One of the great in-season mysteries is the variability in a defense's performance from week to week. A defense may seem to play out of its mind one week (vs. OU) and look lost at times the next (@ CU). But the real question is: Which week's defense is the real defense?
Probably neither. Or rather, somewhere between the two. The OU game featured the loudest Doak Stadium in many fans' collective memories (UM '05 was close), which definitely limited OU from consecutive hurry-up snaps. Coupled with 2 tune-up games and what must have been 9+ months of coaching dedicated to this game, I think we saw a defense play above its "baseline," holding the juggernaut OU offense to 4.7 ypp and 23 points on 66 plays.
However, 5.2 ypp the next week week at Clemson isn't anything to scoff at. But they were able to get off an extra 21 snaps due to 4 major penalties, giving them a total of 85 plays to FSU's 67. The D did give up its two biggest pass plays to Watkins (62 yards) and Hopkins (50 yards), but it's not like Clemson is playing without talent. While their OL/DL recruiting the last two years has been average, Clemson's collection of skill players is apparent.
What then can we say about FSU's defense?
A lot. And much of that is positive. If you asked the casual TNer who our defensive liabilities are, you'd probably only hear bitching about two positions. Unfortunately, they're both in the middle of the field (hint) which leaves them susceptible to play-action and dangerously-large seams in zone coverage. But this is college football; an Alabama or LSU defense is an unbelievable anomaly compared with the rest of the CFB landscape, not the norm. Alabama as long as it has Saban and Smart will continue putting out dominant defenses; that side of the ball is firmly established. LSU has complete recruiting control over its fertile homestate; and say what you will about The Hat, but That Defense is no joke.
So what is the deal with FSU's defense? None, really, if you look at it reasonably. FSU returned 8 or so starters this year. And the collection of big, athletic defensive linemen is really starting to impress. As Bud noted, the play of RS-Fr. Cameron Erving and true-Fr. Tim Jernigan has been nothing short of a revelation. And you know the coaches see the same thing when Cam is getting 52% (38) of the snaps at DT and Timmy is getting 31% (27) of the snaps at NG in a tough away game in Clemson. (credit - DKN)
But realize that every back-7 defender is still in Year1.5 of learning and playing the nuances of zone defense. That's not a defense of the stupid; it's an acknowledgement that, for example, the intricacies of drop-back vs. pattern reading zone coverage is not an Intro class, but a series of courses toward a degree. If you like LJ's play at Stoops-SS now, wait until he's a senior.
Even though I try to distance myself from them, I'm still a Cubs fan at heart -- so I'm prone to believing, "Wait until next year!" But note that the defense this year is good. Very good. And next year's team returns all but 3 of its 2-deep on defense. After two of its hardest games this season, FSU's S&P+ defensive ranking is still Top 20 (18th). The consensus amongst Bud and TN authors was a goal for a Top 25 defense after improving from 107th in 2009 and 41st in 2010. The rushing defense is stout. Our passing defense would be a bit better if we could get some damn holding penalties called for us, but I am pleased with the progress and personnel improvement.
Maintain. The coaching is in place. The recruits are entering, and they're not too shabby. The best players on defense, regardless of seniority, are playing. The ship is not sinking. 2 losses suck, but they in no way constitute the entire season. Don't forget to enjoy the ride, because all signs are pointing FSU towards the top -- even if luck may not always be on our side.