Where’s the D, SEC?

Historically, the best college football teams in the Southeastern Conference have been known for playing extremely tough defense. 

Back in November, 2011, the nation’s #1 and #2 teams (LSU and Alabama) played an overtime game in which neither team scored a touchdown.  LSU won that game 9-6, but Alabama claimed revenge two months later and grabbed the national championship in taking a 21-0 win of the Bayou Bengals.

During a nine game stretch of that football series, Alabama held LSU to a total of just 72 points (just 8 points per game). That scoring drought finally ended in 2019 as Joe Burrow led LSU’s unbeaten Tigers to score 46 points and a much needed victory at Alabama.  

“Rock ‘em, sock ‘em” defensive football games have been synonymous with SEC football for many decades. 

Until this year, that is.

Through the first few games of the 2020 season, LSU’s defending champions are just 1-2 on the season with a defense which has allowed 32 points per game this year (ranked #51 nationally). 

In recent years, the University of Florida had one of the toughest defensive teams in the nation.  In 2019, Florida gave up just 14.4 points per outing (good for 10th best scoring defense nationally).  In 2020, however, Wally Gator is giving up 33.3 points per outing (#58 in the nation) although Florida is still 2-1 on the year.  

Last weekend, the University of Alabama surrendered an incredible 48 points against SEC foe Ole Miss.  Yes, Bama won the football game 63-48, but the Tide surrendered an amazing 647 yards in the game at Ole Miss. That was the most yards Alabama defense has allowed – in school history!

In fact, the game’s total of 111 points and 1,370 combined total yards were both Southeastern Conference records for a non-overtime football game.  Since the SEC was established in 1932, the Bama/Ole Miss game was the highest scoring football game played in 88 seasons!   

Ole Miss coach Lane Kiffin (who was a former assistant coach at Alabama) shook hands with his former boss Nick Saban at midfield afterwards and said, “I thought they played defense in the SEC!”

Good question! Where’s the D, SEC?

Georgia, #3 in the latest AP poll, is currently leading the Southeastern Conference in scoring defense as the Bulldogs have surrendered only 12.3 points per game in their 3-0 start.  They are ranked #5 nationally in scoring defense.   The second-best SEC defensive team this season has been Auburn.  The War Eagles have allowed 22.7 points allowed per game (22nd in the nation).

Alabama, ranked #2 by the AP this week, has allowed a very un-Saban-like 30.3 points per game through their first three games in 2020.  The Tide surrendered just 18 points per football game on average in the 2019 season.

So, what’s going on in 2020?  Here are a few ideas to ponder.

In 2020, the SEC isn’t playing its traditional 12-game season.  Normally, SEC teams will play eight conference games and four non-conference outings.  During this pandemic year of 2020, the league has scheduled just ten games with all of them being played against SEC foes.

By removing a few “tune-up” early season football games along with the annual “cupcake” usually scheduled for the Homecoming game this season, we are getting a much clearer picture on the SEC’s football defensive weaknesses in 2020. 

Let’s pause and compare the SEC to another major conference competitor – the Big 12.

Though the poor defensive reputation of the Big 12 Conference has been generally laughable for several years, the SEC’s defensive stats in 2020 are quite comparable to the Big 12 this season.   The 3-0 Oklahoma State Cowboys are ranked #3 in the nation defensively (9 points/game) with Baylor (1-1) coming in at #15 on defense as da Bears give up 20.5 points per outing. 

Is the SEC’s relative decline in defensive stats also being influenced by the number of teams which are passing the ball more than in prior years?

Indeed!  For much of the 2000’s , the Southeastern Conference was known as the football conference featuring “Three yards and a cloud of dust” running games and low scoring defensive battles.   

Remember those LSU football teams led by colorful former head coach, Les Miles?  From 2005 through 2016, “The Mad Hatter” was much more likely to feed the football to running backs (such as Leonard Fournette and Stevan Ridley) and utilize his quarterbacks more as game managers than taking chances throwing the ball downfield.   The Tigers won plenty of games under Les Miles, but other teams in the SEC began to pass the ball more and outscore the Tigers.   Les Miles was ultimately fired by LSU in 2016, but he is currently back in the game as head football coach at the University of Kansas.

Coach Nick Saban (a former defensive back in college) opened up Alabama’s passing game several years ago to put more points on the board.  Once Bama started lighting-up the scoreboard, the SEC’s “arms” race was officially underway. 

Down in The Swamp, the University of Florida Gators have turned their program around by adopting a more high-powered passing offense, too.  Back in 2017, Florida’s offense was ranked a putrid #112 (of 130 FBS teams) under Coach Jim McIlwain (before he and the athletics program had a mutual parting of the ways).  Under new coach Dan Mullen, the 2020 Gators’ supercharged offense is ranked #4 in the country and averages over 42 points per outing.

With SEC offenses flinging the football all over the field, the league’s formerly vaunted defenses are now trying to, quite literally, play catch-up as quickly as they can.

If you were expecting to watch “Your Father’s SEC” on Saturday afternoons on CBS this fall, you are in for a rude awakening in 2020!