Why winning the Big 12 championship requires a "space force"

Ian Boyd

Member Who Talks (A Lot!)
Staff member
Jan 14, 2014
Ypsilanti, MI
There’s an interesting paradox at work in the Big 12’s history over the 2010s. While it hasn’t been a pipeline for NFL talent in the same way that other conferences around the country are, it is a place where offensive innovation has been intense and where high level athletes at the positions that really matter can shine. The league produced multiple first round quarterbacks, wide receivers, and cornerbacks over the decade but not as many players at the bigger positions like O-line, D-line, linebacker, etc.

Ultimately having an NFL athlete at defensive tackle, linebacker, safety, tight end, quarterback, or running back is really nice, but what really matters is having elite athletes and skill at the positions where 1-on-1 matchups in space are the name of the game. Particularly, offensive tackle, wide receiver, cornerback, and edge-rusher (outside linebacker or end).

You can't suck at other positions. If teams are lousy at quarterback or have glaring holes on the offensive line or in their defensive front, they can’t maximize those athletes. But if you have those infrastructure positions in good order, then championship quality comes from how your team performs in the passing game in four key areas:

-Overall offensive explosiveness. How often do you generate big gains and one-play scores?
-Passing down offense. Can you recover on second-and-seven or third-and-six?
-Explosiveness prevention. How often does your defense get beat for big passing plays?
-Passing down defense. Can you get off the field on third-and-six?

Teams score points with the passing game, in the Big 12 they do so with RPOs, screens, and especially play-action. The run game is just an appetizer for the main course, passing attacks that get the ball to athletes in space against a conflicted and distracted defense. Then on third down everything tends to come down to how well an offense can protect the quarterback and execute dropback, progression passing.

All of these crucial matchups illustrate the effectiveness of a team’s “space force.” Those positions where a weaker athlete cannot hide, wide receiver, offensive tackle, edge-rusher, and cornerback. A skilled technician might suffice in one of those spots, but eventually they’ll face an elite athlete with a similar skill level and go down in defeat. The highest ceiling for a team comes from having highly skill, elite athletes in those positions.

Here’s a summary of the space force units for the Big 12 champions of the last decade.

B12 champion space force units 2010s.jpg

It’s customary for the Big 12 champions to A) be the Oklahoma Sooners and/or B) have eventual NFL athletes filling out their space force.

Some of the exceptions include guys like Levy Adcock of Oklahoma State, who never surrendered a sack in 2011 and was an All-American, or Oklahoma defenders like 2017's ParnelL Motley that weren’t great but were matched with an overpowered offense that made up for their lack of excellence. From 2016-2018 Oklahoma was often poor on defense but so overwhelmingly explosive on offense that it didn’t matter.

The 2012 K-State Wildcats didn’t have much NFL quality at the key spots but they were borderline in tons of places. Nigel Malone played opposite his former JUCO teammate Allen Chapman and both had five picks. Meshak Williams played opposite defensive end Adam Davis who had 7.5 sacks. While they didn’t throw NFL talent at you with their defensive space force units, the 2012 Wildcats had experienced, borderline NFL athletes at all four of those spots. Their offense similarly had future pros at tackle in Cornelius Lucas and Tavon Rooks and their receiver corps included Harper and a young Taylor Lockett.

Additionally, they could also field future pros at infrastructure spots such as linebacker (Arthur Brown) or fullback (Braden Wilson). The 2012 K-State Wildcats were also unique for having Collin “Optimus” Klein at quarterback, who had 524 carries over two seasons for 2061 rushing yards and 50 rushing touchdowns. Pretty unique circumstances. Perhaps a team will one day mimic that strategy, 2019 Oklahoma came sort of close, but in any event you’d better be ready to field great athletes in space if you want to win the league.

An easy way to measure a team’s space force is with their passing offense/defense, which is measured here with the simple “yards per attempt” metric (ypa), and then third down offense/defense which you can get from conversion percentages. Here were the numbers for the 2019 Big 12 teams, arranged by their place in the league standings.

