The only thing that is unmistakable and unquestionable is the raw data. Defenses are dominating the Southeastern Conference this year.
“It kind of goes in a cycle, you have a couple offensive years and a couple defensive years,” Georgia center Russ Tanner said. “This is definitely a defensive year.”
While just one SEC offense is ranked higher than No. 40 in the nation in yards gained this season, eight league defenses are above that mark in yards allowed. Four of those defenses are in the country’s top 10, and nine defenses are in the top 40 in points allowed versus just two offenses with a comparable ranking.
“This is the finest defensive league in college football,” said Florida coach Urban Meyer. “I don’t think anybody would argue that, especially this year.”
Meyer and Tennessee coach Phil Fulmer have become the reluctant poster children for the defensive surge. Meyer came to the Gators from Utah, where his Utes were third in the nation in offense last year with 499.7 yards and 45.3 points per game. In SEC games, Florida is averaging 357.9 yards and 26.1 points per game.
The Volunteers, meanwhile, returned seven offensive starters from a team that averaged 399.5 yards per game a year ago. This year, Tennessee is averaging 312.6 and is 98th in the country in offense.
“I’ve said for years that the difference between our conference and other conferences is the number of speed players on defense,” said Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville, whose team is fourth in the country in scoring defense. “There is no exception this year.”
Tuberville’s No. 15 Tigers play No. 9 Georgia at 7:45 p.m. Saturday in Sanford Stadium in a matchup between two of the nation’s top five scoring defenses. Auburn also brings the only offense in the league to brag about to Athens.
The Tigers are 17th in the country in scoring, making the the only SEC team ranked higher than 31st. Until quarterback D.J. Shockley missed six halves due to a knee injury, Georgia was in the top 30, but it has fallen to 52nd in two weeks. The lesson? It’s hard enough to play at full strength in this league. Forget about it short-handed.
“It’s tough” to move the ball, said South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier, who re-wrote the conference’s offensive record book while he was at Florida. “It’s not maybe as easy as it used to be in the old days. Now, you not only have to worry about designing a pass to get somebody open, but you have to worry about blocking those guys.”
The difference is based more on personnel than play-calling, most coaches agree. If anything, defenses have gotten more vanilla in the SEC of late, Tuberville said.
“Each year, it seems like everybody cuts back on defense and spends more time on fundamentals and techniques,” he said. “We’re not a big blitzing league like in times back in the past, the Joe Lee Dunn days. Everybody is playing a little more zone, maybe some zone blitzes, but not taking as many chances as they used to.”
The reason is they don’t have to because defensive players are at least the equal of their offensive counterparts, Richt said.
“When you look at film, you look for matchups,” he said. “We are going to try to find a matchup where we can get one of our guys on one of theirs and take advantage of an athletic mismatch. Well, those are hard to find. If you take two equal athletes, you should be able to stay with the other guy.”
An increased emphasis on physical training has helped defensive players catch up to offensive players, Spurrier said.
“The ball doesn’t go through the air any faster than it used to,” he said. “They get there quicker and knock it down and this, that and the other. That’s the biggest difference, the speed and strength of the defensive players.”
As a result, Spurrier said, “Teams are playing a little more conservative because they have good defenses. The ball is not in the air that much. The game is faster. There are fewer plays.”
Some coaches concede part of the reason for the soaring defensive numbers could be a little help from struggling offenses.
“I don’t know if this is the strongest year across the board for quarterbacks,” Richt said. “A lot of times quarterbacks can make a big difference.”
Six SEC quarterbacks entered the season as full-time starters for the first time in their careers, and four teams — Tennessee, Arkansas, Mississippi and Mississippi State — have made changes during the season due to poor performance.
Collegiate officiating also help defenses, Richt said. While the NFL changed its rule book this year to make contact between defenders and receivers illegal after the first 5 yards of the play, college football rules allow contact all over the field.
“It allows the defensive backs and linebackers to pretty much maul the offensive players coming off the line of scrimmage,” Richt said. “There’s a lot of people not giving up that easy little hitch route. Everything you get as far as throwing and catching, you’re earning.”
Should the rule be changed?
“I hadn’t thought about it,” Richt said. “It depends on what you want. If you want more points, that’d be good. On the other hand, we play defense here, too.”