Defense Wins College Football Championships, Whether We Like It Or Not

TUSCALOOSA, AL - NOVEMBER 05: Spencer Ware #11 of the LSU Tigers is tackled in the first quarter against the Alabama Crimson Tide at Bryant-Denny Stadium on November 5, 2011 in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

We can't blame any one conference for what seems to be a recent dominant streak by defense-first teams. We can only blame the sport itself.

An apology from SEC country: I wish college football's two biggest games last year involved more scoring. People got really mad about all the non-scoring in both rounds of LSU-Alabama, and it's no fun to see people get mad, especially now that everyone's good and tired of all these SEC teams not scoring all day long.

But the bad news is this. It's not Nick Saban's fault* that the SEC's best teams prefer to score only via fumble returns and safeties. It's not even a unique trait among championship teams in general. Champions are more likely to play grueling swampball than to fill the air with fireworks, and they always have been. So we're stuck with low-scoring title games much of the time, no matter which conference is in charge. Just this forever. No, probably not that low.

* Especially since the two most offense-averse champions since 1929 are 2002 Ohio State and 1997 Michigan, which ranked No. 41 and No. 48 in scoring and No. 2 and No. 1 in stopping you from scoring.

Since 1900, 143 teams have been awarded national championship status by major selectors. Of those, 73 finished their seasons as top-five defensive teams, while only 51 ranked in the top five in offense. Expand that to the top 10, and it's 98 for defense and 79 for offense. Twenty-five of the last 111 teams to finish with the country's best defense also won a national title, and that number would sound more impressive the further back we went, because, like, Princeton was straight shutting out seasons during Reconstruction. We won't count that.

Seventy champions have had defenses that ranked better than their offenses; 57 have had better offenses.

It's not overwhelming, but it is consistent all the way back. National champions are more likely to uphold progress than to advance it, and it's not just a leather-helmets-way-back-when thing or a the-current-empire-doesn't-score-points thing. It's college football, for whatever reason.

Take a look at the average national offensive and defensive ranking of each champ over the past X years (the bigger the difference, the higher the average champ's defense ranked over the average champ's offense):

Avg. Off. Rank Avg. Def. Rank Diff.

The last 111 years: 11.5 9.5 2

The last 50 years: 10.87 8.58 2.29

The last 25 years: 12.5 7.33 5.17

The last 10 years: 13.5 9.66 3.84

As you can see, national champions have tended to have slightly better defenses than they've had offenses, and the trend's only become more pronounced in the last quarter-century*.


Related: Defense vs. offense in the context of Super Bowls

* If not for the tremendous outlier that's 2010 Auburn, which finished seventh in offense and 53rd in defense (the second-worst defense of any team with a major title selection ever), champions over the last decade would've averaged a fifth-place defense and 14th-place offense, or a difference of 8.36. So, yeah, Cam Newton was so good that he screwed up the entire chart. Also, that team's defensive coordinator was hired by both UCF and Penn State this offseason.

This doesn't tell us what happens to college non-champions, of course. It could be that, as Advanced NFL Stats found at the pro level, having a great offense is just as likely to produce a good team as having a great D. But at the elite realm of college ball, defense simply matters more.

What can this tell us moving forward?

As far as picking a champ this year, maybe this makes us lean a little more toward LSU, which allowed only 11.3 points per game last year, and shy just a bit away from USC, which gave up 23.8? Beats me! Over the past 25 years, teams that won championships ranked 22nd in offense and 20th in defense the year prior. That accords with the trend somewhat, but doesn't offer much predictive value, though it wouldn't feel like a stretch to assume LSU's defense will be better than USC's this year, right?

However, what we do know is that defense does indeed win more championships than offense does, no matter how boring that might be.

Also, the ranking of every team with a major selector title (I'm assuming a dozen or so claimed Alabama titles aren't included here. However, if they were, our defensive numbers would look even more paramount than our offensive numbers, since so many of those Bama teams have such a similar offensive-defensive profile.)

