NORMALLY, the early part of the college football season is spent running up big numbers on the scoreboard against cream-puff opponents, the way Mississippi State put up 62 points against Troy and Texas A&M rolled up 65 points on Sam Houston State.
This season appears to be different. In the SEC, and perhaps across the country, teams are producing big scoring numbers against quality opponents. Alabama defeated Texas A&M 49-42. Georgia defeated South Carolina 41-30 and LSU 44-41 after losing to Clemson 38-35. Texas A&M defeated Arkansas 45-33 and Mississippi turned away Vanderbilt 39-35.
What in the name of Bear Bryant is going on here? When did 3 yards and a cloud of dust give way to 42 yards and a streak down the sideline? And why all of the sudden are offenses so much more advanced than defenses?
Of course, there is no single factor for the explosion of offensive firepower across the SEC and nation. To hear a sample of SEC coaches tell it, the reasons range from the league having a plethora of top-level quarterbacks to offenses being more adept at spreading defenses out and running more plays without a huddle.
“I think it’s a little bit the offenses are different now than they were 20 years ago,” Steve Spurrier says. “People are throwing more, spreading out more and probably more long plays maybe than there was a while back. Everybody wants to throw it around, throw a lot of touchdown passes, those kind of things.”
The differences are noticeable by going back 10 years.
The numbers through five weeks of the 2013 season are likely to diminish as teams play stiffer competition, but maybe not. At any rate, nine of the 14 SEC teams are averaging 30 or more points and four are scoring 40 or more per game, including Texas A&M at a little less than 50 per game. Compare that to 2003, when four of 12 SEC teams averaged more than 30 points per game, with Mississippi leading the league at 34 per game.
“I think the fact that a lot more people are going no-huddle and playing fast, probably play more plays, probably enhances opportunities to gain yards, make big plays, score more points,” says Alabama’s Nick Saban.
Again, through five weeks of this season, eight of the 14 SEC teams are averaging more than 70 plays per game, including Missouri, which is running without a huddle to the tune of 78.5 plays per game. In 2003, three of 12 SEC teams ran 70 or more plays per game, with Mississippi leading the way at 72.3 plays per game.
In addition to running more plays, thus creating more chances to move the ball and score, teams are much more multiple in their offensive attacks. It used to be a team ran the wishbone, or from the I-formation or the spread formation. Now, teams run from the spread set while at the same time utilizing the read-option, for example.
It is creating havoc for defenses that must learn to defend against varying attacks and formations while being spread from sideline to sideline and deep down the field. In addition to no-huddle offenses preventing substitutions on defense, the spread attacks also have limited defenses to standard four-man rushes with little blitzing.
“You better be able to play in space,” Florida coach Will Muschamp said. “You better be able to tackle in space. You better be able to play man-to-man. You better be able to rush four guys, all those things.
“Our league is changing a little bit. Kentucky has gone to (no-huddle, spread formations), Missouri coming into the league, Texas A&M. You’re getting more of those elements in your league, and you’ve got to change.”
Nearly every coach questioned Wednesday on the SEC teleconference mentioned how greater scoring and offensive production is tied directly to teams having outstanding quarterbacks.
“We’ve certainly had our share of good quarterbacks in this league,” Saban said. “There’s no question about that. To have five or six like we do now. ... I don’t remember having more than that.”
The headliner of a star-studded cast of SEC quarterbacks is Johnny Manziel, the reigning Heisman Trophy winner for Texas A&M. But the list also includes Georgia’s Aaron Murray, who probably is considered the top NFL prospect among the bunch. Then there is Alabama’s A.J. McCarron, LSU’s Zach Mettenberger, Missouri’s James Franklin, and USC’s one-two punch of Connor Shaw and Dylan Thompson.
All are talented, experienced and adept at directing offenses that are driving defenses batty. Of course, defenses eventually will catch up and scoring will come back down. Until then, college football fans should enjoy the offensive explosion while it lasts.