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