Help Wanted: SEC Defenses - A Search for Its Identity for Bowl Games

Michael CollinsAnalyst IDecember 13, 2008

Outside of Florida and Alabama, SEC defenses this year have been porous with a pitiful record against winning teams. 

Isn’t it one of the mantras of college football that the SEC has the best defenses? Could that myth be crumbling in the light of a more complete analysis? 

On the surface, SEC defenses appear to be stalwart. Eleven of its twelve teams rank in the top thirty-eight defenses in the country, based on total defense yards per game. Link. The SEC non-conference record is 37-11 (68.2 percent), tied with the ACC for second of all conferences. Only the Big 12 has a better record by one game (38-10).  Scratch the surface and those records are inflated by playing poor competition and bad offenses. 


Scratching the Surface

The SEC non-conference wins include a 9-0 record vs FCS opponents and 22-2 against non-BCS opponents. Against all BCS foes, the SEC limps in this year at 6-9!

What happened when these highly-ranked defenses played winning non-conference teams? They sputtered. 

Of their 39 FBS non-conference opponents, only 16 had winning records (41%). The SEC was 9-7 against those winning opponents including 6-0 versus non-BCS opponents. What happened when these highly-ranked SEC defenses played winning BCS opponents? They collapsed. 

Their record was 3-7. Eliminating Florida’s and Alabama’s wins, the rest of SEC was 0-7 against winning BCS teams!

Conference Rankings and Records Link



The SEC is home to some of the worst offenses in the country with six teams in the bottom 22 of all 119 FBS teams. Link. The offenders include Spurrier’s South Carolina (97th), Auburn (102), Kentucky (105), Mississippi State (105), Tennessee (115), and Vanderbilt (117)—four in the SEC East, two in the SEC West.

Three head coaches of those teams lost their jobs. Auburn’s 3-2 victory over MSU looks like the product of two bad offenses. How accurate are your defensive statistics when six of the 12 SEC teams opponents have anemic offenses? 


Bowl-Bound SEC Teams

Outside of Florida and Alabama, who deserve their national ranking, the other SEC bowl-bound teams (below) have gone 0-4 against winning BCS opponents. SEC nationally ranked defenses not only lost, but their opponents scored more points and made more yards than their season averages. Can anyone really make a serious claim for strong defenses with such consistent failures?  

-South Carolina’s 11th-ranked defense was whupped by Clemson by 17 points, 31-14. South Carolina surrendered 383 yards. Clemson averaged 25.5 points (62nd) and 339.3 yards per game (81st) for the season.

- Mississippi’s 15th-ranked defense allowed Wake Forest to outscore their offense, 39-28. Mississippi surrendered 348 yards. Wake exceeded its seasonal averages of 20 points (97th) and 300.3 yards per game (103rd).

- Georgia’s 28th-ranked defense’s was humbled 45-42, surrendering 428 yards. Georgia Tech’s offense soared over their seasonal averages of 26.2 points (56th) and 377.2 yards per game (47th). 

- Vanderbilt’s 29th-ranked defense was taken to the woodshed by Wake Forest by 13 points, 23-10. Wake’s 103rd-rated offense amassed 331 yards, again exceeding its seasonal averages for points (20) and yardage (300.3) per game. 

Are the first-, fourth-, and 10th-ranked offenses in the ACC too much for these SEC defenses? Imagine if any of these paper tigers played some nationally ranked offenses. The Rebels, at least, will get that chance. 


Non-Bowl-Bound SEC Teams

Second tier SEC teams fared no better, of course. Auburn’s 27th-ranked defense was crushed by West Virginia’s 65th-ranked offense, 34-17. West Virginia rolled up 445 yards. The Big East’s Mountaineers are sixth in total offense in their conference, averaging 352.5 yards and 24 points for the season. 

Texas destroyed Arkansas, 52-10. Arkansas has the worst defense in the SEC, 73rd in the nation, averaging 375.17 yards. The Longhorns got only 421 yards, calling off the dogs in the fourth quarter.


How to Play “Bowl Bound”

Want to look good? Vanderbilt (29th) may be the poster child for skewing your defensive statistics. Vandy’s stats reap the rewards of playing some of the lowest ranked offenses in the country—Tennessee (115), Mississippi State (113), Kentucky (105), Wake Forest (103), Auburn (102), Duke (101), South Carolina (97), and Miami (O) (90). The Commodores played eight games against the bottom 30 offenses in the nation! Total Offenses Nationally Link.

