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Wait, was Auburn’s 2010 defense actually … you know … good?

They did have this guy. But still ...

So here I was last week, minding my own business, just sittin’ around, drinking coffee, reading MGoBlog and wondering what the hell Al Borges is going to do with a run-first-run-second weapon like Denard Robinson, la de da, when all of a sudden WHAM! there’s this …

Does I-form pro-style help you win in ways undefined by conventional statistics?

This is Brady Hoke’s theory when he denigrates the zone-heavy spread offense as an impediment to having a good defense. A quick glance at the top defenses in both conventional and fancy measures suggests this is unlikely. TCU, Boise State, and West Virginia  were the top three teams in yardage defense. WVU, Missouri, Oklahoma, Auburn, Oregon, and Mississippi State are all in the top ten in defensive FEI. There appears to be little if any problem with having a top defense opposite your spread ‘n’ shred offense as long as you account for the increased pace of the spread.

… and I’m picking myself up off the floor and gently prodding my throbbing, assaulted cerebellum. Auburn’s 2010 defense? Our Auburn? Not just “underrated” or “clutch” or–my personal preference–“not really that bad, honestly, once you adjust for all those huge negative plays they caused and the extra possessions and plays the Malzahn offense forces on them,” but legitimately one of the ten best defenses in all of college football last season? Is that what “defensive FEI” is supposed to measure?

I was fairly certain it was, knowing that overall FEI was one of Football Outsiders’ statistical, possession-and-schedule-strength more-or-less “power rankings.” And sure enough, its definition boils down to “the opponent-adjusted efficiency of the given team’s defense,” considering “each of the nearly 20,000 possessions every season in major college football.[to] … determine the baseline possession efficiency expectations against which each team is measured.”

And no, Brian was not exaggerating; using this measure, Auburn ranked sixth in the FBS, tops in the SEC. (The top five: West Virginia, Ohio State, Missouri, Oklahoma, Nebraska. Alabama was 16th.) Sixth. A statistical formula created by someone much smarter than you is, in fact, saying–and saying with gusto–yes, Auburn’s defense was that good last year.

This is the part where many in the reading audience will no doubt mentally respond with the old “lies, damned lies, etc.” saw, and even I have a hard time buying in fully enough to accept “sixth” with a straight face. There was the 26 points allowed to Arkansas Freaking State … the 34 allowed to Kentucky as Mike Hartline suddenly started doing a “better Tim Couch” impression  … the two quarters-plus of total evisceration at the hands of Tyler Wilson … the 31 points yielded to the same Georgia team that would score 6 against UCF.

I’m as big a believer in the fact-ness of (quality) stats as you’ll find—I’m the guy who ran the Pythagorean numbers for Auburn baseball back in 2010, remember—and there’s no question that between the number of possessions crammed into a game featuring Gus Malzahn and the Tigers’ rigorous strength-of-schedule, anyone who says “60th in total defense, they sucked LOL” should have their brain swapped with a catfish’s, just to see if there’s any difference. (For Science!) But even accounting for possessions and schedule, I don’t think that’s the overall resume of a unit that ought to rank among the 2010 TCU’s and even West Virginia’s of the world. The other rankings at Football Outsiders—the play-based (rather than drive-based) S&P ratings—agrees, ranking Auburn 36th.

But 36th is still a far cry from where many would have ranked Auburn’s defense, even after it gave up a grand total of 36 points over the final five halves of its season (to three of the better offenses in the country, no less). And if we average that with the FEI’s sixth, we still get a defense in the 10-20 range—across from that offense, the kind of defense we would have said was easily good enough to win a national title. And so they did.

It’s 2011 now, though, not 2010. What do we make of the information that last year’s defense was, in fact, legitimately terrific when nearly every member of that defense has moved on? I figure there’s good news and bad news:

The good: Ted Roof may just know what the hell he’s doing. Never mind the challenges of playing defense opposite (and practicing defense against) a Malzahn offense, particularly with a level of depth usually more closely associated with Michael Bay movies; Ted Roof won over precious few Auburn fans in 2009, and in the wake of the Arkansas debacle, I think it’s fair to say he’d lost even more. A show of hands from Tiger fans at that point no doubt would have forbidden him from a third year in the DC’s chair … and by a prohibitive margin, I’m thinking.

But since it’s amazing what holding the nation’s other most explosive offense to 19 points in the process of winning a national title can do for you, Roof’s job is once again entirely secure, even in the realm of public perception. Auburn fans seem happy to have him around, finally.

Given that we’re talking about him putting together one of the nation’s top 20-or-so defenses last year, though, maybe it’s time to take the enthusiasm level from “happy” to “downright pleased.” He had the force of nature that was Fairley, sure, and a lot of collective experience to draw on. But he also saw just two of that defense’s nine departed players drafted, one in the final round. Again: not the sort of talent you’d expect to produce results equal to LSU or better than, say, Texas.

Roof is probably never going to craft a lockdown pass defense—we’re talking about an entire career slanted towards stuffing the run and yielding passing yards by the bucket—but what he’s done at Auburn has, by and large, worked and worked well. (No, I don’t think finishing in the top 12 in both tackles-for-loss and sacks was entirely a product of having the Lombardi Award winner.) His defense may take a step back this fall due to the onslaught of youth and inexperience, but he’s more than earned the benefit of the doubt that it will be in the right hands nonetheless. And who knows? There’s enough talent here thanks to the last two recruiting classes that that step back might not happen at all. (Shifting Thorpe to safety seems like a step in the right direction already, no?)

The bad: Something’s been lost. The easy two-step answer to why Auburn would maintain its perch in the top 25 this season has been: 1. Defense won’t regress much because it wasn’t that great to begin with 2. Offense won’t regress much because Malzahn.

There’s still all the hope in the world for step No. 2. But if the players that made last year’s defense special were legitimately special themselves … doesn’t it stand to reason that Auburn’s lost something now that they’ve moved on? It’s easy to look at the talent on hand and think “oh, they could finish 60th again, if not better.” It’s a little more difficult to think of the 2010 Tigers as one of the nation’s top 20 units, then consider that Bynes and Clayton and Washington and Stevens and Etheridge and Carter and Savage and Blanc and McNeil and Goggans and Fairley have all departed … and still expect the defense to run in place (or come close to it).

In short: if we assume that last year’s defense really was a quality SEC defense underneath all the tempo-and-schedule white noise, then we have to assume that this year’s won’t be quite so quality. Correct?

But, again, that’s what Ted Roof (and, oh yeah, that Gene Chizik guy I hear knows a thing or two about defense) are for. Yes, I think we as Auburn fans could spend a little more energy mourning the losses of the rank-and-file non-first-round-draft-choice defenders who just won us a national championship, and expecting a little more of a drop-off than we seem to be expecting. But it’s also far from being time to panic; with the same people in charge who were in charge for last year’s secretly successful defense, there’s plenty of hope all the same.

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