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ACC Auditing: No Offense

Matt Ryan got a lot of hype en route to winning ACC Offensive Player of the Year. Well, so what?

Big 12 Big East Big Ten SEC Pac Ten ACC
Yds./Game 444.6 401.0 401.3 385.9 395.2 348.9
Avg. Ntl. Rank (Total O) 35 53 53.1 63.8 58.4 87.5
Pts./Game 33.4 30.7 28.8 30.3 28.6 24.9
Avg. Ntl. Rank (Scoring O) 37.1 46.3 54.2 51.9 56.8 77.6
Yds./Play 5.97 5.69 5.53 5.49 5.39 5.02
Yds./Pass 7.3 7.5 6.9 6.8 6.7 6.7
Yds./Rush 4.4 4.3 4.4 4.4 4.2 3.5
Teams > 400 yds./Gm. 8 5 7 5 4 2
Teams < 350 yds./Gm. 1 3 1 4 2 8

This is not about Ryan, a quarterback I really like in spite of his overrated-ness. It’s about the stunning lack of offense in the ACC at large, which is tremendously buoyed in the chart above by Boston College and Clemson, the only two offenses in the league that finished in the top half of the country in total offense. The ACC was the only conference whose teams collectively averaged less than 350 yards per game, or come close; the only conference whose teams collectively averaged less than 25 points per game, or come close; the only conference whose teams collectively failed to top four yards per carry, or come close; the only conference whose teams collectively were more likely to finish in the bottom 25 nationally in total offense than in the top half, or come close. A majority of teams in the Big 12, Big East and Big Ten averaged more than 400 yards per game, and in every other conference except the SEC at least twice as many teams averaged more than 400 as averaged less than 350; in the ACC, four times as many teams finished below the 350-yard threshold as topped 400 per game. Without B.C. and Clemson, not a single offense in the league would have matched the standard of ‘mediocre’ in any other conference.

Why? If I was an ACC partisan, I’d say it was because the conferences defenses are so terrific – if you reverse the numbers to measure the defensive side of the ball instead, the ACC would look like a bastion of traditional backbone and discipline in a sea of wide open gimmickry, and we could just as easily rip the Big 12 for being so forgiving to its offenses. That’s a pretty valid criticism.

The defenses didn’t hold up as well when they left the conference, though: Miami allowed 51 points to Oklahoma; Virginia allowed 23 points to Wyoming, more than the Cavs allowed to six ACC opponents and four more than the anemic Cowboys averaged the rest of the season; Georgia Tech allowed 31 to Georgia and 40 to Fresno State; North Carolina allowed 34 to East Carolina and 37 to South Florida; and the best defense in the league, belonging to champion Virginia Tech, allowed 48 points to LSU in September and 24 to Kansas in the Orange Bowl, a touchdown worse than the Hokies’ season average even including the LSU debacle. This isn’t the totality of the ACC’s out-of-conference performance, but it proves the point: against other BCS conference offenses, and occasionally against non-BCS conference offenses, the defenses were just average, and are not to be given too much credit for the huge disparity in offensive fireworks.

In October, I looked at Virginia’s seemingly inexplicable success – after equally improbable runs by Maryland and Wake Forest in 2006 – and described the league as "college football's most NFL-like environment, where the line between measured competence and rank mediocrity is virtually nonexistant," and run-first risk aversion – right up the alley of Al Groh, Chan Gailey, and coaches who embrace an old school "defense and special teams" mantra – rules the day. Virginia and Wake Forest have prevailed with a stupendous number of razor-thin margins the last two years, and in that sense, lacking the tools and/or the mindset to score a lot of points does have one benefit:

Margin of Victory in Conference Games
Big East ACC Big Ten SEC Pac Ten Big 12
Avg. MOV 14.4 13.4 14.0 12.9 15.1 19.6
MOV < 8 pts. 16 22 19 21 17 12
% of All Games 57.1 45.8 43.2 42.8 37.8 26.7

Almost no conference was better at producing close finishes, or had more parity top-to-bottom. So, you ask: which of these themes was ultimately the more dominant – lackluster-at-best offense or tight, to-the-wire finishes?

I dunno.