Throughout the SEC’s run of domination, one argument took steam away from opposing arguments more than any other: Elite SEC defenses dominated. Elite Conference X defenses did not.
Numbers bore out the SEC’s contention when questioned. The league produced the best several of the nation’s statistically best defensive units. SEC defensive players dominated those from all other conferences in NFL Draft numbers.
For the better part of the last decade, the SEC has boasted dominant defenses at LSU or Alabama, at Florida, South Carolina or Georgia. Even Auburn, Arkansas and Tennessee have occasionally infringed on the conversation sporadically.
This year, however, the defensive discrepancy from the SEC to the other conferences has seemingly shrunk.
Take, for example, several of the conference’s spotlight games this season.
Georgia and South Carolina both boast talented but young defenses. The inexperience has shown. South Carolina’s defense looked terrible during Georgia’s 41-30 victory a couple weeks ago. The Bulldogs, meanwhile, allowed Clemson to win 38-35 in the season opener, meaning Todd Grantham’s defense has allowed 30-plus points twice already this year.
Last week when Alabama squared off with Texas A&M. In previous seasons, the SEC has featured key, low-scoring games to the annoyance of many. The Crimson Tide and Aggies, instead, made it clear early that high-powered offenses are the new order of the league.
Alabama pulled out a thrilling 49-42 victory, leaving little doubt about two things: Nick Saban’s team is the one to beat in the SEC and defenses in the league have definitely taken a hit.
A return to the norm has been somewhat inevitable for a few years.
For starters, seemingly more players leave early for the NFL every year. Just last year, a record-high 73 non-seniors declared for the NFL Draft. Of those, 18 – nearly a quarter – were SEC defensive players.
As more talented defensive players leave early for the NFL, it means more players receive immediate playing time. More breakdowns occur because of inexperience and the cycle also becomes shorter from star collegiate player to NFL prospect because fans gain familiarity with players earlier in their careers.
Players declaring early for the NFL with more regularity enabled players such as Georgia LB Jarvis Jones or Florida S Matt Elam to secure starting spots earlier in their careers. Like any young player, the duo made early mistakes. Jones and Elam also showed quickly a knack for making big plays and a potential for stardom.
A decade ago, Jones and Elam would have had impacts on games, but they would have done so after biding more time and watching from the sidelines. Today, players of their stature are immediately thrust into the spotlight.
Forget examples such as South Carolina DE Jadeveon Clowney or Ole Miss DE Robert Nkemdiche. Those two would have likely had immediate roles in any era.
The rush to the NFL comes more from players who are merely role players early in their careers. Four-star cornerbacks can realistically expect to compete for the starting nickelback position as true freshmen. A few busted coverages as well as gambles resulting in interceptions later and the player has stature in the SEC – a conference noted for exceptional defenses. Attention elevates and those players end up with draft statuses that make it difficult to pass on the millions of NFL dollars.
Another factor in the SEC’s fall from dominance has been a focus on implementing more up-tempo spread offenses.
Just in the last two years, Texas A&M, Ole Miss, Auburn and Tennessee hired coaches who specialize in and rely on fast-paced offenses to win games.
The hires, Kevin Sumlin and Hugh Freeze, paid immediate dividends at A&M and Ole Miss, respectively. Both programs have elevated their statuses within the SEC West, largely recognized as the strongest division in college football (though getting a strong push from the Pac-12 North this season).
The high-octane offenses grow stronger as they gather better, more fitting parts, leaving defensive coordinators to catch up on scheme, system and talent. That rules tend to favor offense over defense only furthers the chasm.
There’s also the simple math. More snaps mean more opportunities to score mean more points.
Alabama and Georgia have asserted themselves as being in the driver’s seats of the SEC West and East, respectively. After early box scores, though, neither school intimidates the likes of Oregon, Clemson or Ohio State.
Unless the league can plug leaky defenses, SEC dominance will remain in question.
For more on the SEC, and specifically Alabama, check out this article on Forbes.com.
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