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Blogging about college football by an Oklahoma Sooners fan.

Fixing the Sooners: Life in the Big 12

(Editor's note: I promised you a few weeks back that we'd take a look at where things stand with the Oklahoma program and what – if anything – needs to be changed. In this first installment, I'll look at how strategy and emphasis has changed over the years in the Big 12, as well as what that means for Oklahoma's defense.)

If numbers are your thing, it's very easy to make the case that the Oklahoma Sooners' defense has slipped since the early years of Bob Stoops' tenure.

Oklahoma Total Defense, 1999-2011
Year Avg. Yards Allowed
(Natl. Rank)
1999 344.4 (11)
2000 278.9 (8)
2001 262.8 (4)
2002 293.1 (10)
2003 259.6 (3)
2004 299.0 (13)
2005 306.67 (13)
2006 287.1 (16)
2007 338.4 (26)
2008 367.7 (68)
2009 272.6 (8)
2010 361.9 (53)
2011 383.2 (62)

That slow decline seemingly came to a head this year. In the Sooners' three losses this season, Texas Tech, Baylor and Oklahoma State torched OU's defense, primarily through the air.

When your D gets worked that way, it's only natural that the drumbeat for change would pick up. When it's considered part of a sustained trend, the murmurs and grumblings can turn into calls for public beheadings. Hence the recent pining for ex-defensive coordinator Mike Stoops and calls for the head coach to sacrifice Brent Venables for the Sooners' lapses.

(Continue...)

Despite the shortcomings of his defenses at Arizona, Mike remains a hot commodity on the coaching circuit as a coordinator. Talk of offers from heavy hitters like Ohio State and Nebraska show the kind of respect that he still gets for his defensive wizardry back in the day. Contrast that with Venables, whose stock is so cold it has freezer burn.

If we're just going off of those total defense stats, there's no doubt who has the better defensive mind – it's Mike by a mile. The problem, of course, is that total defense by itself lacks context.

B12-Total-Offense-Median
Since the mid-2000s, the Big 12's affinity for the spread offense has literally transformed the league. Those wide-open schemes naturally inflate offensive statistics, so it comes as no surprise that as the spread has proliferated around the conference, offensive output has as well. As the figure immediately above shows, in three of the last five years, the median average total offense in the Big 12 has exceeded the highest point of the previous eight years.

Turn on any college game these days, and the chances that at least one of the participants will be running some variant of the spread are pretty high. In that sense, the Big 12 isn't exactly unique. What sets the Big 12 apart, however, is not only the ubiquity of the spread, but the productivity of the teams running it. Check out how the league's offensive production, again represented by median total yardage, has changed relative to the rest of the country since '99.

Big 12 Total Offense (Median), 1999-2011
Year Avg. Total Offense
(Median)
Natl. Rank
(Median)
1999 374.3 57
2000 372.1 57
2001 375.7 60
2002 385.9 47.5
2003 409.1 34
2004 368.1 64
2005 345.0 79.5
2006 382.8 27.5
2007 455.9 16
2008 441.6 16.5
2009 389.5 51
2010 403.9 39.5
2011 471.5 13

Since 2007, the upper half of Big 12 teams have all finished above 16th overall in total offense three times. That says something about how explosive these squads really are.

It would be a huge mistake to just assume that because Big 12 teams are gaining more yards in the aggregate that it means the "best" offense in the country is being played there. Compiling stats don't equal proficiency. However, the upswing in total yardage does reflect a difference in both emphasis and strategy. Consequently, the decline in the statistical performances of the Big 12 defenses appears inevitable.

So what does this mean for how we should look at OU?

When evaluating performance, we need to go beyond simple raw stats like total defense to come to informed conclusions. Finishing in the top 10 nationally in total D sounds impressive, but it could say just as much about a defense's competition as it does that defense itself.

OK, so Venables and the rest of OU's defensive staff deserve a pass? Hardly.

However, we should recognize that the world of Big 12 football has clearly changed in recent years. From an offensive standpoint, Big 12 teams are almost playing a different game from back when Bob Stoops started coaching at OU and Mike was high right-hand man.

As such, a slide in the national rankings is an easy argument to make in favor of canning Venables. Yet, it doesn't really make for a compelling case against him.