Wrap your mind around this: 10 years ago, in the middle of the greatest national championship run of any conference in the history of college football, LSU and Alabama combined to score 15 lousy points (the final score was 9–6) in the SEC game of the year. In overtime.
In the span of a short decade, the evolution of offense — and the game itself — left Alabama and Florida playing last-team-with-the-ball-wins in the SEC Championship Game, which decided the right to play in the College Football Playoff. The Tide and Gators combined for 98 points last December — and wouldn’t you know it, the last team with the ball won.
This ain’t your granddaddy’s SEC. Hell, it’s not your daddy’s, either.
If there ever were any question of where the big, bad SEC stands, all you have to do is listen to the one guy who’d rather choke down rat poison than deal with the insufferable offense produced at an alarming rate over the last two seasons in the SEC. It wasn’t so long ago that Alabama head coach Nick Saban decried no-huddle, up-tempo offense as bad for the game. It was a reckless avenue to more injuries.
And now, you ask?
“You have to do what you have to do to execute, play well in the game, and give yourself an opportunity to win,” Saban says.
Translation: Start chucking it all over the field.
There are any number of reasons why offense has exploded in the SEC. All are significant:
• Conference expansion into Texas, where high school quarterbacks are a premium, and where 7-on-7 skills camps not only sharpen passing and catching skills but also keep football alive all 12 months of the year.
• Rules now favor the offense, especially in the passing game. The fastest way to score points is downfield, and the best way to run against a defense that swallows you whole is to throw first and get them backpedaling.
• Younger coaches (and assistant coaches) who made their bones in other conferences (or in high school) brought new and innovative pass and run game ideas to the SEC.
• And last, but surely not least: The rest of the SEC had to figure out a way to beat Alabama. They weren’t simply going to line up and trade blows with the most talented and deepest team in college football.
The easy way around that unenviable slog? Throw it all over the yard and hope for the best.
“We had to find a way to compete,” says Liberty head coach Hugh Freeze, who in five seasons at Ole Miss beat Alabama twice and was at the forefront of offensive change in the SEC. “Offense was the answer.”
Look, this offensive evolution (revolution?) didn’t begin last season — or even in 2019, when LSU gave us arguably the greatest offense ever in the sport’s history, and unarguably the greatest single season by a quarterback (Joe Burrow).
It’s just that the transformation of what was to what is got its official timestamp in the 2020 season.
In one sweltering season opener on the Bayou, LSU became the first defending national champion since 1998 to lose the first game of the following season. The lowlights for the once-proud LSU defense against first-year Mississippi State head coach Mike Leach and his pass-happy Air Raid offense were humiliating, as the Bulldogs set an SEC record for most passing yards in a game (623) in a 44–34 win.
To make matters worse, Mississippi State did it with all of six weeks of preparation because of the pandemic-shortened offseason, and with a castoff quarterback (K.J. Costello) who left Stanford because he couldn’t win the starting job — and who lost the starting job at Mississippi State by the end of the first month of the season.
In 18 seasons in the pass-happy Big 12 (Texas Tech) and Pac-12 (Washington State), Leach’s teams had never beaten a top-10 team on the road. His Mississippi State team did it Game 1.
It took one game for Leach’s offense to destroy the big, bad SEC defense-first mantra the conference had built for decades. All those NFL draft picks over the years, all those game-changing defensive linemen and speedy linebackers and sticky defensive backs? All washed away amid the Mesh concept. Four Verticals. Double Slants. Post Wheel. Shallow High Low.
Leach has seven to 10 plays in his playbook, and nearly 100 distinct formations. It’s a simple concept that calls on the quarterback to — are you ready for this? — throw to the “green area.” That’s right, throw to the area on the field where you see grass, where receivers are planted in zones, or where they will be and throw them open on time and with anticipation.
Points per game*
Passing yards per game*
Teams that averaged 250+passing yards*
Numbers of times that teams scored 40+*
Total points in SEC Championship Game
*SEC games only
“The offense is very simple,” Leach said. “The more people the defense has to keep track of over a bigger area of the field, the better our chances are.”
And this had the LSU defense completely baffled.
To be fair, Mississippi State struggled to replicate the season opener over the next 10 games, but the mere fact that Leach and his offense did it despite overwhelming odds and with inherent obstacles from the pandemic essentially unleashed the genie from the bottle, with ramifications that reverberated throughout the conference.
