SEC defenses make it the toughest league this year
Posted: Thursday September 21, 2006 2:12AM; Updated: Thursday September 21, 2006 1:15PM
The swarming, ball-hawking Auburn defense continually makes big plays.
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When Alabama beat Tennessee 6-3 in a mid-October game last season, the jury was split as to whether it was more indicative of the conference's tremendous defenses (as espoused by SEC fans) or woeful offenses (as espoused by nearly everyone else).
There was no need for such debate, however, after then-No. 4 Auburn beat then-No. 6 LSU 7-3 last Saturday. For one thing, the two teams had already proven they have capable offenses -- Auburn came in averaging 37 points and 436 yards, and LSU had posted consecutive 45-point scores while averaging 465 yards. But more strikingly, anyone who watched the game couldn't help but be dazzled by the speed and intensity of the two defenses. Time and again, powerful linemen surged into the backfield, blazing-fast linebackers came up to deliver crushing hits and defensive backs flew across the field to break up what seemed like certain completions.
"The impact of the collisions was pretty scary at times," said Auburn offensive coordinator Al Borges. "The physicality of the game was off the charts."
Then-No. 7 Florida's nail-biting 21-20 win at then-No. 13 Tennessee that night left much the same impression. The same Vols offense that exploded for 514 yards in its season-opening win over Cal could manage just 220 against the Gators' swarming defensive front. And a week after posting 637 yards in a rout of UCF, Florida was thrilled to reach barely half that (320) in Knoxville.
"The plan to win was to play great defense," said Florida coach Urban Meyer. "Obviously we did, [holding Tennessee to] minus-11 yards rushing and 220 for the game."
Add in No. 9 Georgia, which has allowed just 12 points and an average of 203.7 yards in its first three games, and it looks like we're in store for an entire season's worth of slugfests amongst the conference's five highly rated teams, all of whom figure to contend for the conference crown. On Oct. 7, LSU visits Florida and Tennessee visits Georgia. A week later, the Gators go to Auburn. The Georgia-Florida Cocktail Party is Oct. 28. LSU goes to Tennessee on Nov. 4. And Georgia visits Auburn on Nov. 11.
SEC followers have boasted for years about the superiority of their defense-oriented league, but ever since Steve Spurrier left Florida five years ago, there hadn't been a whole lot of powerful SEC offenses to test their theory. This season, for the first time in recent memory, the conference seems to have both. The Gators, with senior QB Chris Leak finally taking to Meyer's spread offense, have a plethora of weapons. Erik Ainge and the Vols appear to be much improved under new coordinator David Cutcliffe. Auburn's Kenny Irons is one of the finest running backs in the country. LSU boasts a veteran QB (JaMarcus Russell) and several veteran receivers.
And yet, the league's defenses continue to dominate. Just three years ago, SEC teams averaged a combined 27.3 points and 376.9 yards per game while giving up 22.5 points and 346.6 yards. So far this season season, league teams are averaging 23.5 points and 342.6 yards while surrendering just 16.4 points and 307.2 yards.
"These are the best defenses in the country," said Meyer. "I've been fortunate to coach against Pac-10 teams and Big Ten teams, Mountain West, WAC, Mid-American, even some ACC schools. I've had a little flavor of it all, and I really feel strongly that top to bottom, we're the toughest defensive conference in the nation."
"Each year," said Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville, "the defenses in our conference get better."