Bear with me, dear reader, for a brief moment, and we shall undertake a thought exercise.
Imagine, if you will, a football defense of our own creation. We’ll call them the Schissouri Schigers.
Let’s say that, over the past four full seasons, these Schigers gave up an average of 1.71 points per drive that they faced. Let’s say, also, that this team from Schissouri faced an average of 13.4 drives per game over that span of time.
Then we would expect those Schigers to give up about 22.9 points per game, right?
Now what happens if we jack up the number of drives those Schigers face per game to, say, 17? And we keep their stinginess steady at 1.71 points per drive.
Then we would expect those Schigers to give up about 29.1 points per game.
They are no worse as a defense by rate but, from sheer virtue of facing more drives per game, the Schigers are now giving up 6.2 more points per game. And, over the course of a bowl-bound, 13-game season, that adds up to about 81 more points surrendered.
OK, now I have a surprise for you. All these theoretical numbers we’ve been talking about for a theoretical defense are actual numbers experienced by an actual defense.
The Missouri Tigers.
I know. Mind blown, right? Sorry to resort to such subterfuge, but I was trying to get a point across.
And that, simply, is this: offenses that travel light speed, like Missouri’s offense currently does, make things difficult on their defense.
Not only are they getting off the field faster on drives, but — and this is the key mathematical formulation here — getting off the field faster is leading to more drives for the other team, which gives said defense more opportunities to give up ground, yards and points.
I think we need to officially name 'the up-tempo offense wearing out your own defense' thing "Morrison's Paradox" @DavidCMorrison— Osᴄᴀʀ Gᴀᴍʙʟᴇ™ (@OscarGambler) September 5, 2017
It’s tough for good defenses (as we saw in the National Championship game between Clemson and Alabama), tough for mediocre defenses and tough for bad defenses.
And for a defense like Missouri, which is hovering between the second (on a good day) and the third (on, say, Saturday), it’s especially tough.
Here’s what I’m talking about in spreadsheet form:
Do you see the uptick in drives per game from 2015 (with the old offense) to 2016 (with the new, fast offense)? From 12.8 to 14.2?
That’s 17-18 more drives faced over the course of a 12-13 game season, and — given Missouri’s per-drive averages — about 30 more points given up over the course of a season.
Now look at how many drives Missouri faced against Missouri State: 17. Apply that awesome 2015 rate (1.26 points per drive) to 17 drives and all of a sudden it’s a more pedestrian (but still good) 21.4 points per game.
Apply that 2.53 points per drive Missouri gave up Saturday to the 12.7 drives a game from 2014, and you get 32.1 points per game allowed. A full 11 fewer than Missouri gave up Saturday. All by going a little bit slower and, therefore, not facing as many drives.
(The tackle-for-loss and turnover percentages are up there because those are the ways defenses can defray facing a ton of drives: forcing negative plays to get offenses off schedule or turning them over altogether. And, against Missouri State, the Tigers actually did that very well.)
I’m not saying that Missouri’s offense needs to slow down. The Tigers, in fact, have the potential to blast people out of the water if they keep up the pace, tire out the defense and unleash all those fresh legs that they have on their playmakers.
Here’s the point here. The real important one:
As long as Missouri is running this warp-speed offense, do not expect it to have a defense that puts up even average numbers nationally.
Look at this last sentence. Study it. Become OK with it. Resign yourself to 45-42 wins. They’re going to happen.
To extend this point nationally, I took the 64 Power-5 teams from the past 15 seasons (2002-2016) that, like Missouri last year, ran at least 10.5 percent more plays per game than the national FBS average, and saw how well their defenses were able to keep up.
I measured them in plays per game, average time of possession, plays per minute of possession, then defensive points per game, yards per game and yards per play, along with their attendant ranks.
Here we go:
The average team in this cohort gives up 28.4 points and 403.5 yards a game, along with 5.49 yards a play and ranks in the 60s and 70s nationally, just below the average line.
Which, really, should be kind of an aspirational mark for Missouri’s defense, actually.
Here’s the thing, though. Missouri went faster last year than anyone else on this list (3.25 plays per minute), and the Tigers went even faster against Missouri State (3.45).
The Tigers also possessed the ball last year about 5:30 a game less than the average team in this study, meaning their defense was on the field for about 18 percent longer.
And they only possessed it for 21:44 against Missouri State.
All of these things make life more difficult for the defense, especially as the time, drives and snaps pile up over the course of the season.
So who can Missouri look to as a model to follow? Certainly not Texas Tech. Good god, not Texas Tech.
How about these teams?
-- Clemson: Might as well start with the national champions, right? The Tigers hovered around 80 plays a game four times in the past five years. But Clemson’s offense also moved at a rather pedestrian 2.73 plays per minute in those years. The Tigers have relied on a devastating pass rush (3.14 sacks a game those four years) to keep opposing offenses off-kilter. We’ve talked at length about how Mizzou could look to emulate Clemson.
— TCU: DeMontie Cross’ old shop, eh? In 2014, the Horned Frogs ran 79.8 plays a game (only 2.61 per minute...but still...) and still managed to rank in the top 20 in the important mainstream defensive categories. TCU gained an obscene 40 turnovers that season -- 26 interceptions and 14 fumbles. That 4.20 turnover percentage is two times what Missouri did last year.
— Baylor: You’ve modeled the offense after the Bears, might as well do the defense, too. In 2013, Baylor ran 3.03 offensive plays a minute and left its defense on the field for 54.5 percent of games. The Bears’ defense responded by allowing a ninth-best 4.75 yards per play. Notable that former Baylor assistant Joe Jon Finley helped Heupel implement this Tigers’ scheme.
— Oregon: The Ducks of 2012 and 2010 ran in the 2.8-2.9 play-a-minute range and still ranked around the 10s and 20s in points per game and yards per play and around the 30s and 40s in yards per game allowed. Like TCU, Oregon forced turnovers an abnormal amount, about once every 25-26 plays. The Ducks also allowed third-down conversions in the 32-35 percent range. Missouri, by contrast, allowed 50 percent against Missouri State.
— Oklahoma: Lo an behold — a team on which offensive coordinator Josh Heupel actually worked. The 2009 Sooners held the ball for less than 29 minutes a game and ran 2.69 plays a minute but still ranked 13th in points per game allowed, eighth in yards per game and fifth in yards per play. Oklahoma logged tackles for loss on 11.2 percent of plays and held opponents to less than 30 percent on third downs.
-- 2006...Missouri: So this is fun because it happened here. Those Sun Bowl-bound Tigers left their defense on the field for 54.3 percent of the game, ran 2.59 plays a minute and still managed to hold opposing teams to 19.5 points and 320.2 yards a game. They got tackles for loss on 10.5 percent of the opposing team’s plays and turnovers on 3.23 percent. Wouldn’t be a bad couple of marks for this year’s Tigers to strive for.
In conclusion, Missouri should pull a 180 and run a stall offense in which it deflates the ball, strangles the clock, goes on 10-minute drives and hopes to win 13-10.
Not really. It should pretty much keep doing what it’s doing on offense, with maybe an alternate, clock-kill setting to help it ice some high-pressure, close games (harumphGeorgiaLastYearharumph).
But Missouri fans, well-wishers and other assorted interested parties should also get used to the fact that the Tigers’ defense probably isn’t going to be ranking highly in many stat categories.
Well, many bulk, traditional ones at least.