In The Matrix (1999), Morpheus offers the film’s protagonist, Neo, an existential and philosophical choice embodied by two pills, one red and one blue. Taking the blue pill means living in a fantasy constructed by those in power to keep humanity preoccupied and asleep. Taking the red pill means waking up and seeing the fantasy for the flimsy construction it is.
Over the past 20+ years, the symbolism of the blue and red pills has been co-opted by everyone from fringe conspiracy theorists to mainstream politicians to Woke and anti-Woke factions in America’s seemingly endless culture wars.
As a true moderate (at least by today’s standards), I try to avoid talking about “red-pilling” anything; however, when it comes to national media narratives regarding the Big 12, the red pill analogy works better than any other because the difference between those narratives and reality is often nearly as stark as the difference between the computer-engineered fantasy of The Matrix and the world Neo wakes up to after taking the red pill.
Several Big 12 media narratives are offensive enough to deserve wholesale debunking by Heartland College Sports, but the one that irritates me the most, and thus the one I want to begin with, is the oft-repeated delusion that the Big 12 doesn’t play defense.
TELL ME YOU HAVEN’T WATCHED BIG 12 FOOTBALL IN YEARS…
Days before the Big 10 Championship, Iowa quarterback Spencer Petras used a question about handling Michigan’s standout defensive end, Aidan Hutchinson, as an opportunity to throw shade on the Big 12, saying:
“The biggest thing would be in the drop-back passing game. It’s like, I have to know that, um, it’s not going to be a game – uh, it’s not going to be a Big 12 football game where the quarterback can sit back there for four-and-a-half seconds and just, um, do what he wants, you know.
First, I am fully aware that Petras is not a member of the national media, but he is parroting a tired media trope regarding the Big 12: Big 12 offenses and quarterbacks only look good because the defenses are bad: very, very bad.
The narrative, born of the days when the spread offense took over the league and Big 12 defenses were forced to defend more of the field for more plays than defenses in other leagues, has infected the public’s consciousness, resulting in mass blindness to the changes that have been sweeping the league for some time.
Quora asks, Why are most Big 12 defenses so bad?
Reddit wonders, Is there a reason why Big 12 teams “play bad defense”?
However, as Ian Boyd of Football Study Hall found from a brief study of the 2016 Big 12 season and subsequent bowl games, Big 12 defenses are underrated.
TAKE THE RED PILL AND SHUT-UP
If you asked Iowa’s Petras which team led the nation in sacks in 2021, I’m guessing he wouldn’t know that the correct answer is Oklahoma State with 57, which is 14 more than the Big 10 leader, Michigan State. The quarterback can sit back there for 4.5 seconds “and just, um, do what he wants”?
The numbers suggest that Big 12 teams are just as effective overall at rushing the quarterback as Big 10 teams: 50% of the Big 12 finished in the Top 60 nationally in sacks per game; 42.85% of the Big 10 finished in the same Top 60. And unlike the Big 10 where the two-thirds of the best pass-rushing teams are concentrated in the Eastern division, Big 12 teams have to face every conference rival.
Now, the Big 12 is still a conference with fantastic offenses and a collection of the best skill-positions players in the nation. That is, unlike the Big 10, the majority of the Big 12 is not offensively challenged. You won’t find a Big 12 team being held to 10 points at home by a bad MAC team the way Minnesota was in its loss to Bowling Green.
That’s not to say that Big 10 defenses aren’t good; however, it is to say that using “Big 12” as a synonym for “bad defense” is lazy and uninformed.
Power Five (P5) Conference’s average ranking in scoring defense for the 2021 season:
- Big 10 – 41.5
- SEC – 52.28
- Big 12 – 60.8
- Pac-12 – 63.66
- ACC – 69.28
So where’s the trope about how the ACC doesn’t play defense? The Big 12 is squarely in the middle of the pack, and that’s with one team, the Jayhawks, having the worst scoring defense in all of the P5 and second-worst in the entire FBS. Moreover, one of the Big 12’s worst defenses in 2021, TCU, was a total aberration. TCU usually doesn’t play bad defense.
Moreover, when looking at advanced stats such as opponent offensive touchdowns per game, points allowed per play, and opponent yards per point, the ACC still finishes last (or just a hair away from last) among the P5 while the Big 12 remains in the middle of the pack.
Average rank per P5 conference in opponent offensive touchdowns per game:
- Big 10 – 42.5
- SEC – 51.6
- Big 12 – 60.7
- ACC – 67.2
- Pac-12 – 67.6
Average rank per P5 conference in points allowed per play:
- Big 10 – 38.9
- SEC – 52.57
- Pac-12 – 65.33
- Big 12 – 66.8
- ACC – 70.07
Average rank per P5 conference in yards allowed per opponent point scored:
- Big 10 – 38.07
- SEC –53.85
- Big 12 – 63.7
- Pac-12 – 64.5
- ACC – 68.7
Obviously, no one is arguing that the Big 12 is the best defensive league in the Power 5; however, the common assumption that the Big 12 is the worst defensive league in the Power is, clearly, very wrong. The worst defensive league in the Power 5 is the ACC, bar none.
These average rankings demonstrate that the Big 10 is probably the best defensive Power 5 league, and the SEC is probably second. They also show that the Big 12 is probably the third-best defensive league among the Power 5 and in no way deserves its reputation as the league that doesn’t play defense.
