Commentary

Is the Sooners' defense better than the statistics show?

Originally Published: January 7, 2009
By Ivan Maisel | ESPN.com

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- It has been an enjoyable week at the South Florida Debate Society, otherwise known as the FedEx BCS National Championship Game.

But let's pause in our assessment of whether Florida quarterback Tim Tebow is better than Chase Daniel of Missouri (the fourth-best quarterback in the Big 12 conference). Let's dodge the matter of what kind of joke the Oklahoma defense is.

"So a priest, a rabbi and Dominique Franks walk into a bar …"

The yapping back and forth between the No. 1 Sooners and No. 2 Gators, aided and abetted by a week of meetings with the media, has obscured the original issue. Has Oklahoma built its unprecedented offensive output on a foundation of bad Big 12 defenses? Is the Sooners' defense better than its statistics?

The Oklahoma sports information office devoted two pages to its defensive notes. They could have been titled "Wait! It's Not What You Think!"

• Eight of the 32 rushing or passing touchdowns scored against Oklahoma this season were scored in the fourth quarter of comfortable Sooner victories. Four were scored in the final minute.

• In defense of the defense, it should be noted that opposing teams scored 28 of their 319 points on special teams.

Skepticism of Big 12 defenses has built over the course of the season, and not just because Oklahoma scored 54 points per game. The conference's teams won exactly two shutouts over FBS opponents. Scientists continue to sift the remains for evidence.

Ole Miss, the team that defeated Florida, 31-30, in September, spotted Texas Tech a 14-0 lead in the AT&T Cotton Bowl, and then accelerated to a 47-34 victory. The Rebels gained 515 yards of total offense against the Red Raiders.

"They were very sound," Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt said. "But it was nothing we hadn't seen. It was a little simple."

That's not an insult. Simple is enough when you have better athletes. When the other team does, simple may not be enough. Nutt sounded a lot like the USC players after their 38-24 defeat of Penn State in the Rose Bowl Game Presented by Citi.

"You face a team that doesn't match up, and that's basically our whole game plan, to somehow get our guy in position so they can't tackle," Florida coach Urban Meyer said. "I'm not sure this is going to be easy [against Oklahoma] because they have great speed on defense."

Brent Venables
WD/Icon SMIBrent Venables has seen a maturation in his defense over the last month.

In the rush to condemn Big 12 defenses, it should be pointed out that SEC offenses didn't exactly reinvent the game, either. No one questions the Florida defense. The Gators held seven opponents to 10 points or fewer, though a couple of those teams couldn't score more than 10 points in a Friday walk-through.

Why, then, the questions about the legitimacy of Oklahoma's hanging 60 on one team after another? It may be that defense inspires trust. Defense has always been an integral part of winning football. Spread offenses, the lifeblood of the Big 12, are barely out of diapers.

Oklahoma has scored points like no team before it. The offense has scored 94 touchdowns -- 49 passing, 45 rushing. Florida defensive coordinator Charlie Strong drew laughter this week when he described watching video of the Sooners' field goal team.

"They score so many points," Strong said. "You don't really realize that until you start breaking down the kicking game and look at extra points. God Almighty, there's a lot of extra points! But there's a lot of touchdowns being scored."

No one knows how good the Oklahoma offense is better than the defense that practices against it five days a week. Sooners defensive coordinator Brent Venables acknowledged that Sam Bradford and Co. can wear on you.

"You don't ever like to get the ball moved on you," Venables said. "…Once in a while, you'll marvel at a play in terms of the execution. Sam is incredible in some of his decision-making, in how he is able to put the ball in some incredibly tight spaces. As much as anything, you've got to be a psychiatrist to your own players out there."

One of his patients, end Jeremy Beal, said, "Sometimes when they are kicking our butt, maybe once or twice you remind yourself, 'Hey, that's a pretty good offense.' They have their days. Sometimes we have our days, too."

They can say whatever they want to, but I promise you we can play defense in the Big 12. Thursday night when we come to the stadium, we're going to be ready to go, and we're going to bring everything we got. I know Florida will, too.

-- OU linebacker Austin Box

Oklahoma's defense fell apart in the second half of the Texas game, after middle linebacker Ryan Reynolds blew out his knee, and floundered for two games while Venables tried to find a new defensive quarterback. He recalled Kansas State's first offensive play, when a defensive play call went awry and the Wildcats struck for 18 yards.

"We had the Keystone Kops out there running into each other on the zone blitz," Venables said. "…That's kind of indicative of how that went."

Over the last month of the season, however, Venables saw what he described as a "maturation."

"Guys [are] getting more and more confident with each other, a lot of young guys really starting to figure things out and being aggressive," Venables added. "I think in money situations our guys have been tremendously successful."

Austin Box, the redshirt freshman who replaced Reynolds, and then injured his knee against Oklahoma State, returned to practice this week. He will share the middle linebacker job with Mike Balogun.

"They can say whatever they want to, but I promise you we can play defense in the Big 12," Box said. "Thursday night when we come to the stadium, we're going to be ready to go, and we're going to bring everything we got. I know Florida will, too."

Let the Debate Society end. Let the game begin.

Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Send your questions and comments to Ivan at ivan.maisel@espn3.com. His new book, "The Maisel Report: College Football's Most Overrated & Underrated Players, Coaches, Teams, and Traditions," is on sale now. For more information, go to TheMaiselReport.com.

Ivan Maisel | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com