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Posted: Wednesday October 22, 2008 12:28PM; Updated: Wednesday October 22, 2008 4:42PM
Stewart Mandel Stewart Mandel >
COLLEGE FOOTBALL MAILBAG

Big 12 offenses vs. SEC defenses, Meyer's NFL prospects and more

Story Highlights

The Big Ten really needs Penn State to beat Ohio State Saturday night

The ACC is easily the most difficult conference to figure out

A long-awaited Mailbag Crush update with our girl, Kaitlin Olson

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Colt McCoy
Texas' Colt McCoy headlines a stellar group of quarterbacks in the Big 12.
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Stewart Mandel's Mailbag
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It seems the annual "best conference debate" has taken on a fascinating dynamic this season. Nearly any reasonable observer would concede that two leagues, the Big 12 and SEC, have separated themselves from the pack. They might also agree that it's a near-impossible comparison to make because the conferences are marked by two radically different styles.

The simple question: Offense or defense? The more complicated question: How can you tell?

What is your take on the chicken/egg debate: Are the Big 12's offenses great because they are great, or because they get to play the Big 12 defenses? Are the SEC's defenses that good or is it because they face bad offenses?
-- Scott, Austin, Texas

Mediocre defenses have been the norm for the Big 12 for some time now. Up until about 2003, Oklahoma and Kansas State were consistently producing top 10 defenses, but ever since then the Sooners have been good but not great (as evidenced by their recent postseason showings) and the Wildcats have fallen off completely. Texas has struggled the past two years. And it's been a long time since either Nebraska's Blackshirts or Texas A&M's Wrecking Crew lived up to their histories.

There's no reason to believe that Big 12 defenses are any worse this year than in the past. If anything, several teams (Texas, Texas Tech, Oklahoma State) appear to have gotten better, albeit still not great. But clearly, the league has never had this many elite offenses at once. It's a perfect confluence of great quarterbacks and dangerous, no-huddle/spread schemes.

Look at it this way: Oklahoma, Texas and Texas Tech have all produced a series of prolific passers over the past decade, yet I would argue that all three currently have their best yet in Sam Bradford, Colt McCoy and Graham Harrell, respectively. (Note that I specifically said "passer," so as to differentiate McCoy from Vince Young, though by season's end we may well be calling McCoy the better quarterback.) Ditto Missouri (Chase Daniel), Kansas (Todd Reesing) and Oklahoma State (Zac Robinson).

Meanwhile, I think any reasonable person would agree that the SEC's top teams have better defenses than the Big 12's. I'm just not sure they're quite up to the level of recent seasons.

The SEC's dominant defenses of years past, like those of national champions LSU and Florida, were marked by suffocating defensive lines. The only teams I would say fall into that category this year are Alabama, Auburn (whose woeful offense renders it a non-factor) and LSU (whose line is fantastic but whose secondary is full of holes). The league's co-leaders in sacks are actually Kentucky and Vanderbilt. By the same token, how many SEC offenses truly scare you the way so many of those Big 12 teams do? I'd say only Florida's and Georgia's. Alabama's is solid but not spectacular.

Statistically, it's a draw. Seven SEC teams rank in the top 20 in total defense while no Big 12 team ranks better than 34th (Oklahoma). Meanwhile, six Big 12 teams rank in the top 20 nationally while no SEC team ranks better than 26th (Georgia). However, reader Jamil from San Diego has a very interesting take on why these may be somewhat deceptive statistics:

I am curious if you believe the defenses in the Big 12 are actually that "bad" or instead, if the no-huddle style of offense played in the Big 12 simply leads to more possessions, and hence more yardage. For example, while putting up 400 yards of offense may sound gaudy, if it as a result of 80 offensive plays, then is it really so bad?

Jamil proceeded to list some stats that I've since updated and expanded. If you go by "yards allowed per play" rather than "total yards," Oklahoma (4.59) is basically dead even with Georgia (4.58). Oklahoma State (4.88) is barely different than LSU (4.84). If you look at the Sooners, which play at breakneck speed, they've run more plays (563) than any other team in the country through seven games but also faced more opposing plays (481) than all but two teams in the top 50. As long as the Sooners' offense is scoring touchdowns, it can afford to give up some yardage, as it did against Kansas last week. On the flip side, if the offense stalls a few times, it provides more scoring opportunities for a potent opposing offense, as happened against Texas.

History shows that a team with a dominant defense is far more likely to win a national-title game when facing a team with a powerful offense. In fact, that's exactly how LSU beat Oklahoma in the leagues' last head-to-head title matchup in 2003. That said, Texas showed against USC in '05 that it's possible to win a championship in a shootout.

If the 'Horns or another offensively prolific Big 12 team reach the title game, it will be fascinating to see what happens if they do face a team with a dominant defensive front, be it an SEC team or a USC or Penn State. The reality is, they do not face defenses of that caliber in conference play. The question is, will that matter?

Is Ohio State in a no-win situation Saturday night? What I mean is this: If Penn State wins, then it is proof that Ohio State is not top 10 caliber, something most of the nation believes already. If the Buckeyes win, however, then it is a sign that the Penn State was overated and the Big Ten is a weak conference. It seems to me there is a double standard, especially in regard to the SEC, where an in-conference loss is a sign of how good the conference is and not an indicator of conference weakness as a whole.
-- John Schmidt, Recife, Brazil

If you're talking about national implications, then yes, Ohio State is in a no-win situation (though a chance at a Big Ten title and Rose Bowl berth is hardly a "no-win" proposition). For its part, the Big Ten really needs Penn State to win if the league wants to begin restoring its image.

When people talk about SEC teams "knocking each other off," they're referring to the fact that any number of teams are capable of beating the others. When an LSU can't make it through its own conference without suffering two losses but goes out and smacks the ACC's (Virginia Tech) and Big Ten's (Ohio State) champions, that's a pretty strong testimonial to the conference's superiority over those leagues.

On the other hand, Ohio State's recent teams have given no one any reason to believe they can compete with the elite teams nationally, yet if the Buckeyes beat Penn State, they could wind up winning their third straight outright Big Ten title. What would that say about the rest of the league? Darren Everson summed up this dilemma quite nicely in a Wall Street Journal article earlier this week. He points out that if the Buckeyes and Nittany Lions both receive BCS berths, it's entirely possible the Big Ten's representatives in the Capital One and Outback bowls would be Michigan State and Minnesota -- two teams Ohio State beat handily.

Among other BCS conferences, only the Pac-10 has that steep a gap between its No. 1 team and its Nos. 3-4 teams. However in that case, the team at the top is USC, which has repeatedly beaten up on other teams from around the country -- most recently Ohio State.

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