LSU's Zach Mettenberger has passed for nine TDs and no interceptions so far in '13. (Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
For years, the SEC was regarded as the conference where high-scoring offenses went to die. The league developed a reputation as the hotbed of big-boy, defensive-minded football, thanks largely to lockdown units that led Alabama, Auburn, Florida and LSU to BCS titles over the past seven seasons. This fall, however, a culture shift has started to occur. The SEC’s success has come primarily on the other side of the ball.
Through three games, seven of the 14 teams in the SEC rank among the top 40 nationally in total offense. Alabama won a 49-42 shootout over Texas A&M last Saturday, a game that included a whopping 1,196 yards of total offense and 91 combined points. Up-tempo offenses are the style du jour in college football, and the SEC finally appears ready to jump onboard. “This year,” Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban said during the SEC’s weekly teleconference, “we have some really high-powered offensive teams.”
On Saturday night, two teams benefiting from that trend will face off in Baton Rouge. No. 6 LSU and Auburn have both enjoyed hot starts behind largely improved offenses. Based on early-season results, fans should expect plenty of points in this matchup.
The high-powered beginning to 2013 is a refreshing sight for both Auburn and LSU, neither of which finished among the top 10 in the SEC in total offense last season. LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger struggled through the majority of the 2012 campaign, while the Tigers’ defense, which finished eighth nationally, largely carried LSU to a 10-3 record. The offense mustered more than 25 points on only six occasions.
Yet even though the defense has played formidably despite returning just three starters, the Bayou Bengals are singing a different tune this year. New offensive coordinator Cam Cameron, who was hired by Les Miles in the offseason, has rejuvenated the Tigers’ attack. Through Week 3, LSU is third in the league in scoring (46 points per game) and sixth in total offense (488 yards per game). Cameron’s unit isn’t wasting possessions, either; the Tigers average 7.7 yards per play, second only to Texas A&M in the conference.
“I think there's a real confident attack that's taking place here, both on the ground and in the air,” Miles told reporters this week. “Some of the things we do are similar [to last year] and some of the things we do are completely different. But I think Cam's having a real impact.”
Much of LSU's production has been generated by Mettenberger, who looks remarkably more consistent than he did last fall. He threw four touchdowns and two interceptions through his first three games in 2012. This year, Mettenberger has tossed nine touchdowns without a pick while also leading the league in passing efficiency. “He's really embraced a work ethic that’s allowed him to enjoy practice, to really enjoy the position,” Miles said of his quarterback. “There's more leadership.”
Mettenberger is one of a handful of obstacles that LSU's offense poses for Auburn. Cameron also trots out three running backs -- Jeremy Hill, Terrence Magee and Alfred Blue -- who have combined for more than 500 rushing yards. “Their quarterback has done a good job and protected the ball,” said Auburn coach Gus Malzahn at his weekly press conference. “He hasn’t thrown an interception yet and he has thrown quite a few touchdowns. Any time you can couple that with a good run game ‐‐ which they do have a very good run game ‐‐ that is a challenge.”
Auburn’s offensive deficiencies last year were even more apparent than LSU’s. Three different quarterbacks saw significant playing time, none with particularly memorable results. Then-coach Gene Chizik’s attack ranked 115th nationally and averaged a mere 18.7 points per game. This season, the Tigers are diving headfirst into Malzahn’s up-tempo style, averaging 10 more offensive plays per game (68) than last fall (58). The philosophy is working: Auburn has scored on all 10 of its trips to the red zone.
Malzahn, the offensive coordinator on Auburn’s 2010 BCS title team, credits much of his squad’s 3-0 start to quarterback Nick Marshall. The junior college product threw an 11-yard touchdown strike with 10 seconds remaining to knock off Mississippi State last weekend for Auburn’s first SEC wins in 10 tries. He’s already thrown as many touchdown passes (four) as Auburn’s leader in that category last season, Jonathan Wallace.
“He’s kind of a quiet leader,” Malzahn said of Marshall, “but he doesn’t get too high or too low. He stays calm and collected in all moments, and he has earned the respect of his teammates through his practice habits and the way he handles himself.”
Both defenses appear stout. LSU and Auburn have each allowed fewer than 20 points per game thus far, respectively, and LSU coordinator John Chavis’ group has given up just five touchdowns. Though both attacks are rolling, this matchup could go a long way toward proving whether the offensive trend is here to stay.
“In the [SEC] West, specifically, there may be a week where a team gives up a lot of yards,” Malzahn said, “but year in and year out, this is going to be the best defensive league in college football, and I still believe at the end of the day, it will be.”
