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Sugar Bowl 2016: Is Oklahoma State's defense better than the numbers suggest?

The Cowboys have given up a ton of yards and points this season, but they also play in the wild Big 12. Let's use some advanced metrics to get a more accurate reading.

Rob Ferguson-USA TODAY Sports

During his Monday press conference in New Orleans, Ole Miss offensive coordinator Dan Werner was asked a question that's been oft-repeated in the leadup to the Sugar Bowl: is Oklahoma State's defense better than the statistics suggest?

The raw numbers certainly don't paint a flattering picture: 85th nationally in points per game, 92nd in passing yards per game, 83rd in rushing yards per game. In their two losses to end the regular season, the Cowboys allowed a combined 103 points and over 1,200 offensive yards to Baylor and Oklahoma.

The counter-narrative, of course, is that OK State plays defense in the Big 12, a land of uptempo, yards-guzzling offenses. Of the country's top six offenses in terms of yards per game, four were on Oklahoma State's conference schedule (Baylor, Texas Tech, TCU and Oklahoma).

"It's so hard to tell [how good their defense is], because in their league everybody scores a lot of points," Werner answered on Monday. "So they're all up tempo, like we are. And they're probably all similar to our offense. So their stats are not going to be great."

Let's look beyond the traditional metrics to determine how good or bad this defense really is.

Yards per play

The blazing tempo of the Big 12 is a bit overstated: none of the conference's 10 teams show up the in the country's top 10 in defensive snaps and only three show up in the top 25. OK State's 932 defensive snaps ranks 27th most in the country, nine spots behind Ole Miss.

Still, that's more snaps than most defenses have faced. If you gauge the Pokes' by yards allowed per play, they rise to No. 59 in the country -- 37 spots higher than they are in yards allowed per game.


The problem with traditional stats is that they don't account for level of competition and other critical context. That's why S&P+ -- an overall success metric that takes into account a team's efficiency, explosiveness, average field position and ability to finish drives, then adjusts for opponent -- is a far superior method for gauging a team.

Oklahoma State starts to look considerably better when we rank them by defensive S&P+ as opposed to traditional yards per game measurements.

Yds. per game rank S&P+ rank
Total defense 96th 58th
Pass defense 92nd 32nd
Rush defense 83rd 48th

Yards against average

We know that Oklahoma State has faced a disproportionate number of high-powered offenses. So instead of just looking at how an offense did against the Pokes' defense, let's look at how they did relative to their season average.

Central Mich. Central Ark. UTSA Texas K-State West Virginia Kansas Texas Tech TCU Iowa St. Baylor Oklahoma
Avg. yds per game* 402 415 362 371 341 463 332 595 564 408 605 543
Yds vs. OSU 343 220 346 290 351 443 221 642 663 411 700 524
Difference -59 -195 -16 -81 +10 -20 -111 +47 +99 +3 +95 -19

*Rounded to whole numbers

There's a tale of two seasons here, divided at the Texas Tech game. Only one of OK State's first seven opponents went over its average, but four of the last five opponents went over (and the fifth, Oklahoma, could have gone over if it wasn't blowing the Pokes out by halftime).

The easy explanation for that shift is a spike in competition (four of those last five offenses are among the country's best), though it's also worth noting that second-team All-Big 12 defensive end Jimmy Bean went down with a torn ACL against Texas Tech.

Alright, so how good is OK State's defense?

We know that the advanced numbers show that the Pokes are significantly better than the raw stats suggest and that  they are in part a product of their offensive-driven conference. We know they have plenty of talent: D-end Emmanuel Ogbah will be a first-rounder in the 2016 draft, cornerback Kevin Peterson joined him on the first-team All-Big 12 team and safety Jordan Sterns was named to the second team. We also know they get after the ball, ranking 12th in the country in turnovers forced.

But even by advanced metrics, that Oklahoma State isn't a great defensive unit. You also can't overlook the fact that they were thoroughly trounced once the competitions spiked down the stretch, particularly those last two games. Now they face an Ole Miss offense that ranks top 12 in points per game, yards per game, yards per play and S&P+. Expect plenty of yards and points on both sides.