A Statistical Lesson

I’ve seen a considerable amount of bile sent Andrew Luck’s way because Stanford’s schedule should, in the eyes of many of his detractors, disqualify him from Heisman consideration.

The idea is that Luck is only doing well because he hasn’t played against any great passing defenses.

Forget that Luck and Stanford skating by against the Little Sisters of the Poor is not a notion shared by voters in either poll, or by the Heisman electorate.

Instead, let’s look at this idea at face value by turning things around a bit.

Let’s look at Alabama. Specifically, let’s look at Alabama’s passing defense.

By all accounts–and in my opinion, which to me is the most important factor–it’s the best secondary in the country. The Tide are only allowing 135.6 yards per game in the air and have given up just 4 touchdown passes (vs. 9 interceptions) all season.

Sounds impressive, right?

Well, it’s much less impressive if you apply the same standard to Alabama that Crimson Tide fans are applying to Luck.

Here are the rankings of the passing offenses that Alabama has faced thus far:

Kent State — 117th
Penn State — 91st
North Texas — 98th
Arkansas — 9th
Florida — 96th
Vanderbilt — 108th
Mississippi — 105th
Tennessee — 45th (note: Vols QB Bray missed game vs. Alabama)

So, as you can see, Alabama is where it is in the passing defense stats primarily because it has played six teams ranked 91st or worst in passing and a seventh (Tennessee) that was missing its very able quarterback (Tyler Bray) due to injury.

A sophist might take a look at these numbers and conclude that Alabama’s secondary is overrated.

But a close observer of college football would see the bigger picture.

Is a stat leader always the best player, team or unit? No. Should statistical prowess be the main foundation for making such an argument? Rarely.

Anyone who watches Alabama’s secondary can see the talent on hand. Dre Kirkpatrick is a future first-round pick at corner. DeQuan MenzieRobert Lester and Mark Barron will play in the NFL for a long time. Backups like Vinnie Sunseri and Ha’Sean Clinton-Dix would be starting for most other teams.

Does the fact that they’ve played seven passing teams without a pulse mean they aren’t that good and shouldn’t be considered the best secondary in the country?

Hell no.

Alabama doesn’t have the best passing defense in the country solely because of its numbers. It has given up just 2 fewer passing yards all season than South Carolina’s secondary. Does that mean it is just barely better than the Gamecock secondary? Would both secondaries be interchangeable and perform just as well against the same competition?

Face it, if Alabama played seven great passing teams (the kind you see all the time in a conference like, say, the Pac-12) its secondary would be nowhere near the top of the pass defense rankings, but it would still be the best secondary in the country.

How would we know this?  Easy. We’d look at the talent on hand, we’d look at what it did against the competition and how it performed, we’d weigh all of it and we’d come to a reasonable conclusion.

If stats were the be-all and end-all of deciding the value of a player or team, we’d never bother watching the games. The teams would all face each other in a sealed stadium and we’d ranked everything and everyone with the stats that were fed to us after the fact.

I think most Heisman voters understand this. They get that Luck’s numbers are less dependent on who he plays and more related to the skill he has so clearly demonstrated time and time again. We are talking about a player who has been dissected and pored over from all angles by people who do this for a living. Could they be wrong? Absolutely. I’m the last person to argue that being a coach or scout makes you right. But it’s been a long time since we’ve seen this kind of consensus about a player.

Alabama’s defense is, I believe, the best in the country. I don’t think it is far-fetched to say that Andrew Luck is the best player.

Certainly, neither point can be refuted by numbers alone.

About Heismanpundit

Chris Huston, A.K.A. ‘The Heisman Pundit‘, is a Heisman voter and the creator and publisher of Heismanpundit.com, a site dedicated to analysis of the Heisman Trophy and college football. Dubbed “the foremost authority on the Heisman” by Sports Illustrated, HP is regularly quoted or cited during football season in newspapers across the country. He is also a regular contributor on sports talk radio and television.

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3 Responses to A Statistical Lesson

  1. starkweather November 1, 2011 at 5:20 pm #

    Well done, HP. I don’t really see the Luck backlash anywhere but this sitems comments and I find those comments baffling. Is there anyone in the mainstream sports media espousing an anti-Stanford POV?

  2. JMB November 1, 2011 at 5:34 pm #

    What’s funny about some of those stupid “Sisters of the Poor” comments is that Oregon’s defense did a better job defending Cam Newton last year than most SEC defenses, and NFL defenses for that matter, managed to do.

  3. CM November 2, 2011 at 7:05 am #

    Andrew Luck vs Chuck Norris…I’m taking Luck. He makes Peyton Manning and John Elway look like Ryan Leaf and Jamarcus Russell. He threw the prettiest pick six in history against the vaunted USC pass defense. Even his MISTAKES are better than everyone else’s. He’s absolutely amazing. I can’t wait for the Colts to draft him #1 and kick Manning to the curb like the overrated hack he is. Andrew Luck also wants to be an architect…and I’ll bet he will single handidly construct a new stadium for whatever team drafts him…overnight.

    (please God, let Alabama or LSU end up in the NC game against Stanford).