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South Carolina Football and Defensive Regression

OK, I lied: I'm not done talking about 2010 football. (Does it ever end in the SEC?) One thing that has been somewhat hotly disputed among Gamecocks fans trying to get a handle on how well we performed in 2010 is the apparent demise of the great Carolina defense and what that means for evaluating the season as a whole. As the critical side of the argument goes, despite our improvements on offense, our defense struggled in 2010, meaning that we fielded a team of roughly similar overall productivity.

Is that true, though? Did the defense struggle more in 2010 than it did in past years? Or would it be more appropriate to say that our overall defensive production remained about the same while our strengths and weaknesses changed? That, in other words, whereas in the past we've had a strong pass defense and a weak rush defense, in 2010 we fielded a strong rush defense and a poor pass defense? Let's take a closer look.

One thing is for certain: the secondary was much worse this past year than it had been in the past. We've discussed at length why this was the case and how the numbers stack up against past years. There's no disputing this point, and the defensive coaching staff deserves scrutiny for the way this squad performed. Despite depth issues, we have too much NFL-caliber talent for our guys to play like they did.

Continue reading after the jump.

Let's look at some of the other numbers, though. Our rushing defense did make a significant improvement over 2009, moving from 52nd to 12th in the nation. However, the tell-tale total defense and scoring defense numbers decreased from 15th and 24th to 46th and 43rd, respectively. That's a sizeable drop and suggests that the defense was overall significantly less productive than it was a year ago.

Making up for this deficiency, to some degree, is the fact that this year's defense was much more efficient at taking the ball away. We gained 26 turnovers to last year's paltry 17, and our turnover margin improved from -.31 to an even 0 despite Stephen Garcia's INT numbers regressing. (It should be noted here that if C. C. Whitlock had caught half of the INTs that hit him in the hands, these numbers would be a lot better and we probably would have beaten Florida St. But that's another story altogether.) We also scored several times off turnovers in 2010, which wasn't the case in 2009. In this sense, the defense made up for some of its shortcomings by helping out the offense.

That said, I don't think you can argue that the defense didn't at least somewhat regress in 2010. However, in terms of addressing the argument that the team as a whole didn't improve and, rather, just morphed into a similarly mediocre but offense-first, defense-second team, you have to take some additional statistics into account: net yardage and net points. These statistics are probably the best way of gauging a team's overall effectiveness, as they help you see the extent to which you outplayed your opponents. In 2009, we were +46.69 in net yardage and +.24 in net points. In 2010, on the other hand, we were +38.43 in net yardage and +7.79 in net points. That's a slight regression in net yardage but a very significant TD improvement in net points.

There are a few takeaways here. The first thing these numbers suggest is that if you had to pick one way that USC was better in 2010 than in 2009, it was offensive efficiency. Despite not posting a huge improvement in total yards gained and fielding a mediocre defense (the actual decrease in net yardage in 2010 reflects these facts), USC posted a sizeable improvement in net points. This says a lot about just how much that great red-zone offense we heard about throughout the year actually helped us, as well as about just how ineffective the 2009 team was when it had the ball on the opponent's side of the field, which is what made that team such a huge underachiever. (Anyone who was reading this blog back then will remember how we ranted about this after the Vandy and Arkansas games.) It also says how much those defensive turnovers did to make up for some of the defense's other shortcomings. Finally, it tells me that this team was overall better than it was last year, because at the end of the day, we posted a TD improvement in net points, and that's the number that really matters.