Defense wins championships? Think again. LSU’s title in 2019 may have marked a turning point in an era we already knew had arrived.
The five highest scoring seasons in college football history have all come since 2012.
The offensive revolution continued this past season with all-time highs being set nationally in completion percentage, passing yards per attempt and yards per play.
LSU in particular proved that it is becoming more efficient to outscore opponents on your way to a national championship. The Tigers ended the season with the third-“worst” total defense of any national champion since the beginning of the wire service era in 1936. Only Auburn in 2010 and Penn State in 1982 allowed more average yards among all titlists since polls began deciding things 84 years ago.
LSU also finished third-worst all-time for a champion in total defense, allowing 21.9 points per game. That’s behind only Ohio State in 2014 (22.0) and Auburn in 2010 (24.1).
Read between the sidelines: Scoring a lot trumps defending a lot. Five of the 10 all-time worst defensive performances by a national champion (yardage and points allowed) have occurred since 2010. None of those five finished lower than seventh nationally in scoring.
Meanwhile, for the first time in the College Football Playoff era, all four participants in 2019 (LSU, Oklahoma, Clemson, Ohio State) placed among the top six nationally in scoring.
“The day of playing great defense, having the best defense in the country, it definitely matters to be really good on defense,” said Gene Chizik, coach of that 2010 Auburn team. “[You can also] look up 550 yards later, 35 points later, and you beat ’em because your offense is better.”
In becoming the second 15-0 team of the modern age, LSU allowed an average of 344.2 yards (31st nationally) and 21.9 points (32nd nationally). Historically, those numbers are unheard of for a national champion.
With similar defensive averages, Iowa State finished 4-7 in 1992, the same year Alabama won the national championship allowing less than 200 yards and 10 points per game.
That’s how much trends have flipped.
LSU’s defensive numbers haunted former defensive coordinator Dave Aranda on the night of the national championship game. His team had won by 17 points. His defense gave up 25 points and 394 yards.
“As a defensive coach, you want to shut everything down,” Aranda said amid the celebration on the floor of the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. “You don’t want to give up a yard. You kind of live in frustration.”
It helped to have a generational quarterback (Joe Burrow) guiding one of the best offenses in the game’s history.
Balancing LSU’s mediocre D was the game’s highest-scoring offense (726 points) since at least 1936. LSU became the first SEC team to have a 5,000-yard passer, 1,000-yard rusher and two 1,000-yard receivers.
“You’re going to get fired in Power Five football if you don’t have a quarterback,” Chizik said.
He ought to know. Chizik rode Cam Newton to that 2010 title. Two years later, with Kiehl Frazier at quarterback, Auburn went 0-8 in SEC play and Chizik was fired.
It is almost symmetrical that Newton and Burrow bracketed the decade as not only two of the best quarterbacks in the last 10 years but also two of the best of all-time.
Chizik’s 2010 Auburn defense was the worst statistically ever for a national champion — finishing 60th in total defense, 53rd in scoring defense.
“We didn’t have great players on defense,” Chizik said. “We were trying to mask and hide guys. “What I knew was that, offensively, we were so good [that] we could score so many points — as long we weren’t giving up gashes and gashes on defense — we would always have a chance to win.”
The NFL has long been busy mimicking college offenses. The Kansas City Chiefs won their first Super Bowl in 50 years with Andy Reid’s imaginative offense, which includes the spread, RPOs, the freeze option and — at least on Sunday — a Michigan goal-line play from the 1948 Rose Bowl. Patrick Mahomes carried his firestarter abilities from Texas Tech to the Chiefs to a Super Bowl title.
“Here’s what I always say. … If you want to win big, one of two things [has to happen]. Offensively, you need a difference maker at quarterback, first-round draft pick guy, a total difference maker in college. Or you better surround him with a bunch of first- and second-round draft picks,” Chizik said.
LSU had both. Compare its 2019 defense to those of its first national championship team in 1958. That defense allowed 191.4 yards and a nation-leading 5.1 points per game.
How times have changed. The last national champion to allow less than 200 yards per game was Oklahoma in 1985. Only two champions since 1990 have allowed less than double digits in scoring: Miami (1991) and Alabama (2011).
LSU won three games last season giving up at least 37 points. One of those opponents, Ole Miss, ran for 402 yards on Nov. 16. The Tigers won going away, 58-37.
Similar to LSU and Burrow, Auburn in 2010 had Newton to pretty much bail it out of any predicament. There were only four players drafted off that team, the fewest of any national champion in the decade. Only two of them (Newton, defensive tackle Nick Fairley) were first-rounders. LSU this year may have as many as five first-rounders alone in the 2020 NFL Draft.
“When you have a band of brothers that all want to fight for the same goal, when you do reach for perfection, that’s pretty good, too,” said Aranda, now Baylor’s head coach. “I’ve never been on a team like this.”
2019 statistical highlights
- Scoring leveled off a bit this season. The 2019 average of 28.94 points per team was down slightly from the record set in 2016 (30.08). The No. 2 scoring season came in 2018 (29.59). The top 10 scoring seasons have occurred since 2007. The NCAA has kept track of national statistics since 1937.
- Not surprisingly, national records have been set at least once since 2007 in 11 of 14 offensive categories tracked by the NCAA. The new highs in 2019 included completion percentage (60.65 percent) surpassing the old mark of 60.5 percent in 2012. For the second consecutive year, four quarterbacks completed at least 70 percent of their passes. Also, passing yards per attempt grew to a record 7.52. Average yards per play hit a high of 5.83, surpassing the previous record set in 2016 by .00049 of a yard per play – or less than half an inch per play.
- Average rushing attempts (38.18) and average rushing yards (170.17) were the fewest since 2011.
- A record four players rushed for at least 2,000 yards in a single season: Oklahoma State’s Chuba Hubbard (2,094), Navy quarterback Malcolm Perry (2,017), Ohio State’s J.K. Dobbins and Wisconsin’s Jonathan Taylor (2,003 yards each).
- The AAC wants to consider on the same level as the so-called “Power Five’ conferences. Well, 2019 marked the first time that the conference led the nation in scoring. Its teams averaged 31.5 points per game. For the third consecutive year the AAC had three teams among the top three in scoring.
- In the second year of the fair catch rule, only 40 percent of kickoffs were returned. That’s believed to be a new all-time low after only 41 percent were returned in 2018.
- Virginia Tech’s veteran defensive coordinator Bud Foster went out on a high note. Only three teams in the last three years forced at least five three-and-outs in 40 percent of its games: Clemson, Michigan and Virginia Tech. One of those teams in that span won a national championship (Clemson), another won 10 games (Michigan). Virginia Tech is 23-16 in the last three seasons. Foster retired after the 2019 season.
- Best team you never saw: Air Force, which was only of only 17 teams to win 11+ games. Why does coach Troy Calhoun come up for jobs so often? The Falcons finished No. 1 in SportsSource Analytics’ offensive control metric. Offensive control measures time of possession, first-down efficiency, third-down efficiency and percentage of drives resulting in touchdowns. Remember, we’re talking about Air Force (11-2 in 2019). Among the top 10 in that category, LSU was fifth and Ohio State was fourth. Air Force also finished first in fewest penalties per game, second in time of possession and third in pass efficiency.