Benchmarking the Competition: Who Had the Best Offense and Defense in 2008?
It always starts the same way. Media pundits gushing over video-game offensive and defensive statistics, touting playmakers and storylines, and predicting the winner or the next “game of the year, decade or century.” It fires up the fans.
This year will be no different: it may not be Oklahoma’s unthinkable, record setting offense or USC’s unbelievably dominant defense, but a pair of teams will emerge as the top offensive and defensive squads with gaudy statistics that defy reality.
But are these teams really the best in the country, or do they artificially benefit from poor competition on the other side of the ball?
How Do You Measure A Top Offense/Defense?
Points and yards (rushing, passing and/or total) per game are the two most commonly quoted statistics used to convey offensive and defensive prowess. Certainly evaluating the relative capability of 119 teams is not such a trivial task. But, for the moment, let’s take a look at the top ten offensive and defensive teams of 2008 using only these two metrics.
Disclaimer: For the purposes of this analysis the 2008 regular season statistics were used (i.e. no bowl game results were included). To be consistent, comparisons to the AP Poll are made using week 16 results, not those at the conclusion of the season. This is not expected to significantly alter the conclusions of this assessment.
2008 Top Ten Offenses: PPG
|Rank||Name||Points per game|
2008 Top Ten Offenses: YPG
|Rank||Name||Yards per game|
Only 11 teams occupy the top ten spots in points per game (PPG) and yards per game (YPG). Oklahoma, Tulsa, Texas Tech, Texas, Missouri, Oregon, Oklahoma State, Rice and Houston share a top ten ranking in both PPG and YPG. Florida ranked 3rd in PPG, but 18th in YPG. Nevada ranked 5th in YPG but 13th in PPG.
Of these 11 teams, seven were ranked in the top 25 of the AP Poll.
Several expected teams dot the list: Oklahoma, Florida, Texas Tech, Texas, Missouri, Oregon and Oklahoma State were all revered offenses in 2008. But there are also some surprises. While Tulsa and Nevada lit up scoreboards and defenses all season long, Rice and Houston seem somewhat out of place.
2008 Top Ten Defenses: PPG
|Rank||Name||Points per game|
2008 Top Ten Defenses: YPG
On defense, 14 teams populate the top ten spots in PPG and YPG.
USC, TCU, Alabama, Penn State, Ohio State and Florida all have top ten rankings in both PPG and YPG. Boise State, Iowa, West Virginia and Clemson have top ten rankings in PPG but fall short in YPG. Similarly, Tennessee, Boston College, Virginia Tech and Connecticut have top ten rankings in YPG but not in PPG.
Again, the top ten has several expected names: USC, Penn State, Florida, Alabama and Ohio State were very good on the defensive side of the ball in 2008. TCU, although not as highly publicized during the season, also fielded a very good defensive unit that ranked 2nd in both PPG and YPG.
Traditional ACC defensive stalwarts Boston College and Virginia Tech also fielded very strong squads last season while Tennessee fans may soon learn how valuable John Chavis really was (although Monte Kiffin is hardly a downgrade).
Boise State, Iowa, West Virginia, Clemson and Connecticut also made one of the two lists, despite not being widely known for their defense.
Of these 14 teams ranked in the top ten defensively in PPG and YPG, eight were ranked in the top 25 of the AP Poll.
One team suspiciously missing from all four top ten lists above ended the regular season number seven in the AP Poll. Prior to their bowl contest against Alabama, Utah ranked 15th in PPG and 31st in YPG on offense, and 12th in PPG and 18th in YPG defensively.
What About Efficiency?
Points and yards per game are rather gross statistics. Both can be viewed as a measure of the effectiveness of an offense or defense but don’t capture efficiency very well. Effectiveness is important, but an efficient offensive or defensive unit operates at a very high level.
A better measure of efficiency is yards per play (YPP). This can be further separated into yards per rushing and/or passing attempt to better indicate balance. However, in the interest of brevity, only YPP will be used here.
2008 Top Ten Offenses: YPP
|Rank||Name||Yards per play|
Many of the most effective offenses are also the most efficient.
Six (Tulsa, Houston, Oklahoma State, Missouri, Texas Tech and Oklahoma) of the top ten YPP offensive teams are also in the top ten in PPG and YPG.
Florida shares a top ten YPP ranking with its 3rd PPG ranking while Ball State, Georgia and USC make their first top ten offensive ranking.
Of the top ten teams in YPP, only Tulsa and Houston were unranked after week 16 of the 2008 season.
2008 Top Ten Defenses: YPP
|Rank||Name||Yards per play|
The trend continues on defense where five (USC, TCU, Penn State, Alabama and Florida) of the top ten defensive YPP teams are also top ten defensive units in PPG and YPG.
Two more teams (Tennessee and Boston College) share top ten rankings in YPP and YPG while Boise State and Iowa fielded top ten YPP and PPG squads.
Six of the top ten ranked YPP defensive teams held top 25 AP Poll rankings entering their bowl games.
What About The Competition?
At first glance the statistics above seem to align with popular opinion, many of the offensive and defensive teams perceived to be the best in the country in 2008 occupy top ten spots in PPG, YPG and YPP.
But what about adjusting for the strength of competition? Is it possible that the success of some teams noted above is exaggerated? Is it conceivable that a few were left off the list because they played a difficult schedule?
Most would agree that Oklahoma’s offense faced stiffer defensive competition than Tulsa, Houston, Nevada or Ball State. Likewise, many would agree that Florida and Georgia routinely faced tougher defenses than the teams from the Big 12.
The same reasoning can be applied on the other side of the ball. A compelling argument can be made that Alabama and Florida faced very good offensive teams throughout their SEC conference schedules.
