SEC Defenses Have Developed a Troubling Case of Big 12-Itis...Except for Georgia

Kerry Miller@@kerrancejamesCollege Basketball National AnalystOctober 13, 2020

Alabama and Ole Miss set SEC records for yards and points Saturday.
Alabama and Ole Miss set SEC records for yards and points Saturday.Associated Press

Nine years ago, Alabama and LSU played one of the greatest regular-season football games of all time. It wasn't until overtime that the No. 1 Tigers managed to defeat the No. 2 Crimson Tide.

The final score was 9-6.

Neither team reached 300 yards of total offense.

Alabama had the stingiest defense in the nation that year, allowing just 8.2 points per game. LSU ranked second in that category at 11.3 points per game. Eight of the 12 teams in the SEC averaged fewer than 190 passing yards per game. Auburn was the only team in the league to allow at least 200 passing yards per game. Ground-and-pound offense and field-position battles fueled by defensive intensity ruled the roost.

That used to be SEC football.

Even as recently as five years ago, the defense was solid across the board. In 2015, all 14 SEC teams held their opponents to 27.5 points per game or fewer.

Pardon my French, but what the hell happened?

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Twelve of the 14 SEC teams scored at least 21 points Saturday, 10 of which gained at least 400 yards of total offense. Even with Kentucky and Mississippi State engaging in a 24-2 rock fight, the average SEC team scored 33.8 points and had 437.5 yards of total offense this past weekend.

To put those numbers in context, the average defense in the Big 12—the league that always gets lambasted for playing terrible defense—allowed 26.9 points and 399.0 yards of total offense last season. (Even if we remove all the nonconference games in order to match the SEC's current schedule, Big 12 teams still only allowed 29.2 points per league game last year.)

Things have been trending in this direction for a while in the SEC, though.

During that aforementioned 2011 season, the average SEC conference game featured 45.5 combined points. Four years later, the 2015 average was 47.2 points. Last year, with that Joe Burrow-led LSU offense kicking butt and taking names, the average point total of the 57 SEC games crept up to 51.4.

Through three weeks this year, though, that number has skyrocketed to 59.7.

It was only four years ago that Alabama had a Heisman candidate on defense (Jonathan Allen)
It was only four years ago that Alabama had a Heisman candidate on defense (Jonathan Allen)Brynn Anderson/Associated Press

While the national scoring average only increased marginally from 28.3 points per game in 2011 to 28.9 points per game in 2019, the SEC's gradual uptick in scoring can probably be attributed to the league drastically improving its talent pool at quarterback.

During the 2011 season, the SEC's five most productive quarterbacks were Tyler Wilson, Aaron Murray, A.J. McCarron, John Brantley and Tyler Bray. Go ahead and ask your friends who primarily watch the NFL instead of college football if they've ever heard of any of those dudes.

But as guys like Johnny Manziel, Dak Prescott, Chad Kelly, Jarrett Stidham and eventually Tua Tagovailoa and Joe Burrow came through the league, it became clear that passing your way to a lot of SEC wins was at least an option, if not the most logical one.

However, that doesn't explain why scoring has gone through the roof this year.

That major scoring increase from last year to this year is clearly a product of poor defense. I don't have conference-wide numbers for missed tackles, yards after contact or blown coverages, but if you've watched a lot of SEC football over the years, you probably agree that it definitely feels like ball-carriers are shedding arm tackles and receivers are running wide-open routes way more often than in years past.

And, at least to some extent, we can probably blame the COVID-19 pandemic for that.

I'm not even talking about ongoing roster shortages that result from positive tests and contact tracing, either, as I have yet to wrap my head around how much of an impact those depth-chart issues are having—though it's abundantly clear from Virginia Tech's first few games that it's quite the challenge just to get by on defense when there are inactives throughout your roster.

Rather, I'm talking about the March-August window when teams usually have spring camp and summer workouts to start figuring out who will replace any departed starters. This year, those camps and workouts were abruptly canceled, which made it all the more challenging to replace a ton of talent.

Thirty defensive SEC players were selected in the 2020 NFL draft, 23 of whom went within the first 97 picks. We're talking significant losses that would have left tough shoes to fill even with a full offseason. Take all those practices and film sessions away and it's little wonder that Alabama, Auburn, Florida and LSU—the four SEC teams hit hardest by roster attrition on defense—look out of sorts and are giving up substantially more yards per game than they did last season.

Georgia DB Richard LeCounte
Georgia DB Richard LeCounteMichael Woods/Associated Press/Associated Press

It's also little wonder that Georgia has been the primary exception to the rule by excelling on defense.

The only noteworthy players the Bulldogs lost from their 2019 defense were defensive back J.R. Reed, who went undrafted, and linebacker Tae Crowder, who was taken with the last pick of the 2020 draft.

In getting to bring back guys like Monty Rice, Richard LeCounte, Azeez Ojulari and about a dozen others who averaged at least one tackle per game last season, Georgia was able to maintain its defensive mojo much better than most of its league-mates.

The Dawgs already had the SEC's best defense last year, but now they are head and shoulders ahead of the field, allowing just 12.3 points per game in a league where the next-stingiest defense (Auburn) is sitting at 22.7.

Georgia has been particularly untouchable in the second halves of its early games. Arkansas and Auburn each managed a field goal on their first possessions of the third quarter against the Bulldogs, but that's it. Six total second-half points allowed in three games, which matches the six turnovers they've forced.

Heck, the Georgia defense has scored more points than it has allowed after halftime, returning an interception for a touchdown against Arkansas and taking a fumble to the house against Tennessee.

While most SEC teams' halftime adjustments on defense seem to be made in failed hopes of not continuing to hemorrhage yards on every drive, Georgia's adjustments are more of the "going for the jugular" variety.

But it's one thing to slow down Arkansas, Auburn and Tennessee—three offenses that ranked in the bottom six of the SEC in yards per play last year. The real test comes this Saturday against an Alabama offense that is currently leading the nation in yards per play (8.66) and scoring average (51.0).

Georgia didn't face Alabama last year, but it did draw LSU in the SEC championship in an instance where the elite offense triumphed over the elite defense. It was the only time throughout the entire season that the Bulldogs allowed more than 20 points, 300 passing yards or two passing touchdowns, but Burrow picked them to pieces en route to a 37-10 victory.

The $64,000 question, though, is whether 37 points would be enough for Alabama to win the game because that Crimson Tide defense has been some kind of awful.

It hasn't been Ole Miss awful, mind you, but it's awful by Alabama standards. The Crimson Tide are allowing 473.0 yards and 30.3 points per game. If you add together their averages from the 2016 and 2017 seasons—I know that's not how averages work, but humor me—you'd still only get 522.2 yards and 24.9 points. After just three games, they're already 15 points away from matching the total number of points they allowed in the entire 2011 season (106).

Georgia's offense hasn't been great thus far, but it's good enough to march down the field against a defense that repeatedly misses assignments and tackles.

Maybe this game will be the wake-up call Alabama's defense desperately needs, and it will improve drastically between now and the projected rematch with Georgia in the SEC championship. But for the time being, Georgia probably deserves to be the favorite to win the conference because it is the one team in the SEC that has shown the ability to win with defense.

         

Kerry Miller covers men's college basketball and college football for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter: @kerrancejames.