Big 12 Media Day Football

Big 12 Conference commissioner Bob Bowlsby made note on Monday that six of the league’s seven bowl teams held their opponents below their season offensive output in the bowl game.

ARLINGTON — In his annual “State of the Big 12 Address,” Bob Bowlsby discussed attendance, revenue distribution, possible expansion (not happening), and the ever-changing broadcasting landscape.

Only one topic, however, was accompanied by a shameless “Shut up and listen” directive.

OK, the commissioner didn’t actually tell the media to hush. He did call them to attention before delivering his favorite football-related tidbit from 2018.

“I want to see pencils moving and fingers tapping on this,” Bowlsby said with uncommon professorial sternness. He proceeded to rattle off a statistic that six of the seven Big 12’s bowl teams last year held their opponents below their season offensive averages. Then he repeated the nugget for emphasis.

“Contrary to popular belief, there are kids that tackle in the Big 12,” Bowlsby said.

Bob called that one. Popular belief about the Big 12 spins a much different tale. The proverbial thinking regarding Big 12 football is that it’s a passing league. A touchdown league. It’s basketball on grass.

You have to go to the SEC to find defense, to find real man’s football.

That’s the pervading reputation, anyway. And for good reason. It’s built on years of empirical data.

Now, those are extreme stereotypes. The truth likely lies closer to the middle. As Bowlsby alluded, Big 12 teams aren’t exactly ignoring the defensive side of the ball. They’re not playing two-below out there, y’all. Meanwhile, on the flip side, SEC teams don’t need Google Maps to find their way to the end zone. It is the conference of Tua Tagovailoa and Derrick Henry, of Leonard Fournette and Johnny Football, after all.

But perception is reality. And it becomes perception for real reasons.

Look no further than the Big 12’s top dog, Oklahoma. The Sooners have won the past four Big 12 titles and will be gunning for their third straight trip to the College Football Playoff in 2019. Yet the Sooner Schooner clicked along with no brakes last year, because OU couldn’t stop anyone. Oklahoma made the Final Four despite ranking 114th nationally in total defense.

That fact prompted a fair question from an inquisitive reporter to OU’s Lincoln Riley at Big 12 media days on Monday, who asked if defense really matters. “Matters a great deal,” answered Riley, because what else is he going to say? That said, he didn’t really elaborate why it matters.

I’ll fill in the blanks for him. If Oklahoma or anyone else from the Big 12 ever wants to win a national championship again — you have to time-travel all the way back to 2005 to dig up the fossil of the league’s last national title team in football — they need to get better on that side of the ball. A lot better.

Someone smart once noted that champions tend to get a stop or two. Some proof: Last year’s national champion Clemson ranked fifth in the country in total D. Alabama, its usual-suspect title game opponent, was 16th, an off year for the Tide after leading the nation the previous two years and finishing third in 2015. (TCU ranked as the Big 12’s top team in total D in 2018, coming in at No. 24 nationally.)

Or to put it even more plainly: The past 10 national champions in college football ranked fifth, first, eighth, third, 19th, third, first, first, 60th and second in total defense. Only 2010 Auburn finished outside the top 20, a 14-0 season that almost feels like a fluke (or a Cam Newton masterpiece) in retrospect.

With apologies to both Verizon and Sprint, can you hear me now? Even with two bars, I should be able to make this connection. You need a lights-out defense to win a national championship.

Now, understand this. For you old-timers in the audience, what constitutes good defense today isn’t even close to the same thing as what resembled great D four, three, even two decades ago.

It’s like comparing dial-up internet to today’s high-speed WiFi. New Texas Tech coach Matt Wells noted that he coached a game at Utah State in which the opponent ran 110 plays. In the “old days,” a team might’ve run 45 to 50.

Basically, teams today are running twice as many plays — leading to twice as many opportunities for the defenders to have their cleats melted by these go-go-go offensive attacks.

The rules have changed, too. Remember the old Southwest Conference days? Anything short of decapitation was a legal play. I’ll have to check, but I think Texas A&M’s Quentin Coryatt once gutted a receiver with a deer knife on the field. (OK — not quite. YouTube reveals that he just stood there while the other guy ran into him really, really hard, but that play still would’ve drawn six penalty flags today.)

You know what else is different today? Cars. Today’s models are smaller and sleeker than my first vehicle, a pistachio-green 1970 Mercury Monterey that we dubbed “the Green Limousine.” My little Kia looks nothing like that old Incredible Hulk of metal. But I still need it to get to where I’m going.

Bringing the analogy home: Defense may be different, but it’s still vital. Contenders need a great one to get where they’re going.

One of the longstanding traditions of Big 12 media days is that the conference sets up a trophy gallery of sorts. It’s really just a photo op, a way to publicize the various bowl games with which the league is linked. Over here is the Cotton Bowl trophy. Over there is the Texas Bowl. And so forth and so on.

For some reason, the CFP national championship trophy makes an appearance every year, too. Presumably, it’s to show the Big 12 teams what is possible if everything goes right.

Like, you know, tackling.

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