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Defensive struggles common for teams transitioning to spread offense

Syracuse’s defense is getting lit up. This is to be expected.

NCAA Football: South Florida at Syracuse Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

Going into the 2016 season, we thought that the Syracuse Orange defense could be a trouble area. Last year’s team, hit by the injury bug, struggled quite a bit despite playing a scheme the personnel was recruited for. They were 99th in total defense, allowed 38 points per game (112th in the country) and failed to generate a pass rush (just 23 sacks all season). Bringing most of that group back was far from a guarantee of improvement.

After two straight poor performances, however, it seems as if SU fans are surprised by just how bad the defense looks. With tons of injuries, a change in scheme to the Tampa-2, young personnel and minimal depth, wasn’t this what we expected? Syracuse allowed 62 points to a top-five Louisville team. They let a talented USF squad score 45 on them. Last year, worse teams put up similar numbers on the Orange as well.

This also shouldn’t surprise because teams that transition to spread offenses have struggled plenty in the past. And most times, they never truly become “good” on that side of the ball -- especially without elite-level talent in the door. Want some proof? Take a look at some recent-ish transitions to the spread:

The names and numbers won’t shock you. The defensive schemes are also inconsequential. You’re taking teams that played at a “typical” pace, and throwing them into something much faster in one year. Defenses move from defending 10-12 opposing drives per game, to 16-20. The output increase from foes is automatic, even if you’re making stops. The opposition simply has more chances, thus will gain more yards.

When you look at the movement in the chart, you notice that no team truly got “better” in terms of total yards allowed. And nearly all were worse in that regard charting from the year before the spread coach’s arrival to year three of his tenure (where applicable). The reason these coaches were able to stick around despite the lack of improvement on that side of the ball is simple: the offenses got better and kept out-scoring opponents.

That takes time, too. And obviously there’s a correlation with your level of incoming talent and how well you can walk this specific tightrope. Dino Babers wasn’t at Bowling Green long enough to truly see a recruiting boost, but you started to see the talent level rise quickly. Baylor’s recruiting didn’t really start taking off until after the timeframe specified for Art Briles’s Bears. Kevin Sumlin’s A&M teams have been bringing in elite talent on both sides of the football, though admittedly there have been some mixed results there.

Pushing a bit further, since these are basic numbers looking at a simple yards-per-game allowed model, we shift to Football Outsiders’ defensive FEI, which takes into account opponent pace and strength of schedule. Re-running the numbers for the programs above, here’s where things net out:

The rankings are different, but the trends are pretty similar. Outside of Texas A&M, these defenses bottomed out in year two, then sort of improved enough to help bring more wins to coincide with the improved offensive production. Their ability to truly get better on the defensive side is still not high, though Baylor was starting to figure things out there toward the end of Briles’s tenure (44th in DFEI in 2014, 36th last year).

The point is, Syracuse’s defense is unlikely to ever get “better” in the way some fans are looking for. Those old defensive struggles are gone with this new scheme. Other than a potential annual game with an FCS opponent, the 30- and 40-point blowouts are a thing of the past. You saw how quickly USF was able to erase a 17-point deficit on Saturday against the Orange, right? That’s the double-edged sword of the scheme. And the one that will cut us more often than not until the team’s defenders adjust and we get better athletes in the door.

Syracuse is unlikely to end up looking like the on-field product Baylor would eventually round into. And that’s just fine. Cal, Bowling Green, Washington State and Texas A&M have all done pretty well for themselves in spread systems, with and without access to that type of in-state talent the Bears possessed. And plenty of other programs have used the spread for years to make up talent gaps, too.

The key as always is patience... and an understanding that we’re probably going to lose 60-something to 20-something a few more times before the defense trends in the other direction. Cool? Cool.