Can we talk about defense?
No, not quarterbacks. They're great. The best in the nation. No, not running backs. They're great, too. Or tight ends or receivers or NFL-quality offensive linemen. The Pac-12 is fine on offense.
Yes, defense. Let's take a look at the numbers. Yeesh.
Hey, did you say something about quarterbacks?
Defense, the part of football they say wins championships, has been mostly lousy in the Pac-12 as we close in on the midseason mark.
No team ranks among the top-25 in total defense (Stanford is No. 26 and California is No. 27). Eight rank 50th or worse.
Well, scoring is really what defense is about, right? Right. And nine conference teams rank from No. 55 to No. 112 in scoring defense. Nine teams give up between 24.3 and 37.6 points per game. (Stanford is No. 6 in scoring defense, while Utah is 25th and Arizona State is 32nd).
And we can't entirely excuse these numbers by pointing to the super-awesomeness of Pac-12 offenses. We're only two or three games into the conference slate.
Arizona might own the second-worst defense among AQ conferences (Kansas is almost comically bad). The Wildcats' numbers are so bad writers spent much of the weekend finding fun ways to illustrated their badness -- here and here.
USC ranks 67th in total defense and 68th in scoring defense, terrible numbers for a unit with tons of talent that is coached by Monte Kiffin, a certifiable coaching legend. Things are worse across town, where UCLA ranks 105th in scoring and 98th in total defense. Who was stupid enough to write about UCLA's defense being "sneaky good" anyway? Never listen to that guy again.
So what gives? Does the conference just not care about defense?
Injuries are a legitimate excuse. The Wildcats have been missing three starters and a key reserve the entire season, and defensive tacle Justin Washington is now hurt. Arizona State is missing four top players. In fact, there are lots of big names out, including Washington defensive end Hau'oli Jamora, Stanford linebacker Shayne Skov and USC defensive tackle Armond Armstead, to name a few.
Still, every team has injuries.
Some guys who looked like budding stars have been disappointing so far: Washington, Washington defensive tackle Alameda Ta'amu, Oregon cornerback Cliff Harris and UCLA defensive end Datone Jones come to mind.
But, really, it comes down to this: No Pac-12 team has scary talent on all three levels. I'm not talking about LSU in 2011 scary or USC under Pete Carroll scary or Washington in 1991 scary. I'm talking Stanford in 2010, UCLA in 2006, Washington State in 2003, California in 2004 or Oregon State in 2000 scary.
If Arizona State had cornerback Omar Bolden, defensive back James Brooks, linebacker Brandon Magee and defensive back Junior Onyeali, it probably would be a top-25 defense. Stanford is good but took a step back when its leader and best player, LB Shayne Skov, was lost for the season with a knee injury.
Who has a pair of lockdown corners who are able to press at the line of scrimmage and handle man-to-man coverage? Who can consistently get pressure with a four-man rush? Who can stonewall an opposing running game and force a team to throw to win? Who can beat you without using risky stunts every other play?
In the early going, it appears Stanford has the conference's best defense. Oregon's defense is probably better than its early numbers suggest (its yards per play -- 4.84 -- is better than Kansas State, which ranks 16th in total defense and is a top-30 number). California has young talent on all three levels. Washington has shown improvement he past two weeks. Utah is well-coached and solid across the board. USC can't possibly be this mediocre. Arizona State has been above average, despite the injuries.
Defense might not win championships in the Pac-12, but here's a bet that the two teams playing for the Pac-12 title on Dec. 2 will rank in the top-third of the conference and top-50 in the nation in most major defensive statistical categories.
And when the smoke clears on the 2011 season, conference teams might need to figure out a way to kick up the defensive recruiting a notch or two.