2nd Annual Off-Season Study Guide ('23)
Here's who you should be studying this offseason.
As the year draws to a close, coaches are starting to plan for the upcoming year. With so much information available, it can be overwhelming to find teams to study. Instead, avoid outdated metrics such as rushing and passing yards and focus on advanced analytics. Also, try looking outside your region for teams to watch. We all have coaches in different ecosystems and at different program sizes. So, expanding your horizons is best if you're looking for fresh ideas.
When I am looking to study defenses, I consider their overall efficiency. In the NFL, many experts use FTN’s DVOA stat to rate defensive units. In college football, Brian Fremeau runs BCF Toys, which uses a similar formula for rating college defenses. There are plenty of other advanced metrics to judge defense on both sites. If you have been following me, you may have seen his ratings.
Parker Fleming of CFB Graphs has added to his site this year, breaking down early-downs (1st/2nd) and eliminating play-action/RPOs from his passing metric (Dropback). Doing so eliminates ‘mixed’ plays and gives you a more realistic look at how defenses are doing against traditional pass plays. The site focuses on EPA, or Expected Points Added, which focuses on field position and Down & Distance concerning the play.
I find this stat particularly useful because it considers historical context and evaluates each play based on its position on the field. For instance, a 3-yard play on 1st & 10 cannot be compared to a 3-yard play on 3rd & 2. By adding the value of the field position, we can get a more accurate picture of how teams are gaining or restricting yards.
Parker has also added QB metrics like EPA/attempt, Air Yards, YAC, and pressure percentages. He also flips those metrics to investigate how well defenses defend passing plays. I will use some of these metrics in this year's guide. Air Yards, for instance, shows how deep a QB is consistently passing the ball down the field. Plus, pressure percentages really highlight if a defense is hitting home with their pressures or has an elite D-line.
FEI and EPA statistics provide valuable insights into the effectiveness of a defense. Both metrics offer a detailed perspective on how the unit operates. For example, a team could be proficient in defending the pass but struggle in run defense. Florida State is a great example of this. The Seminoles have the second-best EPA against the pass but are 70th in EPA/rush. In DFEI, they sit 6th.
CFB Graphs employs raw data, which is not adjusted based on the strength of the opponent. This enables us to identify teams like Jacksonville State, who are ranked 4th overall in defensive EPA. Using both FEI and EPA gives you a bigger picture.
Many times, the FEI and EPA rankings will mirror each other. If you are an efficient defense, you limit what teams are doing offensively. But they don’t always match up.
I also look for teams that are doing more with less. BCF Toys FEI weights the strength of schedules, so it is common for G5 teams to be featured down the rankings compared to their Power 5 counterparts—another reason I like to cross-check with CFB Graphs’ raw EPA rankings. In the lists below, I included the Top-5 G5 defense in FEI. I find that many times, it is at those levels you see the most creativity.
Each college football conference has its own unique ecosystem, and as an analyst, I always keep this in mind when deciding which team to watch. To understand how teams perform, it's important to know what they have to defend weekly. For instance, the Big 10 presents different issues defensively than the Big 12.
I love the diversity in schematics at the college level. I avoid relying on national rankings or conference affiliation bias when searching for new ideas. There are ideas everywhere, you just have to look.
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Below, I identify important categories for examining defenses. These categories cover everything from FEI to coverage schemes to blitz rates. I have created Top-5 lists for most of the categories. You will notice some names appear repeatedly, which is typical for a top unit.
Concerning who was truly elite this year on defense, my list goes as follows and in no particular order:
Ohio State - I know the Buckeyes stumbled against the Wolverines and gave up 30 points in their loss. Michigan’s offense was elite this year, #5 in OFEI. BCF Toys has the team from up north at #1 in their overall FEI rankings. Until that matchup, the Buckeyes had not given up more than 17 points in a game. Defensive Coordinator Jim Knowles has a unique defensive style, and he has leaned into the Buckeyes deep D-line group. Knowles has used a Frankenstein approach in Columbus, mixing his 3-High structure from the Big 12 into a traditional four-down alignment that has been a staple for years at Ohio State. The use of 3-High alignments with more traditional fronts has been a trend this year, and Knowles is leading it.
Texas - Last year got weird in Austin (pun intended). For starters, former TCU and 4-2-5 Quarters guru Gary Patterson was the Sr. Defensive Analyst for the Longhorns. DC Pete Kwiatkowski hails from Washington and uses a hybrid 3-4 base. Quarters was not always on the menu in Seattle. Last year, Texas ran Quarters more than Pitt! The meshing of ideas raised the Longhorns to 11th in DFEI in ‘22. After the season, Patterson would leave. Kwiatkowski did an excellent job this year, with his defense finishing 7th in DFEI. As more teams become multiple in fronts and coverages, Texas has shown they are on trend as they enter the SEC next year.
Michigan - The Wolverines are first or second in every unadjusted metric on BCF Toys and sit fifth in total EPA. In his two years at the helm, Jesse Minter has progressed the defense in Ann Arbor to the point that it is playing better than when Mike Macdonald took it over in ‘21. If you remember, Macdonald took over for Don Brown (UMass) and quickly ascended the Wolverines back to the top of the defensive charts. He’s currently the Ravens DC, who sits #1 in DVOA. The system in place in Michigan is the same one in Baltimore. though the Big 10 doesn’t offer elite offenses every week, Minter has built a monster.
UCLA - The joke in LA was on USC, who has struggled mightily on defense under Lincoln Riley. The offense is explosive, and the defense matches with its inability to stop anyone. So why are we talking about USC and not UCLA? Because former Bruin DC D’Anton Lynn is moving across town to be a Trojan. His UCLA defense is another hybrid front and coverage unit that has been built to mitigate the college Spread systems. Lynn was also the Ravens’ Secondary Coach from ‘21-’22 (another Baltimore connection). UCLA sits 8th in DFEI, 2nd in total EPA, 2nd in EPA/rush, and 9th against in EPA/pass. Last year, the unit sat 8th in DFEI. It is an amazing jump, and if you watch them at all this year, it is a very impressive unit.
Troy - I always try and highlight one G5 team. Last year it was James Madison who took the FBS by storm (and did so again this year). The Trojans DC in ‘22 was Shiel Wood, who took over the DC role at Tulane (another great ‘22 G5 defense). Head Coach Jon Sumrall (now at Tulane) tabbed Greg Gasparato as his new DC when looking for a replacement. Gasparato hails from the App. State/East Coast 3-4 tree. Many HS coaches across the country have been enamored with the simplicity and effectiveness of this system. The philosophy has won many games at all levels of college and HS football. So, if you are looking for an East Coast 3-4 team to watch this year, the Troy Trojans are the unit you want to put on first.