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Blogging about college football by an Oklahoma Sooners fan.

Red zone defense in the Big 12

New Texas Tech head coach Kliff Kingsbury last week gave the perfect summation of the rationale behind the rise of up-tempo, spread offenses in college football:

"You want me to play slower, well, OK, you need to get smaller, less strong defensive linemen. To me, it's asking to do that. Stop recruiting these beasts up front and we won't run as many plays."

Kingsbury was responding, of course, to recent calls from the likes of Alabama’s Nick Saban and Arkansas’ Bret Bielema for the NCAA to write rules intended to slow fast-paced offenses. That quote got all the attention, but, as noted by our friend Senator Blutarsky at Get The Picture, Kingsbury, fresh off a stint as Texas A&M’s offensive coordinator in the SEC, offered some more intriguing observations about how we should evaluate the quality of defenses versus the spread.

“There are some really good players in the Big 12 on defenses, but yards per game is through the roof. That’s just the nature of the game. If Alabama or LSU or those guys faced these offenses all the time, each and every week, it would be different. That’s just a fact.

“We’re big on being great in the red zone, holding people to field goals and creating turnovers. I think the yards are going to be up there. It’s just the way the game is set up these days.”

I’ve shared Kingsbury’s line of thinking when it comes to life in the Big 12 for a while now, and it seems to reflect the emerging consensus on how to best defend the spread:

*Accept that these offenses are going to pick up yards and move the ball;

*Bow up as the field gets shorter and there’s less room for offenses to operate.

Put another way: We traditionally view the defense’s objective as preventing the offense from moving the ball forward. Against the spread, the objective is to minimize the damage.

In practice, that makes forcing a field goal almost tantamount to a stop. It also puts a premium on being able to convert red zone opportunities into six points instead of three.

What does that look like from a statistical perspective? Bearing in mind that these numbers include non-conference games, let’s consider the offenses from last year in the conference first:

Team Red zone trips per game
Oklahoma State 5.54
Kansas State 5.46
Baylor 5.31
Texas Tech 5.23
Oklahoma 5.15
Texas 4.85
West Virginia 4.54
TCU 4.38
Kansas 3.25
Iowa State 3.15

*Source: cfbstats.com

The conference’s median number of offensive red zone trips was five per game. Kansas and Iowa State fell well below that mark. TCU really wasn’t much better.

How about converting those opportunities?

Team Red zone TD %
Texas 69.84
West Virginia 69.49
Oklahoma 68.66
Oklahoma State 66.67
Texas Tech 66.18
Iowa State 65.85
Baylor 65.22
Kansas State 63.38
TCU 49.12
Kansas 46.15

*Source: cfbstats.com

Not much difference overall, but two teams stand out for their conversion rates: Kansas and TCU. While their conference counterparts were hitting paydirt between 65 percent and 70 percent of the time that they made it inside the opponents’ 20, the Jayhawks and Horned Frogs were trying field goals on about every other trip.

Let's look at the defenses in the red zone:

Team Red zone trips per game
TCU 2.92
Oklahoma 3.23
Kansas State 3.62
Iowa State 3.92
Oklahoma State 4.08
Texas Tech 4.15
Baylor 4.46
Texas 4.46
West Virginia 4.92
Kansas 5.42

*Source: cfbstats.com

Defensively, the conference’s median number of red zone trips was approximately 4.1 per game. Again, Kansas looks like an outlier on the wrong end.

And conversion rates:

Team Red zone TD %
TCU 47.37
Kansas State 48.94
Oklahoma State 56.6
Iowa State 56.86
Texas 58.62
Kansas 61.54
Texas Tech 62.96
West Virginia 64.06
Oklahoma 64.29
Baylor 68.97

*Source: cfbstats.com

Kansas State and TCU clearly did better than the rest of the league when it came to forcing field goals.

A few observations within the framework of Kingsbury's comments:

*The Big 12 had six teams finish the year with records between 9-4 and 7-6: Texas, OSU, Baylor, Texas Tech, TCU and WVU. The overall picture painted by the red zone numbers indicate that balance shouldn't have come as a surprise.

*League champ K-State fits the mold of a good defensive team. The Wildcats excelled at stymying offenses inside the 20. Not to mention, KSU led the conference in turnovers forced (32). Would you expect anything less from the Purple Wizard?

*Meanwhile, TCU’s season illustrated an offensive corollary. The Horned Frogs played well defensively in the red zone. On the other side of the ball, however, the Horned Frogs’ inability to get touchdowns in the red zone likely played a big part in their mediocre record. With Casey Pachall back behind center this fall, the rest of the league needs to watch out.

*Oklahoma presents a unique case. Despite surrendering TDs at a relatively high rate inside the red zone, the low-ish number of opponents' opportunities suggests to me that the Sooners might have played a little stouter D across the other 80 yards of the field than the rest of the league. (Same goes for TCU.) For as poorly as OU played against the run in '12, that would provide proof that Mike Stoops actually did a fantastic job coaching up the secondary and scheming against the pass.