Myth vs. reality: Defense in the Pac-10

During the games Saturday I noticed something while participating in ESPN.com's Virtual Pressbox: A lot of college football fans are walking around in the dark.

We're here to turn on the light.

Today's blubbering from the darkness: "The Pac-10 doesn't play defense!"

Hey, look, trash talk is fun. The great thing about it is it doesn't have to be correct -- it just has to be annoying.

For example: "Alabama is terrible. If the Crimson Tide played in the Pac-10, it would finish, er, sixth. No, seventh!"

That's silly.

And about as accurate as the myth of poor Pac-10 defense.

Now, some folks like it in the dark. Ignorance is comforting. So those folks shouldn't read further.

Warning! Facts ahead!

On Sept. 20, five Pac-10 defenses ranked among the nation's top-25.

Why is that date important? Because at that point, only five of 30 total nonconference games remained on the schedule.

So those defensive numbers were almost entirely based on Pac-10 defenses playing against non-Pac-10 offenses.

At the end of the regular season, only two Pac-10 defenses ranked among the top-25 -- Arizona State (12) and Arizona (21).

Why the slip? Well, the most obvious conclusion is those Pac-10 defenses were more challenged in conference play.

Or you can look inside the box scores.

LSU ranked 28th in the nation in total defense this year, giving up 327 yards per game. But at Washington, LSU yielded 487 yards.

The Huskies offense averaged 355 yards per game in Pac-10 play.

LSU, in fact, knows all about Pac-10 offenses.

In 2004, Oregon State outgained LSU 315 yards to 302 in a 22-21 defeat. That Tigers defense ended up ranked third in the nation, surrendering 257 yards per game.

In 2005, LSU also finished third in the nation in total defense, giving up 267 yards per game. But it was outgained 560-434 in a win at Arizona State.

Five hundred and sixty yards! The Sun Devils finished 7-5 that season and averaged "only" 519 yards per game.

This year, Tennessee's defense shut down UCLA in a 19-15 defeat in Knoxville, holding the Bruins to just 186 total yards. But the Bruins, owners of the Pac-10's eighth-ranked offense (339 yards per game), held the Vols to 208 yards. Tennessee averaged 395 yards per game.

Georgia outgained Arizona State 334 yards to 204 -- the Sun Devils had no answer for receiver A.J. Green, who accounted for 153 of those yards -- but it's hard to believe Bulldogs fans walked away from that 20-17 win not respecting the Sun Devils defense.

USC outgained Ohio State 313 to 262. The Buckeyes averaged 365 on offense and 262 on defense.

Iowa outgained Arizona 338-253, the Hawkeyes eclipsing both their average offensive (331 yards) and defensive (287) numbers, but it's fair to at least note that Nick Foles didn't start at quarterback that afternoon in Iowa City.

Central Michigan averaged 419 yards this season. It gained 182 at Arizona. Kansas State averaged 349 yards on offense; it got 268 at UCLA.

This isn't intended to proclaim the Pac-10 the dominant defensive conference. It's just to make sure that everyone knows that when gadflies bark, "The Pac-10 doesn't play defense!" said individuals don't know what they are talking about.

And there are real-world issues with this.

The "no defense" silliness is being raised to hurt Stanford running back Toby Gerhart's Heisman Trophy chances, particularly vs. Alabama running back Mark Ingram.

Ingram is a great back. He's topped my ESPN.com weekly Heisman vote much of the year. If he wins the trophy, he's deserving.

But he has not faced the defensive competition that Gerhart has.

That's not my opinion. It's a statistical fact.

The Pac-10 features six rushing defenses ranked among the top-42 in the nation, despite the conference boasting five backs who eclipsed 1,000 yards, none of whom are named Jahvid Best, who finished with 867 yards in eight-plus games.

Gerhart faced all six of those run defenses and still finished the season averaging 145 yards per game.

The SEC features four rushing defenses ranked among the top-45 in the nation. Just four -- of 12, remember -- teams featured 1,000-yard rushers, though it beats the hell out of me why Ole Miss' Dexter McCluster (985 yards) didn't get more touches.

Ingram faced two of those run defenses. Three, if you toss in South Carolina's No. 46 run defense. Ingram averaged 119 yards per game.

Of course, these bothersome numbers and facts won't sit well with some. That's fine. The intention here isn't to end the trash talk.

It's only to makes sure that everyone knows that it's trash.