First and 10: Why can't anybody in the SEC play defense? (Well, except Georgia)
I don’t want to get on a soapbox, but …
There’s no other way to say it: the Georgia defense is the last thing between the SEC officially morphing into the Big 12.
For a season, at least.
Poor tackling, poor angles, lack of fundamentals.
Players out of position and coaches out of their element. And all those points ringing the scoreboard to tilt.
“Never been more frustrated as a defensive coach,” one SEC defensive coordinator told me last weekend. “It’s a helpless feeling.”
Everywhere, that is, except Georgia.
If you want to hold on to all that’s tried and true in your beloved SEC (it’s really not, but more on that later), better hope the Georgia defense – the best defense in all of college football — bows up in the biggest game of the regular season Saturday at Alabama.
The once proud and punishing SEC, the conference that has physically (and yes, defensively) manhandled college football since 2006, has been reduced to weekly 7-on-7 games.
The most accurate quarterback, the most dangerous wide receivers, the most innovative and gutsy play-calling, wins games.
Not defense. Not by a country mile.
Last weekend, 7 of the 14 teams in the SEC scored at least 41 points. A week before that, 6 teams scored at least 35 points and 4 teams scored in the 40s.
Three teams have scored more than 50 points in a game this season, and 1 in the 60s – all playing each other, not directional schools or FCS tomato cans.
Meanwhile, we give you the Georgia defense, the last team protecting that age-old SEC truism of defense wins championships. The last team on the wall, the Georgia Bulldogs, are:
— Giving up 236.7 yards per game. Eight of the 14 SEC teams are giving up at least 400 yards per game, including – hold on to your houndstooth – Alabama at a whopping 473 yards per game. That number is 65th out of 76 FBS teams currently playing.
— Giving up 12.3 points per game. Seven of the 14 SEC teams are giving up at least 30 ppg, including 3 of the top 4 teams (Alabama, Florida, Texas A&M).
— Giving up 3.7 yards per play. Seven of the 14 SEC teams are giving up at least 6 yards per play, including Alabama, Florida and Texas A&M.
— Giving up 28.2% of 3rd-down conversion attempts. Four SEC teams are giving up at least 50%, including Alabama, Florida and Texas A&M.
Seeing a trend here?
Just like those Big 12 teams of the past, the elite of the league aren’t immune to defensive deficiencies.
For years SEC purists railed on the pass-happy Big 12, its defenses showing little resistance to the onslaught of offensive firepower. The criticism was especially levied at the Big 12 elite, and typically harshest in November when teams were jockeying for College Football Playoff spots.
Now the SEC may as well be the Big 12’s cousin.
The lack of preparation because of the COVID shutdown has greatly impacted the way defenses are adjusting to the increased skill of the league’s offenses. In typical seasons, defenses lead Week 1, offenses adjust in Week 2 and elite defenses readjust and are eventually full throttle by mid-October.
The way things look now, SEC defenses may not hit their stride until mid-November – if that’s even possible in 2020.
“You’re talking about missing 6 months of prep,” one SEC strength and conditioning coach told me. Remember, these are the coaches who are with players more than any other outside of the 3-month season window.
“Think about this,” he continued. “We’re talking about 15 practices in the spring where any install change is made, and most individual improvement occurs. Spring has always been more hands-on, individual work. Then you have team building and summer conditioning, and you’ve got guys working together and building trust with the guy next to them. All of that is gone now.
“You see guys trying to do other guys’ job during a play. That means two guys are out of position. There’s no trust out there. Whenever you hear a guy on TV say, ‘he’s out of position,’ it’s usually because he’s trying to do two jobs. Defense is about being in position to make a play, and making it – and trusting your teammate will do the same. When you don’t have that chemistry, the whole system breaks down.”
Now Georgia gets its biggest test of the season, after 3 relatively predictable offensive opponents (Arkansas, Auburn, Tennessee). Alabama will stress a defense like no other team in college football.
The Georgia defense under coach Kirby Smart is what the Alabama defense was under Smart for all of those championship seasons with Tide coach Nick Saban. The idea is to get pressure with the front 4 (or 5 in UGA’s 50 front), and play combination coverages in the back 7, using occasional blitzes to increase pressure.
That means plenty of Azeez Ojulari and Nolan Smith off the edge, and CBs Tyson Campbell and Eric Stokes playing man on the outside – with tough guy SS Richard LeCounte cleaning up in the back end.
Georgia has been using that plan to perfection in 3 games, but it hasn’t had to cover Jaylen Waddle and DeVonta Smith and John Metchie III. The Bulldogs haven’t had to account for a tailback like Najee Harris.
They haven’t dealt with a quarterback (Mac Jones) completing 80% of his passes and averaging a whopping 13.3 yards per attempt.
The clash of styles is no longer in just Playoff, bowl and nonconference games. It has arrived in the backyard of the SEC.
Can Georgia restore order and save the SEC from completely turning into the Big 12?
2. The evolution of offense
So how did we get here, you ask?
There are the typical (correct) answers of high schools moving more toward the passing game, year-round camps of 7-on-7, the natural evolution of the dual-threat quarterback forcing defenses to account for another moving threat.
