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The Daily Cardinal Est. 1892
Thursday, June 08, 2023
Matt Masterson

Column: Defensive presence waning in modern college football

Defense wins championships. This antiquated cliché and go-to slogan for mediocre sports commentators is believed to still be relevant in today’s NCAA, but if you watched any college football last weekend, you saw that offense has taken over.

The headliner for the recent offensive explosion was without doubt the West Virginia-Baylor track meet Saturday. The two teams combined for over 1,500 total yards, 13 passing touchdowns, two different 300-yard receivers and (a partridge in a pear tree) 133 total points.

The No. 9 Mountaineers and No. 25 Bears made headlines around the country, but their game was not the only case of dominant offenses manhandling under-equipped defenses.

No. 12 Texas and Oklahoma State combined for over 1,000 yards and 77 points. Miami quarterback Stephen Morris threw for a team- and ACC-record 566 yards against N.C. State. No. 5 Georgia and Tennessee put up 95 total points (fifth-most in SEC history) and 1,038 total yards.

Yes, even the SEC, a conference  defined by dominant defenses and 10-7 final scores, joined the wave of offense.

Don’t just look at this past weekend, either. Let’s turn the page back to 2011 and look at the offensive records that were set.

Wisconsin’s Russell Wilson and Heisman-winning Baylor quarterback Robert Griffin III finished with the two highest quarterback ratings in NCAA history. Badger running back Montee Ball tied Barry Sanders’ all-time record for touchdowns in a single season with 39.

Quarterback Case Keenum closed out his prolific career in Houston, passing for 19,217 yards—over 2,000 more than anyone else has ever thrown. Boise State’s Kellen Moore also finished fifth on that same list after 2011.

This season, West Virginia quarterback Geno Smith has already passed for 1,728 yards and 20 touchdowns (with no interceptions) in just four games.

With those numbers he is on pace to not only shatter Wilson’s quarterback rating record, but also throw for over 5,600 yards and 60 touchdowns.

The obvious retort that could be made against my argument is that Alabama—the team with arguably the best defense in college football—has won two of the last three national championships. So defense must not be dead, right?

As ESPN’s Lee Corso might say: Not so fast, my friend.

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Yes, the 2009 and 2011 versions of the Crimson Tide featured defenses that were littered with future first-round draft picks and NFL stars, but they also had powerful offenses that helped carry Alabama to the Promised Land.

The Crimson Tide had three 2011 NFL first-rounders from their 2009 championship team: Heisman-winning running back Mark Ingram, wide receiver Julio Jones and offensive lineman James Carpenter. Trent Richardson, Ingram’s replacement, was the third overall pick in the 2012 draft.

Alabama has had plenty of help on the offensive side of the ball. A more appropriate example of a team that relies solely on its defense to win games would be the LSU Tigers.

Last season, LSU’s leading passer had just 1,306 yards, and its top runner gained a scant 756 yards. The Tigers relied on one of the most suffocating defenses in the country to abuse opposing offenses and waited for their offense to make one or two scoring strikes to seal up a victory.

Of course LSU ended up meeting Alabama in the title game last year, and its anemic offense failed miserably. The Tigers accounted for just 92 yards and zero points, while Alabama put up 384 yards en route to a 21-0 win.

Alabama may be on the road to another championship this season, but they would be on that path without quarterback AJ McCarron and running back Eddie Lacy.

In the current AP poll, each of the top-five teams is in the top 25 for points scored. Three of the top-five teams (Oregon, Florida State and Georgia) are in the top 10 in this category. Those same three teams are also in the top 10 for total yards gained.

The football world has changed, so you had better get used to video game-like stats and watching Bucky and the Oregon Duck do pushups until their arms fall off.

Defense wins championships? Hardly.

Which side of the ball do you think is more important in today’s college football game? Are the recent offensive trends here to stay? Email Matt at sports@dailycardinal.com.

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