Although SEC fans
tend to puff their chests out about the league's long tradition of stout
defenses, the flip side is that the conference hasn't produced many offenses
potent enough to test them since Spurrier left Florida for the Washington
Redskins five years ago. But that's no longer the case. The league has Irons,
the Heisman-caliber back; Florida quarterback Chris Leak has gotten the hang of
running coach Urban Meyer's spread option; and freshman QB Tim Tebow has added
another dimension to the Gators' attack with his running ability. New
coordinator David Cutcliffe has worked wonders with quarterback Erik Ainge and
the Tennessee offense, and Spurrier has reenergized South Carolina's offense
with the considerable help of standout wide receiver Sidney Rice.
Yet the league's
blazing-fast defenses seem to stay one step ahead. The same Tennessee offense
that strafed Cal for 514 total yards could gain only 220 against the Gators,
who held the Vols to minus-11 yards rushing in Florida's 21--20 victory on
Sept. 16. Auburn and LSU had scored more than 30 points in a game four times
between them when they met, but the two sets of Tigers shut each other down in
Auburn's 7--3 win.
stands as the SEC's signature game--an epic defensive struggle with frightening
physics. The hits were made even more brutal by the speed of the players
involved. "The impact of the collisions was pretty scary at times,"
says Auburn offensive coordinator Al Borges. "The physicality of the game
was off the charts."
Defense reigns in
the SEC, a truth that, like most of the league's defensive units, is virtually
inescapable. "We're not a bunch of big, slow guys who need you to stand
still for us to get you," says Florida defensive end Jarvis Moss. "I
like to run almost as much as I like to hit. I love that look you get from a
quarterback when you catch him from behind, like, Where did you come
aren't the only ones who search diligently for speed, of course. They're just
more successful at finding it than most other programs. That's partly just
geographical good fortune: The Southeast is fertile ground for the fleet of
foot. In most areas of the country the rule of thumb is that the fastest
players are usually from urban areas. Not so in the South. "In the SEC
speed can be anywhere," says Borges. "You can find a kid in a very
small town who's very, very fast. That's rare on the West Coast, for instance.
That's the huge difference. Everywhere you look in the South, you can find
speedy athletes, the next step is often to lure them away from the basketball
court, a task at which recruiters are becoming more successful. Encouraged by
the success of former college hoops stars such as Chargers tight end Antonio
Gates, some "in-between" athletes are choosing football over
basketball. " Kentucky is a big basketball state, but kids are realizing
that at 6'5" and 230, they're not going to be the next Michael Jordan and
have a much better chance of playing in the NFL than the NBA," says
Kentucky defensive coordinator Mike Archer. "In our last recruiting class
we signed four tight ends who played basketball. They were 230 pounds in high
school, and they'll grow to 265 pounds in two years here."
It won't be a
surprise if at least some of those players find themselves on the other side of
the ball, because SEC programs make sure their defenses are well-stocked with
swift athletes. "Either you have speed," says Alabama defensive
coordinator Joe Kines, "or you're chasing it."
It seems as if SEC
teams are constantly in pursuit anyway, chasing one another up and down the
conference standings and the national rankings. The chase is so intense that
none of them may have enough left to claim the national championship. But it's
still a pleasure to watch them make a mad dash for it.
The Case for the SEC
[This article contains tables. Please see hardcopy or pdf.]
The SEC has the
highest winning percentage of any league in games played outside the