STILLWATER — Even after the Oklahoma State defense shut out Texas Tech in Saturday's 66-6 rout in Lubbock, the Cowboys' overall performance on that side of the ball this season continues to draw the most criticism when analyzing the No. 2 team in the BCS standings.
OSU ranks 101st out of 120 teams in the nation in total defense, allowing an average of 442.20 yards per game.
But one set of alternative rankings does not find the Cowboy defense all that terrible. In fact, it says the only defense better is LSU's.
The Fremeau Efficiency Index (FEI), which was developed by Brian Fremeau of footballoutsiders.com, has OSU's defense ranked No. 2 in the nation, behind the Tigers and in front of No. 3 Penn State, No. 4 Illinois and No. 5 Rutgers.
Rather than looking purely at raw stats like total yards allowed, Fremeau makes three main adjustments for pace of play, “garbage time” and strength of schedule based on the efficiency of opposing offenses, which adds more context to the defense's performance.
“That's how you can effectively compare teams,” said Fremeau, who has been working on this formula since 2003. “Is it a better way to look at things than raw stats? I think, just in general, yeah.”
To adjust for pace of play, Fremeau uses a per-drive measurement rather than a per-game measurement. This takes into account factors such as the yards available to gain on a possession and the expected number of points an offense should score based on the drive's starting point.
This applies to OSU because of its quick-strike offense, which is part of the reason the Cowboy defense has been on the field for 825 plays through 10 games. Compare that to Alabama's defense, which has only been on the field for 575 plays this season, or almost three fewer games.
“A team that has a lot of possessions is obviously going to have more opportunities to score,” Fremeau said. “And therefore, their defense is on the field for a lot more possessions, and perhaps giving up more yards and more scores.”
“If we adjust for that and measure things based on a per-possession basis, that can change our perception of what those yards mean in the first place.”
OSU is giving up an average 40 percent of available yards per possession, which puts the Cowboys in the top third of the nation. And while the OSU offense averages 3.7 points per possession, the defense gives up just 1.4.
“That's an elite performance on both sides of the ball when we're looking at only those kinds of possessions,” Fremeau said.
The second adjustment is removing “garbage time,” or the period of the game when the outcome has essentially been decided and the starters are no longer playing.
This also applies to OSU, which has an average margin of victory of 25.4 points and has allowed just 80 offensive points in the first half through 10 games.
“There are individual defensive performances that when we remove those garbage possessions, Oklahoma State has performed essentially as good as anybody,” Fremeau said.
The final adjustment is for strength of schedule, which takes into account the efficiency of the offenses faced.
According to Fremeau's rankings, the Cowboy defense has played the 15th-toughest set of offenses this season. Alabama, conversely, has faced the 92nd-best slate.
“That makes Oklahoma State really vault up my rankings,” Fremeau said.
Fremeau said the one area that the OSU defense lacks in is that the Cowboys force three-and-out on only 30 percent of opponents' possessions. But he also noted that some defenses are built on the “bend-but-don't-break” philosophy.
“They might not be getting people off the field immediately like some of the other elite defenses are doing,” Fremeau said. “But they're still effective in keeping people off the scoreboard, which is, at the end of the day, the No. 1 thing.”
Fremeau does not claim to have the perfect system. But he uses Auburn as an example that his rankings are effective.
Last year's national champions ranked 60th in the nation in total defense but sixth in the FEI rankings, a position Fremeau felt was justified when the Tigers slowed down Oregon's potent offense in the national title game.
Fremeau puts OSU in the same category.
“I don't put blind faith into (the rankings),” he said. “But it's backed up when there are performances like this past weekend when you see them holding down Texas Tech, a team that was able to kind of run wild a bit a couple times this season, including against some other good Big 12 teams.”