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Does Oregon's Defense Deserve Respect?

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A recent split has erupted in the blogosphere, as Ohio State and Oregon fans debate the legitimacy of the Duck's defense.  As Addicted to Quack describes:

If you've spent two seconds perusing any Ohio State Buckeyes blogs, you'll have no doubt read about the poor Oregon defense. This has been quite infuriating, simply because the analysis provided has been woefully ignorant.

The post goes on to explain how totals (yards, time of possession, points) aren't good indicators of what Oregon is capable of because the Duck's expedited pace of play results in more action on both sides of the ball.  To some extent that makes sense: the faster an offense drives down the field the faster the opposing offense gets the ball back, and -- over the course of four quarters -- the more downs a defense is forced to defend.  ATQ points out that over the season Oregon's defense saw 864 snaps compared to Ohio State's 773.  Adjusting for this difference, ATQ points to a model that ranks Oregon 15th in the country in total defense, and 10th in the country in rushing defense.

Of course it's important to adjust statistical comparisons between unrelated subjects for inconsistent variables, and so ATQ's analysis should be given a good amount of weight by Buckeye fans.  But equally important in critical inquiry is the old German addage: "What happened once, may well have never happened at all."  What do I mean by this?  Well, a result that can't be duplicated using multiple methods is less reliable than a result that can be confirmed on independent grounds.

With that in mind, let's try another method that takes into account both Oregon's pace of play, and competition to see if ATQ's conclusion that the Duck's deserve more respect is a good one.

Adjusted to reflect the quality of opponents, and number of snaps, Ohio State's defense is allowing 26.9% less points per game than Oregon's defense.  Coming into the Rose Bowl Oregon is scoring 8.4 more points a game than Ohio State on average (29.3 points versus 37.7 points).  Adjusting these figures to reflect Ohio State's defensive advantage (e.g. the 26.9 percent scoring differential), the Buckeyes have a 2 point advantage on paper heading into the game.

The goal here is to take the average points per game the two defenses allowed -- a commonly used metric -- and adjust it to reflect the quality of the offenses each team faced, and Oregon's expedited pace of play.  The updated numbers should give us a good idea of how the defenses that will take the field January 1st stack up.

Raw Points Allowed

Oregon

Ohio State

23.6 Points Per Game

12.2 Points Per Game

It's no surprise that the Buckeyes look dominant out of the gate.  But Oregon fans protest that these raw numbers are less about Ohio State's defensive strength, and more about the Big Ten's offensive weaknesses.  So, let's adjust them to reflect the quality of attacks each team faced.  To do this, we need the average national rank of each opponent's offense. For Oregon that's:

Boise State (8), Purdue (53), Utah (54), California (46), Washington State (119), UCLA (88), Washington (63), USC (58), Stanford (13), Arizona State (91), Arizona (40), and Oregon State (29).

And Ohio State:

Navy (83), USC (58), Toledo (16), Illinois (50), Indiana (70), Wisconsin (34), Purdue (53), Minnesota (113), New Mexico State (120), Penn State (36), Iowa (93), Michigan (59).

Added up and divided out that gives us the following:

Average Rank of Opposing Offenses

Oregon

Ohio State

55.1 Nationally

65.4 Nationally

There are two things worth pointing out at this point.  First, it's undeniable that Oregon's defense has faced a significantly stronger slate of opponents -- and any numbers used to compare it to Ohio State's defense should be updated to reflect this fact.  Second, this model is only designed to account for first-order results (e.g. each opponent's national rank in total offense).  If we wanted to be even more accurate, we could look at the defenses each opponent faced and use that metric to adjust their offense in kind.  In other words, Boise State's top ten national offensive rank may look less impressive if updated to take into account the overall quality of defenses Boise faced in WAC play.

I mention this for the sake of anticipating a possible criticism of my model.  For our purposes, we'll assume that any variance in each opponent's total offensive rank, is offset by the large sample size (12 teams) across multiple conferences.  I digress...

The next step is to update the raw points allowed to account for the quality of offenses each team faced.  To do this, we'll take the difference between average ranks (e.g. 65.4 - 55.1 = 10.3), and divide it by the total number of teams in the FBS (120).  The resulting number (8.57) is the percentage difference between the quality of offenses each team faced.  In other words, Oregon's defense faced offenses that on the whole were 8.57 percent better than the offenses Ohio State's defense faced.

Let's adjust the total points allowed to reflect that fact:

Points Allowed (Adjusted to Reflect Quality of Opponents)

Oregon

Ohio State

21.6 Points Per Game

13.2 Points Per Game

Because it faced better offenses Oregon's average goes down 8.57 percent, while Ohio State's goes up by the same amount.  Clearly, this doesn't make as dramatic of a difference as one might expect, since there's still more than a touchdown difference between the two defenses.

But what about ATQ's argument that you have to account for the fact that Oregon's defense saw more snaps (864 snaps compared to Ohio State's 773 snaps, to be exact)?  Let's update the figures to add this variable.  Oregon's defense saw 8.9 percent more plays than Ohio State's.

Because it saw more snaps Oregon's average goes down 8.9 percent, while Ohio State's goes up by the same amount.

Points Allowed (Adjusted to Reflect Quality of Opponents & Number of Snaps)  

Oregon

Ohio State

19.7 Points Per Game

14.4 Points Per Game

There you have it.  Even when the totals are updated to reflect the quality of opponents and number of snaps each defense faced, the Ohio State defense still allowed 5.3 less points per game than Oregon's defense

But before you throw the confetti in the air, remember, that doesn't necessarily discredit ATQ's point that Oregon's defense deserves more respect.  ATQ freely concedes that Oregon's defense isn't as good as Ohio State's.  Their point was that "it's a lot closer than any Buckeye fan is willing to admit."

Our results show that there's some truth to that conclusion, although I might rephrase it as follows:

Adjusted to reflect the quality of opponents, and number of snaps, Ohio State's defense is allowing 26.9% less points per game than Oregon's defense.  Coming into the Rose Bowl Oregon is scoring 8.4 more points a game than Ohio State on average (29.3 points versus 37.7 points).  Adjusting these figures to reflect Ohio State's defensive advantage (e.g. the 26.9 percent scoring differential), the Buckeyes have a 2 point advantage on paper heading into the game.

Although remember, this conclusion is slightly imbalanced, because I'm using updated figures on the defensive side (e.g. the ones we ran through our model), and raw figures on the offensive side (e.g. unadjusted to account for the quality of defenses the Oregon offense and Ohio State offense faced).  Even if we updated this second part of the equation there's still the problem of only using first-order results.

The bottom line is that you can use numbers to say almost anything you want to.  The point of this exercise was to respond to ATQ's contention that the analysis used by Buckeyes fans was "woefully ignorant."