By the time December rolled around, after Lane Kiffin and Matt Corral had transformed the Ole Miss offense and scared the living houndstooth out of Alabama in the third week of the season, after Texas A&M had found its offensive stride and Georgia and LSU had found their quarterbacks of the future, two longtime backup quarterbacks in the SEC — Alabama’s Mac Jones and Florida’s Kyle Trask — had led their teams to the conference championship game with record-breaking seasons.
A decade ago, Alabama responded to the 9–6 regular-season loss to LSU by shutting out the Tigers 21–0 two months later in the BCS National Championship game. That Tide team surrendered only 8.2 points per game.
Months after Florida lost to Alabama, after the Gators finished the 2020 season with numerous historically worst defensive statistics, head coach Dan Mullen admitted that the problems on defense weren’t scheme or players, but that Florida simply “couldn’t get lined up fast enough” to deal with offenses in the SEC.
Ponder that for a moment.
The league that brought you “defense wins championships,” that punished you with Florida’s attacking defenses and power run game in 2006 and 2008, that overwhelmed you with Alabama’s lethal combination of a defense giving up single-digit points per game and a game-manager quarterback doing just enough to win all those national titles, has quickly evolved into all things Big 12.
The same Big 12 that found itself at the short end of so many SEC jokes over the years. The same Big 12 that, over time, was making inroads against SEC teams in bowl games.
Then the 2018 Rose Bowl happened, and the path moving forward was clear and concise. Oklahoma took Georgia to the limit in the CFP semifinals before the Dawgs pulled out a 54–48 win.
The teams combined for more than 1,000 yards of offense, and a tough and talented Georgia defense — built by former Tide assistant Kirby Smart in the Alabama image — gave up 531 yards to the Sooners and won after making one more offensive play in overtime.
“You’re watching that game, and Oklahoma didn’t have anywhere near the talent Georgia did,” one SEC coach says. “But they could throw the ball on time and accurately, and it had all those four- and five-star Georgia defenders on their heels. A couple weeks later, Alabama and Georgia play this epic championship game in the 20s, and the light kind of went on. This is the way to beat them.”
What began with Hugh Freeze was underscored and amplified by Lincoln Riley at Oklahoma and eventually adopted in three critical spots in the league: Baton Rouge, Gainesville and College Station.
Florida and Texas A&M couldn’t score points and win big games, and in 2018, they paid huge dollars (and buyouts) to hire head coaches who could: Mullen and Jimbo Fisher, respectively, who each now have their programs tantalizingly close to Alabama and Georgia.
It was after that 2017 season that LSU head coach Ed Orgeron realized that the idea of winning championships like Les Miles once did with the Tigers (see: crawl ball) was long past its expiration date. So he searched the transfer portal for the right quarterback and plucked a kid named Joe Burrow, who couldn’t get on the field at Ohio State.
A year after Burrow and LSU won 10 games, Orgeron went one step further and hired 29-year-old unknown NFL assistant position coach Joe Brady as passing game coordinator. The Tigers’ offense went crazy, utilizing Burrow’s ridiculous accuracy and LSU’s skill weapons — and taking advantage of what nearly every defensive coach pukes over on a daily basis: offensive linemen blocking downfield.
Offensive linemen are allowed a three-yard cushion to block downfield on pass plays. As they fire forward off the ball, the play looks like run and temporarily freezes the back seven of the defense. If you have a quarterback who’s proficient in reading the middle linebacker and safety and can deceive by looking off coverages and throws accurately, the defense is at your mercy.
Burrow had the greatest season in college football history, throwing for 5,671 yards and a once-unthinkable 60 touchdowns. Meanwhile, LSU, possessing what would’ve been seen merely as a decent defense in previous SEC seasons, could make a legitimate claim as being the greatest team in the sport’s history.
The Tigers were so prolific offensively, so efficient and surgical in how they decimated defenses, that there were no answers. By the time the CFP rolled around, LSU scored 63 on Oklahoma (49 in the first half!) and beat defending national champion Clemson by 17 in the national title game.
