Legendary Alabama football coach Bear Bryant famously opined that “offense sells tickets, but defense wins championships.” One has to wonder what old Bear would have made of Alabama’s 63-48 victory over Ole Miss on Saturday night, a game which generated an SEC record 1,370 yards of total offense and saw a 1-2 Ole Miss team shred Nick Saban’s defense for as many points as he has allowed in any game since arriving in Tuscaloosa. Saban’s former offensive coordinator and longtime frenemy Lane Kiffin called a phenomenal offensive game and made the highly-touted Crimson Tide defense look pedestrian, but the Rebels were utterly incapable of slowing down Bama’s offense themselves, forcing Kiffin to repeatedly go for it on 4th down and try onside/squib kicks in hopes of stealing a possession from the Alabama offense. Saban built his brand at Alabama on fielding the stingiest defenses in college football, but Saturday night’s contest served as proof positive that, in modern college football, sometimes the best defense is a good offense.
Week six of the college football season was likely a rough watch for any Big Ten defensive coordinators who tuned in hoping to catch some gridiron action before the start of their conference’s season, as explosive offenses and poor defensive performances were the dominant narratives of virtually every important game on Saturday. The 2020 Red River Showdown produced the highest scoring game ever played between Texas and Oklahoma, two teams who are hardly strangers to high-flying offenses. The Sooners’ 53-45 quadruple-overtime thriller could have ended far earlier and more anticlimactically had their defense not checked out midway through the fourth quarter, allowing Texas QB Sam Ehlinger to perform his best Vince Young impersonation in leading the Longhorn comeback. #8 North Carolina faced similar problems after nearly squandering leads of 25 and 21 points to Virginia Tech, but managed to outgun the undermanned Hokies 56-45.
Not all presumptive contenders were able to overcome their defensive deficiencies, however. #4 Florida’s offense was as electrifying as always, but its defense repeatedly struggled to contain Texas A&M quarterback Kellen Mond, bruising running back Isaiah Spiller, or rangy wide receiver Caleb Chapman, eventually falling to the Aggies 41-38 on a last-second field goal from junior kicker Seth Small. Meanwhile, the defending national champion LSU Tigers wasted a 430-yard, four touchdown performance from quarterback Myles Brennan because their defense could not stop the winless Missouri Tigers from finding the end zone whenever they wanted. Even with star cornerback Derek Stingley Jr. back in action, the LSU pass defense looked just as inept as it did in its opening loss to Mississippi State, and Ed Orgeron’s squad must make dramatic improvements in this realm to avoid falling to 1-3 in next week’s showdown against a vengeful Gator squad.
Still, week six sprinkled in a few examples of winning defenses carrying the day. Clemson, which has looked every bit as dominant as its #1 ranking suggests, absolutely smothered the Miami offense, holding the Hurricanes to 210 total yards and producing 11 tackles for loss, five sacks, and three turnovers. Meanwhile, the #3 Georgia Bulldogs found their footing after absorbing several offensive body blows from Tennessee in the first half and held the Volunteers scoreless after halftime while limiting them to -1 yards of rushing offense on the day. Finally, even an Iowa fan can begrudgingly credit Iowa State with reminding the country that SOME Big 12 teams are still willing to play defense, as the Cyclones managed to limit Texas Tech to only 15 points, less than half of their season scoring average. Even Missouri and Oklahoma, two teams who showed little interest in playing defense for much of their respective contests, relied on these units to generate the crucial late game redzone stops that ultimately secured their victories.
Defense still reigns supreme in the Big Ten, and watching six weeks of college football no games from the conference can really warp one’s perception of what modern college football can and should look like. Iowa’s offense will remain focused on ball control and time of possession for as long as Kirk Ferentz remains the head coach, but the 2020 squad also boasts one of the most intriguing collections of dynamic skill players the program has seen in years. With the Iowa coaching staff sitting and home and observing the way the rest of the sport operates on offense, one can’t help but wonder if they will be tempted to embrace a more aggressive offensive philosophy this season, especially given the number of question marks on the defensive side of the ball. Iowa’s offense has a real chance to outperform its defense for the first time in almost two decades. If the Hawkeyes of all teams end up allowing the offense to carry the load this season, it may be officially time to put the “defense wins championships” maxim to bed.