’86 Oklahoma, ’88 Auburn, still the defensive standards

On the solid Rocker we stand, all other D's were sinking sand.

We can all agree that the team Alabama put on the field this football season was an impressive one. They mauled everyone they faced (hooray for second chances!) and did it mostly on the strength of a scary good defense. Quantifying such a defense is one of the joys of the off season, when there are no distracting Tulsa-Toledo games on Tuesday night you can really dive into the stats.

People are doing that, and the results in numbers are every bit as impressive as the Tide were on the field. The defense was such a force that even our frenemies at Roll Bama Roll magnanimously gave a nod to one of Auburn’s best defenses ever: “To find a team that gave up fewer points per game than this Alabama squad you have to go back to the 1988 Auburn squad that allowed just 7.67 points per game.”

Kleph studied how Bama stacked up against the competition, digging through dusty old databases and figured up points per game. He did yeoman’s work studying the scoring defense numbers. (It is a fine post and I commend it in full to those who appreciate defense.) but there are, of course, always more layers in the numbers.

Because defenses do not live in a vacuum we wanted to take this one step further.

Lies, Damned Lies, Statistics

Give someone long enough and they can make any numbers look good. Run enough regressions, ANOVAs, Chi-squares, Pearson product-moment correlation coefficients, Spearman’s rank correlation coefficient and you can convince your data to sing you a song. We’re just going to play with a few simple averages, though, and apologize for it below. But the thinking is this: comparing defenses is a great off-season diversion, but it is a fruitless exercise. Simply put, things change all the time in the game. The numbers are a constant source of comfort to those that fear change, but they’re moving around, too.

Offensive styles change. Rules change. Athletes, schemes, jersey technologies, they all have been in flux. Steve Spurrier has so much as admitted that the reason he was successful at Florida in those early years was because he was willing to throw the ball all over Gainesville when seemingly everyone else had forgotten how.

So with that in mind, let’s compare three great defenses: ’86 Oklahoma, ’88 Auburn and ’11 Alabama. First you’ll see their schedules, the outcomes and a few notes on the opposing offenses. Below all that we’ll have a few crunched numbers and, finally, the limitations of this brief bit of research.

1986 Oklahoma, 11-1 under Barry Switzer:

W/L

PF

Opponent

PA

Opp PPG

Opp Nat’l Rank PPG

W 38 UCLA 3 32.1  8th
W 63 Minnesota 0 21.8  61st
L 16 Miami (FL) 28 35.8  3rd
W 56 Kansas St. 10 12.2  102nd
W 47 Texas 12 20.8  66th
W 19 Oklahoma St. 0 16.5  93rd
W 38 Iowa St. 0 23.4  51st
W 64 Kansas 3 10.2  104th
W 77 Missouri 0 17.8  83rd
W 28 Colorado 0 20.2  70th
W 20 Nebraska 17 37.2  2nd
W 42 Arkansas 8 25.9 29th

1988 Auburn, 10-2 under Pat Dye:

W/L

PF

Opponent

PA

Opp PPG

Opp Nat’l Rank PPG

W 20 Kentucky 10 19.7  72nd
W 56 Kansas 7 17.2  90th
W 38 Tennessee 6 19.3  76th
W 47 North Carolina 21 19.7  73rd
L 6 LSU 7 20.8  66th
W 42 Akron (OH) 0 21.2  62nd
W 33 Mississippi State 0 15.6  96th
W 16 Florida 3 22.3  56th
W 38 So. Miss 8 29.4  24th
W 20 Georgia 10 29.8  20th
W 15 Alabama 10 26.4  34th
L 7 Florida State 13 37.9 5th

(Some guy named Mack Brown put up the most points on Auburn that year. North Carolina was 1-10 on the season.)

2011 Alabama, 12-1 under Nick Saban:

W/L

PF

Opponent

PA

Opp PPG

Opp Nat’l Rank PPG

W 48 Kent State 7 17.1  114th
W 27 Penn State 11 19.3  110th
W 41 North Texas 0 24.8  77th
W 38 Arkansas 14 36.8  15th
W 38 Florida 10 25.5  71st
W 34 Vanderbilt 0 26.7  61st
W 52 Ole Miss 7 16.1  116th
W 37 Tennessee 6 20.3  106th
L 6 LSU 9 35.7  17th
W 27 Mississippi State 7 25.3  25.3th
W 42 Auburn 14 25.7  70th
W 21 LSU 0 35.7  17th

On one hand, even without doing any math, you can see how the modern game puts Alabama’s defense in something of a bind when it comes to comparing statistics.

In 1986 35.8 ppg was good for 3rd in the nation. In 2011 35.7 ppg was merely 17th. Tennessee posted 19.3 ppg in their 1988 campaign, ranking 76th. Penn State had the same average in 2011, and their final rank was a disappoint 110th. Nebraska’s 37.2 ppg was one of the nation’s best in 1986. This year they’d merely find themselves in a shootout with Arkansas.

On the other hand, Oklahoma played two teams impotent enough to rank in the triple digits. Auburn had no such opponent in 1988. Alabama faced four even in a more offensively offensive era.

So, to the math then:

Simply taking the opponents ppg and dividing across the season, and then doing the same with those subsequent ppg ranks we see the best defense is … ’86 Oklahoma. But only barely.

As a collective, Oklahoma’s opponents in 1986 averaged 22.82 points per game. The average opponent PPG rank was 56. Auburn’s 1988 foes averaged 23.27 points per game that year, also lining up neatly with an average opponent PPG rank of 56. Alabama stared down teams scoring 25.75 points per game. But the average opponent PPG rank across the year was 70th.

Some notes on limitations: First, I did not include Georgia Southern in calculating Alabama’s numbers this year. Across these three championship-caliber teams that was the only non D-1 opponent. (Akron had just made the jump before visiting Jordan-Hare Stadium.) Other things we can’t know include how many of those points scored against Oklahoma or Auburn were against their defenses. How many special teams points were put up against them? Were there pick-sixes? Fumble returns? How often did these defenses line up on a short field? What about situational statistics like garbage time? This depth of data entry hasn’t made it into the online records, but they would figure into a truly rigorous examination.

Ultimately we’re talking about less than three points per game across a quarter of a century of football which should perhaps include the 2011 Alabama defense in this conversation. Sure, Oklahoma and Auburn line up better in the numbers here, but Alabama’s defense is pretty close. Without trying to control for the productivity of offensive improvement in the intervening years their effort is still subjectively sound. Less than three points. One good field goal mitigates the difference.

It always comes down to field goals.

Source material:

Oklahoma’s CFBDatawarehouse
Auburn’s CFBDatawarehouse
Alabama’s CFBDatawarehouse
1988 SEC summary
Various PPG and ranks across the years, via Sports-Reference

Kenny graduated from Auburn at the turn of the century. He worked in newsrooms across the region and then earned a master’s degree at UAB. He met and married a Yankee, who declared her Auburn allegiance at her first home game. She’s now on the faculty at Auburn. He’s finishing his PhD at Alabama and teaches at Samford University. See him online at www.kennysmith.org and @kennysmith.

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