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Defensive statistics can be misleading in ACC

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — Impressive defensive numbers may no longer be a significant indicator of success.

At least not in the ACC.

The Atlantic Coast Conference has five teams ranked in the top 20 in total defense, but not a single one is ranked in the AP Top 25 poll. The league does have two teams in the poll — No. 1 Florida State and No. 22 Georgia Tech — but neither is in the top 35 in total defense.

The idiom is that “Numbers Never Lie,” but they don’t tell the entire truth in the ACC.

“With the way offenses are spreading it out and getting the ball out in open spaces, I don’t know that total defense is that big a factor anymore,” North Carolina coach Larry Fedora said. “The way the game has changed … you’re putting the ball in a playmaker’s hand out in open space and if a defender doesn’t make that tackle right then, it turns into an explosive play. So, it makes it much tougher to keep your numbers down on your total defense.”

The undefeated Seminoles have had significant issues with their defense through the early parts of the season — against all levels of competition.

N.C. State rolled up 520 yards of total offense against Florida State, Clemson had 407 and Oklahoma State finished with 364. Even FCS school The Citadel reached 322 yards. Florida State showed a marked improvement when it held Wake Forest to 126 yards last weekend.

Louisville (5-1, 3-1 ACC) is the No. 1 total defense in the country and is the main reason they’re winning. Pitt ranks No. 6 in total defense, Clemson is No. 10, Boston College sits at No. 13 with Miami just three spots behind at No. 16. Nonetheless, all of those teams have at least two losses and are 12-10 combined.

Undefeated Georgia Tech is the No. 64 total defense in the country, allowing 391.4 yards per game.

Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher said it’s an important stat, but there’s much more at play than baseline yardage numbers.

“It’s a team sport. Y’all get too caught up in offense and defense,” Fisher said. “Look at what the team does and how one side plays to the other. And who’s the dominant side that sets up the other side so they can be successful.

“Look at the team and situations, third down and red zone and how specials teams play. And what kind of team are they? No huddle teams generally have a higher number of yardage on defense because they give the other team more plays and opportunities. All that ties together.”

Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson echoed Fisher’s thoughts.

Johnson isn’t as concerned with total defense as turnover margin, third- and fourth-down efficiency, red zone offense and defense and explosion plays. Johnson also stressed metrics like points per possession and the number of three-and-outs on both sides of the ball.

“I know offensively that 7 percent of our possessions have been three-and-outs,” Johnson said. “That’s pretty good, but we’d like to get more on the other side. In points per possession, I’d be hard pressed to think there’d be many people in front of us.”

The trend can be seen throughout all of football — not just the ACC. Successful teams haven’t been as reliant on defenses that keep yardage to a minimum.

From 2002-2009, the top 10 teams in the final poll averaged better total defense rankings than total offense, according to STATS LLC. Total offense has had the higher ranking among top 10 teams in three of the last four seasons.

Scoring defense, universally, is one of the most valued metrics. It’s difficult to win ballgames if teams can’t score, regardless of how well they move the ball.

But N.C. State defensive coordinator Dave Huxtable doesn’t want to just dismiss the value of total defense.

“The old saying a lot of times (is) stats are for losers,” Huxtable said. “But obviously you want to take pride in how well you do and where you fit with the other people that you’re playing against.

“It’s a struggle. The game has changed. … It’s becoming more difficult defensively, but that’s the nature of the beast. That’s the challenge we have as defensive coaches and defensive players.”

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