This is where benchmarking comes in handy. An average team that faces poor competition can appear to be above average. Similarly, a very good team that faces good competition can appear below average.
For example, suppose Team X averaged 25 PPG against competition that allowed—on average—15 PPG. While 25 PPG seems rather pedestrian, it understimates Team X’s ability to score. The difference ratio (or performance ratio) of Team X’s average PPG and the average points allowed by opposing defenses ((25 – 15)/15 = 0.67) adjusts for this disparity.
This logic was built into the Team Performance Ratio (TPR), a metric recently added to the AV Ranking (click on the two preceding links for a full description of each). Using the TPR offensive and defensive metrics (red zone and third down efficiency, points per game, rushing yards per attempt and per game, and passing yards per attempt and per game), the top ten offensive and defensive teams of the 2008 regular season were determined.
The TPR (and in a more general sense this difference ratio approach) is designed to statistically benchmark both the effectiveness (PPG, rushing and passing yards per game) and efficiency (third down and red zone efficiency, rushing and passing yards per attempt) of a team relative to its competition.
2008 Top Ten Offense: TPR
Eight (Florida, Oklahoma, Georgia, Missouri, Oklahoma State, Tulsa, Texas and Texas Tech) of the top ten offensive TPR teams occupy at least one top ten offensive spot in PPG, YPG or YPP. Five (Oklahoma, Missouri, Oklahoma State, Tulsa and Texas Tech) of the top ten offensive TPR teams hold a top ten ranking in all three categories.
Penn State and Florida State, absent from the top ten PPG, YPG and YPP rankings, come in at numbers three and ten in the TPR ranking while Ball State, USC, Oregon, Rice, Houston and Nevada are not in the offensive TPR top ten.
Florida earned top offensive honors. The Gators more than doubled the PPG totals allowed by their opposing defenses. If that wasn’t enough, Florida boasted difference ratios of 45, 68, 83 and 44 percent in third down efficiency, rushing yards per attempt, rushing yards per game, and passing yards per attempt. In other words, the Gator offense routinely performed at a much higher level than their opponents typically allowed.
2008 Top Ten Defense: TPR
Seven (TCU, USC, Boise State, Florida, Alabama, Iowa and Ohio State) of the top ten defensive TPR teams occupy at least one top ten defensive spot in PPG, YPG or YPP. Four (TCU, USC, Florida and Alabama) team in the defensive TPR top ten also hold top ten defensive rankings in PPG, YPG and YPP.
Texas, California and Oklahoma make appearances as top ten defensive TPR teams despite no appearance in the top ten PPG, YPG or YPP while Tennessee, Penn State, Boston College, Troy, Virginia Tech, Connecticut, West Virginia and Clemson don’t make the top ten defensive TPR cut.
TCU tops the defensive TPR list (USC is a very close second). The Horned Frogs excelled in third down efficiency (difference ratio of 21 percent) and PPG (difference ratio of 28 percent), as well as rushing yards per carry (difference ratio of 33 percent).
So A Cursory Glance Is All That Is Needed?
The answer is both yes and no, it really depends what you’re looking for.
At first glance the conclusion of this analysis seems simple: PPG, YPG and YPP combined with BCS conference schools ranked in the top 25 is enough to characterize the top offensive and defensive teams in the country. An adjustment for competition really isn’t needed.
For those five (Oklahoma, Missouri, Oklahoma State, Tulsa and Texas Tech) teams in all four (PPG, YPG, YPP and TPR) top ten offensive rankings, this is true.
Likewise on defense, where the four (TCU, USC, Florida and Alabama) teams occupying a top ten spot in all four (PPG, YPG, YPP and TPR) defensive rankings were well-known, solid defensive units.
The numbers bear this out.
But there is more to it if you really want to determine which teams were first tier as well as which team fielded the best offense an defense.
When accounting for competition, Ball State, USC, Oregon, Rice, Houston and Nevada don’t appear the potent offensive squads the PPG, YPG and YPP statistics would have you believe. Ditto for Tennessee, Penn State, Boston College, Troy, Virginia Tech, Connecticut, West Virginia and Clemson on defense.
Moreover, it is Florida—not Oklahoma—that takes first place on offense and TCU—not USC—that tops the list on defense when the statistics are adjusted for the competition.
Additionally, adjusting for the competition shows the drop-off between the teams. The top ten offensive TPR rankings indicate that Florida and Oklahoma were clearly the best offensive teams during the regular 2008 season. The top ten defensive TPR rankings show that TCU and USC fielded far more superior defensive units than anyone else.
Bad News For Irish Fans
Prior to the bowl game against Hawaii, the Irish offense ranked 86th in PPG, 75th in YPG, and 85th in YPP. But these numbers are far worse when adjusted for the competition.
Notre Dame’s offensive TPR ranking comes in at 107th, highlighted by poor third down (-15 percent difference ratio) and red zone efficiency (-16 percent difference ratio) as well as rushing yards per game (-27 percent difference ratio) and rushing yards per attempt (-17 percent difference ratio).
The inept rushing game appears even worse when benchmarked to the competition.
The Irish defense faired slightly better.
For the regular season Notre Dame’s defensive unit ranked 43rd in PPG, 38th in YPG, and 37th in YPP. Adjusting for the competition puts the Irish slightly lower at 48th using the defensive TPR ranking.
The Irish played well on third down (11 percent difference ratio), in PPG (9 percent difference ratio), and were efficient defending the pass (10 percent difference ratio in yards per pass attempt). That isn’t national championship caliber, but it isn’t bad either.
All in all, however, these numbers pale in comparison to those of Florida and TCU noted above.