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Oklahoma Football: The lessons of 2011

OU’s defense was great in 2011... except when it wasn’t.

NCAA Football: Clemson at Texas A&M Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

As the Oklahoma Sooners limped to the finish line of a disappointing 10-3 season in 2011, it became crystal clear that the natives in Norman had grown restless. The frustration reached a point at which Bob Stoops needed to make a grand gesture to regain some good will.

Bringing Mike Stoops back into the fold to help oversee the defense was one option, although I cautioned at the time that the move offered no guarantees of success. Slowing down the spread offenses proliferating in the Big 12 was a tall order, even if the pundit class didn’t quite grasp that yet.

OU already had a good defensive architect on its staff in Brent Venables. In fact, early adopters of college football advanced stats knew efficiency metrics looked favorably upon Venables’ tenure at OU. In his eight years as the full-time defensive coordinator from 2004 to 2011, the Sooners consistently ranked in the top 15 in Defensive S&P+, an opponent-adjusted efficiency measure. FEI, another efficiency metric, put OU’s defense in the top 10 every year from 2007 to 2011.

This retrospective piece by Ian Boyd on OU’s 2011 defense brings up some good points about the quality of that particular unit and Venables’ handiwork. In ‘11, the Sooners finished No. 7 in the country in Defensive S&P+ and No. 6 in FEI. If we’re judging OU’s 2011 D using those metrics, then it would certainly qualify as a top-tier college football defense.

However, a closer review of the ‘11 season offers some different takeaways to me.

A study in contrasts

OU’s defense played superbly on a number of occasions in 2011. That included giving up just 4.1 yards per play and 13 points in a win over the Florida State Seminoles. The Sooners worked over Texas, 55-17, thanks in no small part to allowing a measly 3.2 yards per snap.

Iowa State, Kansas, et cetera – none of them could move the ball on OU. That was a common theme against the more lackluster offenses on the schedule. It was a different story against the better ones.

The Sooners lost to Texas Tech (No. 15 in Offensive S&P+), Baylor (No. 2) and Oklahoma State (No. 1) in ‘11. Comparing how OU’s defense performed versus those three relative to the other teams on their schedules, they didn’t do anything particularly extraordinary in those matchups.

Take a gander at how the Sooners stacked up against Texas Tech:

Here’s Baylor:

Now Oklahoma State:

The Bears and Red Raiders torched OU with explosive plays in their two upset wins. The Cowboys ran for 278 yards on 33 carries against an undersized unit deployed by Venables to slow OSU’s spread offense and offset the absence of injured edge defender Ronnell Lewis.

Good, but not good enough

Despite having what analytics say was one of the best defenses in the country, OU couldn’t avoid getting picked apart in those three games. The week-to-week dominance didn’t carry over in those instances. That phenomenon wasn’t limited to the 2011 season under Venables’ watch, either.

(See: Missouri in 2010, Texas Tech in 2009, Texas in 2008, Texas Tech in 2007... My theory has always been that the most proficient spread teams knew how to exploit Venables’ aggressiveness and he never figured out how to adjust.)

A couple rough outings a season against superlative offenses is hardly unforgivable, and Venables has proven time and again that he is an outstanding defensive coordinator. If the Sooners didn’t turn the ball over a combined 10 times in those three games in 2011, they probably would have finished the year with a better record.

Here’s the problem, however: If your goal is to win all of your games, the defense kicking ass in most of them only goes so far.

In that sense, you could characterize this as a process-versus-results conversation. The overall statistical picture of the 2011 season indicates that OU had a sound approach to playing defense. The results revealed there were still gaps that kept the Sooners from achieving their larger objectives.

Venables left for Clemson prior to the 2012 season, and the OU defense spent the next seven years unraveling. The Sooners are now paying Alex Grinch a hefty salary to reverse that decline.

Yet, it’s worth keeping in mind that simply by improving against the Kansases and Florida Atlantics of the world, OU’s defense will grade out better than a season ago when it finished 84th overall in Defensive S&P+. That was what made the 2011 unit look so good.

That kind of improvement might make watching those kinds of games less irritating, but even if the stats look better on paper, that won’t help OU improve on its record or win a national championship.

Frankly, Grinch won’t have accomplished much if he can’t put the Sooners in position to limit the better offenses on the schedule and in the postseason. The overall numbers are window dressing. To me, that’s the real lesson of the 2011 season.