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Do underperforming defenses like Missouri’s get really good really fast?

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A dramatic turnaround by Missouri’s defense would be spectacular ...but unlikely.

NCAA Football: Missouri at Florida
DeMontie Cross, Barry Odom and Co. are counting on an improved Missouri defense this year. Just how much improving should they be counting on?
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

OK. Combined with last week’s piece, let’s call this the second part of an impromptu, two-part series devoted to the 2017 Missouri Tigers and titled “Just be patient, for cripes sake.”

On the podcast this week, I suggested that if Missouri’s defense could improve enough to crack the top 80 nationally this season, the Tigers should have a good chance to seeing a bowl berth.

I felt it was a fairly reasonable request, given that Missouri ranked 118th in total defense last year and a jump of around 40 spots -- combined with an offense that has every indication of being just as strong as last year — would be significant enough progress to win six or seven games.

Turns out I’m not optimistic enough. I guess. I’ve seen multiple people in multiple places say they’re expecting some sort of miraculous improvement from the Tigers’ defense this year. The first comment on the podcast suggested top 40.

Keep this in mind: Missouri gave up 31.5 points and 479.7 yards per game last year, along with 6.07 yards per play. Were the Tigers to rank 40th in all of those categories last year, their figures would have been 24.5 points and 370.5 yards per game, along with 5.34 yards per play.

Never mind that Missouri lost six starters off that team, and probably four of its top six defensive players.

Never mind that another argument I’ve seen trotted out a bunch — they played so much better after Barry Odom started taking the reins of the defense — ignores the elephant in the room of a 63-point, 609-yard Tennessee outing in the penultimate week of the season.

Never mind that, of those top-40 defenses, only 11 also ranked in the top 40 nationally in plays per game. Never mind also that, of those 11, only two ranked out of the top half of the nation in time of possession per game -- No. 88 Louisville and No. 107 UCF. Missouri ranked dead last, No. 128, a good three minutes per game less than UCF.

What is my point? High-play-volume offenses also tend to like to pack those plays into a decent amount of possession time. Gives the defense a chance to catch its breath, you know? Do you think Josh Heupel’s putting his foot on the brake this year? I wouldn’t think so.

Which is all a long way of saying...I’ve been wrong before (once...or twice...or a thousand times...), but I just don’t see top 40. Improved, yes. Trending upward, yes.

But not top 40.

I’m not usually content to just let my gut speak for itself, though.

So I went back to 2000 and looked at all the Power-5 teams that had the same approximate defensive profile as Missouri did last year -- bottom nine percent in the nation in yards per game allowed, bottom 28 percent in yards per play allowed, bottom 31 percent in points per game allowed — and saw how dramatic a change they were able to make the next season.

(For your edification, six teams fit that profile in 2016: Missouri, Syracuse, California, Oregon, Arizona State and Texas Tech.)

I found 47 cases over those 16 seasons from 2000 to 2015 and, with considerable help from CFBStats.com and the College Football Reference page, charted their improvements.

You want the good news first or the bad news?

The good news is only seven of those teams failed to make a demonstrable improvement the next season.

The bad news is only eight of those teams ended up ranked in the top 40 of any of those three categories — points per game, yards per game, yards per play — the next season.

The average team in this study ranked 111th in points per game and yards per play allowed and 117th in yards per game allowed during the year of sadness. The next year, the year of relative happiness, it ranked 86th in points and yards per game allowed and 83rd in yards per play allowed.

The average improvement experienced by these 47 teams ran as follows:

  • 13.6 percent in points per game allowed
  • 23.1 percent in rank
  • 9.27 percent in yards per game allowed
  • 26.1 percent in rank
  • 9.51 percent in yards per play allowed
  • 25.1 percent in rank.

Now, the fun part. Let’s apply these average improvements to Missouri and come to an accord as to what history can tell us to expect out of these Tigers:

  • 27.2 points per game
  • 68th nationally
  • 435.2 yards per game
  • 87th nationally
  • 5.49 yards per play
  • 70th nationally.

See? A top-70 defense (kind of). Nothing wrong with that.

Here’s the full breakdown. Remember, minuses in the “% Change” headings are good things:


Yes, I’m aware dramatic turnarounds can happen. Just look at the strides Missouri’s offense made from 2015 to 2016.

In that vein, let’s look at the five most dramatic turnarounds on this list and see what they can tell us about stuff:

— 2013 Baylor

Before: 37.2 ppg (113th), 502.2 ypg (123rd), 6.05 ypp (94th)

After: 23.5 ppg (36th), 360.0 ypg (27th), 4.75 ypp (9th)

First-team Big 12 linebacker Eddie Lackey put in an 108-tackle season and also led the way with 13 tackles for loss, as the Bears improved from 4.5 tackles for loss per game to 7.6. Baylor also improved its sacks per game from 1.5 to 2.5, had two corners with at least 10 pass break-ups, and Ahmad Dixon was one bad hombre at safety.

— 2006 UCLA

Before: 34.2 ppg (110th), 468.1 ypg (115th), 6.03 ypp (100th)

After: 19.9 ppg (39th), 314.5 ypg (35th), 4.87 ypp (33rd)

New defensive coordinator!!!!! Larry Kerr got the boot and DeWayne Walker came from the Washington NFL team, where he coached the defensive backs. The Bruins saw a huge sack increase from 2.1 a game to 3.1, as ends Bruce Davis and Justin Hickman both logged 12.5 sacks. UCLA also upped its pick total from eight to 13, as corner Trey Brown led the way with four interceptions.

-- 2016 Indiana

Before: 37.6 ppg (117th), 509.5 ypg (121st), 6.38 ypp (112th)

After: 27.2 ppg (57th), 380.1 ypg (45th), 5.09 ypp (25th)

New defensive coordinator!!!!! Out went Brian Knorr, in from South Florida came Tom Allen, who is now the Hoosiers’ head coach. Linebacker Tegray Scales had a monster of a junior season, with 123 tackles and 23.5 tackles for loss. Fellow linebacker Marcus Oliver added 15.5 tackles for loss as Indiana improved its mark in that category from 6.3 to 7.5 per game.

— 2009 Kansas State

Before: 35.8 ppg (111th), 479.1 ypg (118th), 6.21 ypp (106th)

After: 23.3 ppg (45th), 339.9 ypg (39th), 5.39 ypp (57th)

New whole dang coaching staff!!!!! Sayonara, Ron Prince. Time to towel off. Welcome back, Bill Snyder. And with him, co-coordinators Chris Cosh (from Maryland) and Vic Koenning (from Clemson). The Wildcats’ sack and tackle for loss numbers actually didn’t budge all that much, but they did collect 2.1 turnovers per game after 1.4 a game the year before — 13 picks to 10 and 12 fumble recoveries to seven. You know what else changed, big league? Pace. Kansas State ran 2.51 plays per minute in 2008, then 1.98 in 2009. The Wildcats held the ball six minutes longer a game in 2009, helping their defense get their legs. Interesting concept...

— 2005 North Carolina

Before: 31.8 ppg (93rd), 446.5 ypg (111th), 6.22 ypp (111th)

After: 26.2 ppg (63rd), 349.2 ypg (41st), 5.04 ypp (39th)

As we’ve seen before, marked improvements in tackles for loss (4.9 to 6.4) and sacks (1.7 to 2.8) per game, led by senior end Tommy Davis’ 10 tackles for loss and eight sacks. Senior corner Cedrick Holt’s 12 passes defended also paced an uptick in that department from 3.1 to 4.9 per game.