Berry: OU defense makes its case as the best in the Big 12

Berry: OU defense makes its case as the best in the Big 12

Berry Tramel: OU’s defensive rating of .221 ranks second in the 14-team Big 12, a smidge behind West Virginia’s .208, and the Mountaineers have played just two league games.

Berry Tramel

By Berry Tramel

| Oct 10, 2023, 6:21am CDT

Berry Tramel

By Berry Tramel

Oct 10, 2023, 6:21am CDT

OU’s 34-30 victory over Texas gave Sooner Nation an exhilarating feeling. My initial Big 12 efficiency ratings of the season give Sooner Nation a comfortable feeling. OU has its defense back.

That’s the early indication through a third of the Sooners’ Big 12 schedule.

OU’s defensive rating of .221 ranks second in the 14-team Big 12, a smidge behind West Virginia’s .208, and the Mountaineers have played just two league games.

Not since 2015 have the Sooners led the conference in defensive efficiency, and most years since then, OU has been far back in the pack. Starting with the 2016 season, the Sooner defense has ranked (out of 10 teams) fifth, sixth, 10th!, sixth, fifth, sixth and seventh.

That latter slot was under Brent Venables, whose pride and honor had to take a hit at such a showing.

But that was then. Now, the Sooner defense is soaring, especially since OU has what appears to be the Big 12’s best offense, Texas, in the rearview mirror.

A few things about my efficiency ratings.

I don’t care about yardage. None. Nada. Zero point zero. A Syracuse writer this week ranked Texas ahead of OU, citing the statistics from Red River. Which is goofy in every regard, but particularly since the statistics weren’t all that one-sided — the Longhorns outgained the Sooners 527-486, and UT’s final 31 yards were on freebie plays in the final 15 seconds.

I only care about offenses getting in the end zone, or kicking field goals if you must, and defenses keeping opponents from the same.

And I don’t use raw totals. I care about the frequency. Not every game is the same. Units have wide-ranging opportunities, depending on a variety of factors. For example, OSU scored 27 offensive points on Iowa State a couple of weeks ago. Then Kansas scored 24 offensive points on Brigham Young.

Sounds like similar performances. Except they’re not even close.

At Iowa State, OSU had 15 offensive possessions. Scoring 27 points in 15 chances is not good offense. It’s less than 30% efficiency. Against BYU, Kansas had seven offensive possessions. Scoring 24 points on such few opportunities is excellent offense, 50% efficiency.

And that’s exactly how I rate offenses and defenses. How much you score with the possessions you’re given. How much your opponents score with the possessions they’re given.

It’s very similar to points per possession, except I like to use it as a percentage, since our sports brains are trained to assimilate information that way.

A .300 batting average is very good. A .200 batting average is very bad.

A quarterback with a completion percentage of .725 is quite accurate. A quarterback with a completion percentage of .475 is not long for the job.

A 3-point shooter over .400 is a marksman. A 3-point shooter under .300 is a liability.

So think of my efficiency ratings the same way. An offense over .400 is elite. An offense under .300 is not getting the job done. And vice versa for defenses, which is ranked by opponents’ efficiency.

Sometimes the standards change. Year to year, you never can tell. OSU’s offensive efficiency placed fourth in back-to-back seasons, 2020 and 2021. But OSU’s efficiency rating was .310 in 2020, .390 in 2021. A massive difference.

Another thing to remember, this is early in the season. Two games is not enough to warrant much jubilation or concern. I’ve generally waited until most Big 12 teams have played three games. This week, eight of the 14 Big 12 squads have played three games. Six have played two. I said what the heck. Let’s get the train moving.

Another feature this season, teams are not playing balanced schedules. For 12 years, the Big 12 played a full round-robin schedule. Every team played every other team, so the only clear inequality in statistics is that OU’s defense, for example, didn’t have to go against the usually-potent OU offense, or the West Virginia offense didn’t have to play against the usually-stiff WVU defense.

So here are the rankings, after 2½ weeks of games.

