The Best Offenses in College Football

Finally, football is back. After an earlier-than-expected playoff bid scare for Penn State, our heart rates have collectively settled and we can get back to the business of what has become an annual tradition of crushing Pitt (2016 excluded. Wiping it from my memory).

The other week I talked about Trace McSorley’s upcoming Heisman campaign, but I also talked about the defensive efficiency of each conference. This week, with the college football season in full swing, I’m going to take a look at the offensive side of the ball. We’ll also find out who is the most balanced on both sides. This data is from the 2017 season, so keep checking back here as I will be updating these rankings for each week of the 2018 season.

Now, Big Ten fans: shield your eyes. This one isn’t pretty. When I found the offensive efficiency scores of every team and averaged them out by conference, the Big 10 was dead last. Make sure to check the appendix at the bottom to see in detail where these stats came from.

Worst Offensive Conferences in College Football?

The Big 10 has 11 and 8 teams below the mean offensive efficiency score for the FBS (my version of the FBS – the Power 5 conferences and the American) on offense and defense respectively, where the PAC 12 has 8 teams above the mean on both offense and defense, which leaves only 4 teams under the mean. The Big 10 particularly struggles on offense. Intuitively this would make sense if the Big 10 is the strongest defensive conference; you would expect their offenses to struggle with tougher opposition. However, with the new version of defensive efficiency or DAD’s, the PAC 12 is actually the conference with the highest average ranking on defense too!

The new defensive actions distressing QB’s (DAD’s) ranking builds off the old one, but includes new factors like increasing the weight of an interception and fumble by a factor of 4.35 and 4.65 (the expected value of scoring points after an interception and fumble, respectively, according to this guy who’s smarter than me). It also includes tackles now. I will be adding to it as the season goes on and more information becomes available. See the appendix for more details.

So now I’m really thrown off. The Big 10 is actually just the 2nd best defense, and their offense is last by a mile. So what’s going on? The Big 10 is brought down by a lot of teams being under the mean, but also by a few outliers that are dramatically worse at offense than the rest of college football. Illinois falls 2 standard deviations below the average, and Rutgers is close behind (ahead? Not sure how to phrase this) at 1.93 standard deviations, also known as the bottom two teams in college football in offensive production. You could’ve guessed this if you watched any of their games: they combined for a hard-to-watch 15 passing touchdowns last year, each with a completion percentage under .500. On the other side of the ball, Nebraska is also 1.8 standard deviations below the mean on defense. The Pac 12 doesn’t have as drastic of outliers. The standard deviation for each conference backs this up. The Big 10 is the 2nd most spread out conference on offense behind the Big 12, while the Pac 12 has the lowest standard deviation, meaning all of their offenses are similarly balanced.

Screen Shot 2018-09-06 at 12.20.44 PM
The average Z score for offenses and defenses of each conference

Most balanced teams

To figure out who the most balanced teams were on both sides of the ball, I took the Z score of their offense and subtracted it from the Z score of the defense to find the range, then took the absolute value so they were all positive. This results in what I’m calling Offensive/Defensive Balance. A low score is *sometimes better (note: a team can be balanced by being great on offense and defense, but they can also be equally crappy on both sides of the ball). So who were the most balanced teams? Well, bad news Penn Staters:

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The most balanced teams in the FBS

The good news is, as indicated by red, Pittsburgh (and others) are the bad kind of balanced, meaning both their offense and defense are equally bad (within .001 for Pitt), which is an accomplishment in itself. Notice that Clemson and ‘Bama come in at number 3 and number 17 (the good kind of balanced). Penn State is down at number 29: just about average. Now for the bottom 20:

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The least balanced teams in the FBS

Now, this one isn’t color coded because it’s all bad. And who’s on top, none other than Oklahoma straight outta the “defense optional” Big 12. Also rounding out the top 10 is Georgia, who beat the slightly more unbalanced Oklahoma but went on to lose to the much more balanced Alabama. Now anybody who watched that game knows it was Georgia who looked the better team for most of it, so I’m not saying that balance wins games. But, it is an interesting trend and definitely looks like it pays off down the stretch to have strength on both sides of the ball. For you Eagles fans, think how vital it was to have that wild-dog defense in the playoffs when the offense sputtered against the Falcons. And then how key it was to have the offense pick up the slack when Tom Brady tried (and failed) to play receiver.

Offensive Powerhouses

The top of this one should come as no surprise:

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The top 20 teams on offense

What is a bit surprising is lower down the list. Navy, a rushing powerhouse, sneaks in at #13. They are right above Wake Forest, an underrated team in the ACC. Clemson and Washington show up a bit lower than we’d expect, but they make up for it in having really balanced teams as we saw above. We’ll have to see how the ACC looks this year as the season progresses. Virginia Tech, who came in at #39 for 2017, looked pretty good against Florida State.

