Posted: 4:30 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 3, 2013
By Andy Hutchins
The seven years of SEC dominance of the national landscape in college football have been predicated on SEC defenses shutting down some of the best offenses from outside the league in those fateful BCS National Championship Games.
Armed with massive defensive ends, all the speed of the South in their secondaries, and terrifying linebackers who suplex in blowouts and sack Heisman winners without helmets, those defenses have yielded a combined 106 points in seven title games, or 15.1 points per contest. Only LSU, which gave up 24 points to Ohio State in the 2008 BCS National Championship game, has given up more than 21 points; Auburn's 2010 defense gave up 19 points to an Oregon offense that had scored almost 50 points per game coming in; Florida gave up 28 points in two title games against top-10 offenses triggered by Heisman winners, and held Oklahoma, the first college football team to score more than 700 points in a season, to just 14; Alabama's allowed 35 points in three appearances, and shut out LSU in the Superdome in January 2012.
This has, perhaps understandably, led to a perception that the SEC is a defensive league, one where games become close, low-scoring nailbiters, instead of high-scoring shootouts. And that perception helps explain why Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops is once again carping obliquely about the SEC:
"Just a few years ago, we had all the quarterbacks," Stoops said. "And now, all of a sudden, we can play a little better defense and some other people can't play defense.
"Funny how people can't play defense when they have pro-style quarterbacks over there, which we've had. They're all playing in the NFL right now."
When it was pointed out that Georgia's Aaron Murray has a high pass efficiency rating, Stoops said, "How's that happening? They're playing all those SEC defenses."
"I still don't know how (Texas) A&M; was third in the country in total offense and scoring offense playing all those SEC defenses. I have no idea how that happened.
"Oh, they got a quarterback. That's right."
Our friends at Crimson and Cream Machine have taken some umbrage with Stoops's comments turning into a national story, and they have some right to: There's nuance to what Stoops is saying that isn't captured by tweets like this; his comments about the SEC have been digs designed to call attention (from recruits, especially) to other parts of the college football landscape, I think, and they've been well-calculated.
But Stoops is also wrong on the merits here, for a variety of reasons.
First, defending the Big 12's defenses at this point in the season is incredibly rich. There are two Big 12 defenses in the top 10 nationally in scoring defense (No. 2 Baylor and T-No. 10 Texas Tech), and there's one in the top 15 in total defense (No. 15 Baylor). Those teams have played a combined one game against Big 12 teams, with Texas Tech downing TCU on an incredibly weird night. And no Big 12 defense has yet had to face Baylor's offense, which is on pace to annihilate pretty much every offensive record in the history of college football — and the only Big 12 team scoring more than 40 points per game — despite virtually every team subsisting on cupcakes to this point.
The best offense any Big 12 team has seen is the 16th-ranked LSU offense, which rolled TCU's usually very solid defense for 448 yards and 37 points despite Zach Mettenberger missing on literally half of his passes. (The second-best offense a Big 12 team has seen is the Oklahoma State one that is ranked 30th nationally in scoring offense and put up just 21 points on SEC bottom-dweller Mississippi State.)
It's possible, maybe probable, that Georgia and LSU scored a lot of points on each other because of bad defenses, and that Alabama and Texas A&M; did the same for the same reason. But those teams are at least putting up points against major conference competition — Georgia's offense is 21st nationally in scoring, with games against Clemson, South Carolina, and LSU under its belt; LSU is 17th despite playing TCU and Georgia; Texas A&M; is fifth, despite having to play Alabama — while the Big 12 largely hasn't done that to this point. Let's see these Big 12 teams against good quarterbacks before making pronouncements.
Second, talking about pro-style quarterbacks like they're the skeleton keys to unlocking SEC defenses is a terminological inexactitude: It's not pro-style quarterbacks that trouble good defenses, but pro-caliber quarterbacks. Mettenberger, Murray, A.J. McCarron, and Johnny Manziel are all future NFL players, but Manziel's decidedly not a pro-style quarterback — and neither was Robert Griffin III when he was at Baylor. Sam Bradford was a pro-style passer in a fast-paced spread offense at Oklahoma; Geno Smith was the same sort of player last year.
Baylor replaced the talented Griffin with Nick Florence and Bryce Petty, who have been almost as good and better than Griffin, respectively, as starters, suggesting it might be Art Briles's system that gives defenses fits, while Oklahoma hadn't looked like its 2008 juggernaut since that trip to Miami until the emergence of Blake Bell just weeks ago, and West Virginia's had a ton of trouble scoring this year without Smith.
Put a great quarterback on a talented team, and points will likely follow, as is the case in the SEC right now, but the Big 12 just spent a decade getting lit up by whichever lightly-recruited Texan Mike Leach decided to install as his quarterback
Stoops may also be tooting the Big 12's horn a bit too loudly when referring to the league's wealth of pro-style QBs that turned into NFL QBs. Griffin, Bradford, and Smith are all starters, as are Ryan Tannehill and Andy Dalton (who played for TCU prior to it joining the Big 12 in 2011), but none of those players is exactly setting the league on fire this year, though all four of the true Big 12 QBs rank among the top 14 in passing yards.
