Defense is not dead in college football. It has been reborn, in a way, and some of the nation's top teams are playing new-school "D" quite well.
We can't define defensive success the same way we used to. Just because we see a team give up 35 points doesn't mean it had a bad day defensively. This is a very offensive-centric time. Baylor is scoring 61 points per game, and we're not surprised when they light it up. There is still room for defense. We just have to measure it in a different way.
The old style of a defensive coordinator walking into a meeting room and saying "OK, gentlemen, our defensive goals are to hold teams to three yards per rush and less than six yards per catch," -- those days are over.
I can't remember the last time I heard a defensive coordinator say, "Last week we gave up 437 yards, and that's just unacceptable." They don't even talk about yardage anymore.
What defenses are doing is replacing the metrics that used to be emphasized and replacing them with new ones. Here are the categories that coaches and players are most concerned about:
» Points allowed: Points allowed has always been a stat that mattered, but the concern about yards given up has lessened.
» Tackles for loss: Tackles behind the line of scrimmage are the plays that kill an offense, putting it in hard-to-convert second-and-long and third-and-long situations.
» Third-down percentage: Defenses that can consistently get off the field on third down force punts and limit scoring opportunities.
» Red-zone percentage: Winning in the red zone means forcing field-goal attempts. Keeping a team out of the end zone is usually a victory, even if they get three points out of the deal.
» Explosive plays allowed: This is the one exception where yardage comes into play, and teams quantify this in different ways. For our purposes, we'll define explosive plays as rushes longer than 10 yards and completions longer than 15 yards. Chunk-yardage plays can break a defense's spirit.
» Takeaways: Forcing a turnover is extremely potent. It creates an extra possession for your offense while taking a possession away from your opponent.
The defenses that are getting it done in these categories might come as a surprise. Baylor, 9-0, is not a traditional defensive power, but this season they are ranked among the top seven defenses in points allowed (seventh), tackles for loss (second) and red-zone percentage (tied for fifth).
With the exception of teams like Florida and Virginia Tech, the teams that are consistently ranked in the top 10 in these categories are among the best in the nation -- Alabama, Florida State, Michigan State, Louisville and Wisconsin.
However, traditional defensive powerhouses like LSU, Ohio State, Oklahoma and Texas are basically nowhere to be found in the upper echelon of these defensive categories.
Times have changed, and, in many cases, so have the teams we ought to think of as the best at playing defense in college football.