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Ballot Check: The Defenses of Penn State, Texas, and Texas Tech

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My friend and colleague over at SB Nation's outstanding Penn State blog Black Shoe Diaries has submitted his Week 10 draft Blog Poll ballot, ranking Penn State #1, followed by Texas Tech, Alabama, Florida, Southern Cal, Texas, Oklahoma, and Oklahoma State. As Blog Poll voters are strongly encouraged to do, BSD provides the reasoning behind the balloting. First, his disregard for the Big 12:

I have to put Texas Tech in the #2 spot based on their win over Texas. But honestly, I'm not as impressed with the Big XII as the rest of the country is. Sure, they have some great quarterbacks and great offenses, but their defenses are terrible. I watched the Texas-TT game last night and by the third quarter you could tell whoever got the ball last was going to win. I saw missed tackles, poor pursuit angles, and just overall poor defense. I can't see Texas Tech going undefeated.

Billyzane has already addressed another version of the "no Big 12 defense" line or argumentation, but even if I were merely of the opinion that the great offenses and playmakers in the Big 12 make the defenses look worse than they are, it's not facially invalid to point out that the conference's defenses fail to shut down the high-flying offenses they see on a weekly basis.

Where I struggle with BSD's reasoning, however, is with his explanation for Penn State at #1.

Penn State in my opinion has been the most solid team in all three phases of the game.  The defense has been stellar. Only Illinois scored more than 17 points on them. You can say, "Yeah big deal. Who have they played?" Perhaps a fair point, but look at teams like Oklahoma who have given up 26 points to Cincinnati, 35 points to Kansas State, and 28 points to Nebraska. Or Florida who have given up 31 points to Mississippi. Or even Texas Tech who gave up 24 points to Eastern Washington, 19 points to Nevada, 28 points to Kansas State, and 25 points to Texas A&M. At some point every team comes out flat and needs their defense to pull out a win. Penn State has a defense that can do that. Everyone thinks they are a boring low scoring team, but they forget that before we went to Columbus we were hanging 45 points on everyone. Put them in the Big XII and I honestly believe they would score 50 points per game. That's why they get my #1 vote.

To sum the argument, then:

  1. Big 12 offenses are better than they appear because the defenses are lousy.
  2. Penn State gets the nod at #1 because they can score on bad defenses and they feature a great defense.

The problem is that BSD isn't consistently applying the principle which animates his Big 12 skepticism. The truth is that (1) Penn State's defense has done a good job beating up a slate of weak offenses, and (2) if we control for quality, we get a significantly different picture than we would just looking at raw numbers. Consider the season stats, excluding non-Division 1 teams:

Penn State 2008

Season Natl Season Natl Vs PSU Vs PSU
Opponent Yds/Play Rank Pts/Gm Rank Yds/Play Delta Points Delta
Oregon St 6.0 26 34.6 22 4.7 -22% 14 -60%
Syracuse 4.9 90 17.7 112 2.7 -45% 13 -27%
Temple 4.2 114 16.8 116 2.3 -45% 3 -82%
Illinois 6.5 16 37.8 26 5.6 -14% 24 -37%
Purdue 5.0 84 20.3 93 4.0 -20% 6 -70%
Wisconsin 5.4 62 24.3 68 4.7 -13% 7 -71%
Michigan 4.5 106 18.9 102 4.3 -4% 17 -10%
Ohio State 5.1 79 24.6 67 4.9 -4% 6 -76%

Texas 2008

Season Natl Season Natl Vs TX Vs TX
Opponent Yds/Play Rank Pts/Gm Rank Yds/Play Delta Points Delta
FAU 5.5 57 18.1 109 4.7 -15% 10 -45%
UTEP 5.5 57 31.4 36 5.9 +7% 13 -59%
Rice 6.1 22 40.1 10 4.4 -28% 10 -82%
Arkansas 5.3 67 19.1 98 3.5 -34% 10 -75%
Colorado 4.2 114 18.6 105 4.0 -5% 14 -25%
Oklahoma 6.8 4 48.3 2 6.5 -4% 35 -28%
Missouri 7.5 2 47.4 4 5.8 -23% 31 -35%
Oklahoma St
7.0 5 43.6 6 6.5 -7% 24 -45%
Texas Tech
7.5 2 48.0 3 7.1 -5% 39 -19%

Texas Tech 2008

Season Natl Season Natl Vs TTU Vs TTU
Opponent Yds/Play Rank Pts/Gm Rank Yds/Play Delta Points Delta
Nevada 6.8 7 37.9 15 6.0 -12% 19 -50%
SMU 5.8 36 23.1 78 4.6 -21% 7 -70%
Kansas St 6.1 22 38.5 13 4.4 -28% 28 -27%
Nebraska 6.4 18 33.1 29 5.9 -8% 31 -6%
Texas A&M 5.6 51 27.3 50 4.9 -13% 25 -8%
Kansas 6.0 26 32.3 32 5.3 -12% 21 -15%
Texas 6.7 10 45.6 5 6.0 -10% 33 -28%

That's a lot of data, but with it the idea that the defenses of Texas and Texas Tech have been limping along is indefensible. Rather, though the Longhorns and Red Raiders have faced vastly superior offenses than has Penn State, they are consistently holding those offenses well below their normal averages, just as is Penn State.

The difference between the average opposing offenses is stark enough that any fan's attempt to note the Nittany Lions' defensive excellence should be met with a shrug. How much value is there in shutting down a schedule featuring the offenses of Syracuse, Temple, Michigan, and the like?

Average Opposing Offense, 2008

Points/Game Yards/Play
PSU Avg Opp 24.4 5.2
Texas Avg Opp 34.9 6.2
Tech Avg Opp 33.9 6.2

In the final analysis, has Penn State performed very well against a weak schedule? Without question. Do they have a better defense than Texas and/or Texas Tech? The Nittany Lions have performed so well against their schedule that they very well might, but it's simply disingenuous to summarily wave off the Longhorns and Red Raiders as Black Shoe Diaries has, when:

  1. The data shows both defenses holding opposing offenses significantly below their season averages, and
  2. The 'Horns and Red Raiders both have faced a slew of offenses that can actually move the ball and score points.

Given the same schedule, would Penn State's defense outperform that of Texas or Texas Tech? Who knows? All we know for sure is that Illinois--the cream of the crop on Penn State's schedule--managed 24 points and 5.6 yards per play, down from their season averages, but comparable to Texas and Texas Tech's performances against highly-ranked offenses.


Though there may be a plausible case to be made for ranking Penn State #1, Black Shoe Diaries stated justification for his rankings disappoints. It's a cynically dismissive take on the top Big 12 teams' defenses, supported by anecdotal stereotyping instead of analysis--as casual and unfair a treatment of the Big 12 as would be my ranking Penn State #5 for the sole reason that "You know, I'm not so sold on the Big 10 because their offenses suck."  There's more to Penn State than that, and there's more to Oklahoma State, Texas, Oklahoma, and Texas Tech than Black Shoe Diaries' balloting would have you believe.

Ranking Penn State #1, or Texas #6, is not outside the realm of reason. But a stronger case has to be made than that which BSD offers.