July 8, 2009

Some teams turn to defense to lead the way

Some time-honored nuggets of wisdom just aren't as reliable as they used to be.

A penny saved is a penny earned. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Defense wins championships.

Of the 10 teams that have appeared in the past five BCS national championship games, nine averaged more than 30 points per game. Last season's championship game foes Oklahoma and Florida ranked first and third in the nation, respectively, in scoring offense.

Oklahoma set a record by exceeding 60 points in five consecutive games. Florida scored at least 42 points in seven games in a row.

To be sure, most of those 10 championship-game participants had strong defenses, too. But teams such as Ohio State in 2002 and Michigan in 1997, which won national championships almost in spite of their offenses, are becoming rarer.

In this age of spread offenses that rack up pinball machine-like scores, the question of whether a team that relies almost exclusively on a great defense can win a national championship is a subject to debate.

Those who are inclined to argue against it could point to Iowa, which allowed an average of 13 points per game to rank fifth nationally in scoring defense but couldn't manage a conference championship. The Hawkeyes scored 24 or fewer points in each of their four losses and 20 or fewer in three of them. But ESPN analyst Bob Davie, who was an accomplished defensive coordinator at Texas A&M and Notre Dame, makes the counterpoint in that debate.

"I think you still can win that way," he said. "But you have to be realistic and adjust your goals statistically. No longer are you going to hold people to 12 or 10 points per game. With the evolution of the spread offenses, it's really, really difficult to do that. Even teams with less talent, because of diversity of schemes, are capable of scoring points. Schematically, it's more difficult on defenses.

"It used to be if you gave up a couple of touchdowns, you panicked a little. Now, you accept that and keep playing. People are going to score now. The game is not over just because you gave up 21 points."

Well, it certainly isn't if your team has a productive offense. If not, well, 21 points can seem like 50.

That was the case last season for Tennessee and Auburn, which fielded miserly defenses. Both held seven opponents to fewer than 20 points. But both also were among the nation's lowest-scoring teams. Tennessee scored fewer than 21 points in six of its seven losses; Auburn was held to less than 21 in five of its seven defeats.

And although the Volunteers and Tigers have changed coaches, both have unproven quarterbacks and could have offensive issues again this season.

There may be hope because both are in the SEC, a defense-heavy league; Davie said the SEC is one of the few leagues in which a defense-oriented team still can excel. That's significant because SEC teams have won the past three national championships; therefore, the SEC champion figures to be in the national championship discussion.

"The SEC is obviously the best conference top to bottom, but there are not a lot of great quarterbacks," Davie said. "To be honest, you're looking at Florida [with Tim Tebow] and maybe Ole Miss [with Jevan Snead], and who knows what happens at Arkansas [with Ryan Mallett].

"That's still a conference that's about winning with great defense. Maybe they don't have a lot of great quarterbacks because there are so many great athletes and so much speed on defense. For whatever reason, the SEC is a league where you can still win the traditional way with great, great defense."

If a team with offensive questions can challenge Florida in the SEC, it figures to be Alabama, which faced the Gators in last season's SEC championship game. The Crimson Tide have a new quarterback in Greg McElroy and three new starters in the offensive line, and Glen Coffee, last season's leading rusher, left early for the NFL.

But All-SEC defensive tackle Terrence Cody and linebacker Rolando McClain head a list of nine returning starters from one of the nation's most potent defenses in '08. When you add Javier Arenas, a dangerous punt returner, and Leigh Tiffin, a reliable kicker, the Tide have the potential to frequently start drives already in scoring position.

"[Alabama coach] Nick Saban is going to have a blueprint to win," Davie said. "His team is going to be built on solid defense every year. They can also generate points from the kicking game. The offense is going to totally complement those two elements.

"You're not going to have an egotistical offensive coordinator that will worry about yards per game. They will play with one thing in mind to win the game. At some places the offensive coordinator and defensive coordinator may not be on the same page."

Alabama can glean encouragement from its season-opening opponent, Virginia Tech. Last season, the Hokies won the ACC title despite ranking 90th in the nation in scoring offense. Coach Frank Beamer's Hokies compensated by holding 10 opponents to fewer than 20 points.

"Maybe the best coaching job in the country last year was Virginia Tech," Davie said. "They had no experience on offense at all. They might have been the youngest offense in the country. But they did it by consistently playing great defense."

Apparently, then, the adage still applies: Defenses can win championships. But don't count on it too much.

"You have to have some offense," Davie said. "You have to score 21 points per game. You're not going to consistently win 14-10. Those days are over."

Win with defense?

Here are five teams, listed alphabetically, that have offensive questions but still should challenge for championships because of strong defenses:

Alabama: The Crimson Tide held 11 opponents to 21 or fewer points and ranked third in the nation in total defense last season. Nine starters return, including Cody and all four starting linebackers. Even an uncertain offense should be able to take advantage of the favorable field position Alabama's defense figures to frequently provide.

