The defensive-minded Southeastern Conference is generating headlines more for shootouts than shutouts.
The league that has won six straight national titles largely on the backs of powerful defenses had two teams combine for 1,000 yards Saturday. Then it happened again.
Texas A&M racked up 716 yards and 58 points in a rout of Arkansas, which piled up 515 yards. Georgia and Tennessee got into a shootout, combining for 1,038 yards in the Bulldogs’ 51-44 victory.
Mississippi coach Hugh Freeze can hardly believe the gaudy numbers.
This is the SEC.
“I was shocked to see that Georgia-Tennessee score,” Freeze said. “I grew up watching all those games, and usually you thought 21-17 was high. But my, how things have changed.”
They have, indeed. Some SEC teams, and plenty of games, are bucking the conference’s defensive tradition.
Through five weeks, SEC defenses have already surrendered 50-plus points four times, one more than all of last season. It’s only happened on average 3.4 times over the past 10 seasons.
The Razorbacks have been the victims twice, including a 52-0 loss to Alabama.
The average yards allowed per game in the SEC has risen from 320.8 last season to 344.9 in 2012.
Not everyone welcomes the trend.
Powerful teams like No. 1 Alabama, No. 4 LSU, No. 6 South Carolina and No. 10 Florida are still getting it done old-school with stingy defense to go with solid offenses. Those teams and high-scoring Texas A&M all have top 10 scoring defenses nationally. No. 20 Mississippi State (13th) is only a few spots behind.
Then there are teams like No. 5 Georgia and Tennessee.
The Bulldogs rank 46th in scoring defense, a huge falloff from the other Top 25 teams. Tennessee’s defense is giving up nearly 30 points a game, 81st nationally. Both have prolific offenses and star quarterbacks, though.
Don’t expect the Crimson Tide to follow suit.
Alabama coach Nick Saban’s allegiance lies with the defense. He said there should be tweaks to just how fast uptempo offenses should be allowed to go.
After giving up two extended drives to Ole Miss’s no-huddle attack, Saban said having defenses on the field for extended periods with no chance to substitute creates fatigue and potential injury issues.
“At some point in time, we should look at how fast we allow the game to go in terms of player safety,” Saban said.
He references West Virginia’s 70-63 win over Baylor in the Big 12, which made Georgia-Tennessee look like a defensive struggle.
“It’s obviously created a tremendous advantage for the offense when teams are scoring 70 points and are averaging 49.5 points a game when people are doing those types of things,” Saban said. “More and more people are going to do it. I just think there’s got to be some sense of fairness in terms of asking, Is this what we want football to be?”
Missouri wide receiver T.J. Moe responded via Twitter: “Sure is.”
Georgia and Tennessee both have two of the nation’s top 20 offenses. But their combined 95 points in an SEC game raised more than a few eyebrows.
“Those scores are crazy,” LSU defensive end Sam Montgomery said.
If it happened to the Tigers, Montgomery joked that he’d make himself scarce around the football building.
“I wouldn’t come here on Monday,” he said. “But that’s something that’s not going to happen. I would do something illegal before that would happen here.”
The SEC could be in line for another shootout on Saturday, if South Carolina and Georgia can replicate last year’s 45-42 Gamecocks win.
Freeze, whose team was beaten 66-31 by No. 11 Texas in the only nonconference 50-pointer, doesn’t expect offenses to hold the upper hand long in the SEC.
“I think it will trend that way a year or two and then come back the other way,” the former Arkansas State offensive coordinator said. “These guys on the defensive side are going to find a way to bring it back down some — especially in this league. You still haven’t seen the LSU’s or Alabama’s give up those kind of points ... I still say the national champion is going to be someone who is playing defense.”
Indeed, Georgia is the SEC’s only remaining national contender without a top-flight defense statistically.
The Bulldogs are, however, matching Texas A&M’s league-best 48.2-point scoring average behind quarterback Aaron Murray and the top rusher in freshman tailback Todd Gurley. The fast-paced Aggies have had mixed early results in dealing with SEC defenses since joining the league.
They lost 20-17 to Florida in the season opener and exploded against the Razorbacks’ 113th-rated scoring defense.
“We go on the field expecting to score every time we’re out there,” Texas A&M receiver Uzoma Nwachukwu said. “Every time we have a drive, we want to score a touchdown. We work in practice to do that. Every play we run we expect to get in the end zone. We think that we’re a talented group. We think we can hang in there with anybody.”
Whether the high-scoring games are good or bad depends on the perspective.
Florida offensive coordinator Brent Pease attributes it to factors like fast tempos wearing down defenses and big, explosive receivers. And he’s thrilled.
“I love scoring,” Pease said. “You’ve got to have players built around you, you’ve got to be in the system for a few years. I mean, it takes some time.”
Gators head coach Will Muschamp, a former defensive coordinator, agrees with the causes and said coaches have to have defensive depth nowadays to deal with the faster pace.
As for last weekend, Muschamp said: “I’m glad we were off.”