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Brother v. Brother: In defense of Oregon's defense and...Boise State?

Everyone has an arch nemesis. Mine just happens to be my older brother. But our mutual hatred (okay, maybe that's an exaggeration) has led to many an entertaining discussion through the years. And because much of the debate has centered on college sports, it seems only appropriate we take these debates to the blogosphere to settle them once and for all. (I mean, who wouldn't want public affirmation that Big Bro's always wrong and I'm always right?) Here's your weekly ATQ Blogger Debate, affectionately known as Sh*t My Brother Says.

PaulSF: The Ducks just posted an eviction notice on the Pac-10 penthouse door in the form of a 53-32 workmanlike beatdown of perennial powerhouse USC at the Los Angeles Coliseum. That's quite a statement win, wouldn't you say, Big Bro?

GrumpyJDH: We're not into statements, Paul. We're just into winning games. Remember? That would have been my favorite sound bite from this glorious weekend, incidentally, if I hadn't stumbled across this priceless gem from Trojans defensive lineman, Armond Armstead: "We weren't tired at all." Not at all, big guy? Didn't get just a LITTLE bit gassed chasing LaMike and the Maehlman all over the stadium? Armstead added, "If we had limited the big plays, it would have been a different story." Mmm-hhh. And if I had a big ol' steak right now, we could have some steak and lobster...if we had some lobster. By the way, I found both of these nuggets in Bruce Feldman's postmortem of the drubbing (requires ESPN Insider); appropriately titled "The Oregon Ducks can't be stopped." Ha! Tell us how you really feel, Bruce!

PaulSF: Can you disagree with him, though? So far, we haven't been, at all. Granted we've played a pretty suspect list of defenses (which Sporting News's Matt Hayes was kind enough to point out), but we're not just beating teams. We're HAMMERING them. We have been methodically running away from teams, and it's really not just our offense, despite what the "analysts" say. Our D has given up 7 points in the 4th quarter...all season! (1) How good is this Oregon defense?

GrumpyJDH: Does it really matter? I'm only partially joking, of course. I'd argue it's almost always good enough and, occasionally (when it REALLY matters), a whole lot better than that.

PaulSF: I think it's a lot better than people think. Stewart Mandel wrote earlier this week that if Oregon and Auburn meet in the NCG, football traditionalists will have to throw out the "defense wins championships" axiom. False! What football traditionalists really need to throw out are the age-old metrics of evaluating defenses. Let me channel Bill James for a moment and explain...

The Ducks are currently 35th in total defense (yards per game). That's good, but not great. However, there's more to the story. They're also 115th nationally in time of possession (and I think we all know why), and, consequently, have seen the sixth most defensive plays in the country (75.1 per game). Four other teams in that statistical neighborhood have winning records: Oklahoma State (81.6 plays/game), Iowa State (76.0), East Carolina (74.8), and Baylor (74.2). Guess where each ranks in TOP? 113th, 91st, 110th, and 89th, respectively. It isn't rocket science. The longer your defense is on the field, the more plays it sees, and therefore the more yards it allows.

As a result, total defense can be misleading. A better metric is yards per play. Oregon is currently tied with LSU for 12th in the country, giving up 4.49 yards per snap. In fact, compare winning percentages of the top 20 in total defense (.739) versus the top 20 in yards per play (.772), and it starts to become pretty clear that in the dawn of the age of the spread offense, defenses should be measured on a per-play basis.

GrumpyJDH: Bingo! And now you know why every Vegas wiseguy worth his salt breaks down matchups using the yards/play metric. It's simply a more accurate predictor of success. Of course, the sharps were betting into the Ducks pretty heavily last week, meaning they weren't going deep enough into the numbers. What did they miss? Here's how the Ducks' defense ranks nationally in third down efficiency, fourth down efficiency, and red zone efficiency, respectively: 16th, 3rd, and 3rd. USC? 106th, 76th, & 99th. Factor in the Ducks' FBS-leading turnover margin, a statistic typically discounted as too random by pundits and sharps, and you have the makings of a smackdown. Of course, the more plays you run, the greater the likelihood you'll eventually give the ball away, especially when you're facing an Oregon defense with an abundance of ball-hawking playmakers and (the kicker) you're playing from way behind. Nothing random about that, it seems. I guess the next logical question is, (2) how do you exploit this team, other than taking care of the football and scoring a zillion points?

PaulSF: I don't actually think there's an answer at this point. Obviously, the "don't turn the ball over and score more than your opponent using long, sustained drives in an effort to keep the ball out of their hands" strategy proved effective for Ohio State in the Rose Bowl earlier this year. But that was then, and this team is much, much better now than it was in January. I think in order to stop it, you're going to have to fight fire with fire. So the better question is (3) who is capable of exploiting this team?