Big 12 passing O:D 3rd down O:D table .jpg

Oklahoma crushed it in every stat listed here and won the league with only a single loss all season. Their space force was actually down, for them at least, because of injuries to their inexperienced offensive tackles. Jalen Hurts turned a lot of bad protection snaps into positive gains with scrambles though and the Sooners were effective at attacking the edges on defense, dominating with wide receiver CeeDee Lamb, and holding up in coverage with senior cornerback Parnell Motley really putting together a nice season.

K-State didn’t have much of a “space force” on offense, although both of their tackles were older veterans. However their defense was quite strong with converted nickel Walter Neil and then lockdown AJ Parker at cornerback and Wyatt Hubert at defensive end flanked by senior pass-rushers Reggie Walker and Kyle Ball.

With sharp gameplanning the Wildcats would transform otherwise mediocre offensive and defensive units into sharp situational squads that were exceptional on third down. Baylor dragged opposing offenses down to their level with strong defense and then landed some big shots now and again throwing to Denzel Mims that tended to make the difference in most games. They couldn’t find Mims enough against Oklahoma in either encounter. He had six catches for 92 yards and two scores in the first game and then zero catches in round two.

Iowa State was very good on normal downs but their lack of a space force brought them down in situational football. They didn’t have a cornerback that could really lock down an opposing receiver, nor a great edge-rusher once Jaquan Bailey was injured. On offense they lacked a great outside receiver to take advantage of 1-on-1s when opponents loaded up the middle against their slot Deshaunte Jones and tight end Charlie Kolar. The Cyclones were solid but not great at offensive tackle. As strong as their systems on offense and defense were in 2019, it was hard for them to pull away from opponents because of their lack of a space force. They lost to Iowa by one point, Baylor by two points, Oklahoma State by seven, Oklahoma by one, and defeated Texas by two.

Texas has bungled their capacity for having a turnstile of topline athletes at the most important positions over the years. In 2019 they were in good shape with Collin Johnson at outside receiver, Devin Duvernay at inside receiver, and Sam Cosmi at tackle. On defense they had star edge-rusher Joe Ossai whom they wasted at inside-backer and nickel for large portions of the season before moving him to the edge for the bowl game and watching him inflict six tackles for loss and three sacks on Utah. Outside they had to rotate through multiple young cornerbacks due to injuries, none of whom put it all together in 2020. While they were great on third down when asking Sam Ehlinger to execute pro-spread schemes, they failed to generate explosive gains on standard downs and gave up big gains and conversions on defense.

TCU also bungled some advantages here. They had NFL draft picks at tackle in Lucas Niang and receiver with Jalen Reagor, then also at cornerback in Jeff Gladney. They badly missed having a good edge-rusher at defensive end and ultimately lost Niang to an injury, leaving their offensive line in disarray.

Having space force athletes is a necessary precursor to pursuing a Big 12 championship, but teams need to be able to make the most of it with good infrastructure and effective strategies as well. TCU lacked the system and infrastructure on offense and were missing key ingredients in their pass-rush. Texas has failed to push their advantages with an aggressive passing strategy ever since Colt McCoy went down in the 2010 Rose Bowl. Oklahoma has prioritized all the right positions and strategies and been rewarded with 6.5 league championships in 10 seasons. Oklahoma State has managed to remain competitive under Mike Gundy because they have had similar priorities albeit less talent.

If you want to project a Big 12 champion for 2020, you need to gauge which team has the infrastructure to avoid giving away advantages, and then the most deadly space force to allow them to win the matchups and situations that dictate wins and losses.

So here on the Flyover Football message board we’ll be breaking down and ranking the league’s space force units as we approach the season.
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Born horn

Member Who Talks
Aug 13, 2012
I guess I am just too *=\#×°√ high-leveling this but how the hell did we lose 4 conference games last year? Have I been drinking that much? I showed remarkable restraint - I didn't use one of the tried and true profanities of my tennis youth. 4 conference games? Sheesh!
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