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Perception isn't reality for Big 12 defenses

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Baylor beat TCU 61-58 in a game that fuels the criticism of Big 12 defenses. But Big 12 coaches say defensive success should be measured differently. Jerome Miron/USA TODAY Sports

The signature game of the 2014 Big 12 season features a box score which represents the problem.

Baylor 61, TCU 58.

The top two teams in the Big 12 combined for 12 offensive touchdowns, 1,267 yards, 62 first downs and 198 total plays as the Bears and Horned Frogs battled back and forth for conference supremacy.

Numbers like those don't help change the common thought that the Big 12 does not play defense. When the Top 15 Power 5 teams in total defense are listed, the Big 12 is nowhere to be found.

Yet that doesn't mean the conference is without quality defenses.

As Big 12 coaches try to figure out how well their defense is playing, total yardage is low on the list. Big 12 defenses faced more plays per game (75.8) and more drives per game (14) in conference games than every other Power 5 conference except the Pac-12 in 2014 (it should be no surprise those two conferences are generally regarded as the Power 5 conferences with the worst defenses).

"It's completely opposite of what it should be defensively in statistics," Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy said. "It should be points allowed per possession. Like our defense, when we were rolling offensively here in those years, our defensive coaches and our team were facing about 16 or 17 possessions a game. There's teams in the league and other leagues that only face 10, or 11 or 12 possessions, so obviously they have a better chance to score points against us than they do against them."

There's something to Gundy's statement.

When viewed by points per possession and yards per play, TCU and Texas jump into the Top 15 among Power 5 teams, with the Horned Frogs at No. 3 nationally in points allowed per possession (1.13) and No. 5 in yards allowed per play (4.66) which led the Big 12 in both categories. And TCU did it while facing a Power 5-best 15.69 drives per game, thanks in part to its high scoring offense.

Gary Patterson's squad was nowhere to be found among the Power 5 leaders in total yardage. Yet, without question, TCU had one of the nation's top defenses in 2014.

That's why Big 12 defensive coaches have moved past worrying about total yards allowed as a valuable tool to understand how well they've played on defense.

For example, Oklahoma State values points allowed per possession and opponent score percentage. Kansas State highlights opponent score percentage, opponent big plays allowed and opponent red zone efficiency on defense. West Virginia focuses on turnovers forced, opponent three-and-outs per game and opponent third down percentage. Iowa State prefers yards allowed per carry.

It's just a small sample size of what Big 12 defensive coordinators value, but it's worth noting that none of those programs prioritize overall yards or total points allowed.

Ultimately, points per possession might be the primary way to evaluate defense, in every conference.

"The biggest relevant stat to us is points per possession," Oklahoma State defensive coordinator Glenn Spencer said. "It doesn't matter how, you just have to get a stop. Our job, no matter where they got the ball or what situation they got the ball, it doesn't matter… it's our job to get a stop. That's why it's such a relevant stat, that [how the opponent got the ball] doesn't come into play at all."

Looking at points allowed per game, only TCU (19, 7th) and Texas (23.8, 23rd) ranked among the top 30 Power 5 teams a year ago.

Meanwhile, half the Big 12 lands among the Top 30 Power 5 teams in points per possession. TCU leads the way followed by Texas (1.4, 11th), Oklahoma (1.67, 25th), West Virginia (1.74, 29th) and Baylor (1.75, 30th).

The Big 12 will never be known as a defensive league -- nor should it be -- but the next time you're told nobody plays defense in the Big 12, think twice before you believe it, even if the final box score isn't pretty for fans of shutdown defenses.

"To defend in this league is tough," West Virginia defensive coordinator Tony Gibson said. "People are going to score points and they're going to get yards. You have to have realistic goals on defense."