- Chris Low, ESPN Senior Staff Writer
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For a league that has made its mark (and left a few bruises) with bone-crunching defense over the years, this hasn’t necessarily been a season to remember in the SEC on the defensive side of the ball.
Vanderbilt defensive coordinator Bob Shoop probably summed it up best.
“What a crazy year to be on defense in the SEC,” Shoop said.
Some of the numbers on defense are even crazier.
Already, there have been 10 SEC matchups this season where both teams scored 30 or more points. A year ago, there were only five such shootouts for the entire season.
With two weeks remaining in the regular season, there are only five SEC teams ranked in the top 40 nationally in total defense -- No. 5 Alabama, No. 7 Florida, No. 22 South Carolina, No. 24 LSU and No. 40 Vanderbilt.
By contrast, five SEC teams finished in the top 20 nationally in total defense last season, and four of those -- Alabama, Florida, LSU and South Carolina -- finished in the top 11.
There’s no question that the quarterback play in the SEC this season, both the caliber and experience of the quarterbacks across the league, has had a huge impact.
And as veteran Auburn defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson points out, the NFL draft the last few years has decimated the top defensive fronts and pass rushers in the league.
In the most recent draft, 17 defensive linemen and/or outside linebackers from the SEC were selected. Nine of those players were underclassmen.
“You’ve seen a little dip in this league on defense as far as where it’s going to be in the future because of some of these things,” said Johnson, who’s at his fifth different SEC school as a defensive coordinator.
“But I also think you’re seeing a gradual changing of college football. What’s deteriorating defenses more than anything is the way the offenses are practicing and the way you have to practice against them. You can’t run a fast-paced offense and be extremely physical on defense.”
It’s not just at Auburn, either. Johnson has seen it throughout college football.
“We practice against our scout team, and that deteriorates your fundamentals and deteriorates your physical toughness,” Johnson said. “I understand it because if you’re going to run that style of offense, the only way you can perfect it is to practice that way.
“But you are what you play against every day in practice. We try to hit a hit happy medium here, but it’s never going to be enough to satisfy me. We don’t tackle good backs except on Saturdays, so how good is your tackling going to be?”
At least half of the teams in the SEC are running some form of a hurry-up attack on offense, and it’s no coincidence that the offensive numbers are up.
Nine of the 14 SEC teams are averaging more than 430 yards per game in total offense. Of the five who aren’t, only Vanderbilt has a winning record. Arkansas, Florida, Kentucky and Tennessee all have losing records.
What’s more, nine of the 14 SEC teams are averaging more than 30 points per game. A year ago, only six averaged more than 30. And in 2011, it was only five.
It’s no secret that Alabama coach Nick Saban isn’t a fan of the fast-paced offenses and being able to snap the ball before the defense is lined up or has a chance to make situational substitutions. That said, Saban is also smart enough to realize that playing that way can be a huge advantage for the offense and has even suggested the Tide could look to play faster in the future.
“The offenses are taking advantage of the rules that we have, whether it’s to play fast or keep the defense from being able to do some situational things that it would like to do to create an advantage for themselves,” Saban said. “A lot of the rules that we have in college football can help offenses that are willing to try and take advantage of them, whether it’s throwing the ball behind the line of scrimmage and being able to block downfield or whatever these things are.
“It’s more difficult to play good defense in this day and age. I don’t know that you reconstitute how you evaluate it. But the way you try to play defense, you have to re-evaluate and try to do a better job against the things that we’re seeing now.”
Five teams in the SEC this season are allowing nearly 30 yards more per game than they did a year ago. Topping that list is Texas A&M, which has seen its total defensive average climb by 64.2 yards per game.
LSU, which lost eight starters on defense, is allowing 46.1 yards more per game than it did last season. Vanderbilt is up 38.6 yards, South Carolina 33.9 yards and Georgia 29.1 yards.
The Bulldogs were also hit with major personnel losses on defense, and their youth on that side of the ball has taken its toll. They’re giving up an average of 30.2 points per game after allowing just 19.6 a year ago.
All but three teams in the SEC this season are giving up more than 350 yards per game. But as first-year Kentucky coach Mark Stoops notes, some stats matter more than others.
“Different teams are so explosive, and if you hold them under a certain number of yards and a certain number of points, you feel like that’s maybe as good as you can do with certain teams,” Stoops said. “A lot of statistics matter, and as a defensive guy, every yard and every point is personal.
“Sometimes, the bottom line is just winning games.”