Forde-Yard Dash: The SEC Is Unrecognizable as Defenses Underwhelm

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Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college football (autographed pictures of bird-flipping Texas fans sold separately):

MORE DASH: Sore Loser Trail

FIRST QUARTER: THE SEC IS UNRECOGNIZABLE

Last week, The Dash touched upon the early-season transformation of the Southeastern Conference into a free-wheeling passing league. But things escalated significantly Saturday, to the point that a historically dominant defensive conference now looks like what it once disdained—2010s Era Big 12, but with bigger bodies. Simply put, it was the highest-scoring Saturday in the history of the conference.

Updating last week’s stat, four of the top five passing offenses in the nation are in the SEC: No. 1 Mississippi State, No. 2 Alabama, No. 4 Mississippi and No. 5 Florida. The SEC now has none of the top 18 rushing offenses. The proverbial “line of scrimmage league” is a pitch-and-catch league now.

Correspondingly, the defenses are suffering: Georgia is the only SEC team in the top ten nationally in total defense, while the league has three of the six worst (LSU, Florida and Mississippi). This is where things have gone off the rails.

Alabama head coach Nick Saban before the game against Mississippi at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium.

Nick Saban (1), the greatest defensive coach in college football history, watched his Alabama team surrender 48 points Saturday night. And the Crimson Tide still won by 15. It was the third time that ‘Bama has given up more than 45 points in its last eight games, as the program identity continues to evolve. The 2009 national champions (No. 2 nationally in total defense, No. 43 in a total offense) wouldn’t recognize these guys.

Florida (2), a Top Ten defense nationally in 2019, is giving up 190 yards more per game in 2020. The Gators have surrendered 24 or more points in their first three games for the first time in school history.

LSU (3) isn’t just being strafed defensively; it’s being strafed by teams whose offenses have been impotent against other opponents. Mississippi State is averaging 357.5 yards and 8 points in two games against teams other than LSU, but gashed the Tigers for 632 yards and 44 points. Missouri is averaging 333 yards and 15.5 points against teams other than LSU, but blitzed Bo Pelini’s defense for 586 yards and 45 points.

Texas A&M (4), which won a big game Saturday, is nevertheless on pace to set a school record for most yards allowed per play at 6.75. And there are three SEC teams giving up more than that: LSU (7.0), Vanderbilt (7.25) and…

… Then there is Mississippi (5), which has embarked upon a quest to be the worst defense in FBS history. That title currently belongs to the 2018 Connecticut team, which gave up 50.4 points per game, 617.4 yards per game and 8.81 yards per play. The Rebels’ current defensive numbers: 51.7 points, 641.3 yards and 8.79 yards per play—all of which rank last nationally, of course. If you suspected that Lane Kiffin only cares about offense, early returns support that suspicion.

All things considered, it's probably a good thing old trench warrior Pat Dye (6) isn't around to see what's become of the place.

So, what has happened here? A few things:

The league picked up some sharp new offensive minds, from Kiffin to Mike Leach (Mississippi State) to Eli Drinkwitz (Missouri) to coordinators Kendal Briles (Arkansas) and Todd Monken (Georgia). On the defensive side of the ball, LSU losing Dave Aranda and replacing him with Pelini has been a dramatic downgrade. Texas A&M’s Mike Elko and Florida’s Todd Grantham are not delivering results commensurate with their salaries.

Yes, the conference lost Joe Burrow and Tua Tagovailoa, but it also returned several talented, veteran quarterbacks, and transfers improved the QB situation at a few other schools. The league remains flush with receiver talent—including perhaps more at the tight end position than ever before. There are a lot of elite linemen and veteran offensive line units as well.

Defenses have been behind nationally thus far. FBS teams are averaging 30.5 points per game, on pace to set the all-time record. Total offense is at 412 yards, which would be second-highest in history. Passing yards per game (244.6) and yards per attempt (7.55) and completion percentage (.615) all are on record pace. Same for punts per game (4.4), which are on track for the fewest ever as coaches increasingly favor aggressive strategies.

One more factor: crowd noise always affects visiting offenses more than visiting defenses. Aside from Florida coach Dan Mullen hearing things in Kyle Field (more on that later in The Dash), SEC venues are much more quiet than they’ve ever been. That means offenses, at least in theory, should be having an easier time communicating plays and snap counts, and are immune to the normal fan-induced stress of third-down conversions.

This week could produce a referendum on whether defense still wins SEC championships. The best scoring offense in the country (Alabama, at 51 per game) takes on the best defense in the league (Georgia). More on that later in The Dash as well, but the Bulldogs could be staging a goal-line stand of sorts on behalf of the SEC’s traditional style of play.

FOUR FOR THE PLAYOFF

How The Dash sees the College Football Playoff this week, with the usual understanding that this is as if today were Selection Sunday:

Sugar Bowl: Top seed Clemson (7) vs. fourth seed North Carolina (8)

The Tigers supplied an emphatic answer to the hopeful question in Miami: Is The U back? Not yet. Clemson did what it does when encountering a confident ACC opponent, grinding it into dust. Quarterback Trevor Lawrence was great. Running back Travis Etienne was great. The Clemson secondary and linebackers were great. The only thing that wasn’t great was place kicking, with three blocked field goals. Dabo Swinney said afterward that he still has plenty for his team to correct. Next up for Clemson: at Georgia Tech Saturday. That should be a beatdown, unless the Tigers come in sleepwalking.

Clemson Tigers quarterback Trevor Lawrence (16) throws to running back Travis Etienne (9) against Miami Hurricanes defensive line Jaelan Phillips (15) during the first quarte at Memorial Stadium.

The Tar Heels ran roughshod over a surprising 2-0 Virginia Tech team, piling up 399 rushing yards—their most since Mack Brown was North Carolina’s coach the first time, in the 1990s. The Heels have all the offensive weapons to compete with anyone, though their defense is starting to show some vulnerability. Next up for North Carolina: At Florida State Saturday. The Heels have won their last two trips to Tallahassee, but they were a while ago—2010 and ’16. Both those games ended with the same score: North Carolina 37, Florida State 35.

Rose Bowl: Second seed Georgia (9) vs. third seed Alabama (10)

The Bulldogs have become the most punishing second-half team in America. They trailed both Arkansas and Tennessee at halftime, then won the final two quarters of those games by a combined 59-3. This is a physical, powerful team that has exerted its will on all three opponents it has faced. There is still ample room for improvement offensively, and questions remain about whether quarterback Stetson Bennett is someone you can win a championship within the new, shootout-oriented SEC. But so far, so very good for the ‘Dawgs. Next up for Georgia: At Alabama Saturday.

Saban’s lifetime streak of beating his former assistants might face its toughest test this week, with Kirby Smart bringing Georgia to Tuscaloosa. ‘Bama finally got running back Najee Harris untracked against Ole Miss (206 rushing yards), and they’ll need more of that Saturday. Another plus for the Tide thus far: nobody is talking about place-kicking misadventures. Will Reichard is 2-for-2 on field goals and 21-for-21 on extra points. Next up for Alabama: Georgia in Tuscaloosa Saturday.

Dropped out: Miami

Also considered: Notre Dame. 

MORE DASH: Sore Loser Trail