All data via the indispensable Sports-Reference.com:

Year Champ (Selectors) Off. Rank Def. Rank

2011 Alabama (AP, BCS, FWAA, NFF, USA-ESPN) 20 1

2010 Auburn (AP, BCS, FWAA, NFF, USA-ESPN) 7 53

2009 Alabama (AP, BCS, FWAA, NFF, USA-ESPN) 22 2

2008 Florida (AP, BCS, FWAA, NFF, USA-ESPN) 4 4

2007 Louisiana State (AP, BCS, FWAA, NFF, USA-ESPN) 11 17

2006 Florida (AP, BCS, FWAA, NFF, USA-ESPN) 23 6

2005 Texas (AP, BCS, FWAA, NFF, USA-ESPN) 1 9

2004 Southern California (AP, BCS, FWAA, NFF, USA-ESPN) 6 3

2003 Louisiana State (BCS, NFF, USA-ESPN) 19 1

2003 Southern California (AP, FWAA) 5 17

2002 Ohio State (AP, BCS, FWAA, NFF, USA-ESPN) 41 2

2001 Miami (FL) (AP, BCS, FWAA, NFF, USA-ESPN) 3 1

2000 Oklahoma (AP, BCS, FWAA, NFF, USA-ESPN) 9 5

1999 Florida State (AP, BCS, FWAA, NFF, USA-ESPN) 3 11

1998 Tennessee (AP, BCS, FWAA, NFF, USA-ESPN) 19 8

1997 Michigan (AP, FWAA, NFF) 48 1

1997 Nebraska (USA-ESPN) 1 12

1996 Florida (AP, FWAA, NFF, USA-CNN) 1 14

1995 Nebraska (AP, FWAA, NFF, UPI, USA-CNN) 1 4

1994 Nebraska (AP, FWAA, UPI, USA-CNN, USA-NFF) 8 3

1993 Florida State (AP, FWAA, UPI, USA-CNN, USA-NFF) 1 1

1992 Alabama (AP, FWAA, UPI-NFF, USA-CNN) 22 1

1991 Miami (FL) (AP) 16 1

1991 Washington (FWAA, UPI-NFF, USA-CNN) 2 2

1990 Colorado (AP, FWAA, NFF, USA-CNN) 20 22

1990 Georgia Tech (UPI) 17 10

1989 Miami (FL) (AP, FWAA, NFF, UPI, USA-CNN) 8 1

1988 Notre Dame (AP, FWAA, NFF, UPI, USA-CNN) 14 3

1987 Miami (FL) (AP, FWAA, NFF, UPI, USA-CNN) 6 2

1986 Penn State (AP, FWAA, NFF, UPI, USA-CNN) 17 3

1985 Oklahoma (AP, FWAA, NFF, UPI, USA-CNN) 11 2

1984 Brigham Young (AP, FWAA, NFF, UPI, USA-CNN) 2 11

1983 Miami (FL) (AP, FWAA, NFF, UPI, USA-CNN) 28 3

1982 Penn State (AP, FWAA, NFF, UPI, USA-CNN) 5 22

1981 Clemson (AP, FWAA, NFF, UPI) 19 1

1980 Georgia (AP, FWAA, NFF, UPI) 16 9

1979 Alabama (AP, FWAA, NFF, UPI) 7 1

1978 Alabama (AP, FWAA, NFF) 13 19

1978 Southern California (UPI) 33 10

1977 Notre Dame (AP, FWAA, NFF, UPI) 5 11

1976 Pittsburgh (AP, FWAA, NFF, UPI) 7 7

1975 Oklahoma (AP, FWAA, NFF, UPI) 17 19

1974 Oklahoma (AP) 1 5

1974 Southern California (FWAA, NFF, UPI) 9 11

1973 Alabama (UPI) 3 5

1973 Notre Dame (AP, FWAA, NFF) 8 4

1972 Southern California (AP, FWAA, NFF, UPI) 3 8

1971 Nebraska (AP, FWAA, NFF, UPI) 3 2

1970 Nebraska (AP, FWAA) 4 25

1970 Ohio State (NFF) 18 11

1970 Texas (NFF, UPI) 1 17

1969 Texas (AP, FWAA, NFF, UPI) 3 10

1968 Ohio State (AP, FWAA, NFF, UPI) 9 20

1967 Southern California (AP, FWAA, NFF, UPI) 27 2

1966 Michigan State (NFF) 8 14

1966 Notre Dame (AP, FWAA, NFF, UPI) 1 1

1965 Alabama (AP, FWAA) 21 12

1965 Michigan State (FWAA, NFF, UPI) 16 3

1964 Arkansas (FWAA) 20 2

1964 Alabama (AP, UPI) 13 12