What these ranking averages don’t show is that the Big 12 has some good defenses, some average defenses, and some bad defenses. Here’s a look at how the Big 12 teams rank in each of the categories averaged above:
Big 12 Scoring Defenses by National Ranking
9. Oklahoma State – 18.07 points allowed per game
10. Baylor – 18.29 points allowed per game
20. Iowa State – 20.54 points allowed per game
23. Kansas State – 21 points allowed per game
45. West Virginia – 23.85 points allowed per game
60. Oklahoma – 25.77 points per game
95. Texas Tech – 30.15 points per game
99. Texas – 31.08 points per game
118. TCU – 34.92 points per game
129. Kansas – 42.17 points per game
As you can see, it’s all good to average until you hit Texas Tech, and lo and behold! The Red Raiders stuffed one of the SEC’s best offenses in the Liberty Bowl. Maybe Tech’s offense looks bad because the Big 12’s offenses are just really freaking good?
Big 12 Opponent Offensive Touchdowns Per Game by National Ranking
6. Oklahoma State – 1.9 offensive TDs allowed per game
12. Baylor – 2.2 offensive TDs allowed per game
15. Kansas State – 2.3 offensive TDs allowed per game
23. Iowa State – 2.4 offensive TDs allowed per game
35. West Virginia – 2.7 offensive TDs allowed per game
80. Oklahoma – 3.4 offensive TDs allowed per game
85. Texas – 3.5 offensive TDs allowed per game
100. Texas Tech – 3.8 offensive TDs allowed per game
122. TCU – 4.9 offensive TDs allowed per game
130. Kansas – 5.9 offensive TDs allowed per game
In this very telling stat, which eliminates defensive and special teams scores (including FGs), we see that the Big 12 has three defenses in the Top 15 nationally and five in the Top 35. Then there’s a precipitous dropoff all the way down to #80 with Oklahoma. KU does KU things and finishes dead last in the FBS.
However, it is of note that Oklahoma State (6th nationally) and Baylor (12th nationally) played for the Big 12 title game. Compare that to the ACC title game: Pitt (60th nationally) vs Wake Forest (88th nationally). The ACC has one standout defense, Clemson (3rd nationally in this ranking), but the Tigers were offensively challenged for the majority of their season and only got things clicking in time wake-up feeling the cheesiest and beat Iowa State in the Cheez-It Bowl.
Big 12 Points Allowed Per Play by National Ranking
10. Oklahoma State – 0.271 points allowed per play
12. Baylor – 0.273 points allowed per play
24. Kansas State – 0.316 points allowed per play
34. Iowa State – 0.336 points allowed per play
68. West Virginia – 0.390 points allowed per play
76. Oklahoma – 0.396 points allowed per play
93. Texas – 0.433 points allowed per play
96. Texas Tech – 0.446 points allowed per play
126. TCU – 0.565 points allowed per play
127. Kansas – 0.649 points allowed per play
Here we have three Big 12 teams in the Top 25 and four in the Top 34. West Virginia and Oklahoma come out a bit on the long side of average but still are not too bad. Then we see the big drop-off.
Big 12 Yards Allowed Per Opponent Point Scored by National Ranking
7. Baylor – 18.4 yards allowed per opponent point scored
14. Kansas State – 16.8 yards allowed per opponent point scored
25. Oklahoma State – 15.9 yards allowed per opponent point scored
54. Iowa State – 14.6 yards allowed per opponent point scored
55. Oklahoma – 14.6 yards allowed per opponent point scored
68. West Virginia – 14.4 yards allowed per opponent point scored
87. Texas – 13.7 yards allowed per opponent point scored
96. Texas Tech – 13.2 yards allowed per opponent point scored
103. TCU – 13.0 yards allowed per opponent point scored
128. Kansas 11.4 – yards allowed per opponent point scored
This is another interesting stat that shows how hard defenses make opponents work to score. As before, we see that the tired trope of “the Big 12 is bad at defense” just doesn’t hold water. Yes, there are some bad defenses in the Big 12, but there are also some really good ones and some average ones. Three Big 12 teams rank in the Top 25 and five rank in the Top 55.
RED PILL REALITY
The Big 12 is not bad at defense. It has some great defenses, some good defenses, some average defenses, some below-average defenses, and a couple of bad defenses. When it comes to defense, the Big 12 is far from the worst in the Power 5. In fact, it is more like the average of the Power 5. And that’s not taking into account that Big 12 offenses are really freaking good.
Looking over the rankings selected in this article for their ability to indicate good and bad defense, the Big 12 has three or four Top 25 defenses: Oklahoma State, Baylor, Kansas State, and Iowa State, and in that order. West Virginia and Oklahoma are roughly average defenses. Texas and Texas are below average (but don’t forget how that below-average Big 12 Tech defense smothered one of the SEC’s best offenses), and TCU and Kansas have downright bad defenses (although, TCU’s 2021 is an aberration and TCU is usually average to above average).
If any conference truly deserves to be tagged as the league that doesn’t play defense, it’s the ACC, despite the fact that Clemson’s defense is fantastic (it’s light years ahead of the rest of the league).
The Big 12’s rep as not playing defense was never truly deserved as Big 12 offenses were a decade ahead of the rest of college football and the NFL. The trope that the Big 12 doesn’t play defense was always a lie. However, the past several seasons have shown that trope to not only be a lie but to have no statistical support.
As we look ahead toward the 2022 season, it’s time to arm ourselves with the facts and red-pill the flimsy media fantasy hypnotizing people like Iowa’s Petras into believing the Big 12 is a synonym for bad defense.