The Big Board: Dominance against the run

August, 16, 2012
8/16/12
10:07
AM ET
It came during the low point of Florida State's season in 2011, rock bottom for all parties concerned.

Wake Forest running back Josh Harris carried just 13 times in a win over FSU, racking up a whopping 136 yards on the ground, including a stellar 57-yard run.

While the Seminoles' five turnovers in that game proved their undoing, Harris' big day on the ground might have been more noteworthy. He was the only player to rush for more than 100 yards against the FSU defense all season.

Florida State rebounded following the loss to Wake, and only Miami managed to top the 100-yard mark on the ground as a team against the Noles the rest of the season. After holding Notre Dame to just 2.7 yards per carry in their bowl game, the Seminoles finished up the 2011 season ranked No. 2 in the country in rush defense.

And now in 2012, Brandon Jenkins and Timmy Jernigan and Bjoern Werner and more than 75 percent of FSU's total tackles from last season are back -- so the expectations are through the roof on just how good this unit could be at stopping the run.

The formula is simple: If a team is great against the run one year, then brings back the bulk of its defense the next, good things are in store.

Look no further than Alabama's historic performance during its national championship run last season. The Crimson Tide were ranked 10th in the country in rush defense in 2010, returned players who accounted for 91 percent of their tackles for 2011, then reeled off a season for the ages -- allowing just 72.15 yards per game on the ground en route to a title.

For FSU fans, that's a formula the Seminoles should follow this season, but it's not always that simple.

Since 2008, 19 teams have finished in the top 20 in the nation against the run, then brought back at least 70 percent of their total tackles from the season the next year. Among those teams, Alabama's dominance in 2011 was the exception, not the rule.

(*Note: YPG is yards per game. Sources: CFBStats and Phil Steele.)

Of the 19 teams on the list, 13 finished the following season ranked lower nationally in rush defense than they had the year before, and only last year's Alabama team and Oklahoma's 2009 squad showed a marked improvement in rush defense from Year 1 to Year 2.

Of course, it's tough to predict much improvement for a unit that was already dominant. And while the numbers don't necessarily predict an Alabama-like season for most teams, they also show that teams that are good against the run and return the bulk of their defense the next year tend to stay pretty good against the run.

While the majority of those 19 team saw some dip in production from Year 1 to Year 2, 12 of them still finished Year 2 ranked in the top 25 nationally, 11 allowed the same or fewer rushing touchdowns in Year 2, and eight of them actually allowed fewer yards per carry, but simply faced more running plays in Year 2.

In other words, returning the bulk of a top-ranked defense isn't a guarantee of greatness, but it's a solid indication that a team will be pretty good.

And given all the hype surrounding FSU's defense this year, Jimbo Fisher would be happy with pretty good.

"I want to be careful about our defense," Fisher said. "We try to make things so good that even when you play good, you can't reach the expectations that everybody thinks. You've got to be careful about expectations that you make them so unbelievable that they can never live up to their own expectations. But do I think we can be a heck of a defense? Yes. That's what we've geared it to be."

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