In the last two seasons, the final three games for the SEC national champions are eerily similar. In the 2019 season, LSU averaged 47.3 points per game in the SEC Championship Game and two CFP wins, and Burrow had 16 touchdowns and 0 interceptions, throwing for 1,305 yards.
In the last three games for Alabama in the 2020 season, the Tide averaged 45.0 points per game; Jones had 14 touchdowns and one interception and threw for 1,179 yards.
Defense doesn’t win championships anymore. Offense bludgeons opponents into submission.
“It’s not really defenses catching up, it’s [offenses] playing better,” says Kentucky head coach Mark Stoops, possessor of one of college football’s best defensive minds. “There are some things you deal with as far as rules advantages for the offense, but they’re also doing some innovative stuff, and we haven’t played better.”
The innovation, though, isn’t necessarily coming from the college or pro level. It has come in batches from, of all places, high school football.
The days of high school football being dominated by the run-oriented Wing-T are long gone. High school teams are running variations of college and pro offenses, complete with quarterbacks reading coverages and cycling through progressions.
High school football once consisted of fall games and spring practice, but the sport has become year-round with various skills camps completing the football-only calendar year for prospects. This fact of life became more apparent in the SEC when the league expanded in 2012 to 14 teams and added Texas to the league footprint. The state had always churned out elite high school quarterbacks and was way ahead of the Southeast in terms of the passing game. Once Texas A&M joined the conference, the recruiting boundaries expanded, and the collateral impact extended throughout Southeast high school football.
If you were a high school quarterback or wideout and wanted to play in the SEC, you were now competing with a larger group of players. At that same time, Johnny Manziel arrived at Texas A&M, and a position that already was important to winning big became critical to survival.
The world isn’t a couple of one-off seasons with generational quarterbacks Tim Tebow and Cam Newton. Everyone is doing it now.
“As snaps go up, as the passing game increases, as the skill level increases in high school, there’s less people to defend it,” Smart says. “The best players 20 years ago in high school sometimes were DBs, and now those guys are skill guys or wideouts and you’re trying to play catch-up to cover guys. So I don’t know when (defenses) will catch up. I don’t know if they’ll catch up. Nobody wants to see 9–6 games anymore.”
A decade ago, LSU won that edition of the Game of the Century vs. Alabama with 239 total yards. The Tigers threw the ball 17 times, had zero TD passes and two interceptions and won a game many believed was vintage SEC football amid an unprecedented run of seven straight national titles for the league.
There were 28 defensive players who played in the 2011 game who would be drafted by the NFL. Not surprisingly, 14 from each team. Ten total in the first round.
There may not be nearly as many offensive players from the 2020 SEC Championship Game drafted over the next four years, but there will be numerous first-rounders, and the game will be remembered as the moment the SEC went all in on offense.
When the metamorphosis of “defense wins championships” to “offense saves your hide” was finally complete.
“You used to be able to save some things and pull it out when you need it most,” Mullen says. “You can’t waste plays now. It might be the difference between a field goal or a touchdown.”
And that, more than likely, is the difference between winning and losing in the new SEC.
In The Zone
Last season marked the pinnacle of the current SEC offensive surge. Here are some notable examples:
• Alabama quarterback Mac Jones, a fourth-year junior who sat behind Jalen Hurts and Tua Tagovailoa, had the greatest season in Alabama history with 41 touchdown passes and 4,500 yards.
• Florida quarterback Kyle Trask, a fifth-year senior who couldn’t beat out noted legends Feleipe Franks, Malik Zaire and Luke Del Rio and only got on the field in 2019 because of an injury to Franks, set a boatload of Gators records and finished with 43 touchdown passes and 4,283 yards.
• Jones and Trask, unknown at the beginning of the 2019 season, orchestrated a phenomenal offensive display in the SEC Championship Game — in what has become an annual de facto quarterfinal game of the College Football Playoff. The teams’ combined red zone scores/chances were 10 of 10, and they combined to convert a whopping 65 percent (17 of 26) of third-down opportunities. Alabama scored on eight of 12 drives; Florida on seven of 13; its final drive began with no timeouts and 16 seconds on the clock, and 88 yards from scoring again. A sack ended the show.
Afterward, Saban admitted, “the offense responded every time we needed them to so we could stay in the game.”
Let that soak in.
Podcast: Previewing the SEC for 2021