Remember this Q & A with Les Miles after his team’s thrilling 44-41 loss in Athens?
Miles was asked if this is a new era of offense in the SEC. “I hope not,” he sighed.
Flash forward to last Saturday afternoon. Auburn won a championship game that featured 101 points and more than 1200 yards of offense. The ball was moving with so little resistance at times that Gary Danielson essentially gave up trying to analyze what was happening.
If the Georgia-LSU game felt like a game that was marked by stellar quarterback play on both sides that overcame what the defenses threw at them (at least until the last LSU series), the SECCG put two defenses on display that were little more than paper tigers. It wasn’t just that they had trouble coping with the offensive schemes in play. There were plenty of puzzling decisions by the defensive coordinators – Missouri stubbornly stayed in a three-man front that Auburn simply ran around and Ellis Johnson waited until very late in the game to blitz to disrupt James Franklin – that were matched by sloppy fundamental play, as evidenced by a bunch of missed tackles by Missouri’s defense and scads of receivers that Auburn’s secondary simply elected not to cover.
Things were so crazy it made the Georgia-LSU game seem like an old Auburn-Mississippi State struggle by comparison.
Now I’m trying very hard to avoid sounding curmudgeonly here. There’s no question Saturday’s game was entertaining, even thrilling, at times. But there’s also no question for me that it lacked something that last year’s SECCG had in spades (besides Georgia being there, that is). And I do wonder if we’ve reached something of an end of an era in the SEC.
The top two defenses in the conference stayed home on Saturday. (In fact, Florida is home for good this season.) And while, by and large, playing good defense makes for a winning record, playing mediocre defense doesn’t seem to be as big a bar for excelling as we used to think, as both Missouri and Auburn finished in the lower half of the conference in total defense and 8-4 Texas A&M finished dead last by a pretty wide margin.
There are a variety of factors in play, it seems to me. Some of it’s the result of bringing in two teams from the freewheeling Big 12. The number of experienced, quality quarterbacks in the SEC this season played a part. You’ve got head coaches who refined their games in mid-major conferences coming into the SEC and having success with a more wide open version of offense. And it feels more and more like the defenses can’t cope with all that. It’s akin to the shock to the system we felt when Spurrier came in and blew things up with a previously unseen emphasis on a passing attack.
Now, defenses adapt, true. That’s been the case before, even with what the Fun ‘n’ Gun wrought. The quarterback position in next year’s SEC is going to be much greener, too. So maybe things will even out again. But there’s a part of me that wonders if something else is going on. Maybe there’s an attitude change going on in coaching philosophy about what it takes to win. Maybe there’s a growing feeling that there are other ways to skin the championship cat than to rely on having a shut down defense.
I could be overreacting, certainly. But something sure does feel different to me after watching that game. Now I wonder if next season will be an affirmation of that feeling.