Clemson: Eight starters are back from a unit that ranked in the top 20 nationally in pass defense, scoring defense and total defense in '08. The secondary could be among the country's best with Crezdon Butler and Chris Chancellor at cornerback. The Tigers also have a potentially imposing pass rush with a maturing Da'Quan Bowers and seasoned Ricky Sapp leading the charge. Ten opponents were held to 21 or fewer points last season. The Tigers will need to be just as good to compensate for what could be a mediocre offense.

Iowa: The Hawkeyes' offense in '08 was centered on running back Shonn Greene, but he left early for the NFL. The Hawkeyes still could challenge for the Big Ten title if the defense proves as strong as it was last season, when it allowed just 13 points per game. Iowa must find new starting tackles, but Pat Angerer heads a group of linebackers that returns intact. The secondary will be good; cornerback Amari Spievey is a rising star, and safeties Brett Greenwood and Tyler Sash are coming off solid '08 campaigns.

Virginia Tech: Though the offense should be better, it's not sure enough to be counted on this season. But the defense is. No team that averaged fewer than 25 points matched Virginia Tech's 10 wins. The defense, which allowed just 16.7 points per game last season, has seven returning starters. Safeties Kam Chancellor and Dorian Porch will be one of the best duos in the country. End Jason Worilds is among the nation's best at his position, too.

West Virginia: The Mountaineers' defense should be potent. It had better be. Offensively, West Virginia lost Pat White and four starting linemen, so there are big holes to fill on that side of the ball. Defense will keep the Mountaineers in contention. Linebacker Reed Williams is recovered from shoulder problems that forced him to miss all but two games in '08. Tackle Scooter Berry and nose tackle Chris Neild are among six full-time starters who return. West Virginia was 11th in the nation in scoring defense last season, and the defense could be even better this season.

Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game sold out

Virginia Tech and Alabama have large and loyal followings, and thus it's no surprise that the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game is sold out, nine weeks before the Sept. 5 contest in Atlanta's Georgia Dome.

Both schools sold out their allotted 31,200 tickets, and there will be no public sales for a game expected to match two teams in the preseason top 10. Virginia Tech, the defending ACC champion, finished 10-4 last season. Alabama, the SEC runner-up and West Division winner, finished 12-2.

The Edge

This week, it's Colorado vs. UCLA.

Each week, we'll match two teams to determine which has the edge in various categories. Got a matchup you want to see? Send it to olin@rivals.com and we'll work on it.

1. Head to head
UCLA leads the all-time series 4-2. Colorado won the most recent meeting 16-14 in 2003.
Edge: UCLA
2. NFL first-round draft choices
Colorado: 22 (most recently defensive tackle Tyler Brayton by Oakland in 2003).
UCLA: 25 (most recently tight end Marcedes Lewis by Jacksonville in 2006).
Edge: UCLA.
3. Heisman winners
Colorado: RB Rashaan Salaam in 1994.
UCLA: QB Gary Beban in 1967.
Edge: Even.
4. Legal eagles with Heisman connections
Colorado: Former Supreme Court Justice Byron "Whizzer" White, who was second to Yale's Clint Frank in the 1937 Heisman voting.
UCLA: Attorney Johnnie Cochran, who led the defense in the murder trial of 1968 Heisman recipient O.J. Simpson.
Edge: Colorado. If the you're not on the Supreme Court, you have no retort. OK, so it's not as catchy as "if the glove don't fit " but you get the idea.
5. Nobel laureates
Colorado: 6 (most recently John L. Hall in Physics in 2005).
UCLA: 4 (most recently Bruce Merrifield in Chemistry in 1984).
Edge: Colorado.
6. Actors on "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit"
Colorado: Christopher Meloni, who plays Det. Elliott Stabler.
UCLA: Mariska Hargitay, who plays Det. Olivia Benson.
Edge: UCLA. Meloni has been nominated for an Emmy, but Hargitay has won an Emmy and a Golden Globe Award.
7. "Space" travelers
Colorado: Jack Swigert, one of just 24 men to have flown to the moon, was a member of the Apollo 13 crew.
UCLA: Tom Anderson, the founder of MySpace.
Edge: Colorado. Anderson never was portrayed by Kevin Bacon in a major motion picture.
8. Olympic gold medal-winning decathletes
Colorado: Bill Toomey in 1968.
UCLA: Rafer Johnson in 1960.
Edge: Even. Both set world records and had historic careers in track and field.
9. Teams led by Rick Neuheisel
Colorado: In four seasons under Coach Neuheisel from 1995-98, Colorado posted a 33-14 record and won three bowl games.
UCLA: As a quarterback, Neuheisel led the Bruins to the 1983 Pac-10 championship. Last season, the Bruins were 4-8 in their first season with Neuheisel as coach.
Edge: UCLA. Despite Neuheisel's success, Colorado did not win a conference championship with him in charge.
10. Iconic former coach
Colorado: Bill McCartney was 93-55-5 in 13 seasons from 1982-1994 in Boulder. That included a national championship in 1990.
UCLA: Terry Donahue, the winningest coach in school history, was 151-74-8 in 20 seasons from 1976-1995. That included four Rose Bowl appearances and a streak of seven consecutive bowl victories.
Edge: Colorado. McCartney got a national championship (albeit a disputed one, right Missouri fans?); Donahue didn't.

Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com.


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