Will Sooners' D test Baylor, or vice-versa?

Heading into the big matchup with Baylor, there’s been some talk about how Oklahoma will be “by far” the best defense the high-powered Bears attack has faced all season.

While this may have some merit, the Sooners defense is not as formidable as some are making them out to be if you take into account all aspects of defense and the quality of offenses they’ve faced to this point.

Oklahoma ranks 10th in yards per game allowed and 14th in points per game allowed, the traditional stats by which defenses are measured. But those measures miss some important aspects of defense as well as the context in which some of those numbers have come in. For instance:

• One thing a defense can do that doesn’t fully show up in yards or points allowed is force turnovers. The Sooners have forced 1.8 turnovers per game this season, which is just about the FBS average. They don’t force turnovers at the rate of some the more elite defenses.

• Oklahoma hasn’t allowed many red-zone trips this season, but the defense has allowed opponents to score touchdowns 11 of the 18 times they’ve penetrated the 20. That 61 percent touchdown rate allowed is again just about average, indicating that teams that have moved the ball down the field haven’t struggled much to punch it in.

Taking this into account along with everything else that a defense does on every play drops the Sooners from the Top 10, but not too far down. A bigger adjustment comes once you look at the quality of offenses they’ve faced thus far.

Four of the eight opponents Oklahoma has faced rank in the bottom third of FBS in terms of offensive efficiency, and only Texas and Texas Tech rank in the Top 40. Overall, the offenses Oklahoma has faced to date have been about 3.2 points below average – the 11th-easiest slate of offenses faced among the 72 AQ teams this season.

Looking at the quarterbacks they’ve faced shows a similar trend: four with an opponent-adjusted QBR below 35, and only one that ranks in the top 25 – Texas Tech’s Davis Webb. Webb and Case McCoy each had solid games against Oklahoma (Total QBRs of 68 and 84), so it’s not like the defense cannot be beaten by a good opposing signal-caller.

Putting it altogether, Oklahoma’s defensive efficiency, adjusted for opponent strength, is 32nd in FBS at +4.8 EPA per game. This means that Sooners defense adds about five net points per game to their scoring margin, adjusting for the offenses they’ve faced.

This is still pretty good, but not near the level of elite defenses like Virginia Tech, BYU, or Florida, and not near the level their traditional defensive stats suggest. And it bears mentioning that Kansas State – who Baylor played earlier this season – is slightly ahead of Oklahoma in defensive efficiency at +5.9 EPA per game. So the Bears have seen something like this before and still succeeded on offense (though not as much as in their other games).

Baylor Offense vs Oklahoma Defense
2013 Season

The larger point about this game may be the flip side: Baylor’s offense will be by far the best attack the Sooners have faced all season.

The Bears offense is tops in FBS at +32.8 Adj EPA PG – that’s more than 20 points better than the best offense Oklahoma has faced thus far. Bryce Petty is the leader in opponent-adjusted QBR this season at 95.5, which is about 15 points better than Davis Webb’s rating.

After adjusting for the quality of opposition faced on both sides, the numbers show that it’s the Sooners who are likely the ones to be tested. They could be in for a long night against Baylor’s high-flying offense on Thursday night in Waco.