
|CATEGORY||OREGON RANK||AUBURN RANK|
|TACKLES FOR LOSS||8th||25th|
|3RD DOWN DEFENSE||10th||41st|
|4TH DOWN DEFENSE||4th||45th|
|1ST DOWNS ALLOWED||51st||85th|
|PASS EFFICIENCY DEFENSE||6th||75th|
So just what statistical support is there for a team to win a BCS Championship Game with such a middle-of-the-pack defense like this? In two words: Absolutely NONE.
Since 2000, the winner of the Crystal Football has had a unit ranked no worse than 23rd in Total Defense, and no worse than 17th in Scoring Defense; each a far cry from Auburn's 54th ranking in BOTH categories, but actually very comparable to Oregon's 25th and 14th rankings.
For further reference, the last four SEC National Championship teams (2010 Alabama, 2009 Florida, 2008 LSU, and 2007 Florida) averaged having the fifth ranked total defense, and the seventh ranked scoring defense in the country—to go along with an average 21st ranked Total Offense and 15th ranked Scoring Offense.
Again, Oregon outpaces Auburn in these offensive categories as well—ranking second in Total Offense and first in Scoring, while the Tigers rank seventh and sixth respectively.
Many SEC apologists simply want to argue that playing in their "superior" conference makes any comparison of statistics a moot point—and yet no former SEC team in the NC Game has had to make that argument. In fact, BOTH Alabama and LSU proved this year that it's possible to field a top-flight defense in the SEC—they simply didn't have the offense to keep up with the Tigers—something the Ducks most certainly do.
Meanwhile Auburn is still considered a slight favorite over the Ducks. So what gives? After all, Oregon is not only ranked higher in numerous other offensive categories (First Downs, Rushing Offense, Passing Offense, Sacks Allowed)... but they also hold an advantage in most special teams statistics as well (Auburn is 92nd in Net Punting, while Oregon is No.1 in Punt Returning).
So while many "experts" will continue to predict an Auburn victory over the Ducks in Glendale on January 10, my guess is you'll hear more empty adjectives (eg. "bigger", "stronger", "tested", etc.) than hard evidence to support their contention. Because from a statistical standpoint, Auburn is not only in uncharted waters as a potential National Championship team, but is going up against an Oregon team that compares favorably to the past ten BCS Champions on BOTH sides of the ball.
Add in being a underestimated team to the Ducks resume and January 10th could be a long night for fans of the Auburn Tigers.