AUBURN, Ala. — Georgia wide receiver A.J. Green coasted past Auburn defenders throughout the first half Saturday, twice catching easy touchdown passes after having left a cornerback at least 5 yards in his wake.
It’s been a common sight this year and has prompted the same question, in various forms, from those who have watched the Tigers: This is an SEC and NCAA championship-caliber defense?
While the Cam Newton probe hangs over the program like a sword of Damocles, many think something else could derail the No. 2 Tigers’ chances of making it to Glendale, Ariz., for the national title game: a defense that is ranked No. 58 nationally.
“Offenses are very explosive these days,” Auburn coach Gene Chizik said. “All of us would love to have better numbers here in terms of what the final result is on paper. We’re like anybody. We’re a work in progress all the time. We’re trying to get better.”
It’s a difficult task in the SEC, which, thanks to an influx of innovative minds the past few years -- Auburn’s Gus Malzahn, Mississippi State’s Dan Mullen and Arkansas’ Bobby Petrino, to name a few -- is in the midst of an offensive renaissance.
Seven of the league’s teams are averaging 30 points or better this season, and 11 are scoring 25 points or more. It’s something that hasn’t happened in the last decade, despite the proliferation of spread offenses that have altered the game.
“Football’s changing,” Auburn defensive coordinator Ted Roof said. “If you look at the SEC, for instance, how much it’s changed since three or four years ago to now with all the spread offenses and the high-tempo things and things of that nature.
“But that’s the transition of college football.”
Roof, a coaching veteran of 24 years, said it’s cyclical, recalling when the wishbone was all the rage in the ’80s before defenses caught up.
But spread offenses have increased scoring across the board lately. Does it mean teams are redefining defensive success?
“You define it by what you see when you turn on the tape and if you’re getting what you’re coaching,” Roof said. “That’s how. And, obviously, this being a bottom-line business, are you winning? But, certainly, we’ve got to keep working to get better, because we’ve got some work to do.”
Auburn’s defense has been skewered, allowing 24.9 points per game, eighth in the SEC. The Tigers have given up 34, 43, 31 and 31 points in four of their conference games this year.
Since 2000, only one SEC champion has allowed more than 20 points per game (LSU in 2001, 22.3 ppg). No NCAA champion has allowed more than 20 points per game in that time.
But with Auburn’s potent offense, does it matter?
The Tigers are averaging 42.8 points per game this year, which, if it holds, will be tied for seventh in SEC history. The only team in the past decade from the SEC with a higher average is Florida in 2008 (43.6 ppg).
Only three NCAA champions in the past 10 years have averaged more points per game: Florida in 2008, Texas in 2004 (50.1 ppg) and Miami in 2001 (43.2).
That gives Auburn’s defense a larger margin of error. Against Arkansas, for instance, the Tigers allowed 566 yards and 43 points, but it forced three crucial turnovers in the fourth quarter that led to three touchdowns in a 65-43 victory.
For the time being, Chizik is looking at incremental improvement.
“You’d always like to be able to look and say, ‘Hey, I wish we had played a little bit better here and a little bit better there,’ ” he said. “But when you’re not playing well, the worst thing you can do is look back and say: ‘We never got better in the game. We never adjusted in the game.’ ”
Despite Green’s big day Saturday, Auburn eventually adjusted against Georgia, upping its defensive pressure in the second half and allowing only 10 points after the first quarter.
In a 49-31 game, it was more than enough.
“Surely, on the paper, we’d look at the stats that some people want to look at closely and wish we were in a better place,” Chizik said. “There’s also some stats where we think we’ve done some things well, too. There’s some give and take in there.”