And the five SEC quarterbacks who are starters — Peyton Manning, Matthew Stafford, Eli Manning, Jay Cutler, and Cam Newton — are some of the most feared passers in the league, with all but Eli and Cutler boasting passer ratings of 91.9 or better, and all but Eli posting passer ratings above 85.0 this year; even if you include Dalton in the Big 12's quintet, none of them tops Griffin's 85.5 passer rating, putting them on par with the fourth-best SEC quarterback in the NFL.
Third, using Aaron Murray's passer rating — or any passer rating, really — is usually more about gesturing at a point than proving it, especially when it comes to trying to correlate it to scoring. (I'm aware of the irony of this paragraph following the above one.) Having a quarterback with a gaudy passer rating doesn't mean an offense is automatically pyrotechnic: Murray was second nationally in passer rating last year to McCarron, but Alabama and Georgia were second and third in the conference to Texas A&M; in scoring, led by Manziel, who finished No. 16 in passer rating.
And, in a related fourth point, though Texas A&M;'s offense (which actually finished fourth in scoring offense in 2012) was technically the highest-scoring the SEC has seen during its championship stretch, it just barely pipped Alabama's in scoring against SEC teams, 39.1 points per game to 37.2, with explosions against Arkansas, Auburn, and Missouri accounting for 180 of their 313 points against SEC foes.
It's also worth remembering that Alabama, which scored 50 points just once in 2012, played an SEC Championship Game against Georgia and almost matched its scoring average, while A&M;'s big games against Florida, LSU, and Alabama produced a total of 65 points. A&M;'s scoring totals were helpfully inflated by those big days against SEC bottom-dwellers, a quartet of high-scoring non-conference games in which the Aggies never scored fewer than 47 points, and 41 points in a bowl game against Oklahoma.
To put it all in a neat little paragraph for Stoops, who spent three years as Florida's defensive coordinator, helped the Gators beat Peyton Manning twice, and must really be losing a lot of recruits to the SEC: You're speaking about small sample sizes, bragging about quarterbacks that maybe aren't that great, using a stat that doesn't say that much, and really overrating how much damage Texas A&M; did to the SEC.
It's that last point that really chafes me, though, because I cover and care about Florida, which sits in the middle of all of this lamentation of the decay of SEC defenses, still playing beastly defense and getting little to no credit for it.
Florida is third in Football Outsiders' F/+ rankings right now, and second in S&P;+, despite its offense being 50th in S&P;+, because its defense is No. 1 and many, many times better than most defenses in the country. Yes, Florida has played Toledo, and bad Tennessee and Kentucky teams, but S&P;+ adjusts for that, and still finds the Gators dominant.
Stepping back from advanced stats only helps the Gators' cause. Florida's scoring defense is tied for eighth nationally, and has allowed 51 points, just 13.75 per game, despite playing the Miami team currently ranked ninth in the country in scoring offense on the road and "giving up" seven of those points on a Tennessee pick-six. The Gators are second nationally in total defense and yards per play allowed to Michigan State, without the good fortune that allowed the Spartans to play South Florida and FCS Youngstown State in their first four games.
And when it matters most, Florida's defense has been unreal. Just one team in the last six years has allowed opponents to convert fewer than 25 percent of their third downs; while it's early, Florida's allowed opponents to convert just 17.8 percent of their third downs in 2013, and is the only team currently under the 20 percent threshold. Florida's also allowed just six red zone possessions, which is tied for best in the country, and has allowed just 24 points on red zone possessions, which ties the Gators with Cincinnati for second-fewest in the country. (Iowa has allowed an amazing 16 points on red zone possessions in 2013.)
Florida's defense has also had to start two possessions in the red zone thanks to turnovers, and a third began just three yards outside Florida's red zone because of an offensive turnovers — and the Gators managed to end both one possession of the former category and the one from the latter category with turnovers.
So, through four games, Florida's defense has allowed four possessions to enter the red zone, allowed three to enter it from more than three yards away, and forced two turnovers on six red zone possessions. The message to opposing offenses: Good luck driving on the Gators, good luck scoring on the Gators, and, hell, good luck converting on the opportunities the Gators' other phases afford you.
Caveats apply here, obviously. Toledo and Miami have good offenses, but neither is on par with the best in the SEC, and Florida will get tested by those down the road. Florida's defense gave up 14 points to Miami in the first quarter, and that may have doomed the Gators, who seemed to press to take the lead throughout the day, as much as anything did against the 'Canes. That touchdown Tennessee scored in the fourth quarter against Florida doesn't count in the F/+ ratings because the score of the game made it "garbage time" in the system's eyes ... though the two picks afterward did count. And Dominique Easley's loss is still likely to hurt this defense more than it has so far.
But Florida was almost this good on defense last year — it solved Manziel before any other team knew he was even a problem, and better than any other team would solve him; it harassed Murray into a terrible day; it short-circuited South Carolina and hamstrung EJ Manuel and Florida State; it finished second nationally in pass efficiency defense despite seeing a quarter of the top 16 passers in the country — and has arguably gotten better despite losing seven starters, five of whom landed in the NFL. Stoops coached at Florida, and he's lost a national title to a great Florida defense before. I'm not saying he shouldn't take shots at SEC defenses, but shouldn't he, at least, grant the Gators their due while doing so?
Florida's defense is not flashy and not showy, and it may be two or three years too late to be appreciated as part of the SEC's recent tradition of elite defenses. But if the Gators ride it to Atlanta, or further, in a year when the pendulum is swinging toward great SEC offenses, its greatness may be impossible to ignore.