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Is UConn’s defense the worst of all time? Let’s take a way too deep look

Advanced stats show we’re witnessing at least the second worst performance since the Division I split of the late-1970s.

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NCAA Football: Massachusetts at Connecticut David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

Sometimes you don’t need advanced stats to understand that a given unit is really good or really bad. Sometimes raw stats do just fine.

Take, for instance, the case of the really, really bad UConn defense, which still might be just the second team since World War I to give up more than 50 points per game.

Randy Edsall’s Huskies are about to absolutely destroy the FBS record for yards allowed per game, parking it way out past 600.

To put that another way, UConn is allowing 10 yards per minute. A first down’s worth of yards every 60 seconds. Mind-blowing.

Breaking into the advanced stats can’t really make that sound any worse than that, no matter how fascinating it is to gawk for a bit.

This UConn defense is ...

  • last in success rate allowed
  • last in IsoPPP (my go-to explosiveness measure)
  • last in points allowed per scoring opportunity
  • last in Passing S&P+
  • last in Standard Downs S&P+
  • second-to-last in Rushing S&P+
  • third-to-last in Passing Downs S&P+

Coordinator Billy Crocker seemed like a reasonably impressive hire, joining Edsall in 2017 after an exciting five-year stint at Villanova. He likes to force the issue, and it shows: even with all the horrible gashing, the Huskies do rank 85th in stuff rate (run stops at or behind the line), 93rd in passing-downs sack rate, and 52nd in linebacker havoc rate. Unfortunately, it’s a kill-or-be-killed kind of setup. If the Huskies don’t make a play in the backfield, they get obliterated.

That’s what happens when you’ve got 10 true or redshirt freshmen and seven sophomores among your 20 leading tacklers. This is a barely-removed-from-high-school defense playing in the AAC, one of the country’s more prolific conferences.

UConn has allowed at least 49 points in nine of 11 games, including its lone win, a 56-49 track meet against FCS’ Rhode Island. The Huskies’ defensive percentile performance has topped 9 percent just once all year (a 22-point outing against UMass).

Still, advanced stats can provide us with some perspective.

Since we know points and yards are far more prolific now than they were in the past (see the Chiefs-Rams Monday Night Football game, for instance), we might not properly contextualize what it means to allow more than 600 yards and nearly 50 points per game in 2018.

Enter S&P+. We have used my historical version of S&P+ — which, for the years before 2005, uses simple points scored and allowed and still adjusts for opponents — to rank the best teams since World War II, rank programs by decade, talk about the most perfect offenses and defenses ever, and rank the best matchups ever.

Now we’re going to do something more sinister: look at UConn’s place among history’s truly inept defenses.

Mind you, there have been some really, really bad defenses. For instance, think about what it meant to:

  • allow 41.4 points per game in 1939, as Chicago did. The Maroons got outscored 300-0 by Harvard, Michigan, Virginia, Ohio State, and Illinois.
  • or allow 50.3 points per game in 1910, as the Haskell Indian Nations University did. Football hated the forward pass, but Haskell still figured out a way to allow 52 points to Baylor, 63 to Texas, and 119 to Nebraska.

According to percentile ratings, these are, along with the 1924 Whitman Blues, the worst defenses of all time in top-division college football. To approach these depths in the present day, a team might have to allow at least 65 points per game.

Elsewhere in the pre-World War II era, six other defenses also had 0.00 percentile ratings: 1904 Grinnell, 1909 Wyoming, 1918 Arkansas, 1923 Northern Colorado, 1933 Butler, and 1938 Chicago. (1916 Cumberland, the team that gave up 222 points to Georgia Tech, doesn’t count because it hadn’t been a Division I-equivalent program in years.)

UConn is barely better than these teams. Per S&P+, UConn’s S&P+ percentile rating is 0.11 percent, the worst since 1995.

But let’s at least give UConn the benefit of era context. Here’s a list of the post-World War II teams that graded out the same as UConn or worse.

These are officially UConn’s peers.

1945 Presbyterian

Lost 39-0 to Fort Bragg, 40-0 to South Carolina, 41-0 to Florida, 53-0 to Wake Forest, and 76-0 to mean old Clemson. Quickly decided to remove itself from top-division football.

