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Does defense win championships in college football?

We take a surface look at this trite cliche and whether it's true in at the collegiate level.


"Defense wins championships."

When Mark asked, "If you had a choice, would you prefer WSU to be stronger on offense or defense?" this morning, that response came up rather quickly -- as it always seems to in this discussion. So, spur of the moment, we decided to take a semi-quick look at what the data says about what kinds of teams actually win championships: Those that favor offense or those that favor defense?

Here's what we did. We collected the data on all of the conference and BCS bowl champions from 2007 to present and gathered their F/+ ratings on offense and defense. Why F/+? It's a combination of two opponent-adjusted metrics that is free of the many vagaries that plague counting stats such yards per game. It's not a perfect metric -- nothing is -- but it's better. And why only back to 2007? Because that's as far back as the published F/+ splits go.

The strength of a team's unit in F/+ is expressed as a percentage above or below average. For example, Alabama was the top team in 2012, and it had an offense that was 21.1 percent above average (second nationally) and a defense that was 27.8 percent above average (tops nationally). Combined with its special teams, Alabama was 50.6 percent better than the average team in 2012.

What we did for this quick study was subtract defensive F/+ from offensive F/+ to see if each team featured a stronger defense or offense. Back to 2012 Alabama for a second, you can see that team favored defense, and in our data that would be expressed as minus-6.7 (which actually is a pretty big amount).

So, without further ado, here are some pretty pictures for your enjoyment.

Seems pretty clear, yeah? I don't know that you can for sure say "defense wins championships," but you certainly can say "teams that win championships tend to have stronger defenses than offenses." I'd be interested to hear your thoughts on the data.

Things I found interesting, some of which showed up in the charts, some of which didn't:

  • Everyone's posterchildren for this discussion usually are Alabama and Oregon. Only one time did Alabama's defense dramatically outpace its offense (minus-19.9 in 2011, the year it didn't actually win the SEC before beating LSU in the title game), although the defense was stronger each year; Oregon's three conference championship teams were at plus-0.8, minus-5.8, plus-0.4. Only once did a unit in Eugene outshine its counterpart, and it was the defense that did so in 2010.
  • Your "Defense? I Score Points Son" award goes to ALL RUSSELL WILSON EVERYTHING 2011 Wisconsin (plus-23.9). The Badgers went to the Rose Bowl with the 52nd ranked defense and nearly matched Oregon touchdown-for-touchdown. You don't normally think "great offense" when you think Wisconsin (or at least I don't), but the Badgers twice were led by an offense heavy team.
  • Brian Kelly's 2009 Cincinnati team was second (plus-18.9).
  • The only truly offensive leaning team to win a title was Cam Newton's Auburn in 2010 (plus-13.6). Just goes to show what having a ridiculously good quarterback can do.
  • Among all teams who either won their conference or won a BCS bowl, the "Who Needs Points If You Don't Allow Any?" award goes to that 2011 Alabama team mentioned above. In terms of teams who won their conference, 2010 West Virginia wins at minus-14.7.
  • If you like offense, you best be checking out the MAC on Tuesday nights this fall. That's why we call it MACTION, folks.
  • I found it interesting that the CUSA leaned so heavily towards defense. I really have no idea why. Maybe it's a regional thing, being primarily located in the southeast?

Anyway, I thought this would be an interesting addition to the discussion. Your thoughts?

HUGE hat tip to Brian Anderson, who came up with the idea for the post and helped me pretty up the graphs!