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September 26, 2008

Defenses dominate throughout SEC

The first clue came when South Carolina blanked N.C. State 34-0 on the opening night of the season. The next hit occurred two days later, when Clemson's highly touted offense finished with zero rushing yards in a 34-10 loss to Alabama.

By the time Auburn eked out a 3-2 victory over SEC rival Mississippi State two weeks ago, the word was out: Defense is back in vogue in the SEC.

Eight SEC programs rank among the nation's top 25 teams in total defense, and seven league schools are in the top 18 in scoring defense. No wonder that Auburn-Mississippi State game produced a score more associated with futbol than football.

"I think the defense in the conference is just crazy," said Florida linebacker Brandon Spikes, the leading tackler on the nation's fifth-ranked defense. "You've got athletes big guys running 4.9s and 4.8s (in the 40-yard dash). It's just crazy."

It sure wasn't this crazy last season, when SEC may as well have stood for "Shootouts Every Contest." A league that usually prides itself on its defense produced the types of scores normally seen in the Mountain West or Western Athletic conferences.

Florida 45, Kentucky 37. Florida 51, South Carolina 31. Arkansas 45, Mississippi State 31. Alabama 41, Arkansas 38. Georgia 42, Florida 30. Arkansas 48, South Carolina 36. Kentucky 43, LSU 37. Tennessee 52, Kentucky 50. Arkansas 50, LSU 48.

To be fair, those last three scores were inflated because the games went into overtime. But the average SEC game last season featured 53.9 points overall and 51.5 points in regulation. By contrast, only once in seven conference games this season have the teams combined for 50 points.

The winning team in an SEC game last year averaged 33.3 points overall and 31.9 points in regulation. Alabama's 49-14 victory over Arkansas last week marked the only time an SEC team has exceeded the 30-point mark in a conference game this season.

"It was really surprising," Kentucky defensive end Jeremy Jarmon said. "That's something you're not used to seeing. You'd see on the ESPN ticker that this SEC team scored 45 or 49 points against this other school. It's something this league hasn't really been known for. Not that the SEC doesn't have good offenses, but it's known more as a power running league.''

The SEC has eight teams ranked in the top 24 in total defense, seven teams in the top 26 in rushing defense and seven of the top 18 teams in scoring defense. Here's a look:
Rank, teamYPG
5. Florida 213.0
9. South Carolina 225.0
14. Alabama 243.3
17. Kentucky 250.7
18. LSU 252.7
20. Auburn 259.8
22. Tennessee 268.7
24. Georgia 275.0
Rank, teamRush YPG
3. Georgia 45.8
5. Kentucky 50.3
8. Alabama 55.0
9. LSU 55.3
15. Florida 72.3
19. Auburn 84.3
26. Tennessee 94.7
Rank, teamPPG
2 (tie). Florida 6.3
2 (tie). Kentucky 6.3
8. Alabama 9.3
10. Auburn 10.3
14. LSU 12.3
16. South Carolina 12.8
18. Georgia 13.8
Many of the players who scored those points aren't around anymore. Of the 35 SEC players selected in the 2008 NFL draft, 22 were on offense. The SEC lost four of its top five rushers and five of its top eight receivers from last season.

"A lot of teams had more experience at quarterback and the skill positions a year ago," said Kentucky coach Rich Brooks, whose team is tied with Florida and Florida State for second in the nation in scoring defense. "I know we clearly had a lot more experience at those positions. Some of the defenses may have been on the young side a year ago, and those defenses might have matured."

Even though the SEC lost plenty of offensive firepower during the offseason, the conference still features plenty of talent on that side of the ball.

Former NFL executives Andrew Brandt and Michael Lombardi of nationalfootballpost.com put together a list of the top 100 draft prospects for Rivals.com last week. The top three guys on the list were SEC offensive players: Ole Miss tackle Michael Oher, Alabama tackle Andre Smith and Georgia quarterback Matthew Stafford. Seven SEC offensive players and two defensive players ranked in the top 25.

So why have the SEC defenses looked so overpowering? It all comes back to quarterback.

Florida has Heisman-winning quarterback Tim Tebow. Georgia has perhaps the nation's top NFL quarterback prospect in Stafford. But just about every other SEC team entered the season with a relatively uncertain quarterback situation.

More than half the teams in the SEC hadn't named a No. 1 quarterback or were relying on a first-year starter as they opened preseason workouts. The SEC defenses have capitalized on the situation.

"There are a lot of teams licking their chops just trying to put as much pressure as they can on the new quarterbacks," LSU defensive end Tyson Jackson said.

The difference is obvious.

Auburn's 9-7 victory over Arkansas represented the only time last season that a team won an SEC game while scoring fewer than 16 points; that's once in 49 games. This season, it happened twice on the same day when Georgia beat South Carolina 14-7 and Auburn won its 3-2 squeaker over Mississippi State.

"That's absolutely something you have to take into account," Jarmon said. "There are a lot of young players, especially at the quarterback position. A lot of coaches are probably telling their young quarterbacks to go out there, manage the game and not lose it."

Vanderbilt coach Bobby Johnson sees another reason behind the defense's dominance in the SEC. He believes more defenses are figuring out ways to slow down the spread offense that has become so prevalent in the league.

Two years ago, Florida won a national championship using the spread, though the Gators leaned heavily on their defense that season. Auburn has suffered growing pains in its first season with the spread and ranks 87th in the nation in scoring.

"People are starting to catch up to some of the things that are going on in the spread offense," Johnson said. "It's still very hard to defend and be ready to take care of everything, but I think some of those things are being caught up with just a little bit. I think that just takes the efficiency out of those offenses a little more than in the past couple of years."

Auburn is one of five teams with new offensive coordinators, which also might help explain why SEC defenses are so far ahead of the offenses at this point in the season.

At some places, the new coordinator has made an immediate positive impact. Alabama leads the SEC in rushing and ranks 27th in the nation in scoring during Jim McElwain's first season running the offense. At other schools, the change hasn't worked quite as well so far. Tennessee ranks 82nd in the nation in scoring while adjusting to new coordinator Dave Clawson.

Perhaps the offenses will start catching up to the defenses once the new quarterbacks gain experience and the new coordinators get their messages across. Then again, maybe this is just a banner season for defenses across the conference.

After all, SEC defenses haven't merely stifled the offenses in their league. They also have suffocated other offenses all over the country. SEC teams have allowed just 15 points per game in eight non-conference matchups against teams from one of the other "Big Six" conferences. In half those games, the non-SEC team failed to score an offensive touchdown.

"I can tell you when we're playing against SEC teams, the game is a lot more physical than out-of-conference games," Alabama free safety Rashad Johnson said. "I don't know if it's because guys are stronger or just the mind-set of the SEC player that it's going to be a physical game and you know it before it even starts."

That's why SEC players expect points to remain as elusive as low gas prices all season.

"I don't think you'll see many more games with a final score of 3-2," Jarmon said. "The offenses will pick it up a little bit. But I don't think you'll see many games in the 40s and 50s, like there were last year."

Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at smegargee@rivals.com.

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