#1 in Total Defense--But What Does That Really Mean?
Arkansas's gross over-compensation of Reggie Herring got me thinking--certainly our defensive turnaround from 2003 to this season was impressive (from 89th in total defense in '03 to #1 this year), but there's no way that it is all because of Herring's system.
So what external (to coaching) factors do we have?
1) Returning Talent -- The Wolfpack returned an unusual number of defensive starters, and the front four--the team's major weakness in '03--was much improved thanks to experience and maturation.
2) OOC Opponents -- In 2003, the Wolfpack played some pretty solid offenses out-of-conference. Texas Tech was #1 in the nation in total offense, Kansas was #29, and UConn #32. Sub-par OOC opponents included OSU (#93) and Western Carolina (#71 in DI-AA). In 2004, the Wolfpack played OSU (#100 in total offense), ECU (#105), and Richmond (#81 in DI-AA). Pretty big difference there.
3) Relative down year for ACC offenses in 2004 -- And here is the crux of this discussion. Let's have a look...
In 2004, the best offense the Wolfpack defense faced all year was North Carolina's--the Heels ranked 42nd in the nation in total offense in 2004 (which was good enough to be the 2nd best offense in the league next to UVA). In 2003, the Wolfpack defense faced six teams (including out-of-conference games) with a total offense ranking higher than UNC's 2004 number.
Avg Total Offense Ranking of All Opp (2004): 82.5
Avg Total Offense Ranking of All Opp (2003): 51.9
I should note that I made no adjustments for the DI-AA teams that factored into the calculations (i.e., to get the averages, I used their DI-AA total offense ranking as though it were a DI-A ranking). Presumably both WCU's and Richmond's total offense rankings would be much worse at the DI-A level, but I gave them the benefit of the doubt. Remove both Richmond and WCU for the sake of equity and the numbers are slightly different:
Avg Total Offense Ranking of Opp (DI-A Only) in 2004: 82.6
Avg Total Offense Ranking of Opp (DI-A Only) in 2003: 50.25
In 2004, the average total offense ranking of all eleven ACC teams was 76.7. In 2003, the average (of nine teams) was 51.2.
Those are some pretty big changes from one season to the next. Clemson dropped 79 spots in total offense from 2003 to 2004 (from #30 to #109--no wonder they fired O'Cain), FSU dropped 30, Maryland dropped 80, NCSU dropped 68. All of these teams were either breaking in new QBs in 2004 or dealing with major regressions by their respective incumbents (*cough* Charlie *cough* Whitehurst).
Now, you could get into something of a chicken-and-egg argument here if you wanted to--the ACC's total defense numbers were also better in 2004 than they were in 2003 (meaning those better '04 defensive units could also have something to do with the decline in ACC offenses). Does a good offense make an opponent's defense look bad, or does a bad defense make an opponent's offense look good?
Obviously it's a little bit of both, but I tend to think that offense has a far greater impact on defense than vice versa, so I think we can legitimately compare total offenses from 2003 and 2004 even though it can be said that those numbers were affected by differences in the quality of defenses faced at least to some extent. Admittedly, I don't know if this is actually the case, but I think it's sufficient just to keep this in mind.
In other words, even though the ACC's total defense numbers were worse in 2003 than 2004, I don't think that discrepancy is the cause of the discrepancy in ACC total offense between those same two years.
Pardon my long-windedness. The point here is that NC State faced an awful lot of poor offenses in 2004, and those offenses weren't just bad because they were going up against good defenses. They were just bad.
And so while the Pack's improvement in total defense is thanks in part to Reggie Herring, it may very well be thanks in larger part to a combination of returning starters and poor opposing offense.
Considering the results of the season, I don't think there's any question that Herring stepped into a good situation. Right place, right time. His reputation wasn't particularly great coming in to 2004, and his defenses at Clemson were nothing special.
Now he's cashed in his opportunity to the tune of $300k per year, and hey, more power to him. Arkansas is making the mistake, not Herring.