You have to be careful with conference stereotypes. Fall back on them too heavily and you might miss what’s actually going on in today’s college football, but as long as we’re conscious of that I’m glad they exist. It gives college football a hint of terroir, and I like thinking that where you come from — or more accurately in an era of near-superconferences, where you play — matters.
It’s fun that football fans are happy to view the Big 12 as the Yosemite Sam mud flap of the sport. I’m fine with the Big Ten being the Conference of Broad Shoulders and Big Pileups. The Pac-12, which used to be the passing power conference, is now just where strange stuff happens late into the night. This is all good stuff.
Is any of it actually true? All of those characterizations have some truth to them, but it depends upon how you measure and today’s measurement is meant to measure that modern football buzzphrase of “putting athletes in space.” Doing that one thing, presuming a team has two or three athletes good enough to utilize the space, has become something of a cure-all. Good teams having an off day against bad teams can stop being cute and just flip the ball out to their best wide receiver and have a reasonable expectation of success. But bad teams, if they can find the right matchup and the plays to get them there, can do the same. It’s a beautiful, tree-lined, two-way street.
But which conference actually gets players in space the most? You can get a sense of that by comparing a defense’s solo tackles to its assisted tackles. If a team makes a bunch of solo tackles, it’s probably facing some modern spread variant that is really built to find that “space.” Last year against Indiana, the Huskers made 62 tackles and 52 of them were solo stops. That’s nearly 84 percent solo tackles, an absurd rate. The national average in 2016 was 59.5 percent. And, in a 5-point game, if one or two of those stops don’t happen you might have a different outcome. That’s why “athletes in space” has become a mantra.
Below are the numbers for each of the Power 5 conferences over the last four years. I didn’t remove nonconference games, so there may be a little wiggle room in the numbers, but not a ton.
If you guessed the Big 12 would lead the way before looking at the graph, congratulations. You’ve earned the right to do the pew-pew finger guns thing for the rest of the day. The Pac-12, holding on to some of its old identity, remained in second over the four-year span and is becoming more spread-y. The ACC, the toughest conference to categorize, bounces along in the middle while the Big Ten and especially the SEC offer a smorgasbord (relatively speaking) of gang tackling on a weekly basis.
>>What a nightmare it must be to be a defensive coordinator in the Big 12. You really do have to redefine what success looks like there. In 2016, the Big 12 ran the most plays per game of the Power 5 conferences (76.5), which resulted in the most tackles per game (71.4), which required the most solo tackles of any of its peers. The Big 12 keeps the same number of players on the field as everyone else, I think, but its style of play is closer to 3-on-3 basketball. Isolate, attack.
>>The SEC has the greatest collection of splendid athletes to put in space, but also the greatest collection of defensive athletes to stop them. So, the SEC game remains a slugfest, but when those big plays do come they might be even more important than in a conference where they happen all the time.
>>The Big Ten has become more that way over the past two seasons. I don’t know exactly why that’s been the case, but it’s worth noting that the play-callers at Wisconsin, Nebraska and Michigan, which incorporated spread elements in 2013 and 2014, were replace by solidly pro-style guys.
>>That’s potentially good timing as it pertains to Nebraska’s defense. One of the interesting pieces of Bob Diaco’s track record is that while every defensive coordinator will say he wants “11 men to the ball,” Diaco’s defenses actually piled up assisted tackles better than most. His first Notre Dame defense in 2010 had a solo-tackle percentage of 52.8. In 2011 it was 52.7 percent, in 2012 it was 50.1 percent and in 2013 it was 52.4 percent. And, as an independent, those numbers came against as wide-ranging a schedule as you’ll find.
That trait didn’t totally translate to Connecticut for Diaco the head coach. The Huskies recorded solo-tackle percentages of 55, 59.5 and 60.6 percent from 2014 to 2016 respectively. Connecticut had other problems on defense, too, but that’s not a surprising trajectory given how that run ended.
But the Big Ten should feel more like home for Diaco just based on style of play. In fact, if he gets the Blackshirts whipped into a gang-tackling bunch right away it might even feel like — avert thy gaze if you’re particularly disturbed by the Tigerhawk — Iowa, Diaco’s alma mater.
The Hawkeyes are excellent at avoiding the “athletes in space” scenario so many teams covet. Over the past four seasons, Iowa has been above the conference and national average each year, and, in 2014, actually recorded more assisted tackles (51.9 percent) than solo tackles.
That team also went 7-6, so clearly there’s more to the picture here, but I’m betting Nebraska will be pretty good here in 2017.