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Does defense still win championships in college football?

Yesterday afternoon I sent this tweet:

Astute observers will note that four of the five Power 5 conference champions led their respective leagues in scoring. So, I started wondering if the adage that offense put butts in seats but it's defense that wins championships is still true in the year of our Lord 2019.

With the understanding that everyone wants to be Clemson -- who ran roughshod over the ACC, winning all nine conference games by an average score of 47-11 -- if you had to pick one, are you better off emphasizing offense over defense? Have the offensive coordinators truly won the scheme wars?

To test this hypothesis, I looked for the top three scoring offenses and defenses in each of the 10 FBS conferences. To make an apples-to-apples comparison, only results in conference games were considered so as to avoid a 77-0 win over FCS Southeast skewing the averages one way or the other.

Here's what I found.

American
1. Houston (5-3, West co-champion) -- 43.5 points per game
2. UCF (9-0, AAC champion) -- 43.4
3. Memphis (5-4, West champion) -- 39.7

1. Cincinnati (6-2) -- 17.4
2. Temple (7-1) -- 22.8
2. UCF (9-0) -- 22.8

ACC
1. Clemson (9-0, ACC champion) -- 46.7
2. Syracuse (6-2) -- 39.8
3. NC State (5-3) -- 33.4

1. Clemson (9-0) -- 11.4
2. Miami (4-4) -- 18.0
3. Virginia (4-4) -- 21.6

Big 12
1. Oklahoma (9-1, Big 12 champion) -- 50.3
2. West Virginia (6-3) -- 41.4
3. Oklahoma State (3-6) -- 33.8

1. Iowa State (6-3) -- 24.4
2. Kansas State (3-6) -- 25.9
3. TCU (4-5) -- 26.0

Big Ten
1. Ohio State (9-1, Big Ten champion) -- 39.9
2. Michigan (8-1, East co-champion) -- 36.8
3. Purdue (5-4) -- 33.0

1. Michigan State (5-4) -- 16.6
2. Michigan (8-1, East co-champion) -- 18.2
3. Iowa (5-4) -- 20.6

Conference USA
1. Florida International (6-2) -- 31.5
2. Middle Tennessee (7-2, East champion) -- 31.2
3. North Texas (5-3) -- 30.3

1. UAB (8-1, C-USA champion) -- 12.6
2. Marshall (6-2) -- 17.8
3. Middle Tennessee (7-2, East champion) -- 19.3

MAC
1. Ohio (6-2) -- 42.1
2. Toledo (5-3) -- 39.1
3. Buffalo (7-2, East champion) -- 34.8

1. Northern Illinois (7-2, MAC champion) -- 20.8
2. Ohio (6-2) -- 20.9
3. Eastern Michigan (5-3) -- 21.0

Mountain West
1. Utah State (7-1, Mountain co-champion) -- 44.6
2. Boise State (7-2, Mountain champion) -- 33.3
3. Air Force (3-5) -- 31.1

1. Fresno State (8-1, MW champion) -- 11.4
2. Wyoming (4-4) -- 20.3
3. San Diego State (4-4) -- 21.9

Pac-12
1. Washington State (7-2, North co-champion) -- 36.6
2. Oregon (5-4) -- 32.3
3. Arizona State (5-4) -- 31.4

1. Washington (8-2, Pac-12 champion) -- 17.0
2. Utah (6-4, South champion) -- 19.8
3. California (4-5) -- 21.9

SEC
1. Alabama (9-0, SEC champion) -- 45.4
2. Georgia (7-2, East champion) -- 33.8
3. Missouri (4-4) -- 30.9

1. Mississippi State (4-4) -- 14.4
2. Alabama (9-0, SEC champion) -- 15.7
3. Kentucky (5-3) -- 16.5

Sun Belt
1. Arkansas State (5-3, West co-champion) -- 33.8
2. Appalachian State (8-1, Sun Belt champion) -- 31.7
3. Louisiana-Lafayette (5-4, West champion) -- 31.6

1. Appalachian State (8-1, Sun Belt champion) -- 14.1
2. Troy (7-1, East co-champion) -- 18.8
3. Georgia Southern (6-2) -- 21.4

If it seems pretty even across the board, that's because it is.

4 of 10 champions led their conference in scoring offense
6 of 10 champions led their conference in scoring defense

6 of 10 champions were among the top three in scoring offense
8 of 10 champions were among the top three in scoring defense

10 of 10 champions ranked among the top three on at least one side of the ball
of 10 champions ranked among the top three on both sides of the ball (UCF, Clemson, Alabama, Appalachian State)

Collectively, teams that finished among the top three in their conference in scoring offense went a combined 187-74 (.716) in conference games, while top three defenses were a near identical 182-77 (.703).

In this age of the hurry-up, no-huddle and RPOs, you're still okay building a defense-first team. Defense still wins championships, but offense does, too. Just make sure you're elite at something.

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