The other big ones
• Tennessee at No. 19 Florida: There’s no rest for the weary on Rocky Top. One week after the Vols lost to No. 2 Oregon 59-14, Butch Jones’ crew ventures to the Swamp looking to avoid its ninth straight loss to Florida and 18th straight loss to a ranked opponent. Tennessee might have a shot if quarterback Jeff Driskel can’t get it together for the Gators. He turned the ball over three times in a Week 2 loss to Miami, but could look to last season’s win over Tennessee for incentive: He piled up 300 yards of total offense and didn’t throw a pick in the 37-20 result.
• No. 23 Arizona State at No. 5 Stanford: Perhaps last week’s wild win over Wisconsin -- a 32-30 victory clinched by some controversial end-of-game officiating – was a sign of good things to come for the Sun Devils. Fans will find out starting this week. Coach Todd Graham’s team travels to Stanford on Saturday before playing back-to-back games against USC and Notre Dame. Pay attention to Arizona State quarterback Taylor Kelly’s performance against the Cardinal; Stanford gives up only 132.5 yards per game through the air.
Hot seat watch
• Lane Kiffin: USC’s coach spent much of the week lowering expectations as he prepares to welcome Utah State to the Coliseum:
Kiffin was also speaking the truth. The Aggies average 550 yards per game, and no quarterback has thrown more touchdown passes than the Aggies’ Chuckie Keeton (12), who may be one of the most dynamic offensive threats in the country. Still, USC’s defense is quietly allowing a mere 212.3 yards per game, fourth nationally.
• Mack Brown: The last time Kansas State met Texas, quarterback Collin Klein and the Wildcats escaped with the Big 12 title in hand. Klein is gone, but Texas’ porous run defense will be tested by a Kansas State rushing attack that reeled off 329 yards on the ground against UMass last week. Expect plenty of boos if Brown and the ‘Horns don’t turn things around in Big 12 play.
• Bo Pelini: Nebraska’s brass voiced support for Pelini after a profanity-laced audiotape leaked earlier this week, but the coach hasn’t faced a Memorial Stadium sellout crowd since last week’s second-half collapse against UCLA. A strong defensive showing against South Dakota State might not be enough to improve the climate in Lincoln, but it would be a start.
Matchups to watch
• Maryland’s offense against Georgia Tech: Are the Terps for real? They rank 10th nationally in total offense (554.7 yards per game) and are 3-0 for the first time since 2001, but wins over FIU, Old Dominion and UConn hardly conjure up visions of an ACC title. Coach Randy Edsall has a lot riding on this season, and the Mountaineers are the first real test for his Maryland offense before they dive into ACC play. The Terps could use a huge game from Stefon Diggs; he currently ranks sixth nationally with 387 receiving yards.
• Arkansas’ backs against Rutgers’ backs: Both Arkansas and Rutgers boast top-20 rushing defenses, and both teams also feature talented running backs. Who will get the upper hand between the Knights’ Paul James, the nation’s leading rusher, and the Hogs’ Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams, who have combined to give Arkansas the nation’s 11th-ranked ground game?
• Colorado State coach Jim McElwain against Alabama: The top-ranked Crimson Tide gave up more than 40 points for the first time since 2007 in their win over Texas A&M last week. Colorado State coach Jim McElwain, who formerly served as ‘Bama’s offensive coordinator, knows a thing or two about Saban’s vaunted defense. The Tide should roll, but don’t be surprised if McElwain’s Rams make a few surprising plays.
• BYU quarterback Taysom Hill against Utah: The last time fans saw Hill, the Cougars’ dual-threat passer was torching Texas to the tune of 388 yards of total offense in a 40-21 victory. In the latest installment of the Holy War, Utah must force Hill to hurt them through the air. He’s only completing a third of his passing attempts (22-of-66) thus far in 2013.
Looking to rebound
• Penn State: Those who guessed Week 3 would be the week when UCF would notch its first win over a Big Ten opponent get a prize. Penn State looked lost and trailed nearly the entire game against the Knights, at one point falling behind by 18. This week, Kent State ventures to Happy Valley without the services of star tailback Dri Archer, and the Golden Flashes have suffered offensively without their star playmaker, scoring only 17.3 points per game. Don’t expect much #MACtion against the Nittany Lions.
• Wisconsin: The Badgers missed their shot at a game-winning field goal against Arizona State last week following some very questionable officiating. Perhaps coach Gary Andersen’s crew can take their frustration out on Purdue with its powerful rushing game, which ranks second in the country. That’s how Wisconsin handled the Boilermakers last year, anyway: The Badgers ran for 467 yards and four touchdowns in an eventual 24-point win.
Michigan State at No. 21 Notre Dame: Purdue took a 17-10 lead into the fourth quarter of last week’s game with Notre Dame, and though the Irish eventually staged a comeback, they gave up 24 points to a Boilermaker team that had scored a combined 27 in its previous two games. In all, Notre Dame is giving up almost twice as many points (23.5) as last season’s unit (12.8). The question is whether Michigan State can muster enough offense to hang with the Irish, because the Spartans' defense ranks No. 1 in the country.