Auburn Tigers' 2010 BCS National Title Confirms That Defense Still Wins Championships in College Football

Recently, Year2 reviewed Tobias J. Moskowitz’s and L. Jon Wertheim’s Scorecasting: The Hidden Influences Behind How Sports Are Played and Games Are Won, citing in the process Jeffrey H. Anderson’s Wall Street Journal review of that same volume, in which the co-creator of one of the BCS computer rankings offered the following eyebrow-raising observation:

Moskowitz and Wortheim rightly argue that defense doesn't win championships (any more than offense does), a notion that Auburn's recent national championship supports.

Surely this is a fair characterization of a 2010 college football season that proved, once and for all, that defense does not win championships, right? After all, the BCS National Championship Game featured two of the country’s top seven teams in scoring offense, two of the country’s top seven teams in total offense, and two of the country’s top five teams in rushing offense, didn’t it?

Yes, it did . . . and the team ranked higher in all three offensive categories lost. Oddly enough, the winning team finished the season in the top ten in Division I-A in rushing defense, while the losing team concluded the campaign ranked outside the top 25 nationally in that same category. Funny how all that offense didn’t matter in a season-ending showdown to settle the final No. 1 ranking that saw the contestants score a combined 14 second-half points, isn’t it?

We have had this conversation before, during the short, silly life of Offensive Chic, a mid-decade fad whose denouement saw purported trailblazer Al Borges being described as a conventional pro-style play-caller. This time, the innovative Auburn offensive coordinator du jour is Gus Malzahn, but the song is the same: the Plainsmen went undefeated in the supposedly (read: archaically) defensive-minded Southeastern Conference because their up-tempo attack scored points in bunches.

Is that really how the Tigers won the national championship, though? Could it be that Nick Fairley had as much to do with Auburn’s third unbeaten season in an 18-year span as Cam Newton? (The NFL Draft gurus sure seem to think so.) Is it possible that Ted Roof’s defense was as critical to the Tigers’ national title run as Coach Malzahn’s offense?

Well, yeah, actually.

Against Mississippi State on September 9, Auburn’s offense was shut out in the second half. Auburn’s defense preserved the 17-14 win with a fourth-down stop in Tiger territory in the final minute. Against Clemson on September 18, Auburn’s offense managed only a field goal before intermission. Auburn’s defense limited the Country Gentlemen to seven second-half points and held the visiting Tigers scoreless in overtime in the Plainsmen’s 27-24 triumph.

On September 25, South Carolina built up a 20-14 lead at the break, but the Tigers twice intercepted Connor Shaw passes on Auburn’s side of the field late in the contest to secure a 35-27 victory. On October 9, Auburn’s offense managed only six second-half points in a 37-34 win over Kentucky in Lexington. On October 16, Auburn held a slim 37-35 edge over Arkansas entering the fourth quarter. The Plainsmen’s defense came up big in the final quarter, securing stops and limiting the Razorbacks to eight points in the final 15 minutes in a game that previously had been a back-and-forth battle.

Auburn and Louisiana State were tied at the half on October 23, and, although the Orange and Blue offense managed only two touchdowns after intermission, the Orange and Blue defense held the Bayou Bengals to a single score in a 24-17 triumph. On November 13, Georgia leapt out to a 21-7 lead in the first 15 minutes before Auburn’s defense limited the Bulldogs to ten points in the last 45. On November 26, the Plainsmen carded a couple of critical takeaways and surrendered only two field goals in the final three periods, enabling an Auburn offense that managed only seven points in the first half to get untracked and paving the way to a 28-27 victory.

I take nothing away from the Tigers’ offense, which was superb, but the fact remains that Auburn came from behind in nine of its 14 games in 2010. There are two essential ingredients to a successful comeback in sports: an offense that scores and a defense that prevents scoring. At the season’s critical junctures, the Plainsmen relied upon the latter as much as they did upon the former. Had the defense not risen up, Auburn would have lost more than a couple of shootouts.

Anderson’s attempted cop-out through his parenthetical "any more than offense does" aside, his claim "that Auburn's recent national championship supports" the "notion" "that defense doesn't win championships" is spurious. As integral as Gus Malzahn and Cam Newton undeniably were to the Tigers’ success, the fact is that Ted Roof’s defense clamped down in the second half on several occasions, which is what made the difference between Newton as a statistical phenomenon and Newton as a game-winning quarterback.

Look at it this way: Auburn averaged an SEC-best 41.2 points per game in 2010, yet the Plainsmen needed every second of their 60-minute tussle with the Ducks to exceed half that number in the desert. Oregon, meanwhile, averaged an NCAA-best 47.0 points per game in the season that finished earlier this month, yet, if the Tigers had surrendered as many as 23 points---half of Oregon’s average for the year, and that’s after rounding down---in the National Championship Game, college football would have crowned a different team No. 1.

Maybe it’s just me, but it sure sounds like defense won that championship.

Go ‘Dawgs!

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