Keys to the Crystal Ball

On July 16, 2012 by Chris Holloway


There is the old saying in football that “defense wins championships.” While this may hold some nugget of truth on Sundays, the area is grayer than one might expect. Great defenses are often trumped by gimmicky defenses en route to what used to be a mythical national championship. Factors other than the ones on the field of play were taken into consideration, and the actual product sometimes took a backseat.

That is not to say that there is not some semblance of the truth evident in the collegiate ranks. However, in college, defense is not necessarily all it’s cracked up to be. In this era of the spread offense with high octane results, defenses often take a back seat to putting up the most points in a shootout.

We took a look at the last five National Champions, and tried to determine, just from national rankings in certain areas, what makes a team capable of hoisting the crystal football in January? Is it just offense? Just defense? An amalgamation of the two? Some unknown commodity creeping into the mix that skews all the results? More after the jump.

Great Defense

Four of the last five champions have all had defenses ranked in the top 10 in total defense, measuring all aspects of that side of the ball. We identified four key areas that can shed some light on how these defenses were able to power their teams to victory.

Despite what one may think, getting into the backfield is not necessarily a recipe for success. None of the last five champions had sacks numbers that registered them in the top 15 and Alabama, in both 2011 and 2009, were 29th in the country in sacks. Tackles for loss (TFLs) were no great indicator either, with 08 UF and 07 LSU in between 45-60 nationally in their title years.

What was evident, however, is that winning the turnover battle will win you games. Not only in terms of field positioning, but in opponent morale, your own team excitement, and momentum. 07 LSU, 08 UF, and 09 Bama all ranked in the top 5 in turnover margin as well as interceptions in their championships years, giving credence to the tenet that creating opportunities while limiting your own mistakes creates situations in which your team can effect a positive outcome.

Even when you don’t excel in one area, as ’11 Bama shows us, you can still create a championship year through steady, consistent defense. Having just about everyone in the country clamoring for a rematch probably doesn’t hurt either. The Tide had the number 1 total defense last year, yet didn’t crack the top 15 in any of our 4 major statistical categories, showing that a solid, well rounded team effort can be just as effective as any single unit performing at a high level.

But defenses rarely score all the points, which is why, while defenses may win championships, offenses win games. And chicks.

Stellar Offenses

If you cannot have an amazing defense, at least try to have one heck of an offense, even if its got more gimmicks than a Gallagher marathon. In the 5 years that we studied, 4 of the teams had monster defenses. The lone outlier was ’10 Auburn. The ranked near the middle of the FBS in most categories, other than TFL.

But what they lacked on defense, they more than made up for with the most electrifying player that year, Cam Newton. Auburn’s offense was ranked number 7 in the nation in total offense in the Tiger’s title run, most of that attributed to Mr. Newton, who would go on to win the Heisman. Teams and years like this are an anomaly for the most part as most coaches, even at the collegiate level, ascribe to the defense tenet.

For example, the remaining four teams in our study all ranked 15th or lower in total offense. Only two showed that they could punch the ball into the end zone from inside the 20, with 07 LSU and 08 UF registering at #1 and #9 respectively in red zone conversions. Further study shows that 90% of that number for UF came from #15.

What this means for Ohio State

There is no doubt that the Buckeyes are consistently loaded on defense, and put up monster performances year in and year out. As I researched this topic, I constantly saw Ohio State at or near the top in just about every category, in every year. But as we showed, it’s not just the defensive side of the ball that needs to be competent.

Where Urban will need to improve is in the passing game if he wants this squad to compete for crystal balls. Luckily, he has a whole guilt free year to get it right.

Then comes ring #3.



  1. […] Keys to the Crystal Ball | Is it more dominant defense, or stellar offense? Both might work. (Holloway) […]