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Mike Gundy, Lincoln Riley Say Defense is on the Rise in the Big 12, but Is It?

Here’s what the numbers say.



Are Big 12 defenses getting better or is the conference just experiencing a down year on offense?

While scouting for Bedlam #content behind enemy lines, I came across Lincoln Riley’s weekly press conference and something interesting that he said about the Big 12, its defenses and a widely-held sentiment that he says “ain’t true.”

“I do think people that know football, if they take a true look at what a lot of these defenses in this league are doing right now, they’re gonna see really, really quality defenses,” said Riley. “Quality coordinators.”

“You can just feel it. I just feel like everybody’s a little bit better defensively than it’s been, it just seems. Challenges are there, scoring’s a little bit down. I think across the conference there’s been way more low-scoring games and I still see a lot of offensive firepower.”

It’s something I’ve thought about lately and it reminded me of a tweet from our pal Adam Lunt from last weekend.

Riley did mention the QB turnover this season, but still thinks there is plenty of firepower in the league.

“I just think that there’s more teams playing really good, quality defense,” said Riley. “You just kind of feel that as a whole right now. These things always go in spurts. There’s always trends… I know what I see on tape and week-in, week-out. It’s a lot of good defenses in this league.”

Mike Gundy swooned after his team’s 20-13 win in Morgantown, saying it reminded him of “real football.”

“The league’s been different this year,” said Gundy on Monday. “The game’s haven’t been played as fast across the board. Defenses have rallied and played better for the most part.”

All of this got me thinking. Are scoring numbers in the conference really down? Has the Big 12 made the shift to a more prolific defensive conference? Was Riley just posturing to support Oklahoma’s CFP case?

“People are going to argue that on the outside no matter what happens,” continued Riley. “I know this league. I’ve been in it for a long time and two things right now really stand out.

“There’s a lot of quality defenses in this league, more than we’ve had in a long, long time and then I think the parity, the difference between top and bottom… Everybody’s pretty good and everybody’s capable of beating everybody more than maybe at any point than I can remember which tells you that this league is healthy and extremely, extremely competitive right now.”

Okay, he’s definitely posturing for OU’s Final Four case, but I’ve got no problem with it. Plus, he’s right.

First off, I looked at the scoring. I, like Lunt, Riley and Gundy, have noticed a trend of Big Ten-like scoreboards this fall. So I ran the numbers to see if Big 12 teams are actually scoring less than in recent years.

Here’s a look at the scoring offense and defense for Big 12 teams, on average, through 11 games compared to the previous four years.

Big 12 Seasons Scoring Avg. Scoring Def.
2019 32.29 26.72
2018 32.31 28.31
2017 32.93 28.32
2016 33.59 30.08
2015 35.19 31.57

I was a little surprised to find that teams in the Big 12 are scoring at just a negligible tick lower than last year. I had to move the decimal point over an extra space to differentiate between 2019 and 2018.

These raw numbers include nonconference and bowl games over the last five years and show that while Big 12 teams, on average, aren’t really scoring that many fewer points, the conference’s defenses have become more stingy.

An aside: For all the bickering between Power 5 conferences about each other’s strengths and weaknesses, how is there not an up-to-date database on per-conference stats?

More Parity, Less Greatness

While Big 12 teams are scoring practically as much as they have been in recent years, there is a dearth of elite offenses in the league, which probably adds to that parity that Riley mentioned.

The difference is that, this year, some of those offenses that are routinely very good or elite, are a lot closer to avruj.

To illustrate this we have to look to our beloved points per drive stats, courtesy of They’re doing the Lord’s work over there.

Oklahoma has been doing its job, currently fourth nationally in offensive points per drive, but that’s the only Big 12 offense in the top 20. Iowa State comes in ranked 22nd and Texas is 28th. The next highest is OSU at 41.

Last year, the league had three teams in the top 20 in OU (1st), West Virginia (12th) and Oklahoma State (18th). OSU took a step back, while WVU is reeling this year, currently ranked 111th.

Here’s a look at all 10 Big 12 offenses against their ranking from last year.

Offensive PPD
Teams Rank (2018 Rank) PPD
Oklahoma 4 (1) ⬇ 3.86
Iowa State 22 (58) ⬆ 2.83
Texas 28 (29) ⬆ 2.67
Oklahoma State 41 (18) ⬇ 2.54
Baylor 42 (47) ⬆ 2.54
Kansas State 49 (72) ⬆ 2.47
Texas Tech 59 (37) ⬇ 2.33
TCU 63 (117) ⬆ 2.28
Kansas 91 (107) ⬆ 1.86
West Virginia 111 (12) ⬇ 1.54

The Cowboys had become quite comfortable in the top 25 nationally in PPD over that last few years, but their current rank of 41st (2.54 points per drive) is on pace for their lowest mark since 2014, an ugly 1.82. Fortunately, the Cowboys defense is picking up some of the slack. OSU’s 1.99 points per drive allowed is 43rd in the country and OSU’s best number since 2013.

Here’s a look at this year’s defensive PPD numbers so far and where each defense ranked at the end of 2018.

Defensive PPD
Teams Rank (2018 Rank) PPD
Baylor 14 (106) ⬆ 1.44
Kansas State 41 (73) ⬆ 1.95
Oklahoma State 43 (97) ⬆ 1.99
Iowa State 46 (30) ⬇ 2.02
TCU 50 (31) ⬇ 2.09
Texas Tech 66 (95) ⬆ 2.27
Texas 69 (67) ⬇ 2.31
Oklahoma 70 (112) ⬆ 2.32
West Virginia 95 (68) ⬇ 2.68
Kansas 118 (88) ⬇ 3.01

Based on these two charts, more teams improved their standing on offense (six) than on defense (five), but the difference in a few of those defenses was dramatic. The difference in offensive improvement by teams like Texas, Baylor and Kansas? Not so much. For example: two teams jumped 25 rankings on offense. Five (!) have done so on the defensive side.

First off, my gosh, Baylor. Jerry Jones might lock both Matt Rhule and Lincoln Riley in his private suite after the Big 12 title game until one of them takes the head coaching gig in Dallas.

Baylor, Oklahoma State and Oklahoma made the biggest positive jumps in PPD allowed with Iowa State and TCU taking a step backward. Any way you slice it, it’s been a rough year in Morgantown.

There are plenty of other ways to rank offenses and defenses, but PPD is the most straightforward, and it gives us an answer to our original question. I wouldn’t expect a 10-6 Bedlam final score, but it’s safe to say that defense are getting stronger in flyover country.

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