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Getting Defensive

As noted previously here at Dawg Sports, Conquest Chronicles joined the SportsBlogs Nation family while I was away.

Paragon SC is an old friend and I am pleased to welcome him to the fold.

It's hard not to like a team whose mascot rides a horse with the same name as Robert E. Lee's.

One of the best attributes of the intercollegiate athletics blogosphere is the forum it provides for open, honest, rigorous debate between opinionated yet mutually respectful combatants. It is in that spirit that I must take issue with a recent and well-written article penned by the Paragon.

Describing Southern California's Pete Carroll (quite fairly) as a "savvy coach," the Paragon cites the man who has restored Troy to glory as an example of the sort of coach who pioneers "more productive and innovative offensive schemes." Thus, he concludes:

Defense will still win you championships, but it's almost worth saying why bother? To paraphrase the old Chicago voting motto: Score Early and Score Often.

I have argued, early and often, that, while it is important to be adept at every aspect of the game, defense ultimately matters more than offense. I believe the Paragon creeps up to the edge of admitting this, as he acknowledges that defense "still" wins championships and it is "almost"---almost, which is to say: not quite---worth it to rely on offense alone.

The Paragon also cites such examples as Bob Stoops, Jim Tressel, and Mack Brown. I agree that all of these coaches are good examples of successful coaches, but it appears undeniable that Coach Stoops' 2000 Sooners and Coach Tressel's 2002 Buckeyes won their championships primarily with defense.

While Oklahoma put up some big numbers (typically against the likes of Arkansas State, Baylor, and U.T.E.P.), there was a clear drop-off offensively after back-to-back big point totals against Texas and Kansas State. After that, the Sooners' scoring was far from overwhelming, as O.U. eked out 27 points apiece against Texas Tech and Kansas State (in the conference championship game rematch), 13 points against Florida State (in the Orange Bowl), and 12 points against Oklahoma State. What salvaged that special season was a defense that held three of the Sooners' last six opponents to single-digit scoring totals and gave up more than 14 points just twice in the campaign's final seven outings.

Rocky Calmus, shown here putting offense into its proper perspective.

Likewise, Ohio State was explosive against weak defenses during the first half of the 2002 season, ringing up 45 points on Indiana and Texas Tech, 50 points on San Jose State, and 51 points on Kent State. (Over the course of that campaign, the Hoosiers gave up 40 or more points six times, the Red Raiders gave up 37 or more points seven times, the Spartans gave up 38 or more points six times, and the Golden Flashes gave up 42 or more points six times.)

Once the Buckeyes got into the meat of their Big Ten schedule, however, rock-ribbed D limited O.S.U.'s output considerably, as Coach Tressel's charges managed only 23 points against Illinois, 19 points against Wisconsin, 14 points against Michigan, 13 points against Penn State, and 10 points against Purdue.

Fortunately for Ohio State, the Buckeye defense surrendered more than 19 points just twice in 14 games and held half of O.S.U.'s opponents to 14 or fewer points. The 2002 national champion's defense waxed as its offense waned, illustrating just how quickly "coaches find a way to defend these new offenses" (as the Paragon puts it) and demonstrating by anecdotal evidence what Sunday Morning Quarterback already has confirmed with data regarding defense versus offense, the pass versus the rush, and offensive innovation generally.

Interestingly enough, during the last five years, Pete Carroll, a defensive coach, has led U.S.C. to a 54-10 ledger, thanks primarily to outstanding offense, while Mark Richt, an offensive coach, has led Georgia to a 52-13 record, due largely to outstanding defense. Since the Bulldogs' overall success under Coach Richt lags a mere two and a half games behind the Trojans' overall success under Coach Carroll, defense hardly seems to deserve placement in the "why bother?" category . . . particularly since Georgia and Southern California each lost B.C.S. bowl games last January in which their offenses posted impressive point totals yet their defenses let them down.

Despite putting up some pretty good numbers as Florida State's offensive coordinator, Mark Richt knows that the 'Dawgs begin with D.

Likewise, although I take nothing away from Vince Young, the importance of Gene Chizik's addition to Coach Brown's staff as defensive coordinator should not be underestimated. Coach Chizik was the real architect of Auburn's 2004 season (well, Coach Chizik and Thomas Petee), not the offensive coordinator whose innovative scheme succeeded in hanging an eye-popping 24 points on Georgia, 21 points on Alabama, 16 points on Virginia Tech, and 10 points on L.S.U. When Coach Chizik made the move to Austin, his Texas D gave up 12 points to the Sooners, who had hung 63 or more points on the Longhorns twice in the previous five seasons.

The Paragon also quotes with approval another author's observation that "offensive innovations have allowed teams without talent to not only compete with the big boys but also to become big boys themselves," thereby enabling "a former lightweight like Louisville" to join a B.C.S. conference, "where it now has a shot to do something that was inconceivable just a few short years ago--win a national title."

