SEC offenses finally having their season to shine

This isn’t your father’s Southeastern Conference anymore.

The days of ”defense first” in the SEC appear to be a thing of

the past, at least for now. Offense has seemingly taken over, from

Auburn to Arkansas and everywhere else.

The change didn’t happen overnight, and it’s not one all of

league coaches are ready to fully embrace. But facts are facts, and

there’s no denying that points are up and defenses are struggling

to stay ahead of the curve.

This season, the SEC leads all FBS conferences with an average

of 31.1 points per game. The Pac-10 and Big 12 are tied for second

(30.2 ppg), familiar ground for leagues known for high scores.

For the SEC, however, its days as an offensive superpower are

relatively new. The conference was tied for first with the Big 12

last season at 28.4 points per game, but it was ninth as recently

as 2008 at 25.6. Before that, the conference hadn’t finished higher

than fourth in the decade, finishing 10th twice and ninth another

time.

So what gives, besides the defense?

”The thing that I’ve always believed about our league, and I

don’t know that it’s changed a whole lot, as an offensive coach

you’re always looking for a match or a mismatch,” Georgia coach

Mark Richt said. ”Offensively it is very difficult to say, ‘I’m

going to pick on this guy’ because athletes are just as good on the

defensive side.

”It is a time now that it’s swinging a little bit? I don’t know

that I can say for sure. That’s kind of the debate.”

The most obvious example of the shift is No. 2 Auburn. The

undefeated Tigers, led by dual-threat quarterback Cam Newton and

second-year offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn, lead the conference

in scoring at 42.8 points per game. They also allow 24.9, only

eighth-best in the league,

Auburn coach Gene Chizik was asked how important a dominant

defense is in the SEC.

”Offenses are very explosive these days,” Chizik said. ”We’re

trying to contain some of these high-powered players and

high-powered offenses. Week in and week out in this league, you’re

seeing the offenses scoring a lot of points and accounting for a

lot of yards. Our goal and objective at the end of the day is to

win.”

South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier, who brought his

high-powered fun-‘n-gun offense to the conference when he was at

Florida, said one reason for the rise in points is simple: the

no-huddle teams are getting more snaps and more chances to score

along with them.

”If teams are more into running and sort of controlling the

clock, then I don’t think the points would go up that much,”

Spurrier said.

Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino, a former offensive coordinator at

Auburn, said he has seen more variety in SEC offenses over the past

decade. He said Urban Meyer’s spread-option attack at Florida

played a role in changing the SEC and that more teams are willing

to throw.

Under Petrino, the Razorbacks have led the conference in passing

the past two seasons. Across the SEC, however, teams are actually

throwing the ball less and are running for more yards.

SEC teams are averaging 27.6 pass plays per game this season,

the lowest mark in the past decade, but piling up 219.2 passing

yards – the highest average since 2001. So while attempts are down,

SEC teams have become much more efficient using the pass.

And while the offenses may not look the same as the grind-it-out

days of old in the SEC, teams are still moving the ball much the

same way – on the ground.

Despite Malzahn’s reputation as a pass-first coordinator, Auburn

is averaging a league-best 307.9 yards rushing per game. And SEC

teams are averaging 177.4 yards per game on the ground, up more

than 30 yards compared with three seasons ago and the highest

average in the past decade.

Players have noticed.

”If you really look at it, a lot of teams that are in the

spread like Florida, they’re really based on running the

football,” Arkansas defensive end Damario Ambrose said. ”For

instance, Auburn, they line up in the shotgun a lot, but really

it’s Cam Newton running the football.”

While SEC teams average 31.1 points overall, that number falls

to 26.3 in league games.

Also, Alabama, LSU and Mississippi State are all among the top

20 nationally in the country in scoring defense. Those three are a

combined 13-6 in the SEC.

”I think Auburn won the SEC West,” Mississippi St. coach Dan

Mullen said. ”They beat us 17-14. They won by making plays on

defense. You’re going to be in those games where you need a strong

defense if you’re going to win.”

AP Sports Writers John Zenor in Tuscaloosa, Ala., and Charles

Odum in Athens, Ga., contributed to this report.