1945 New York University

The once-proud Violets were top-division in name only. They played five lower-level schools and went 3-2, but played only two top division teams — 3-4 Boston College and 7-1 Temple — and lost by a combined 87-0. They would officially drop football in 1952.

1948 and 1951 New Mexico State

The Aggies didn’t record a winning record between 1939 and 1959. They cycled through seven head coaches in these two decades.

The 1948 edition gave up 41 points to Colorado State, 47 to Sul Ross State, 52 to a still-mid-major Arizona State, 61 to New Mexico, 61 to Western State, and — gasp — 92 points to UTEP.

The 1951 team gave up fewer overall points, but let’s just say opponent adjustments weren’t kind. This squad allowed 33 points to McMurry, 34 to Bradley, only 41 to UTEP (!), 46 to Arizona State, 50 to West Texas A&M, and 67 to Arizona.

Think of how good it must have felt when Warren Woodson led NMSU to records of 8-3 in 1959 and 11-0 in 1960.

1949, 1950, 1951, and 1952 Northern Arizona

Ladies and gentlemen, your Bad Defense dynasty. No one has ever unleashed a more sustained run of incompetence than the Lumberjacks, who would drop to a lower level in 1953.

And even while playing the worst defense known to man, NAU — then known as Arizona State of Flagstaff — managed to win seven games in this four-year span. But man oh man, is it hard to pick out the worst result from these seasons.

  • 48-12 to the awful NMSU of 1951
  • 55-6 to New Mexico in 1951
  • 62-6 to Arizona State in 1949
  • 63-0 to Arizona State in 1950
  • 66-12 to Pepperdine in 1950
  • 78-0 to New Mexico in 1950

The 1951 defense hit the magical 0.00 percentile. There was no topping (bottoming?) that in 1952.

1965 and 1966 Pacific

The program would last another three decades before folding like most of the teams on this list — I’m not suggesting anything with that, UConn fans, I promise — and was playing basically a half-Division 1, half-Other schedule.

But in 1965-66, the Tigers played 10 top-division teams and went 1-9, getting outscored by a 352-124 margin. They gave up 49 points to NMSU in 1966 and 52 to a barely-D1 San Jose State in 1965.

1967 Idaho and 1967 New Mexico

More western teams! The 1967 Idaho Vandals played only four top-division teams but got outscored by Pacific (!), Oregon, Washington State, and Houston by a combined 202-32.

Down in Albuquerque, New Mexico beat lower-level Idaho State, 24-3, to start the year, then lost nine straight by a combined 430-128. The low point: a 75-12 shellacking by UTEP.

1967 Furman

1967 produced three historically inept defense, and this one wasn’t from the west! The Southern Conference doormat went 4-1 against lower-division teams but allowed 39 or more points to really bad Davidson, Richmond, and Tampa teams.

1973 UTEP

It was only fair that the Miners show up, considering how many times they shellacked to other bad defenses in the area. Tommy Hudspeth’s only UTEP squad went 0-11, barely losing to NMSU and Lamar (combined score: 58-50) and getting outscored 486-92 the rest of the way. They gave up 54 to Arizona State, 62 to Idaho, 63 to BYU, 76 to Colorado State, and —shame of all shames — 82 to Utah.

1995 UNLV

In the late-1970s and early-1980s, a lot of chaff was separated from wheat. The NCAA broke Division 1 football into I-A and I-AA (now known as FBS and FCS). Since then, it’s been almost impossible to be bad enough to make this list. Only one team managed to do it before UConn: Jeff Horton’s Rebels.

UNLV had actually gone to a bowl in 1994. But evidently they lost every competent player. That next fall, they went from allowing 329 points in 12 games to allowing 520 in 11.

They managed to hold Arkansas State and North Texas to a combined 47 points in two wins. Otherwise, they were outscored 473-160. Rice, Iowa State, Hawaii, NIU, SJSU, and NMSU all won four or fewer games that year; they averaged 54.2 points against UNLV. It was actually a victory that a nine-win Nevada scored only 55.

This is UConn’s true peer, the only other team to play defense this horrible since the Division I split.

The bright side: UNLV was back in a bowl within four years, though it did require a coaching change.

The less good news: UNLV has been to only one other bowl since, and good defense has been rare, to put it politely. Once this stink gets on you, it’s hard to get off.