GrumpyJDH: Are you reading my mind, Paully? The team that can exploit us is exactly the one you describe, one that is theoretically capable of going toe-to-toe and is willing to engage in a shootout with the Ducks. It's a team that casts aside conventional wisdom and does whatever it takes to score points. Lots of them. This means going for it on fourth down, going for two when you see an advantage, going against offensive tendencies (trick plays, frequent vertical passes, fake punts), etc. Sound like anyone you know?

PaulSF: You're not about to publicly board Pat Forde's Boise Bus, are you?

GrumpyJDH: All aboard! Look, the problem with conventional wisdom is that it's frequently too much of the former and not enough of the latter. We are a ruthlessly efficient offensive juggernaut and the only way to exploit what we're doing do it right back to us. Boise State can absolutely do that, especially if they have five weeks to prepare for what would promise to be the highest-scoring BCS title game in history.

PaulSF: You may be a thorn in my side most of the time, Big Bro, but I'm not about to leave you out on your own just to watch you burn at the proverbial stake (although I considered it). I actually COMPLETELY agree with you. I've been a bit more outspoken this season about my respect for the Broncos, but I believe they can hang with anyone in the country. Period. And that includes us. If I wasn't so concerned about the pundits crying fluke over a Boise State-Oregon title game, I'd actually love to see it happen for the same reason you mentioned above: a plethora of points. Oh, and the chance for revenge.

And in case you were wondering, the highest scoring BCS title game was Texas's 41-38 win over USC in January 2006. So, 79 is the number to beat.

GrumpyJDH: That sounds about right...for a halftime score. By the way, care to guess who's leading the country in yards per play? Just saying. While we're on the subject of prolific offense, (4) who's your frontrunner for the Heisman at this point? I hate discussing it prior to the last three or four weeks of the season,, where did the season go?

Rank PaulSF GrumpyJDH
1 Cam Newton, Auburn Cam Newton, Auburn
2 LaMichael James, Oregon LaMichael James, Oregon
3 Kellen Moore, Boise St.
Kellen Moore, Boise St.
4 Denard Robinson, Michigan Robert Griffin III, Baylor
5 Andrew Luck, Stanford
Denard Robinson, Michigan

PaulSF: The favorite is clearly Auburn's Cam Newton, but it definitely ain't over yet. Remember around Week 4 when Denard Robinson was apparently a lock to get an invite to New York and probably the favorite to win the award? That seems like ages ago. An Auburn loss (or two) could put Newton's Heisman candidacy on watch, which would make room for LaMike. And don't count out Boise State's Kellen Moore. Moore has been electric all season, and if Auburn and the Ducks lose a game, I'd probably give Moore the edge to win it. If Auburn wins out and plays for the National Title, Newton wins it in a landslide.

GrumpyJDH: You didn't peek at the Heisman Predictor (requires ESPN Insider), did you? Have to agree it's Newton unless something crazy happens. Of course, this is college football...meaning something will. If he stinks up the joint against Bama and the Tigers lose, LaMike becomes the frontrunner. If BOTH Auburn and Oregon stub their toe, it's time to start talking about your guy, Moore. McCrystal has him WAY down the list (below THREE Big-10 QBs, including the aforementioned Shoelace), but I think with the victor come the spoils. If Boise ends up in the title game against someone other than Auburn or the Ducks, he deserves the honor.

PaulSF: I'm uncomfortable. We've agreed on nearly everything this week!

GrumpyJDH: And we only have the Ducks game prediction to go, Paully, something we usually see eye-to-eye on.

PaulSF: True, but who wants to predict the outcome of that? No Locker, at's going to get ugly and in a hurry. I still can't believe ABC opted to keep the game on their schedule.

GrumpyJDH: Good thing they did or you'd be watching online. (5) How about you tell me who wins the non-AQ battle in Salt Lake instead?

PaulSF: Now we're talkin'. I'm taking Whittingham and the Pac-12 newcomer Utes. I like the home field advantage, although that TCU D is top-notch.

GrumpyJDH: WRONG! These teams are extremely similar statistically, especially when applying the new-age metrics we talked about previously. However, TCU has absolutely shellacked everyone they've played (the Oregon State final was deceiving) and...well, they pass the eyeball test. I've seen them play more than once and I'm always impressed by their elite team speed. You know who isn't speedy? Jordan Wynn. Think Justin Roper but slower. I'm layin' the five or so and taking the Frogs.

PaulSF: You and everyone else. Dare to be different, Joe. Utah is about to make the race for third place interesting.

I think that about wraps things up for this week. Don't forget: You're coming to visit me down here in San Fran next weekend for the game at Cal, and we'll need to do something extra special for next week's edition. Until then...