Offense

  1. Texas .469: Quite impressive, considering the Longhorns already have faced the OU defense.
  2. Kansas .462: No surprise here. Lance Leipold’s 2022 Jayhawk offense finished with a solid .379 offensive rating.
  3. Oklahoma .418: Not the caliber of the Baker Mayfield/Kyler Murray/Jalen Hurts/Spencer Rattler/Caleb Williams offenses, but plenty good when your defense is elite.
  4. Kansas State .396: The Wildcats lit up Central Florida but not OSU.
  5. BYU .381: Better offense than maybe I was expecting out of the Cougars, after BYU struggled with Sam Houston in September.
  6. Central Florida .371: Especially with a backup quarterback, offense really isn’t the issue in Orlando.
  7. Texas Tech .368: The Red Raiders have been solid, especially considering they are playing with backup QB Behren Morton.
  8. Iowa State .316: See how raw stats can lie? The Cyclones looked hearty against both OU and OSU. But in those games, Iowa State had a combined 26 possessions, so 54 points isn’t robust.. 
  9. Oklahoma State .288: This is not winning football. The Cowboys have to get well above .300.
  10. TCU .284: Where have you gone, Max Duggan? The Horned Frogs finished 2022 with a .440 offensive rating. 
  11. West Virginia .271: Offense has not been the key to WVU’s surprising success.
  12. Houston .227: I thought Dana Holgorsen was supposed to be an offensive coach?
  13. Cincinnati .227: UC coach Scott Satterfield warned me that the Bearcats’ ballhandling positions were not up to speed.
  14. Baylor .200: Egads. Even with starting quarterback Blake Shapen back from injury, the Bears are not producing. 

Defense

  1. West Virginia .208: Remember when WVU came into the league 12 years ago, with Holgorsen as coach and coming off a 70-33 Orange Bowl rout of Clemson, which sparked the Tigers’ hiring of Venables? Who could foresee then that West Virginia would be much more of a defensive force?
  2. Oklahoma .221: If this number holds, Sooners will like this season. They will like it very much.
  3. Texas .235: The Longhorns appear to be quite capable on defense, too.
  4. TCU .236: Defense is not the Horned Frogs’ problem.
  5. Texas Tech .265: This has been a years-long trend. The Red Raiders have been playing better and better defense over the years, though the offense hasn’t kept up with the Mike Leach standard.
  6. Oklahoma State .296: Good for OSU, which held the Wildcats to 21 points in 13 possessions.
  7. Iowa State .316: The Cyclones typically play quality defense.
  8. Cincinnati .318: As Dillon Gabriel and Company discovered at Nippert Stadium, the Bearcats play some defense.
  9. Kansas State .364: Not terrible but not good, either.
  10. BYU .417: Surprising. I thought the Cougars would be better defensively than this.
  11. Baylor .441: Dave Aranda’s defense is under siege, too. Quite stunning.
  12. Kansas .448: The Jayhawks have yet to master this side of the ball.
  13. Houston .457: Defensive coordinator Doug Belk was a hot commodity a year or two ago. Not now.
  14. Central Florida .548: I knew UCF would struggle defensively, but the Knights are getting run over. The Kansas schools, with a combined 20 possessions, scored a combined 12 touchdowns and kicked two field goals against UCF.

Predictions

Another feature of the efficiency ratings is the ability to predict a score, based on the percentages. It’s not a great metric for picking a winner, but it’s not bad at showing you what kind of game it might be.

Kansas at OSU: Cowboys 24-23. Didn’t expect the numbers to show an OSU victory.

West Virginia at Houston: Mountaineers 29-17. Won’t take many points to win this game.

Iowa State at Cincinnati: Cyclones 26-22. The Bearcats really have trouble scoring. Iowa State won’t help that.

BYU at TCU: Horned Frogs 26-24. Funny, but it seems like BYU has been the more impressive team. Of course, the Cougars’ victory at Arkansas doesn’t factor into these equations.

Kansas State at Texas Tech: Red Raiders 29-26. Should be a quality game.

Share with your crowd
Berry Tramel is a 45-year veteran of Oklahoma journalism, having spent 13 years at the Norman Transcript and 32 years at The Oklahoman. He has been named Oklahoma Sportswriter of the Year by the National Sports Media Association. Born and raised in Norman, Tramel grew up reading four newspapers a day and began his career at age 17. His first assignment was the Lexington-Elmore City high school football game, and he’s enjoyed the journey ever since, having covered NBA Finals and Rose Bowls and everything in between. Tramel and his wife, Tricia, were married in 1980 and live in Norman near their daughter, son-in-law and three granddaughters. Tramel can be reached at 405-760-8080 or at [email protected].

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