Unit Rankings: Big 12 North Defenses

So yesterday we established that any discussion of Big 12 North Offenses in 2009 still revolved first around Kansas and Missouri.  Now, we move on to the defense.  We'll go through the exact same attempted numbers-over-biases analysis and see where that gets us.

DEFENSE

Defensive Line

2008 Rankings

  1. Missouri (#26)
  2. Nebraska (#42)
  3. Kansas (#47)
  4. Colorado (#58)
  5. Iowa State (#79)
  6. Kansas State (#96)

We all have a lot of confidence and optimism regarding Jacquies Smith, Brian Coulter, and Aldon Smith, but the facts--the known knowns--are that Missouri's DL loses three starters and will likely tumble a bit. 

Nebraska returns Ndamukong Suh, and that's great.  It really is.  Pierre Allen's also a good rush end.  Steinkuhler #19 was a big-time recruit.  Et cetera.  I am fully willing to believe that NU has the best D-line in the division.  But let's not pretend like this is the best D-line in the conference, or the country, or anything.  Most people, when they talk about how Nebraska is obviously the best team in the North now, tend to overstate the D-line's exploits a bit.  But while they were 9th in the country in Adjusted Sack Rate, they were only 48th in Line Yards+ (meaning, they were great rushing the passer but thoroughly mediocre against the run).  Nebraska's Rushing Defense S&P+ was 60th in the country last year.  They really do probably have the best DL in the division this year, but let's rein in the expectations a bit here.

Kansas returns three DL starters from their solid unit, so they should continue to improve; meanwhile Iowa State can build around a solid pair in DT Nate Frere and DE Rashawn Parker.  Kansas State returns Brandon Harold and welcomes a potential new star in Virginia transfer (well, more of a drop-out, really) Jeffrey Fitzgerald.

Oh yeah, and the returning leading tackler on CU's D-line is DT Curtis Cunningham.  He had 7.5 tackles in 2008.  Nick Nolte Dan Hawkins has recruited well here, but the experienced players have little to no talent, and the talented players have little to no experience.

Tentative 2009 Rankings

  1. Nebraska
  2. Kansas
  3. Missouri
  4. Iowa State
  5. Kansas State
  6. Colorado
I'll be more impressed when he actually does something against Missouri for once, ahem...whoops, did I say that?

Linebackers

2008 Rankings

  1. Missouri (#28)
  2. Nebraska (#34)
  3. Colorado (#36)
  4. Kansas (#49)
  5. Kansas State (#75)
  6. Iowa State (#98)

Sean Weatherspoon returns, so...yeah, #1 is staying the same.  Nebraska has experience in guys like Blake Lawrence and 17th-year senior Phillip Dillard, and they've got young potential in guys like Will Compton.  There isn't a star in the mix here, but this should be a solid unit.  Jeff Smart and Brad Moehler return to anchor a solid LB unit in Boulder.  Iowa State's unit still won't be very good, but it has experience in guys like Jesse Smith and Fred Garrin.

Kansas?  No returning starters (beyond Arist Wright and his six career starts).  Kansas State?  No returning talent.  I mean, you figure Bill Snyder will milk the most he can out of them, but still...

Tentative 2009 Rankings

  1. Missouri
  2. Nebraska
  3. Colorado
  4. Iowa State
  5. Kansas
  6. Kansas State
SPOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOON...

Defensive Backs

2008 Rankings

  1. Colorado (#13)
  2. Kansas (#23)
  3. Missouri (#28)
  4. Nebraska (#31)
  5. Kansas State (#62)
  6. Iowa State (#109)

Due probably to their strength of schedule (they played a LOT of good offenses), Colorado's secondary actually ranked quite high in 2008.  They lose tackling machine Ryan Walters, but they do return a pair of solid corners in Cha'Pelle Brown and Jalil Brown (no relation...I think?).  As thin as they are at LB, Kansas is deep at DB, returning, well, basically everybody you can name.  Darrell Stuckey, Justin Thornton, Phil Strozier, Chris Harris, Daymond Patterson.

That's right, Missouri clocked in at #28.  Again, think of strength of schedule here.  They faced every good offense in the conference except Texas Tech, plus they took on Illinois and Nevada in non-conference.  Close your eyes, and continue telling yourself that they weren't as bad as you want to think.  You'll sleep better at night. Regardless of how they may have been in 2008, they are certainly in flux this year.  William Moore is a loss, but we didn't really maximize his talents that much anyway, I guess.

Nebraska returns basically everybody but Armando Murrillo in the secondary, so they'll hop Missouri here.  K-State was pretty far back in the rankings, and while, again, Snyder will coach them up (it's hard to tell how much talent KSU actually has since their coaching was so terrible...THEY WERE SOLD A BILL OF GOODS...sorry, was channeling Beef there), they probably won't make up the gap.  And...sheesh.  Think of how bad ISU's secondary would have been without stud freshman Leonard Johnson!

Tentative 2009 Rankings

  1. Kansas
  2. Colorado
  3. Nebraska
  4. Missouri
  5. Kansas State
  6. Iowa State
I'm not going to lie.  I wish Darrell Stuckey were on my team.

DEFENSE SUMMARY

Add that up, and what do you get?

