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Death to Defense: SEC Football's Offensive Transition

Brian LeighFeatured ColumnistOctober 2, 2013

The Southeastern Conference, a league historically renowned for its physical, defensive brand of football, is in the midst of a radical offensive renaissance.

Not more than two years ago, fans were treated to "LSU 9, Alabama 6," a game that symbolized what SEC football supposedly stood for. It was big and it was ugly, and there was no such thing as style points.

This year, continuing a trend that started in 2012, SEC football has meant something very different. The three biggest conference games—South Carolina at Georgia, Alabama at Texas A&M and LSU at Georgia—have gone for an average of 1,043 total yards and 82 points per contest.

Here's how the league has slowly evolved since 2008:

But what is the method behind that? It's not like the conference needed to change its system; as SEC fans so eagerly remind us, the conference has produced seven straight BCS national champions.

If its formula—"win with defense"—wasn't broke, why did the SEC fix it?

 

Embracing the Spread

COLLEGE STATION, TX - APRIL 13:  Head coach Kevin Sumlin of the Texas A&M Aggies chats with his quarterback Johnny Manziel #2 before the Maroon & White spring football game at Kyle Field on April 13, 2013 in College Station, Texas.  (Photo by Scott Haller
Scott Halleran/Getty Images

As explained in the table above, the pace of play in college football has picked up. SEC teams have adapted some uptempo principles, the average unit running five more plays per game than it did just five years ago.

Spread offenses and high-tempo offenses put up more points. That shouldn't need much further explanation. They're designed to make the game go faster, and the faster the game moves—the more plays that are run—the more chances there are to find offensive success.

But why, you might ask, has the SEC chosen to embrace this system?

Because it's sexy. It's what people want to see. Blue-chip offensive recruits have witnessed the revolution at Oregon; they've taken note of that environment and made a conscious decision to play in that type of offense.

ARLINGTON, TX - SEPTEMBER 03:  LaMichael James #21 of the Oregon Ducks runs the ball against the LSU Tigers at Cowboys Stadium on September 3, 2011 in Arlington, Texas.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

When spread offenses started to pop up en masse, SEC teams were still able, for the most part, to beat them. The talent discrepancy was that wide between conferences. The SEC still had all the best recruits, so it was able to beat the Oregons of the world with (relative) ease.

Had it not transitioned toward the spread in recent years, however, it would have started losing the recruits that made the conference so dominant to begin with.

The best offensive players want to play for coaches who best showcase their gifts. They want to put up big stats and get drafted to the NFL, which has also moved toward the spread. So in a "keeping up with the Joneses"-type move, SEC teams had to embrace the new style.

Texas A&M moved to the conference and brought with it spread guru Kevin Sumlin. Auburn rehired former offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn. Ole Miss targeted uptempo pioneer Hugh Freeze.

It should be interesting to watch how this affects other SEC teams—the ones too headstrong to evolve. Nick Saban of Alabama doesn't kowtow to any schematic trend; he's gonna run what he runs until it stops producing trophies.

Alabama still has the name-brand cachet needed to reel in recruits. And even without the spread, it's produced offensive talents like Julio Jones on the outside. It's not like dynamic playmakers will ever be opposed to going there.

But as the paradigm of college football continues to shift in one direction, Alabama and other like-minded programs might get stuck in the past.

 

Elite Quarterback Play

CLEMSON, SC - AUGUST 31:  Aaron Murray #11 of the Georgia Bulldogs during their game at Memorial Stadium on August 31, 2013 in Clemson, South Carolina.  (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

The SEC never had "bad" quarterbacks, per se, but it's never had a crop quite as gifted as the past two years—2013 in particular.

From Johnny Manziel to AJ McCarron to Aaron Murray to (somehow) Zach Mettenberger, the SEC has four legitimate candidates to go All-American in 2013. Behind them, guys like Connor Shaw and Bo Wallace might be All-Conference players in any other league.

The state of quarterbacking has never been better down south—and in this, the age of modern football, solid play under center is essential to scoring points.

Here's a quick look at top-flight SEC quarterbacks over the years:

*Only nine quarterbacks qualified in 2011

Again, this isn't exactly groundbreaking news. Better quarterback play has always meant better offense, and better offense has always meant more points.

But never has that distinction been so profound as in 2013. Quarterbacks aren't correlated to elite offenses; they're causally tied to them. No conference can experience an offensive revolution without a group of outstanding passers.

And the SEC's have never been better.

 

Younger Defenses

ORLANDO, FL - SEPTEMBER 28:  Kaiwan Lewis #8 of the South Carolina Gamecocks prepares to tackle Blake Bortles #5 of the Central Florida Knights during a game at Bright House Networks Stadium on September 28, 2013 in Orlando, Florida.  (Photo by Stacy Reve
Stacy Revere/Getty Images

This one is more unique to 2013, but a good deal of the offensive output in this year's SEC can be attributed to youth on defense.

Yes, most of this year's sample has taken place against nonconference foes. But even (or especially) the intra-league games have featured giant point totals.

In addition to the three games listed earlier—South Carolina at Georgia, Alabama at Texas A&M and LSU at Georgia—Texas A&M at Arkansas and Ole Miss at Vanderbilt both went over a total of 73 points.

Per Phil Steele's Experience Chart, here is the percentage of tackles each SEC team returned from last year, contrasted with yards per play allowed:

Notice the inverse correlation between Column 2 and Column 4?

The five SEC defenses with under 53 percent of their tackles returning averaged 4.77 yards per play allowed in 2012 and a conference ranking of 4.4.

The seven SEC defenses with over 53 percent of their tackles returning averaged 6.95 yards per play allowed in 2012 and a conference ranking of 11.9.

The best defenses in the league are breaking in new players, and their growing pains have been palpable. Meanwhile, the more experienced units—the ones whose players don't need to adjust to a starting role—are the ones who got gashed last year.

Who cares if there's defensive continuity? Last year's defense stunk!

Along with the uptempo revolution and elite quarterback play, this pervasive youth on the SEC's top defenses has helped brew the perfect storm of offensive explosion.

And it doesn't show signs of stopping.

Quarterbacks aren 't correlated to good offenses , they 're casually tied to them .

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