All are correct – and all became more prevalent since the SEC added 2 Big 12 teams (Texas A&M and Missouri) and expanded to 14 teams. The year before the league expanded in 2012, the SEC averaged 22.5 points per game in conference games (two teams combined points) – and had won 6 consecutive national titles.
A year later in 2012, the number jumped to 25.53 and has been around that average for much of the 8 seasons since the move to 14 teams.
Then came 2020, and after 3 games, the SEC is averaging 29.9 points per game, behind the Big 12 (32.6 ppg) and ACC (31.1 ppg).
Think about it this way: a 1 ppg per team change means two more touchdowns per week (14 teams = 14 points). The SEC averaged 25.6 points per conference game in 2019, and the 4.3 ppg. increase this season is 60.2 ppg more per week in the conference.
Another way to look at it: There have been 11 40-point games in the SEC after 3 weeks. There were 20 the entire 2019 season.
Hence, your Big 12 comparison.
“A lot of it has to do with the way the passing game is officiated,” one SEC coach told me. “If your head isn’t turned and looking at the ball in coverage, you’re getting flagged. If you’re fighting for position while the ball is in the air, you’re getting flagged. If you touch a guy after the initial jam, you’re going to get flagged.
“The game is structured to give offenses specific advantages. It’s (BS), if you ask me. But it’s where we are, and we, as coaches, have to find a way around it.”
3. The offensive explosion, The Epilogue
Maybe the SEC didn’t evolve so much into the Big 12, as it was forced into the position.
Rule changes designed to favor offenses are impacting college football and the NFL, and were made, in part, because offense sells tickets – and more important, dresses up the product for television rights fees.
If you think that’s not part of the equation when discussing rules changes, you’re kidding yourself.
Or, as Bobby Bowden years ago quipped when asked what he says to network television when they say they want to televise his game at 2: “I ask them, a.m. or p.m.?”
Once Nick Saban decided to embrace the tempo, spread offenses of the Big 12 by hiring Lane Kiffin as offensive coordinator in 2014, the rest of the conference had no option but to jump in the deep end, too.
Saban’s offenses with John Parker Wilson, Greg McElroy, AJ McCarron won championships but weren’t nearly as multiple and dangerous as offenses with Blake Sims, Jacob Coker, Jalen Hurts and Tua Tagovailoa. The no-huddle, tempo system forced others to change offenses to score quickly.
It culminated last season, when LSU coach Ed Orgeron changed everything about the Tigers’ run-based offense, and hired 20-something pass game coordinator Joe Brady to implement an RPO-based system.
Fifteen games later, LSU won the national title and QB Joe Burrow went from late-round afterthought in the NFL Draft to the first overall selection after the greatest season in college football history.
So, yeah, might want to check out that Big 12 stuff, after all.
4. Hide your eyes
You want Big 12 defense? We’ve got Big 12 defense.
LSU at Florida, a typically physical and punishing game, is set for offensive fireworks this weekend the likes of which we’ve never seen in the nasty rivalry.
Both teams have given up modern era records for points in the first 3 SEC games — Florida (100), LSU (96) – and both are giving up 495 yards a game.
The Gators are giving up 58.7% of 3rd-down conversions; LSU 46.5. Both coordinators (Todd Grantham and Bo Pelini) are paid more than $2 million per season, and both coaches are facing different pressure that will grow exponentially with another loss and another poor defensive performance.
Florida began this season as a legitimate national title contender, and at the very least, the favorite to win the East Division and play in the SEC Championship Game.
LSU is the defending national champion, and gave up 44 points and more than 600 yards to a Mississippi State offense that has since scored a combined 16 points against those legendary defenses at Arkansas and Kentucky.
Here’s the difference between Florida and LSU: The Gators’ secondary is typically a step behind in coverage, and LSU’s secondary was, on 2 different long touchdown throws in last weekend’s loss to Missouri, not within 20 yards of the receiver. Both are coachable coverage problems exacerbated by a lack of consistent pass rush.
Florida and LSU were playing drastically different offenses last weekend. The Gators were defending Texas A&M QB Kellen Mond, whose erratic career has frustrated Aggies coach Jimbo Fisher since the day he arrived in College Station. LSU was facing Connor Bazelak, a redshirt freshman making his 2nd start for Missouri, but first for new coach Eliah Drinkwitz.
The quarterbacks combined to throw for 744 yards, 7 TDs, 0 INTs and complete 78.2% of their passes.
“This is on all of us,” one SEC coach told me. “These are basic mistakes players are making in the front seven and the back end, and a lot of that is because of bad coaching, to be honest. It’s like we’re just giving into the idea that the offense is going to score and there’s nothing we can do as coaches to mitigate it. I refuse to believe that.”
5. The Weekly Five
Five picks against the spread.
- Auburn at South Carolina (+2.5)
- Kentucky at Tennessee (-7)
- Ole Miss (-2) at Arkansas
- LSU (+11) at Florida
- Georgia at Alabama (-5.5)
Last week: 4-1.