1964 Notre Dame (NFF) 3 8

1963 Texas (AP, FWAA, NFF, UPI) 14 3

1962 Southern California (AP, FWAA, NFF, UPI) 16 13

1961 Ohio State (FWAA) 12 16

1961 Alabama (AP, NFF, UPI) 10 1

1960 Minnesota (AP, NFF, UPI) 17 23

1960 Mississippi (FWAA) 7 3

1959 Syracuse (AP, FWAA, NFF, UPI) 1 7

1958 Iowa (FWAA) 4 50

1958 Louisiana State (AP, UPI) 9 1

1957 Auburn (AP) 22 1

1957 Ohio State (FWAA, UPI) 6 16

1956 Oklahoma (AP, FWAA, UPI) 1 2

1955 Oklahoma (AP, FWAA, UPI) 1 2

1954 Ohio State (AP) 19 7

1954 UCLA (FWAA, UPI) 1 1

1953 Maryland (AP, UPI) 4 1

1952 Michigan State (AP, UPI) 2 12

1951 Tennessee (AP, UPI) 4 12

1950 Oklahoma (AP, UPI) 8 36

1949 Notre Dame (AP) 4 7

1948 Michigan (AP) 11 1

1947 Notre Dame (AP) 3 5

1946 Notre Dame (AP) 6 1

1945 Army (AP) 1 1

1944 Army (AP) 1 2

1943 Notre Dame (AP) 2 14

1942 Ohio State (AP) 2 58

1941 Minnesota (AP) 17 6

1940 Minnesota (AP) 24 33

1939 Texas A&M (AP) 16 4

1938 Texas Christian (AP) 7 23

1937 Pittsburgh (AP) 13 10

1936 Minnesota (AP) 4 10

1935 Minnesota (HELMS, NCF) 10 27

1934 Minnesota (HELMS, NCF) 2 24

1933 Michigan (HELMS, NCF) 24 7

1932 Southern California (HELMS, NCF) 23 2

1931 Southern California (HELMS, NCF) 3 24

1930 Notre Dame (HELMS, NCF) 10 43

1929 Notre Dame (HELMS, NCF) 46 13

1928 Georgia Tech (HELMS, NCF) 16 16

1927 Illinois (HELMS, NCF) 30 5

1926 Alabama (HELMS, NCF) 8 3

1926 Stanford (HELMS, NCF) 10 39

1925 Alabama (HELMS, NCF) 6 4

1924 Notre Dame (HELMS, NCF) 6 30

1923 Illinois (HELMS, NCF) 36 8

1923 Michigan (NCF) 28 4

1922 California (NCF) 1 16

1922 Cornell (HELMS) 2 13

1922 Princeton (NCF) 54 17

1921 Cornell (HELMS, NCF) 1 7

1920 California (HELMS, NCF) 1 3

1919 Harvard (HELMS, NCF) 18 4

1919 Notre Dame (NCF) 14 29

1919 Texas A&M (NCF) 11 1

1918 Michigan (NCF) 19 2

1918 Pittsburgh (HELMS, NCF) 8 9

1917 Georgia Tech (HELMS, NCF) 2 6

1916 Pittsburgh (HELMS, NCF) 14 9

1915 Cornell (HELMS, NCF) 11 26

1914 Army (HELMS, NCF) 20 3

1913 Harvard (HELMS, NCF) 19 4

1912 Harvard (HELMS, NCF) 36 4

1912 Penn State (NCF) 6 1

1911 Penn State (NCF) 8 7

1911 Princeton (HELMS, NCF) 18 5

1910 Harvard (HELMS, NCF) 24 5

1910 Pittsburgh (NCF) 2 3

1909 Yale (HELMS, NCF) 15 2

1908 Louisiana State (NCF) 1 2

1908 Pennsylvania (HELMS, NCF) 17 9

1907 Yale (HELMS, NCF) 14 2

1906 Princeton (HELMS, NCF) 11 4

1905 Chicago (HELMS, NCF) 16 3

1904 Michigan (NCF) 1 9

1904 Pennsylvania (HELMS, NCF) 28 1

1903 Michigan (NCF) 1 1

1903 Princeton (HELMS, NCF) 15 2

1902 Michigan (HELMS, NCF) 1 2

1901 Michigan (HELMS, NCF) 1 1

1900 Yale (HELMS, NCF) 3 1

While we’re here, let’s watch some college football videos from SB Nation’s new YouTube channel together:

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