Two games is a small sample size to judge most aspects of any given football team. There could be injuries, an over-reliance on youth, or final scores that don’t capture all a team’s nuances. These factors tend to get ironed out over the span of a season, but total win projections wait for no man.
Besides, it’s not like early assumptions can’t be correct either. Last season, Vanderbilt’s defense held Western Kentucky’s nuclear-powered offense well below their season averages in the opening week. The Commodores didn’t fare as well the next week against a healthy Nick Chubb, but then again, Alabama was the only team that handled the Bulldogs’ run game when it was entirely healthy. What Vanderbilt did display were the green shoots for a strong defensive season heading.
Which defenses have been the most impressive early in 2016? See this Google document for the entire breakdown. It contains the S&P+ rankings of the two offenses each SEC defense has faced. While S&P+ is still incorporating (increasingly less) preseason rankings into its model, it will serve as a base standard for this exercise. The other is the more traditional measure of yards per play allowed and points allowed, according to CFB Stats.
The Top Defenses
Again, it’s a small sample size, but a possible early indicator of a solid defense is one that holds serve against highly-rated offenses, and takes care of business against lower-ranked ones.
Alabama and Texas A&M are early stand-outs. Alabama has faced the two best offenses, and held them both to what will likely be season-low numbers. The Aggies faced the second-best offense any SEC defense has faced yet and held their own, if not dominated for long stretches of the game. In the second week, they took care of business against Prairie View, only allowing 205 total yards, which 25 percent of that yardage coming on PV’s opening possession.
Auburn and Florida should also be included in this tier. Auburn’s defense was very impressive against Clemson’s Top 10 offense (even if it’s run game needs work). The numbers are less impressive against Arkansas State, but most of the yardage came from passing yards allowed, which combined with a lop-sided score, suggests garbage time yardage taking place against back-ups. In fact, a quick perusal of the play-by-play indicates only two explosive pass plays in the first half which ended with a 38-7 Auburn lead.
Florida’s case hinges on easily dispatching the two offenses it faced. Only allowing two touchdowns, and one them coming in garbage time, is impressive. They’ve faced two bottom-tier offenses, but they’ve made it look easy. They’ve done all that could be asked of them at this point.
To be fair, a lot of teams fit in this tier at this point in the season. Without trying to be comprehensive, let’s highlight a few.
In the SEC West, LSU and Ole Miss are candidates. LSU’s defense fared well against an average Wisconsin offense, but showed signs of inconsistency against Jacksonville State in the first half. The key moment was allowing a 76-yard touchdown in the second quarter. LSU allowed 368 yards and 17 first downs, but only 30 percent of that production occurred outside of garbage time. If we are talking about including LSU in the “elite defense” category, I’m not sure we’ve seen enough to pass judgment yet. This is still a team learning a new defensive scheme.
Ole Miss is another mystery, though not as much as LSU. The Rebels struggled in the second half against Florida State, but the Seminoles are the fourth best offense in the country. There’s no shame in surrendering yards to that squad after Jimbo Fisher makes halftime adjustments. Like other SEC teams facing a FCS opponent in the second week, it’s harder to judge their next performance. This was a game that was in garbage time early in the third quarter when Ole Miss had a 31-3 lead. Wofford had 17- and 12-play drives when the game was still competitive, but the offenses didn’t do much more against Ole Miss’ first and second string. Even between Wofford’s best drives, the Rebels only allowed three points.
Georgia held North Carolina far below the numbers the Tar Heels gained against Illinois. That defensive performance is one that could look more impressive as the season progresses. They did give up 24 points against Nicholls State, but only allowed 236 total yards. The offense turning the ball over three times made this game closer than it should have been. A fumble at the Georgia 30 yard-line set up the first Nicholls State touchdown, while a late touchdown occurred only after a ‘Dawg fumble at its own 9 yard-line. Still, the ‘Dawg defense allowing nearly 40% completion on third downs this season must improve to reach the next tier.
There’s a few defenses that look stronger than others only two weeks into a young season. There’s even more unknowns that could easily emerge over the course of the long season.
What say you? Which defenses are poised to breakout over the course of the next ten games? Is Vandy’s defense playing as well as they were last season? How to judge Tennessee? How well can South Carolina’s defense be playing by the end of the season?