6. Your tape is your résumé
An NFL scout breaks down an SEC player. This week: Ole Miss TE Kenny Yeboah.
“I keep hearing people say he’s a poor man’s Kyle Pitts. He doesn’t have the catch radius of Pitts, and he’s not as polished or as quick off the line. But boy, he can really go get the ball. High-point it, fight for it over the middle and down the seam. He’s a tough dude who doesn’t mind getting hit to make a play.
“In this offense, he’ll be able to showcase his talent and get some really good tape. It just wasn’t happening for him at Temple; it’s not what they do. He’s not a guy that’s going to run a great (40) time, but he has good game speed and I like that he doesn’t mind engaging in the run game. He’s not a dominant blocker, but he doesn’t avoid it, either.
“No matter what anyone says about tight end in this league, it’s hands first, everything else we’ll deal with. He has the hands, and he’s going to catch just about anything thrown near him.”
7. Powering Up
This week’s SEC Power Poll — and one big thing.
1. Alabama: A disturbing look: The Ole Miss offensive line dominated the Tide defensive line and the Rebels ran for 268 yards.
2. Georgia: I get it, I get it. Stetson Bennett IV won another game. But he got exposed by Tennessee. He can’t drive the ball down the field, and that will soon become a problem.
3. Florida: Gators must get more pressure. If it’s not working with 4, take chances in coverage and bring more than the offense can block. Death by one shot, or 1,000 cuts. At this point, with this defense, does it matter?
4. Texas A&M: If Mond plays like he did against Florida – didn’t force throws, showed nice touch on intermediate and deep throws – the Aggies can beat every remaining team on the schedule.
5. Tennessee: Vols D looks stout, but QB Jarrett Guarantano still makes mind-numbing decisions and his ball security continues to be suspect. A QB just can’t lose multiple fumbles on sacks in a game.
6. Ole Miss: Come on, sign stealing? Alabama couldn’t even line up in time to deal with the Rebels’ tempo offense. Sign stealing, pfffft.
7. Kentucky: A strong statement win backed by what UK does best: play defense. A big opportunity this weekend against a Tennessee team that has to get right, quickly, after an ugly loss to Georgia.
8. Auburn: He’s not getting help from his offensive line, but Bo Nix looks eerily similar to the Bo Nix of 2019. A 2nd-year starter completing 56% of his passes. And still escapes the pocket too soon.
9. South Carolina: RB Kevin Harris is the most underrated player in the first 3 weeks of the season.
10. Missouri: We’re still a long way from Missouri competing for the East Division, but Bazelak’s potential is intriguing.
11. LSU: On a positive note, the big question no longer is QB Myles Brennan. If you score more than 40 points in an SEC game, you should win.
12. Arkansas: Thoroughly impressed with the work Hogs OC Kendal Briles has done with QB Feleipe Franks.
13. Mississippi State: Was it really 2 weeks ago when Mike Leach toyed with the SEC? I’m not sure if the ugly losses since are a reflection of Mississippi State – or the LSU defense.
14. Vanderbilt: In a long line of terrible Vanderbilt seasons, this group might be near the end of the line.
8. Ask and you shall receive
Matt: How about that for a statement game from the Vols, pal? You’ve been doubting us for months. We were beating top 3 Georgia on the road for 2 quarters, and we just couldn’t close it out. Respect us!
Tory: The Vols still haven’t won a game of significance under Jeremy Pruitt. I don’t know any other way to look at it. Tennessee is much better on defense this season, but there are still so many strides to take on offense. The quarterback spot (with or without Guarantano) still has decision-making and ball security issues, and those issues will be directly responsible for losses to Alabama and Florida. And that leaves Tennessee where it was last season: winning the games it should, but not beating any of the 3 big games on the schedule.
Tennessee’s best chance in those 3 is Florida, but the Gators will have had 6 games to figure out the defense. And Florida’s offense, without injuries, will only get better.
Tennessee still needs a difference-maker at the most important position on the field. That’s on Pruitt and his staff to either recruit that type of quarterback, or get one from the transfer portal.
9. Numbers: 76
We’re all fascinated by the Ole Miss offense. By Lane Kiffin’s innate play-calling, and Matt Corral’s accuracy and moxie, 3 targets in the passing game that will all play in the NFL, and 2 running backs that can stress any defense. It’s fun to watch.
Then there’s the defense – the unspeakably bad and woefully overmatched defense that currently sits last in FBS (76th) in scoring points (51.7) and total yards (643) per game.
Want to know the true genius of Kiffin? He knows his defense is hideous, and that’s why the play ratio (57 run, 29 pass) so heavily leaned toward the run game – despite the NFL talent in the passing game. Kiffin knows the only way to win games this season is to control the ball, score every series, and keep the defense fresh.
Because a fresh defense has a much better chance of forcing a turnover than a worn-out defense.
10. Quote to note
“We’re going to have to check some of our group and figure out who really wants to play here. Because any malcontents, we’re going to have to purge a couple of those.” – Mississippi State coach Mike Leach after Saturday’s loss to Kentucky.