Tentative 2009 Defensive Ranking

1. Nebraska (6)
2T. Missouri (8)
2T. Kansas (8)
4. Colorado (11)
5. Iowa State (14)
6. Kansas State (16)

Kind of an interesting order.

Since there are three units on defense and four on offense, let's weight them equally by multiply all the defensive scores by 1.33.

1. Nebraska (8)
2T. Missouri (10.7)
2T. Kansas (10.7)
4. Colorado (14.7)
5. Iowa State (18.7)
6. Kansas State (21.3)

Special Teams

I'm going to freelance on this one.  Still not making a lot of headway on special teams rankings.

2008 Rankings

1. Missouri
2. Nebraska
3. Kansas
4. Iowa State
5. Kansas State
6. Colorado

Of the four primary, most easily-definable special teams positions--kicker, punter, kick returner, punt returner--Mizzou loses three in Jeff Wolfert, Jeremy Maclin, and Jeremy Maclin.  Nebraska returns a good kicker in Alex Henery and a good kick returner in Niles Paul, and they'll move up to #1.  Kansas returns an average punter, a decent punt returner, and a good kicker but loses Marcus Herford at kick returner.  Iowa State returns everybody from a mediocre unit, and Colorado loses returner Josh Smith while returning average punter Matt DiLallo and downright poor kicker Aric Goodman.

Bottom line here: Nebraska's special teams unit is rather proven; everybody else's is iffy.  So it's like 1st place, a four-way tie for 2nd, and Colorado in 6th.

Projected 2009 Rankings

  1. Nebraska
  2. Iowa State
  3. Kansas
  4. Missouri
  5. Kansas State
  6. Colorado

Coaching

I'm not even sure I want to touch this one.  Gary Pinkel has led Mizzou to five bowls in six years, which, considering the recent history, is an amazing accomplishment.  He has never finished below Mark Mangino's team in the standings.  He just led Mizzou to their first ever North division title...and then did it again.  Missouri's 30 wins in three seasons are a record.  And yet he continuously gets ranked, at best, in the middle of the pack among Big 12 coaches.  He did a terrible job in 2004, and he's still paying for it today, I guess.  Anyway, because of the differences of opinion just with my own team's coach, I'm going to use something I used in the Illinois BTBS preview: Pythagorean Records.  I will rank these coaches solely on that, and really, for everybody but Bill Snyder and Paul Rhoads, this makes sense--their abilities as it pertains to developing or recruiting talent have already been accounted for somewhat by all of the rankings above.  They shouldn't get double credit.  Instead, the Pythagorean record accounts for the difference between talent and execution (measured by point differential) and wins/losses.

  • Gary Pinkel since 2002 (I don't have 2001 in my database yet): 55-34.  Pythagorean wins projection: 55.87.  Difference per year: -0.12 wins.
  • Mark Mangino since 2002: 45-41.  Pythagorean wins projection: 46.15.  Difference per year: -0.15.
  • Bill Snyder from 2002 to 2005: 31-19.  Pythagorean wins projection: 34.80.  Difference per year: -0.99.
  • Dan Hawkins since 2006: 13-24.  Pythagorean wins projection: 14.47.  Difference per year: -0.82.
  • Bo Pelini since...well...how should we do this?  One year is not a sample size, so I'm not sure I have a choice but to tack on his last two years as DC at LSU just so I can get at least a three-year sample size here.  So since 2006: 32-8 (with a major asterisk).  Pythagorean wins projection: 29.63.  Difference per year: +0.79.
  • Paul Rhoads: 0-0.  (Difference: 0.0!)

So even sticking Rhoads in last place because he's a first-year coach, this gives you some interesting results.  Being that I'm petrified of Bill Snyder, I'm breaking my own "Numbers, not opinions" rule here and making him #1.  I hate giving a second-year coach the #2 spot, but hey...whatever gets NU fans off my back.

2009 Projected Rankings

  1. Kansas State
  2. Nebraska
  3. Missouri
  4. Kansas
  5. Colorado
  6. Iowa State

OVERALL

Total Projection Points

  1. Kansas (26.7)
  2. Missouri (26.7)
  3. Nebraska (27.0)
  4. Iowa State (40.7)
  5. Kansas State (43.3)
  6. Colorado (45.7)

So again, the point of this exercise was to figure out where the discussion should start.  If you want to believe Nebraska's "back," then believe it.  If you want to think Colorado really is going to break this year, feel free. If you believe that the only reason Derrick Washington and the Mizzou O-line seemed strong in 2008 was because of Chase Daniel, Jeremy Maclin, and Chase Coffman (and that any thought of Mizzou doing well in 2009 is wishful thinking and OMG PHIL STEELE THINKS YOU ARE TEH SUCK!!!), go right ahead and believe it.  But those are all opinions--sticking as closely as possible to facts, stats, and proven commodities (and it's impossible to stick only to that without at least some of your own opinions bleeding through), you see a rather different picture than the one being painted in most conference previews.

Who knows what will happen, but the North shapes up to be a distinct three-team race in 2009, a race anybody can win.  If Nebraska is "back" and winning the North again this year, they're going to have to earn it by winning on the road against two teams that match up very evenly with them.  If Colorado is going to finally fulfill their "sleeper" potential, they're going to have to do it by sneaking past two teams that basically as proven (or unproven) as they are, plus maybe another team that is much more proven.

Bottom line: let the arguments begin.

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