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Was UCF’s Defense Really That Bad in 2020?

Breaking down the numbers by possession

Cincinnati v Central Florida Photo by Alex Menendez/Getty Images

With the 2020 season behind us, the prevailing takes among UCF Knights fans has been that the primary reason for the team’s 6-4 season was poor defense. The most straightforward numbers back up those takes.

In 2020, UCF was:

  • 123rd in FBS in total defense (491.8 yards allowed per game)
  • 93rd in rushing defense (192.6 rushing yards allowed per game)
  • 112nd in passing defense (299.2 passing yards allowed per game)
  • 92nd in scoring defense (33.2 points allowed per game)

None of those stats are good by any means. But the question of whether UCF’s defense has regressed over Randy Shannon’s three years as defensive coordinator is a more complicated one to answer.

We know the task Shannon’s defense is charged with: Survive while the offense scores points, and cause havoc by forcing turnovers and getting sacks and tackles for loss. They’re going to give up yards and points, but UCF will gladly trade that off for the occasional short field for the offense to do its thing. It’s been that way since 2016, when Eric Chinander headed up Scott Frost’s defensive staff.

Fast forward to 2020 and you could argue those numbers above were defensible, but were they?

I decided to go back to the research I did after the 2017 season where I analyzed UCF’s offensive and defensive production by possession. You can read those analyses here:

So let’s take those key stats from this analysis and see where UCF landed in 2020. Remember that I looked back through the 2013 season for comparison’s sake, and compiled the best and worst UCF teams from that period in each category.

Here are the raw numbers:

UCF Defensive Possession Statistics since 2013

Year Defensive Coordinator W/L Def. Poss. TD Allowed FGA Allowed Punts Turnovers Def Pts Allowed Stop Rate Takeaway Rate Opp. Scoring Rate Opp. TD Rate Pts./Poss. Allowed
Year Defensive Coordinator W/L Def. Poss. TD Allowed FGA Allowed Punts Turnovers Def Pts Allowed Stop Rate Takeaway Rate Opp. Scoring Rate Opp. TD Rate Pts./Poss. Allowed
2020 Randy Shannon 6-4 143 43 11 46 32 323 54.6% 22.4% 37.8% 30.1% 2.26
2019 Randy Shannon 10-3 188 33 24 93 29 273 66.5% 15.4% 30.3% 17.6% 1.45
2018 Randy Shannon 12-1 168 35 24 60 42 289 61.9% 25.0% 35.1% 20.8% 1.72
2017 Eric Chinander 13-0 181 41 18 65 47 310 64.1% 26.0% 32.6% 22.7% 1.71
2016 Eric Chinander 6-7 203 38 22 89 44 306 65.5% 21.7% 29.6% 18.7% 1.51
2015 Chuck Bresnahan 0-12 167 56 18 58 19 434 46.1% 11.4% 44.3% 33.5% 2.60
2014 Tyson Summers 9-4 177 27 20 77 43 242 67.8% 24.3% 26.6% 15.3% 1.37
2013 Jim Fleming 12-1 155 34 12 66 37 263 66.5% 23.9% 29.7% 21.9% 1.70

Stop Rate

Stop Rate = (Punts + Turnovers)/Possessions

  • 2020: 54.6%
  • Ideal: Over 60%
  • Best: 2014 - 67.8%
  • Worst: 2015 - 46.1%

While it wasn’t 2015 bad, UCF’s defensive stop rate was the worst since 2015’s 0-12 debacle. It was also UCF’s first season under the 60% threshold since Shannon took over.

Takeaway Rate

Takeaway Rate = (Interceptions + Fumbles Recovered + Turnovers on Downs Forced)/Possessions

  • Ideal: Over 20%
  • Best: 2017 - 26%
  • Worst: 2015 - 11%
  • 2020: 22.4%

Takeaways for UCF in 2020 were actually up from the previous year (15.4% in 2019, which was the lowest since 2015), so the Knights actually did a very good job of forcing mistakes and making big plays, which gave the offense more possessions on shorter fields.

If taking the ball away is what this defense is predicated on doing above all else, consider that mission accomplished in 2020.

Opponents’ Scoring Rate

Scoring Rate = (TDs allowed + FG attempts allowed)/Possessions

  • Ideal: Under 30%
  • Best: 2014 - 26.6%
  • Worst: 2015 - 44.3%
  • 2020: 37.8%

UCF allowed more scoring opportunities in 2020 than they had since 2015. It was feast or famine for opposing offenses. Part of that was that UCF forced just 46 punts on 143 possessions - less then one-third of the time. They just couldn’t get off the field. Interestingly, 2019 was a pretty good year for UCF’s defense in terms of limiting opponents’ scoring opportunities - better than 2018 and 2017.

Opponents’ TD Rate

TD Rate = TDs allowed/Possessions

  • Ideal: Under 25%
  • Best: 2014 - 15.3%
  • Worst: 2015 - 33.5%
  • 2020: 30.1%

This is the sister stat of Opponents’ Scoring Rate, and in some ways is more indicative of a defense’s performance since you could easily interpret a field goal attempt as either a success or a failure depending on the context of the possession.

UCF gave up a LOT of touchdowns this year - 43 in just ten games. They hadn’t given up that many since 2015. When opponents moved the ball, they got six points.

Opponents’ Points per Possession

  • Ideal: 1.75 or less
  • Best: 2014 - 1.37
  • Worst: 2015 - 2.60
  • 2020: 2.26

Sidebar: Can we again pour one out for Tyson Summers? 2014 was a hell of a year for the defense.

As far as 2020, this was again not a good year. While turnovers were up, UCF just didn’t force punts, and this statistic bordered on catastrophic.

Interestingly, 2019’s defense was the second-best (1.45) since 2013, and for all the criticisms of his units, Eric Chinander’s defenses were quite stout indeed (1.51 points/possession in 2017, 1.71 in 2017).

So what happened in 2020?

While the public narrative is that Randy Shannon’s defenses have regressed in each of the past three years, that is simply not the case. 2019’s defense was actually his best in several categories.

Let’s not forget that, coming into 2020:

  • UCF had six players opt out prior to the season, including three regulars - senior DB Tay Gowan, junior DL Kalia Davis, and junior DL Mason Cholewa - along with two other juniors who likely would have contributed.
  • Bam Moore sat out the year with his leg injury.
  • DB Antwan Collier, DL Kenny Turnier, DL Randy Charlton and LB Eric Mitchell all got themselves kicked off the team with three games to go in the regular season.

So what looked like a stacked unit at the end of 2019 was decimated by COVID-19, injuries, and stupidity. In addition, there was essentially no spring ball, and summer practice was heavily limited.

These aren’t excuses, but they are reasons.

The bright side of this is those holes opened up playing time for younger, talented players like Tre’Mon Morris-Brash, Tatum Bethune, Josh Celiscar, Cam Goode, Landon Woodson, and others.

As for 2021, we don’t exactly know what things will look like and probably won’t until the summer, thanks to any transfers that may come in. But when evaluating the defense in 2020, it’s important to look at the numbers and the context.

UCF may very well improve on the defensive side of the ball in 2021 (of course in some ways, they can only improve). But if they do, the reason may very well be player experience, not coaching scheme.