Georgia (28th) played five of the offensive bottom dwellers from the SEC, plus Arizona State (100th) and FCS Georgia Southern—seven teams!

Tennessee (4th)—The Vols defense performed better than Georgia’s against seven bottom 30 feeders—Vanderbilt (117), Mississippi State (113), UCLA (111), Wyoming (109), Kentucky (105), Auburn (102), South Carolina (97). But their offense was so offensive that Phil Fulmer lost his job. 

LSU’s defense’s (36th) only winning non-conference opponent, Troy, led by a 31-3 score before the Tigers came back to win, 40-31. Troy averaged 33.3 points per game for the season against all opponents, 36 points per game against their Sun Belt conference competition. LSU’s defense against Troy was equivalent to Middle Tennessee State (31 points). Florida Atlantic’s and Louisiana-Monroe’s (30 points) games were slightly better than LSU’s! Troy's Games Link

Kentucky (37th) played no non-conference opponents with winning records. The Wildcats are only one of only two BCS bowl teams with a 2-6 conference records. Kentucky played Vanderbilt (117), Tennessee (115), Mississippi State (113), Western Kentucky (110), South Carolina (97), and Norfolk State (102nd in FCS)—six poor offenses. The Wildcats played eight non-winning teams, limiting them to 14.3 points per game. When their defense played winning teams, the Wildcats were pussycats—36.5 points per game. Total Defense vs. Winning Teams Only Link.

All these teams except Tennessee will face the music in bowl games. Tennessee did not play any non-conference opponent with a winning record. Losing to UCLA (eighth in the Pac-10, 111th offense) and Wyoming (eighth in the Mountain West, 109th in offense) exposed the Vols’ defense.

The Bruins were only able to match their 27-point outburst against Tennessee in wins over Washington (27), Washington State (28) and a loss to Fresno State (31), none of whom are remotely considered defensive powerhouses. UCLA Games Link. Imagine Tennessee playing in the Big 12! Whoa, Nellie.


Rating SEC Scoring Defenses

Nationally, the SEC defenses look worse when looking at their scoring defenses. Arkansas drops to 92nd. LSU is 65th. Georgia is 64th. Mississippi State is 58th, just above the 50th percentile. Against winning teams, all four of these teams plus Kentucky allow over 30 points per game! Scoring Defense Link

Only two SEC teams played more than six winning teams over the season. Only Arkansas (7) and Florida (8) played a majority of their games against winners this season.  Arkansas’s defense stunk. Florida’s dominated. 


Winners, Real Defensive Rankings

Let’s see how good the SEC when they play against winning teams and which BCS team their defenses are most comparable to, using Total Defense and Scoring Defense.  Number of winning opponents played in parentheses.                                         

Total Defense vs Winning Teams Link.   

National Total Defense vs Winning Teams Link.                                                            


Florida (8) – Ranks 2nd, 270.4 yards per game. (Connecticut (6), 3rd, 276.3 yards.)

    Florida is 3rd in Scoring Defense, 14.5 points.

Alabama (5) – Ranks 13th, 322.2 yards per game.  (Notre Dame (6), 325.2 yards.)

   Alabama is 14th in Scoring Defense, 22.4 points.

Tennessee (4) – Ranks 17th, 330.5 yards per game.  (Pittsburgh (8), 331 yards.)

   Tennessee is 43rd in Scoring Defense, 28.0 points.

Mississippi (5) – Ranks 25th, 347.4 yards per game.  (Cincinnati (7), 350.3 yards.)

   Mississippi is 30th in Scoring Defense, 25.6 points.

Georgia (6) – Ranks 38th, 371.7 yards per game.  (Purdue (8), 372.4 yards.)

   Georgia is 66th in Scoring Defense, 32.8 points.

South Carolina (5), Ranks 41st, 375.6 yards per game.  (Illinois (5), 375.9 yards.)

   South Carolina is 55th in Scoring Defense, 29.8 points.

Vanderbilt (6), Ranks 48th, 382.5 yards per game.  (Duke (8), 384 yards.)

   Vanderbilt is 21st in Scoring Defense, 24.0 points.  (Lost to Duke, 7-10)

LSU (6), Ranks 52nd, 385.7 yards per game.  (Northwestern (4), 385 yards.)