I assume that the phrase "teams without talent" is simply an instance of over-the-top rhetorical hyperbole. Less talented teams often beat more talented teams, but untalented teams rarely, if ever, do. No matter how innovative an offense Western Kentucky brings to Sanford Stadium on September 2, the Hilltoppers will not upset the Red and Black.

Offensive innovations can get the most out of previously unheralded players, but there is a difference between the absence of talent on the one hand and the presence of underappreciated talent on the other. While Georgia held an overall talent advantage over West Virginia, the Mountaineers pulled off the upset in the Sugar Bowl because Steve Slaton and Pat White were better than those of us in Bulldog Nation credited them with being.

Uh, Steve Slaton is, like, good, or something. (Photograph from Sports Illustrated.)

As for the "inconceivable" possibility of a "lightweight" like Louisville winning a national title, that prospect didn't seem so remote to Howard Schnellenberger, who took over the Cardinal program in 1985 and declared the Bluegrass State independent to be "on a collision course with the national championship."

Coach Schnellenberger, who had guided former lightweight Miami to a dynasty-beginning No. 1 final ranking as an independent in 1983, likewise led Louisville to a 10-1-1 record in 1990. That season was capped off by a 34-7 Fiesta Bowl win over an Alabama squad that would thereafter go 31-1-1 in its next 33 games.

Later, in 2004, the Cardinals posted an 11-1 season, recorded shutout victories over schools from the A.C.C. and S.E.C., and very nearly pulled off an upset of the Hurricanes in Coral Gables . . . all as members of Conference U.S.A.

It's hard to argue that U. of L. got less respect in 2004 as the champion of a "mid-major" conference than, say, West Virginia did in 2005 as the champion of a Big East whose B.C.S. status was the subject of much grumbling. If anything, at the time the program and the league were wedded, Louisville legitimized the Big East more than the Big East legitimized Louisville.

Did the Big East bring Louisville to the big time or did Louisville bring the big time back to the Big East? (Photograph from Sports Illustrated.)

Still, it is a fair point that the stakes are higher for the Cardinals now that they are in a B.C.S. conference, in spite of the fact that B.C.S. bowl games are now open to a wider array of participants. If all of these offensive masterminds have put their mid-major schools in a position "to become big boys themselves," though, why do they seem so disinclined to stay put at the programs they have guided to the purported forefront?

Dan Hawkins won praise for directing a high-octane offensive onslaught at Boise State, enabling the Broncos to go 53-11 and win four W.A.C. championships during his five-year tenure on the blue turf. (His innovative offensive scheme also lit up the scoreboard with such dizzying tallies as 13 points against South Carolina in 2001, 14 points against Arkansas in 2002, and 13 points against Georgia in 2005, but, really, that's beside the point.)

Having built a winner at B.S.U., Coach Hawkins was offered the opportunity to take over a scandal-riddled Colorado team that ended the season on a four-game skid during which the Buffaloes were outscored by a grand total of 149-32 . . . and Hawk was on the first plane to Boulder.

Urban Meyer built his reputation as an offensive wizard at Bowling Green and Utah. He led the Utes to an undefeated season and a Fiesta Bowl victory that legitimized non-B.C.S. leagues from coast to coast . . . but, when a Florida program five years removed from its last conference championship game appearance came calling, Coach Meyer bolted for the S.E.C., even though the Gators were not among the several teams for whom he already had "outs" written into his Utah contract.

Raise your hand if you're willing to come up with the cash to buy out your contract if it means getting to coach in a B.C.S. conference.

The same holds true for newly-legitimized Louisville, whose last coach (John L. Smith) had one foot already out the door while the Cardinals were getting creamed in the 2002 G.M.A.C. Bowl and whose current coach (Bobby Petrino) has allowed himself to become a candidate for so many other jobs that U. of L. had to sign him to a long-term contract that virtually no one believes he will fulfill.

Even W.V.U. alum Rich Rodriguez, who has put the Mountaineers into the national title conversation, has been the subject of rumors tying him to the Florida State job when Bobby Bowden retires. If "former lightweight" programs really have become "big boys" due to advanced offensive schemes, why do the architects of these ingenious innovations keep bolting for big-name programs at the earliest opportunity?

I hope my lengthy critique of Paragon SC's position will not come across as overly harsh, particularly since he has been gracious in commenting upon my exhortations against Auburn . . . and my further exhortations against Auburn. These, though, are the questions that arose in my mind when I read his recent points (and, particularly, those points cited by the Paragon which had been raised by others in postings elsewhere with which I otherwise was, and am, unfamiliar) and I felt inclined to raise these questions for the sake of furthering an important debate.

I would encourage all Dawg Sports readers to visit Conquest Chronicles and give Paragon SC's article on the subject a full perusal. As always, I hope you will feel free to offer your thoughts upon this issue---both at my site and at the Paragon's---in the comments and in the diaries.

Go 'Dawgs!