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Oklahoma State Defense: Why Total Defense is a Horrible Way to Evaluate Them

Every week I have a discussion with fans of future Oklahoma State opponents, friends on twitter/facebook/adult friend finder, and writers from whichever SBN blog represents the team the Cowboys are matched up against that week, and every week I get this one same question over-and-over. The answer to that question is "8 inches", but then there is a second question I always get that is something along the lines of:

So, Oklahoma State has the 100-and-whatever ranked defense in the country, what can they do to improve on that side of that ball and can they stop my team this week?

And every week I give some version of the same answer.

Actually, Oklahoma State has a good to possibly very-good defense, it just can't be evaluated with any statistical measure that doesn't account for tempo.

There really are a lot more reasons that total defense is an awful, awful stat (garbage time, yards don't necessarily equal points, doesn't account for field position, etc), but as it pertains to Oklahoma State, the main variable that skews it is that it does not account for the frantic pace the Cowboys play at. The reasons for this are:

  1. The Oklahoma State offense averages the most plays per game of any team in the nation at 86.
  2. Oklahoma State accomplishes this while only being ranked 63rd in the nation in Time of Possession at 29:35 per game.

Compare those stats to say the LSU offense which runs 20 fewer plays per game, yet holds on to the ball for over 4 more minutes per game. If you extend those stats throughout the season, Oklahoma State's defense ends up being on the field for almost two full extra games of playing time per season as compared to the Oklahoma State defense, while the OSU offense runs about 3 more games worth of plays.

Obviously the TOP matters as it is easy to imagine any teams total stats being skewed by two full extra games being played and not being accounted for in yards/game, but the plays per game can have an effect as well since tempo begets tempo. Oklahoma State's offense playing at a furious pace forces opposing offenses to speed up their attack if they are to have any hope of keeping up. This is evident if you break the opposing offenses down to a play per minute level. On the season, the Oklahoma State defense has faced the 7th fastest pace of play as opposing offenses have operated at 2.54 plays per minute against them. Another interesting stat is the 3 of the 6 teams in front of Oklahoma State in that category are Oklahoma State opponents Kansas, A&M, and ULL who no doubt have had their stats skewed by their matchup with the Pokes.

Alright, that is why all this matters, and why total defense is just an awful way to evaluate a defense's performance, so how should we evaluate the Oklahoma State defense? Personally, I am good with about anything that takes pace-of-play into account by breaking stats down to a per play level. You can really do this with any stat. Take your precious total defense stat and just divide the yards by the total number of plays the defense has been on the field for. In this statistical category the Pokes rank 71st in the nation. Still not dominating the NCAA or anything, but not bringing up the rear either. However, total yards, even at a per play level, still don't tell the whole story as they still don't account for field position, down and distance, garbage time, and points. My preference would be to not reinvent the wheel and just turn to football outsiders and use their S&P+ Defensive Ratings which take into account every play, assign thresholds of what would be considered a good performance by the defense on that play, then roll it up for the season. In this measure the Pokes defense ranks #9 in the nation.

So use whatever you want, just stop discussing where the Pokes rank in total defense. It is a fairly misleading stat in general, and when applied to a team that plays at this kind of a pace it paints a completely false picture of what is really being accomplishing out there.... much like my 8 inches.