It may end up being a subjective debate, but if nothing else, the 2005 Kansas University football team will get many wondering.
Did we just witness the best defense in KU history?
Some statistics say yes - no other Jayhawk squad ever has held opponents under 100 yards rushing per game, and with KU's 83.2 ypg average, it really wasn't even close this season.
But other factors must be considered - total yards given up per game, NFL prospects, scoring defense - to touch all the bases.
There certainly is an argument for the 2005 edition. But the problem is the influence of stats when eras come and go. For example, of KU's top eight seasons in terms of fewest total yards allowed per game, all eight happened before 1970. The 1960 Jayhawks allowed 483 yards passing and 78 points in 10 games, before passing became a popular way to move the ball downfield.
To keep from going bonkers with an abundance of "yeah, but" arguments, let's narrow it down to the last 30 years, and compare the 2005 version to two other D's with similar success - the 1975 team and the 1992 squad.
The 1975 Jayhawks had the most luck on NFL draft day, for sure - defensive backs Kurt Knoff, Eddie Lewis and Steve Taylor and defensive end Jeff Turner all were drafted in '76, and Mike Butler, Terry Beeson, Skip Sharp and Chris Golub all were picked in '77.
The '92 team had several draft picks on its defense as well, including linemen Dana Stubblefield, Gilbert Brown, Chris Maumalanga, linebacker Gerald McBurrows and cornerback Dorian Brew. Two others, Kwamie Lassiter and Don Davis, have enjoyed lengthy NFL careers as undrafted free agents, and defensive end Sylvester Wright had a stint with the Philadelphia Eagles.
Right now, it's impossible to gauge the professional interest of the '05 defense - Charlton Keith is expected to be drafted, and several others like Nick Reid, Jermial Ashley, Charles Gordon and even Aqib Talib down the road certainly will be considered.
But how much does professional interest matter in a debate like this? Flash back to Nov. 5, after KU beat Nebraska, 40-15, and coach Mark Mangino was asked what the '05 defense did so right.
His answer discredited the evaluation of a defense by the number of stars shining on it.
"Our defense has some really good individual players," Mangino said at the time, "but I think if you look at it carefully, there's one or two guys that kind of jump out at you as talented guys, but for the most part, it's an ensemble cast. Everybody just does their part. Everybody plays their role that they're given in that defense, and they play it flawlessly."
Even before establishing itself as one of the top rush defenses in the nation, Mangino and his staff always have made sure stopping the run was priority number one.
Save the '05 Texas aberration, when the national-champion Longhorns rushed for 336 yards Nov. 12, and the Jayhawks were flat-out suffocating to every ground game that faced them this season.
Texas, in fact, accounted for one-third of all the rushing yards compiled against Kansas this year. The other 11 games totaled 663 yards rushing by KU's opponents. The 60.2 yards per game average, if UT isn't included, would tie with 2003 co-national champion USC to be the best run-defense numbers in college football in the last five years.
"That's one of our main goals," Reid said, "to stop the run and make them a one-dimensional team passing the ball."
The '92 team gave up an average of 125.7 rushing yards per game, but other numbers really stand out. Thanks to the renowned defensive line, the '92 Jayhawks racked up 40 sacks, and their pressure led to 16 interceptions by the Jayhawk secondary. The '05 team had 30 sacks and 15 picks.
The 1975 team, remarkably, had 18 interceptions in 191 pass attempts. But the real beauty of that squad's work was the scoring defense. Six teams were unable to score more than 10 points against Kansas that season, including shutouts against Oregon State and Kansas State. The '05 team could only hold an opponent to single digits twice and never recorded a shutout.
The '92 team allowed 20.1 points per game, but bad weeks against Iowa State (a 50-47 victory) and Nebraska (a 49-7 loss) drove the number upward. The 2005 Jayhawks had similar rotten games against Texas (a 66-14 loss) and Colorado (a 44-13 defeat).
Sizing it up
NCAA Division I-A national rankings aren't accessible on the Internet earlier than 1998, and old KU media guides made no mention of where KU's defensive statistics ranked on a national scale in '75 and '92.
The 2005 Jayhawks finished the season ranked third nationally (out of 117 teams) in rush defense and 11th overall in total defense.
KU's pass defense this season had its problems - perhaps the worst team on the schedule, Florida Atlantic, torched KU for 299 yards in the air, and playing pass-happy Texas Tech is bound to hurt numbers - but games against Missouri and Nebraska provided proof the Jayhawk secondary had brilliance within it, if only in inconsistent spurts.
That further complicates the place of the 2005 defense in KU lore. But Mangino has made it clear all season long: He wouldn't have traded this squad for any others in a million years.
"This has been a real joy to coach these kids," Mangino said after KU beat Houston in the Fort Worth Bowl. "They fought through adversity, and they got a chance to come out on top with a winning season, a bowl season and a bowl victory."
And now, they've earned the opportunity to be whispered among KU's all-time great units. Let the debates begin.