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Lincoln Riley, Big 12 Defense, and the Age of Stupid Takes

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Conference comparison season means that it must be July.

NCAA Football: Rose Bowl-Oklahoma vs Georgia Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

Author’s Note - This is the third in my string of summer stats columns, regular on Thursdays. Last week, I began a conversation about the role of randomness in turnovers, and promised a return to the topic next week. Unfortunately, someone was Wrong on the Internet, and so this week, I take a detour in the name of right.

As the summer continues, I’ll wander through some thoughts about football and analytics generally - “state of the game” kinds of things - and some more specific previews looking ahead to this fall, both in the Big 12 and around the NCAA. I’m always open to suggestions about college football data projects, so feel free to reach out in the comments.


I had a laugh in the pool yesterday with my roving SEC correspondent about Lincoln Riley’s recent comments regarding, shall we say, the variance of styles across conferences in college football. For the uninformed: Lincoln Riley said that Georgia wouldn’t be a top five defense in the Big 12 the last couple of years. Riley, in a one-off, live-show, unexpected-question situation spouted off something he probably didn’t 100% mean, but this is the offseason; now is not the time to let the little things go. I’ll use my Thursday column this week to categorically denounce Lincoln Riley’s take, simultaneously bemoaning the media culture of instant gratification which manufactures these little gems of stupidity.

First things first, without mincing words: Riley is flat out wrong about this. Let me count the ways. To do so, I created a super conference, of all the Big 12 and SEC teams’ individual defensive seasons over the last five years. Below, I slice and dice that conference in a couple of ways to find some kind of justification for Link’s comments, but there are none.

1. A list of five year average defensive S&P+ among teams in the SEC and the Big 12:

  • Alabama (17.3 point margin average)
  • LSU (22.7)
  • Georgia (24.5)
  • Florida (26.5)
  • Auburn (27.1)
  • TCU (27.9)
  • Texas (28.4)
  • Vanderbilt (29)
  • Oklahoma State (29.5)
  • Mississippi State (30.1)

Takeaways: S&P+ adjusts for opponents, capturing style along the way. Accounting for opponents, over the last five years, Georgia has been the third best defense in either conference, and would clearly be first in the Big 12.

2. A list of the best defensive team seasons from the last five years among teams in the SEC and the Big 12:

  • Alabama 2016 (6.7 point margin)
  • Alabama 2015 (9)
  • Florida 2012 (9.4)
  • Alabama 2012 (11.9)
  • Ole Miss 2014 (12.2) *Peach Bowl lol
  • LSU 2016 (12.8)
  • Florida 2016 (13.4)
  • Alabama 2017 (13.8)
  • Alabama 2014 (16.1)
  • Florida 2015 (16.5)

Takeaways: In fact, a Big 12 team doesn’t show up on this list until 2014 Texas at number 16, and then 2013 Oklahoma State at 21. While the decimal points of the S&P+ measure are probably too fuzzy for comparison, the point remains: accounting for opponent, the SEC’s defense is categorically more efficient than the Big 12’s, indicating that Georgia’s success would’ve been increased by a switch to the Big 12.

3. A list of the best defensive team seasons from the last five years among teams in the Big 12, with Georgia Included:

  • Texas 2014 (17.4)
  • Oklahoma State 2013 (18)
  • Georgia 2015 (19.2)
  • TCU 2013 (19.1)
  • Georgia 2017 (19.2)
  • TCU 2014 (19.6)
  • Georgia 2014 (19.9)
  • TCU 2012 (19.9)
  • Kansas State 2012 (20.3)
  • TCU 2017 (20.8)

Takeaways: This list is awesome. TCU has four of the top ten seasons put up by Big 12 defenses, which is a super fun fact. Also had Georgia been in the Big 12, they would own three of the best defensive seasons of the last five years.

Ultimately, Lincoln Riley said something stupid offhandedly on a talk-radio show. We probably need to afford him some nuance, and examine his claim that stylistically, Georgia plays in an “easier” offensive conference, and their defensive reputation has benefitted from a heretofore offensively-challenged SEC East. As demonstrated above, though, even when you account for opponents, the SEC far outclasses the Big 12 in defense, and the Big 12’s advantage in offense cannot negate that fact.

This is what happens, in our long summer of discontent. We are so close but still yet so far from the start of the season, and it’s been long enough now since we’ve seen football players in pads actually playing football, that all we are left with is Danny Kannell asking nonsense questions, and Lincoln Riley giving a nonsense answer.

Post-script: Lincoln Riley inherited a Heisman-caliber quarterback and the best offensive line in the history of college football, and he managed to not screw that up all the way to a postseason bid. Perhaps, this offseason, instead of pontificating about the quality of opponents who demonstrably outpaced him, the Sooner Wunderkind could worry about replacing the bulk of his offense and having to rely on scheme, not talent, this fall.