    LSU is 76th in Scoring Defense, 34.8 points. 

Auburn (5), Ranks 55th, 395.8 yards per game.  (Oklahoma (8), 399.9 yards.)

    Auburn is 33rd in Scoring Defense, 26.0 points.

Mississippi State (5), Ranks 61st, 404.2 yards per game.  (Arizona State (6), 403.5 yards.)

   Mississippi State is 72nd in Scoring Defense, 34.2 points.

Arkansas (7), Ranks 67th, 412.7 yards per game.  (Stanford (6), 410.2 yards per game.)

   Arkansas is 82nd in Scoring Defense, 35.6 points.

Kentucky (4), Ranks 81st, 425.5 yards per game.  (Michigan State (6), 425.7 yards.)

   Kentucky is 87th in Scoring Defense, 37 points.

National Scoring Defense Ranking vs. Winning Teams Link.  


Charlie Strong, Florida’s Defensive Coordinator, deserves his kudos. Florida excels as the best defense in the SEC and one of the best, nationally.

Isn’t is interesting that Notre Dame and Alabama have virtually the same numbers for Total Defense against winning teams, though the Irish played more winning teams? Cupcake scheduling of FCS and non-BCS teams gets you improved stats and hollow chest thumping. But to be the best you have to play the best. 


Bowl Matchups

While all SEC teams except Florida and Alabama choked against winning BCS teams in non-conference play, Bowl Season brings a chance for redemption—or further embarrassment. Here are the SEC non-BCS bowl matchups, my choices, and my rationales. 

CottonMississippi vs. Texas TechTexas Tech

Mississippi is 11th in SEC in Pass Defense, 209.83 yards per game. Texas Tech is No. 1 nationally in Passing Offense, 417.3 yards. When Mississippi faced the second best passing offense in the SEC in Arkansas (23rd nationally), the Rebels surrendered 282 yards and 21 points to Arkansas’s Casey Dick. Dick is the 28th best passer nationally, completing 57.4 percent of his attempts.  Arkansas's Dick threw two of his 13 touchdowns against the Rebels and has 14 interceptions for the season, one by the Rebels.  Graham Harrell ranks as the second-best quarterback in the nation, completes 71.5 percent of his passes, and has thrown 41 touchdowns with 7 interceptions. Not to mention he has a healthy Michael Crabtree.   


Capital OneGeorgia vs. Michigan StateGeorgia

Michigan State’s defense gave up 425.7 yards per game to winning teams.  Georgia’s defense gave up 371.7 yards.  Could this be an offensive show involving Big Ten and SEC teams?  Believe it.   


OutbackSouth Carolina vs. IowaIowa

Iowa’s defense has flown under the radar—Total Defense—12th, Scoring Defense—eighth, Rushing Defense—10th, Pass Efficiency Defense—eighth. Shoon Greene, second nationally in rushing with 144 yards per game, should run over South Carolina’s Rushing Defense, 81st against winning teams in allowing 183.6 yards per game. Iowa’s Total Offense, 52nd, would rank fourth in the SEC.     


Chick-fil-ALSU vs. Georgia TechGeorgia Tech

These teams have two common opponents—Mississippi State and Georgia.

Against Mississippi State, Georgia Tech won, 38-7. LSU won, 34-24. Against Georgia, Georgia Tech won, 45-42. LSU lost 38-52, surrendering 194 rushing yards. The Rambling Wreck’s rushing offense ranks third in the country. Georgia’s rushing offense is 54th.


Music CityVanderbilt vs. Boston CollegeBoston College

These teams have one common opponent, Wake Forest. The Commodores lost, 23-10. The prior week, Boston College beat the Demon Deacons, 24-21. Vanderbilt has lost six of its last seven games. The Eagles have won four of their last five, losing only the ACC championship. Boston College has the sixth best defense in the nation.   


LibertyKentucky vs. East CarolinaEast Carolina

Kentucky’s defense against winning teams is 425.5 yards per game, last in the SEC. Kentucky has lost six of its last eight games. East Carolina won six of its last seven, including the Conference USA championship. The Pirates defeated Virginia Tech and West Virginia. Kentucky’s best win was over Arkansas, 21-20.


With Florida and Alabama having competitive matchups, will we be asking after the bowl games what happened to the SEC? 

I think so.


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