Three & Out: Shiny Objects, Boring Defense, and Fickle Voters

Penn State swarms all over Trent Richardson, against Alabama, Sept. 10, 2011. (Mike Pettigano/BSD)

Last night I starting thinking about why Penn State is ranked No. 19, when most other major teams with one loss are ranked higher. In today's Three & Out (formerly "Three Things"), I'll touch on a few thoughts I have as to how this may pass for acceptable within the college football poll voters. Usually I like to cover three unique topics in these posts, but today is three points within a larger theme.

Ooooooooooo! Ahhhhhhhhh! Penn State fans know that voters value a great offense all the time, but only value a great defense when your team doesn't have one. This was on full display in 1994, when the Nittany Lions had one of the top offenses in the history of college football, yet were constantly dogged by media and detractors as lacking a comparably-elite defense to shut down opponents as easily as PSU lit them up. I'll get to the defense thing in a sec. But look at some teams this season that have excellent offenses, yet mediocre defenses that are swept under the carpet by many pundits and voters, followed by Penn State's defense-first approach:

(BCS) Team Scoring Off. Nat'l Scoring Def. Nat'l Delta
(3) Oklahoma St. 2 65 (-63)
(5) Clemson 12 51 (-39)
(14) Nebraska 20 54 (-34)
(16) Texas A&M 13 57 (-44)
(17) Houston 1 43 (-42)
(25) West Va. 18 57 (-39)
(BCS) Team Scoring Def. Nat'l Scoring Off. Nat'l Delta
(19) Penn St. 5 89 (-84)

Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying Penn State deserves to be in the top 10 of the BCS right now. However, it's quite clear that the voters do not value a dominant defense in the same way they value a dominant offense. Penn State is the lowest one-loss BCS team in the rankings this week. Michigan, which lost to Michigan State by 14, is one spot ahead of PSU. Texas A&M, which actually has TWO losses so far, is ahead of Penn State, as is a Nebraska team that gave up 27 points at home to Ohio State (88th on Offense), 29 to Fresno at home, and 38 to Washington at home.

Of those teams in the chart, Oklahoma State and Clemson are in the best position for a BCS Championship Game appearance. But you know what? They have no shot in hell to get there. Why? Because you don't reach national championship games without great defenses. Sooner or later, the Pokes are going to have an off day on offense, throw a few picks, fumbles the ball, and not have the defense to compensate. Same with Clemson.

It's Cliche, but So Right. How many national champions have been offense-heavy teams with only mediocre defenses? Not many. How many have won the crystal football with unbelievable defenses, but only mediocre offenses? Well, I could name one for sure--1986 PSU--as well as 1997 Michigan, nearly every Alabama national championship, Ohio State 2002, LSU 2003, and so on.

This isn't to say that defense-first teams win championships with regularity. The vast majority of champions have won with a balanced team on both sides of the ball. But what you do not see are teams with high-flying offenses, with shaky defenses, taking home anything more than a conference title. Maybe it's easier to build a strong offense, rather than a strong defense. We've seen it in the non-AQ conferences like C-USA and the WAC, where teams light up the scoreboard, but can't really shut down an opponent when it's absolutely necessary.

It's kind of odd that defenses aren't given more weight when evaluating a team. When you think about it, more can go wrong on offense than on defense. That's my "off day" theory. On defense, it's rare that all the pressure falls on one or even two players to make the perfect play. Even a missed tackle here and there, it's likely there will be three or four other defenders right there (on a well-coached defense, such as PSU) to assist and make the stop. But on offense, if the quarterback doesn't make the right read, or the receiver drops the pass, or the running back fumbles the ball, that's it. There's not a second quarterback on the field to make an "I got it" play, or a second receiver right there to catch the dropped pass.

This is why Penn State, when push comes to shove, is actually better off having a dominant defense this season than a decent offense with only a decent defense. Dominant defenses rarely have fluky, "off" days. Offenses, however, tend to be set up for failure. Without perfection in almost every facet of the game, offenses make a ton more mistakes during the course of a game than the defenses do. Darrell Royal famously said that when you pass the ball, three things can happen, and "two of them are bad." Extrapolate that idea to the offense/defense discussion here, and Royal makes so much sense it's not even funny.

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According to voters, Penn State needs more of this if it wants a higher ranking.

But It's Not Fun to Watch Penn State. Offensive football teams score enough points to win the games, and no one complains. The perfect example is in the chart up at the top of this post. Oklahoma State and Texas A&M played, with OSU winning 30-29. It was lauded as a great game, the always-fun "shootout." But you know what could have prevented either team from coming so close to victory or defeat? A defense that wasn't an afterthought. What if Texas A&M had Penn State's defense? Would the Aggies have won? Probably, since the final margin was so close anyway. Then flip that idea. What if OSU had Penn State's defense? Whoa, suddenly we're looking at a likely blowout in the Pokes' favor. See the difference between having a good defense or not?

Now let's apply the "score enough to win" idea, but reversed for a defensive football team like Penn State. Why is it okay with the voters for a team to score enough points each week to win the game, but it's not okay for a team to hold the other team to few enough points to win the game? It's really no different in my estimation, but that's not how the voters see it. Penn State beat Temple, Indiana, Iowa, and Purdue by allowing an average score of 17-10. And even though that's all Penn State needed to do to win the game, those wins are viewed unfavorably by the voters, media and fans, simply because the "wrong" side of the team wasn't playing well.

How do I know that Penn State is being held to a different standard than its higher-ranked counterparts in the BCS rankings? Because of all the one-loss teams, Penn State is ranked well below the average for squads with that kind of season record. Michigan is one spot ahead of PSU at 6-1, but the Wolverines lost by two touchdowns to Michigan State. I'm pretty sure losing to Alabama by 16 isn't the same as losing to MSU by 14. And my god, two-loss Texas A&M is ranked ahead of Penn State. Virginia Tech, which got blown away 23-3 by Clemson in Lane Stadium, is ranked a full seven spots ahead of Penn State.

Why? Because Penn State is on TV, but to the average fan or media pundit, they're not very much fun to watch.

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