Also need to shout out PSU for being #9 in the FBS. Anybody that lived through the Hackenberg years knows that our current offense is looks about as different as possible from the one John Donovan and guys before him ran. When I look back on those years, I think of grey clouds, muddy fields, and WR screens being thrown into the dirt. Now I think of sunny skies and T-McSorley guns-out, heaving bombs that only our guys can get to. We’ve come a long way.

Best all-around teams

So who are the best overall teams, determined by summing up each team’s offensive and defensive Z scores? Penn Staters can finally rejoice for once during this article. Here’s the top 20:

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The top 20 teams on offense and defense in the FBS 

Surprisingly, the least represented conference here is the SEC, followed by the Big 10. Penn State comes in at a solid #6, right next to their Big 10 East rivals “The” Ohio State. UCF and Memphis are helped by their inflated numbers by playing some truly god-awful teams. I talked about unbalance in the Big 10 with Rutgers and Illinois… well the American conference has two even worse teams in East Carolina and Cincinnati, both 2 standard deviations below the FBS mean total team Z score. UConn is also 1.7 standard deviations below average. They’re reflected in the bottom 20:


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The bottom 20 teams on offense and defense in the FBS

The Big 10 isn’t as good as people say it is

I mean, seriously, look how many Big 10 teams are in the bottom 20. SEVEN! Some of them you expect, but Michigan has seriously got to pick up the slack. They were plagued by seriously bad quarterback play this past year (9 passing TD’s, 10 INT’s). Hopefully it gets better for all of our sakes.

This paints a different picture than what you will hear in the media: that the Big 10 is the strongest conference out there; they may be ONE of the strongest defensively, but overall having half of your conference in the bottom 20 of teams is not a good look. I think the Big 10 gets its reputation from its low scoring games (in part due to good defense, in larger part due to bad offense), which football savants respect as “better, hard-nosed, how-the-game-is-meant-to-be-played” football. In reality, it’s PSU, OSU, and Wisconsin that are lifting up the conference. Now, these are 2017 numbers. Like I said, I’ll be updating this as the 2018 season goes on. Hopefully some influx of new talent and quality coaches will start to see a shift. We already have some hope with Maryland taking down Texas yet again in their season opener. Should we Penn State fans start to *gasp*… root for Rutgers and Maryland to get better? Time will tell.


Here is a list of the stats I used to find offensive and defensive efficiency ratings, as well as explanations for other metrics that I reference:

Offensive Efficiency Score Per Game

This is similar to the QB score I had last week, except at a team level. It looks at the following stats (if it is scaled that is in parentheses):

  • First Downs
  • Penalty Yds (-1)
  • Pass Yards
  • Completion Pct
  • Pass TD (7)
  • INT (-4.35)
  • Sacks
  • Rush Yards
  • Rushing Yards Per Attempt
  • Rush TD (7)
  • FG Made (3)
  • FG Pct
  • XP Made
  • XP Pct

It is summed up for the season and divided by the number of games that the team played, to control for different season lengths.

Defensive Efficiency – DADs Per Game

Defensive Actions Distressing QB’s, the stat you know and love from my last article, is back and better than ever. It is now improved to provide a raw score rather than just comparing conferences to the top conference. I also calculated it for every team individually instead of on a conference level. Once again, controlled for games played. Stats included with scales in parentheses are:

  • Total Tackles (0.1)
  • Sacks
  • Passes Defensed
  • Interceptions (4.35)
  • Fumbles Recovered (4.65)

I will continue to tweak this as the season goes on to include more variables like yards allowed, points allowed, etc. Right now this is all ESPN offers.

Converting Raw Scores to Z Scores

In order to be able to add, subtract, and otherwise compare these offensive and defensive efficiency scores, they have to be standardized. This is because the average offensive score per game was 408 while the average defensive score per game was 19.5. To compensate for this, I used a Z score. This takes each raw score, subtracts the average score of the entire FBS from it (so 408 or 19.5), and then divides that by the standard deviation of the FBS scores. This normalizes the scale so that the most average team will have a score of 0. The entire league will be distributed on a normal curve with a mean of 0 and a standard deviation of 1. Now, we can add a team’s defense that scores a 1 (meaning 1 standard deviation above the average team) and their offense that scores a -2 (meaning 2 standard deviations below the average team) to say that their total team Z score is a -1.

Off/Def Balance

Takes the absolute value of the range of offensive and defensive Z scores. This tells you who is the most balanced between offense or defense. Low score is *sometimes better (note: a team can be balanced by being great on offense and defense, but they can also be equally crappy on both sides of the ball).

Team Total Z Score

Sum of offensive and defensive Z scores. Tells you who is the best on both sides of the ball. Higher is better, meaning they are above the mean on both offense and defense.


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