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That Missouri's defense is good is no "change"

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Missouri's per-game defensive yardage and scoring totals are better this year than they've ever been. That doesn't mean good defense is a "change" in Columbia.

Paul Halfacre

Ahh, narratives. From my 2014 SB Nation Mizzou preview:

When Missouri moved to the SEC, almost all of the talk was about Mizzou's unique offense and how it might be able to cope in its new conference. But at this point, perhaps Missouri's defense should become the first topic of conversation. After all, it has graded out higher than the offense in three of the last four seasons:

  • 2010: 10th in Def. F/+, 17th in Off. F/+
  • 2011: 24th in Off. F/+, 34th in Def. F/+
  • 2012: 41st in Def. F/+, 85th in Off. F/+
  • 2013: 11th in Def. F/+, 17th in Off. F/+

In 2013, Missouri's defense employed its typical bend-don't-break identity: occasionally soft zones, solid tackling, and no more blitzing than is absolutely necessary until the opponent reaches the red zone, at which point it's time to tee off. But the Tigers didn't actually bend that much, at least against teams not named Auburn, thanks to the combination of a top-30 run defense and a solid, blitz-free pass rush. Four high-caliber defensive ends allowed Mizzou to form a cloud with its back seven, and an experienced secondary was able to take advantage of quarterbacks that were harried, even when they weren't getting sacked.

It was a solid recipe; the national average for yards per play was about 5.8, and Mizzou went six consecutive games in conference play allowing 5.5 or fewer. And after Auburn went nuts (8.0 per play), Mizzou held Oklahoma State to a humble 5.7 in the bowl game as well.

Obviously the entire sporting universe hasn't caught on to the wonder of the F/+ rankings, but it's been pretty clear for a while that Missouri knows what it's doing on the defensive side of the ball. The 2010 defense featured Aldon Smith and an experienced secondary and was able to help Mizzou to a 10-win season despite a lack of explosiveness on offense. The 2012 defense tried as hard as it could to keep Mizzou in games despite a woeful offense, then faded late in the year. The 2013 defense had an All-American defensive end on one side, a second-round draft pick on the other, and a guy who is now one of the best rookie cornerbacks in the NFL out wide.

Missouri has produced defensive talent and utilized it well for quite a while. In these terms, it should be no surprise that the Tigers are currently in the Def. F/+ top 15. They've spent a lot of time there in the last half-decade.

Even if you're not into advanced stats, it isn't too difficult to see that Missouri's been a pretty good defensive program. You need only a basic understanding of tempo and yards per play. Or, you can forego all context, write an AP story with the headline of "For a change, defense is Missouri's strength", and raise every hackle I've got.

The improvement has been remarkable just from last year.

Missouri is first or second in the SEC in every major defensive category in league play and held three opponents — Toledo, South Carolina and Georgia — to season lows in yards.

The Tigers are 16th in the nation in total defense, up from 81st. Points allowed is 13th best, up from 34th. Pass defense is 55 yards stingier at 35th, way up from 107th. The Tigers are sixth in the nation in sacks and eighth in tackles for loss after ranking 12th and ninth last year.

Missouri has played worse offenses this year, and the offense has slowed its pace down to a crawl. That will account for a drastic change in total yardage and point totals. This is the case for any team in the country.

At this point, the only way you could think Missouri's defense was anything less than solid last year is if you only watched the Auburn game and nothing else...

...oh. I see.

It's great that people are noticing how good a coordinator Dave Steckel has become. And part of me feels bad about picking on what is truly a complimentary article with a great quote from Michael Scherer. But ... that headline, man. Like a dagger through this nerd's heart.

Then again, not even Dave Steckel is a fan of Dave Steckel, so I'm probably wasting my time trying to build a case here.

When asked about his inclusion as a Broyles finalist, Steckel referenced two seasons ago -- 2012, when those sweeping changes were thought necessary by people outside the program.

"I mean, just remember, two years ago you guys were getting me fired," Steckel said. "I'm still the same dumbass. I just have great assistants and great players."

(I don't think anybody was trying to get you fired two years ago, coach. But hey, whatever keeps that boulder on the shoulder...)