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How Good Is The Best Defense Of All Time, Really? [And Penn State's Too]

It is very much unlike ESPN to exaggerate or talk in absolutes, so I was especially taken back when they starting discussing the 2008 USC team as possibly one of the best defensive teams of all time.


And so I was obviously compelled to pull the numbers.  As always, we stress context, context, context.  Here are USC's opponents, their scoring and total offense rank nationally (out of 119 teams) and how each performed against TBDOAT:

Team Scoring Offense Total Offense vs USC
Arizona 16 33 10
Arizona St 84 100 0
Cal 28 49 3
Oregon 7 8 10
Oregon St 25 26 27
Stanford 55 68 23
UCLA 109 112 7
Washington 118 117 0
Washington St 119 119 0
Virginia 115 104 7
Ohio State 43 78 3
Notre Dame 67 65 3

And Penn State, who is no slouch on defense either:

Team Scoring Offense Total Offense vs PSU
Illinois 42 19 24
Indiana 96 72 7
Iowa 34 52 24
Michigan 98 109 17
Michigan St 56 67 18
Ohio State 43 78 6
Purdue 67 51 6
Wisconsin 48 36 7
Oregon State 25 26 14
Syracuse 100 115 13
Temple 82 106 3

[Remember that Penn State didn't play Minnesota (82/91) or Northwestern (74/62).  Also, I was forced to exclude Coastal Carolina as they really can't be compared to D1a programs and don't have a D1a rank.]

And a summary:

Team Scoring Avg (Oppt) Total Avg (Oppt) Defensive Avg (Score/Total)
Top 25 Faced (total) Bottom 25 Faced (total)
USC 65.5 73.3 7.8 / 206 1 5
PSU 63.6 66.5 12.4 / 264 1 3


Bullets?  Sure.

  • Of the 20 worst total offenses in D1a, these two teams played 8 of them.  That's going to skew things a little bit.
  • USC has three shutouts this season, all of them are against teams ranked in the bottom 20.
  • When you look at the average rank of opponents it looks like these teams played a similar slate of talent.  The somewhat subtle difference is that USC played more absolutely terrible teams, but then some decent ones.  PSU's opponents are less extreme.

So who's defense is the best of all time evah?  I hate even asking that questing because it doesn't make any sense and can't be determined anyway, but based on the level of competition each played (offensively, I mean), I think it is safe to say that neither one is completely out of this world.  Both have performed very well, but both have also faced a relatively weak slate; an average around 65 is nothing to print billboards about.  Each has also had a couple of breakdowns.

So who's defense is better?  We had to go here, didn't we?  Well, again, it impossible to say for sure, but there is this to consider:

USC's scoring and total averages are better, and the level of competition is somewhat similar.  However, I quickly went back through the box scores and came up with this non-scientific stat: each team has blown out a lot of their opponents and weren't playing their first team defenses the entire game.  I estimate (and am relatively confident in these numbers) that USC has given up 9 garbage points, Penn State 21.  That brings the average numbers a little closer together.

Again, I don't think there is anything here that you can use to distinguish these teams. 

So what does it all mean?  Well, I think the game hinges on which offense is able to keep themselves together.  As is usually the case when two great defenses face off: turnovers are a very important stat.  It's going to be difficult to overcome a negative turnover margin when you probably aren't going to be given very many chances.