Jadennis: Getting defensive

Jonathan Dennis, known to our message posters as jadennis, shares his unique grasp of statistics and Auburn history each week.

For the majority of the first decade of the century, one thing Auburn football fans could count on was a stubborn defense that didn't give up many yards or points. With the recent hiring of previously successful defensive doordinator Brian Van Gorder, there is hope that the Tigers can return to that form sooner than later.

The nine seasons from 2000 to 2008 produced nationally recognized names such as Karlos Dansby, Roderick Hood, Jay Ratliff, Reggie Torbor, Carlos Rogers, Pat Sims, Quentin Groves, Jerraud Powers, Sen'Derrick Marks, and many others. In fact, those years produced 27 players that would go on to play in the NFL a combined (so far) 106 seasons, including five Pro-Bowl appearances. It was an era of rich defensive talent, and with that talent came great success on the field.

From 2000 to 2008, Auburn defenses finished in the top 20 nationally in total defense on six occasions, finishing in the top 10 three times. During that same time, Auburn finished in the top 20 nationally in scoring defense seven times (every year from 2002 to 2008), while also finishing in the top 10 five consecutive years from 2003 to 2007.

How does that run of defensive success compare to other SEC programs? Below is the average national rankings for Total Defense and Scoring Defense for the nine seasons from 2000 to 2008.

AVERAGE NATIONAL RANKING FOR TOTAL DEFENSE (2000 - 2008):
1. No. 17 - Georgia
2. No. 18 - Auburn
3. No. 19 - LSU
4. No. 21 - Alabama
5. No. 25 - Tennessee
6. No. 26 - Florida
7. No. 38 - South Carolina
8. No. 45 - Arkansas
9. No. 45 - Mississippi State
10. No. 55 - Ole Miss
11. No. 69 - Vanderbilt
12. No. 86 - Kentucky

Notes:
5+ Top 20 finishes - Georgia (7), Auburn, LSU (6), Tennessee (5).
3+ Top 10 finishes - LSU (6), Alabama, Florida (4), Auburn , Georgia, Tennessee (3).
LSU had an impressive run of six years of Top 10 finishes from 2002 to 2007.
Georgia only had one year ranked outside the Top 25 (2001).
Auburn only had one year ranked outside the Top 30 (2001).
Alabama only had four years ranked lower than No. 23, but all four were Top 5.
Kentucky and Mississippi State were the only teams with zero Top 20 finishes.

AVERAGE NATIONAL RANKING FOR SCORING DEFENSE (2000-2008):
1. No. 15 - Auburn
2. No. 17 - Georgia
3. No. 20 - LSU
4. No. 22 - Florida
5. No. 23 - Alabama
6. No. 26 - Tennessee
7. No. 31 - South Carolina
8. No. 50 - Arkansas
9. No. 52 - Ole Miss
10. No. 66 - Mississippi State
11. No. 66 - Vanderbilt
12. No. 80 - Kentucky

Notes:
4+ Top 20 finishes - Georgia (8), Auburn (7), LSU (6), Alabama, Florida, Tennessee (4).
3+ Top 10 finishes - Auburn (5), Alabama, Georgia (4), Florida, LSU (3).
Auburn had an impressive run of five years of Top 10 finishes from 2003 to 2007.
Georgia finished outside of the Top 20 only one time (2008).
LSU had six seasons No. 17 or higher, but also had three seasons No. 32 or lower.
Alabama had four seasons in the Top 10, but also had three seasons No. 30 or lower.
Auburn only had one season outside of the Top 30 (2001).
Kentucky finished No. 80 or lower six times, including four seasons No. 98 or lower.
Arkansas, Miss St, Kentucky, and Vanderbilt had zero Top 20 appearances.

In the last three years, Auburn's average rank in Total Defense has dropped from the No. 18 average of the previous nine years all the way to No. 70. The average rank of Scoring Defense from the previous nine years, No. 15, has also dropped to No. 70 in the last three years. So is there a long road back to Top 20 defenses? The first year could perhaps be a challenge, simply because there will be a new coach teaching a new system, and doing so with players that are still young, despite having a year or two of playing behind them.

But big changes in defensive success are scattered all over the nine year period that was studied. So change can come quickly, and it can come drastically. Below are some examples:

DRASTIC ONE-YEAR CHANGE IN TOTAL DEFENSE NATIONAL RANKING:

LSU - No. 75 in 2001 to No. 8 in 2002.
Tennessee - No. 70 in 2007 to No. 3 in 2008.
Auburn - No. 26 in 2002 to No. 5 in 2003.
Florida - No. 42 in 2004 to No. 9 in 2005.
Alabama - No. 46 in 2003 to No. 2 in 2004.
Ole Miss - No. 88 in 2007 to No. 19 in 2008.

DRASTIC ONE-YEAR CHANGE IN SCORING DEFNES NATIONAL RANKING:

Tennessee - No. 61 in 2007 to No. 10 in 2008.
Auburn - No. 48 in 2001 to No. 13 in 2002.
Florida - No. 46 in 2007 to No. 4 in 2008.
Ole Miss - No. 70 in 2007 to No. 20 in 2008.
Alabama - No. 61 in 2003 to No. 7 in 2004.

In all, there were 46 instances where a team improved their national ranking by at least 20 spots from one year to the next. There were 18 instances where a team improved their national ranking a whopping 40 or more spots. There were even eight instances where a leap of 50 or more spots was made from one year to the next. Florida perhaps epitomizes what a team can do when young talent gains experience. On three separate occasions, 2000 to 2001, 2004 to 2005, and 2007 to 2008, the Gators improved their Total Defense national ranking from No. 40 or lower one season, all the way to the Top 10 the following season.

However, Ole Miss and Tennessee best represent the potential of extreme improvement from year to the next, both doing so from 2007 to 2008. Tennessee improved their Total Defense rankings from No. 70 to No. 3, as well as their Scoring Defense from No. 61 to No. 10. That same year, Ole Miss improved their Total Defense from No. 88 to No. 19, and their Scoring Defense from No. 70 to No. 20.

Substantial improvement is not unusual. Vast improvement is not unheard of. And extreme improvement occasionally happens as well.

In both lists of average rankings, Auburn and Georgia finished No. 1 or No. 2. One of the coaches responsible for Auburn's success is now the head coach at Auburn, Gene Chizik. He resided over two of Auburn's Top 10 defenses. One of the coaches responsible for Georgia's success is now the Defensive Coordinator at Auburn, Brian Van Gorder. He resided over three of Georgia's Top 10 defenses.

Such incredible defensive leadership and experience, combined with the young talent that the Auburn program has attracted in recent years, points to probable improvement and a return to the success the Tigers had become accustomed to during most of the previous decade. And as the history above displays, drastic improvements in a short time are not entirely uncommon.

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