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2020 Season

Most Improved, Least Improved Big 12 Defenses In 2020

The Big 12 fielded some strong defenses in 2020. Which ones really took strides from the year before?



Getty Images - Wesley Hitt

With the 2020 season in the rearview mirror, now’s an appropriate time to go over the numbers from last season, and figure out which teams improved, and which did not. Below is a ranking of which teams in the Big 12 made strides defensively from 2019 to 2020, and those that saw some drop-off. The statistics used here are from conference play only, something that gives us a picture of how Big 12 teams did against each other from season to season.

This ranking prioritizes points per game as the most important factor when ranking different teams. There are of course a lot of ways to look at these numbers, and a review of advanced statistics would probably yield a slightly different outlook. The numbers below do give us a broad sense for which teams were better on defense, and which teams took a step back. Iowa State, in their historic run to the Big 12 title game, made what was already a strong unit even more stout in 2020.

1. West Virginia

Big 12 PPGPass YPGPass PCTPass TDRush YPGRush YPCRush TD

The Mountaineers had one of the best defenses in the Big 12 last season, and it came on the tails of some massive improvement from 2019. Their most important step came in terms of points per game, where West Virginia improved by an entire score. The Mountaineers kept opposing offenses out of the endzone through the air and on the ground, allowing 13 fewer total touchdowns through eight games. With the help of one of the top defensive lines in the Big 12, passing yards per game decreased by almost 100 yards last season. Despite the loss of All-Big 12 defensive lineman Darius Stills, West Virginia has enough coming back to have a strong defensive performance in 2021.

2. Iowa State

Big 12 PPGPass YPGPass PCTPass TDRush YPGRush YPCRush TD

The Cyclones have established themselves as one of the best defensive teams in the conference year in and year out, but in 2020 they improved on what was already a strength. Points per game went down almost a touchdown, and the run defense took an important step forward to get rushing yards per game down to almost 100 yards per contest. The key strides taken by Iowa State in 2020 undoubtedly helped them go 8-1 in Big 12 play, and with practically the entire two deep coming back next season, the Cyclones look poised to have elite defensive play in 2021.

3. Oklahoma State

osuBig 12 PPGPass YPGPass PCTPass TDRush YPGRush YPCRush TD

Oklahoma State fielded one of the better defenses in the Big 12 in 2020, and that shows up in the numbers here. The Pokes improved in most statistical categories, but they especially made strides in points per game, holding teams to four points less per contest than they did in 2019. With some of the best secondary players in the conference, the Pokes really made strides in their ability to defend the pass, holding opposing passers to less than a 60 percent completion percentage. Having such an experienced group of players likely help with this strong showing last season, and there’s enough coming back in 2021 to expect more improvement from this unit.

4. TCU

Big 12 PPGPass YPGPass PCTPass TDRush YPGRush YPCRush TD

Despite having had a fairly stout performance in 2019, last season the Horned Frogs got better as a defense, if only by the slightest of margins. The statistics that stick out the most here are rushing yards per game and points per game for TCU. They allowed almost a field goal less in 2020, something that helped TCU have at least one more win than they would have otherwise. Holding Big 12 offenses to less than four yards rushing was also substantial, and with players back all along the defensive line in 2021, the Horned Frogs should be solid there again. Under Gary Patterson, TCU always has a strong defense, and they’ll likely be at the top of the conference once again next year with eight starters coming back.

5. Oklahoma

Big 12 PPGPass YPGPass PCTPass TDRush YPGRush YPCRush TD

The Sooners made slight improvements in a lot of statistical categories last season. True, they gave up 70.6 more yards per game through the air, but the massive improvement the pass defense made in 2019 was always going to be difficult to repeat. Importantly, opposing passers were limited to completing just 56 percent of their passes. Where Oklahoma really improved was against the run, holding other teams to less than 100 yards per game. With almost all of their starters back for 2021, it’s reasonable to expect this overall positive trajectory to continue for the Sooners next season.

6. Texas Tech

Big 12 PPGPass YPGPass PCTPass TDRush YPGRush YPCRush TD

Even though they showed a slight digression in their ability to defend against the run, the Red Raiders were better when came to opponents’ passing attacks in 2020. After yielding 365 yards per game through the air in 2019, Texas Tech became an above average pass defense last season. Unfortunately, those steps forward didn’t translate into points, as the Red Raiders actually gave up 1.2 points more per contest last season. With a bunch of seniors returning for next season for Texas Tech, hopefully they can build off the strides made last year.

7. Kansas State

Big 12 PPGPass YPGPass PCTPass TDRush YPGRush YPCRush TD

The Wildcats regressed in multiple statistical categories in 2020, including against both opposing rushing and passing attacks. They gave up 39.8 more total yards and 11 more touchdowns than the previous season. Opposing passers were much more accurate against Kansas State as well in 2020, completing almost 68 percent of their passes. After losing multiple starters from that defensive unit, therefore, Klienman will no doubt make improvements there a priority in 2021. How well they end up performing on that side of the ball could determine whether Kansas State can have another promising start to Big 12 play this year.

8. Texas

Big 12 PPGPass YPGPass PCTPass TDRush YPGRush YPCRush TD

Looking at Texas’ defensive numbers from 2020, it’s easy to see where the Longhorns could get better next season under a new head coach. The biggest regression for Texas was in their pass defense, as opponents completed just about two-thirds of their passes against the Longhorns. Their 284.8 yards passing given up per contest was the most in the conference last season. Of course, it wasn’t all bad news for the Texas defense, as the run defense did make some strides from what was already a strong unit in 2019. The new defensive staff will have their hands full this upcoming season, but the good news for Texas is that their is definitely room to get better on this side of the ball.

9. Kansas

Big 12 PPGPass YPGPass PCTPass TDRush YPGRush YPCRush TD

It wasn’t all bad for Kansas on the defensive side in 2020, as they improved in a few statistical categories. Despite giving up 4.8 more points than they did in 2019, the Jayhawks held opposing offenses to fewer total yards and allowed nine fewer touchdowns. The pass defense in particular was stronger, holding offenses to 234.2 yards per contest, but six yards per carry is a lot to give up on the ground. Hopefully the Jayhawks can continue to develop this side of the ball through what could be another rough season in 2021.

10. Baylor

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As good as Baylor’s defense was in 2019, a regression was practically inevitable, especially given everyone they lost from a unit that was full of great players. In fact, given those losses, Aranda probably deserves credit that Bears didn’t take an even bigger step back on the defensive side of the ball. Baylor was slightly better against the pass, yielding 203 yards per game in 2020, but the Bears struggled opposing rushing attacks, giving up 12 more touchdowns on the ground as compared to last season. Based solely on how the defense performed in Aranda’s first season, it would be reasonable to expect the Bears to get closer to that 2019 defense considering everyone who’s returning next season.