FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — This isn’t your father’s Southeastern Conference anymore.
The days of “defense first” in the SEC appear to be a thing of the past, at least for now. Offense seemingly has taken over, from Auburn to Arkansas and everywhere else.
The change didn’t happen overnight, and it’s not one all of the league’s coaches are ready to fully embrace. But facts are facts, and there is no denying that points are up and defenses are struggling to stay ahead of the curve.
This season, the SEC leads all FBS conferences with an average of 31.1 points per game. The Pac-10 and Big 12 are tied for second (30.2 ppg), familiar ground for leagues known for high scores.
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For the SEC, however, its days as an offensive superpower are relatively new. The conference was tied for first with the Big 12 last season at 28.4 points per game, but it was ninth as recently as 2008 at 25.6. Before that, the conference hadn’t finished higher than fourth in the decade, finishing 10th twice and ninth another time.
So what gives, besides the defense?
“The thing that I’ve always believed about our league, and I don’t know that it’s changed a whole lot, as an offensive coach you’re always looking for a match or a mismatch,” Georgia coach Mark Richt said. “Offensively it is very difficult to say, ‘I’m going to pick on this guy’ because athletes are just as good on the defensive side.
“It is a time now that it’s swinging a little bit? I don’t know that I can say for sure. That’s kind of the debate.”
The most obvious example of the shift is No. 2 Auburn. The undefeated Tigers, led by dual-threat quarterback Cam Newton and second-year offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn, lead the conference in scoring at 42.8 points per game. They also allow 24.9, only eighth-best in the league.
Auburn coach Gene Chizik was asked how important a dominant defense is in the SEC.
“Offenses are very explosive these days,” Chizik said. “We’re trying to contain some of these high-powered players and high-powered offenses. Week in and week out in this league, you’re seeing the offenses scoring a lot of points and accounting for a lot of yards. Our goal and objective at the end of the day is to win.”
South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier, who brought his high-powered fun-’n-gun offense to the conference when he was at Florida, said one reason for the rise in points is simple: the no-huddle teams are getting more snaps and more chances to score along with them.
“If teams are more into running and sort of controlling the clock, then I don’t think the points would go up that much,” Spurrier said.
Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino, a former offensive coordinator at Auburn, said he has seen more variety in SEC offenses over the past decade. He said Urban Meyer’s spread-option attack at Florida played a role in changing the SEC and that more teams are willing to throw.
Under Petrino, the Razorbacks have led the conference in passing the past two seasons. Across the SEC, however, teams are actually throwing the ball less and are running for more yards.
SEC teams are averaging 27.6 pass plays per game this season, the lowest mark in the past decade, but piling up 219.2 passing yards -- the highest average since 2001. So while attempts are down, SEC teams have become much more efficient using the pass.
And while the offenses may not look the same as the grind-it-out days of old in the SEC, teams are still moving the ball much the same way -- on the ground.
Despite Malzahn’s reputation as a pass-first coordinator, Auburn is averaging a league-best 307.9 yards rushing per game. And SEC teams are averaging 177.4 yards per game on the ground, up more than 30 yards compared with three seasons ago and the highest average in the past decade.
Players have noticed.
“If you really look at it, a lot of teams that are in the spread like Florida, they’re really based on running the football,” Arkansas defensive end Damario Ambrose said. “For instance, Auburn, they line up in the shotgun a lot, but really it’s Cam Newton running the football.”
While SEC teams average 31.1 points overall, that number falls to 26.3 in league games.
Also, Alabama, LSU and Mississippi State are all among the top 20 nationally in the country in scoring defense. Those three are a combined 13-6 in the SEC.
“I think Auburn won the SEC West,” Mississippi St. coach Dan Mullen said. “They beat us 17-14. They won by making plays on defense. You’re going to be in those games where you need a strong defense if you’re going to win.”