Does Texas A&M Football have a DJ Durkin Problem?

Sep 2, 2023; College Station, Texas, USA; A detailed view of a Texas A&M Aggies helmet on the sideline during the game against the New Mexico Lobos at Kyle Field. Mandatory Credit: Maria Lysaker-USA TODAY Sports
Sep 2, 2023; College Station, Texas, USA; A detailed view of a Texas A&M Aggies helmet on the sideline during the game against the New Mexico Lobos at Kyle Field. Mandatory Credit: Maria Lysaker-USA TODAY Sports /
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Are the Numbers About Durkin Deceptive?

There were a few points in this article that made me furrow my brow a little bit. Let’s return to the piece about the scoring for a second. Here’s a claim that is levied immediately following the section we just examined:

"In points allowed per game, only one Durkin-coached defense since 2016 has finished in the top 50. Those five defenses ranked No. 76.6 on average in points allowed per game. For comparison, the Elko-coached Aggie defenses finished No. 28.75 on average in scoring. They also never ranked outside the top 50 and finished No. 3 in 2021."

The one defense in question was last year’s Texas A&M football team, who finished 25th. The thing that caught my attention was that Ole Miss in 2021 finished 51st in this metric. I understand 50 is a common interval to use, but I would think this is worth a note if you are truly trying to represent the numbers in a fair way.

Regardless, let’s consider this. Durkin’s defenses from 2020 until now have ranked 117th, 51st, and then 25th in scoring defense. Why, then, is the narrative not “DJ Durkin’s defenses have seen a rapid rise in quality over the last three years”? Is it perhaps because reality is more complex than a univariate analysis?

The reason I’m focusing on scoring is because putting points on the board and keeping your opponent from doing so is, in fact, how the game is won. The article does treat a couple of other areas, beginning with rush defense. Speaking as someone who was present at the debacle that was Ole Miss in 2022, I know that it’s painful to give up large chunks of yards on the ground.

But you know what? For all the rush yards that Texas A&M football surrendered—390, to be exact—they gave up a grand total of 31 points. This is because Durkin’s defense last year was extremely good at making other teams inefficient at converting yards to points. Though they surrendered yardage, they clamped down in the red zone—a statistical area not treated in the column in question. For the record, the 2022 Texas A&M football team was 7th in this measure, allowing a touchdown on only 50% of trips and any type of score 72.73% of the time.

This is the other thing that bothered me: the question of defensive style was never brought up in this article. Life is about tradeoffs: if you can’t be a defense that stops an opponent from doing anything well—which very few in college football can claim from year to year—you have to choose what to emphasize and what to allow. Personally, I think emphasizing a prevention of scoring efficiency and allowing yardage gains between the 20s is a good strategy, given those constraints.

The upshot is this: the total number of rushing yards given up is perhaps the least useful major statistical category for a defense in modern college football. Don’t believe me? How did you feel about that Miami game? The Aggies really clamped down on the run there. They allowed only 3.21 yards per carry. That sure didn’t stop the Hurricanes from throwing long bombs over and over again. That was a game plan oriented around stopping the run. I don’t know about you, but I much prefer what we saw in 2022.

Durkin’s Pass Defense

Another issue is the way the article speaks about Durkin’s defense versus the pass. I find the wording here… strange.

"“Pass-efficiency defense: The Elko-coached Aggie defenses and Durkin-coached defenses since 2016 are about even on average in pass-efficiency defense. Both of them were mediocre in that category, coming to an average ranking of No. 52.25 and No. 53.6, respectively. The Durkin-coached defenses finished in the top 30 in two out of the five seasons and outside of the top 55 in three of them. The Elko-coached defenses ranked outside of the top 65 twice and in the top 30 twice, including a No. 10 finish in 2021.”"

What, exactly, is “pass-efficiency defense”? Is it yards per attempt allowed? Is it some sort of Pro Football Focus statistic? He does go on to discuss those a little later on, which is why I ask. What is it? Why are we never given a number?

If it is a yards per attempt basis on which Karels is measuring Durkin’s defense, then I might think it’s worth mentioning that the 2022 Texas A&M Football team allowed the 4th-fewest yards per attempt in the nation. It might also be worth mentioning that the Aggie team from last year allowed the fewest passing yards per game in the nation. Whatever metric he is using, it again seems likely that Durkin’s two good defenses—the ones that finished in the top 30 by this mysterious mark—are his two most recent defenses. Without knowing the number he is referencing, I can’t say for sure, but I would definitely be shocked if that were not the case.

This, again, just feels deceptively worded to me. Why the occlusion, why the murkiness around what this metric is when you’re using simple counting statistics and referencing actual numbers for most other categories? He even gives the actual PFF Grades for each defense. Why so silent about this number? The reality of things is that Durkin had a really outstanding unit against the pass here last year. It buoyed the team in a lot of ways and led to their ability to prevent teams from scoring efficiently. Of course, that would be hard to fit in this article.