Josh Kendall

Commentary: Can SEC thrive if defense takes dive?

Auburn coach Gus Malzahn speaks to the media during the NCAA college football Southeastern Conference Media Days, Monday, July 13, 2015, in Hoover, Ala.
Auburn coach Gus Malzahn speaks to the media during the NCAA college football Southeastern Conference Media Days, Monday, July 13, 2015, in Hoover, Ala. AP

BIRMINGHAM, Ala.

WILL MUSCHAMP IS the best defensive mind at any level of football.

His new boss just said so.

“He’s got the ‘It’ factor,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said Monday during the first session of SEC Media Days. “We’re very blessed to combine his defense with the offense we’ve been running. We think the future’s very bright.”

Muschamp has a new boss this year because he was fired from his old job as head coach at Florida, where you will find thousands of people who will swear he knows absolutely nothing about football. The Gators couldn’t get Muschamp and his wealth of defensive knowledge out of Gainesville fast enough.

This is the SEC in 2015. The idea that defense wins championships is taking a beating, much like the prospects of a defensive assistant getting a head coaching job in the conference.

“It’s easier to get hired (to a head coaching position) as an offensive coach nowadays,” CBS analyst Gary Danielson said. “The last 20 rule changes in college football have all been made to help the offense. It’s hard to get great stats as a defensive coach. It’s just the way it is.

“You go into a room, you meet with athletic directors, you can wow them by putting the spread on the board, show them how you’re going to run up all these scores. For years, I’ve been saying they are running too many plays and the games are getting too long, but none of them want to give up their stats. They love these stats.”

Why wouldn’t they when they come with such a big paycheck? Ten of the SEC’s 14 coaches come from offensive backgrounds. Alabama’s Nick Saban stands as the most notable exception, having won the conference championship two of the past three years with a team that harkens to the league’s defensive roots of the ’80s and ’90s, but Saban is the only one having any luck doing it the old way. The other three defensive coaches in charge – Arkansas’ Bret Bielema, Kentucky’s Mark Stoops and Vanderbilt’s Derek Mason – finished a combined 4-20 in the conference last year.

It makes for great theater on Saturday afternoons. All but one SEC team averaged more than 360 yards per game last year; eight averaged more than 400, and Mississippi State averaged a staggering 513. But Danielson wonders if the conference might be starting to sell its soul for shiny silver.

“The big advantage the SEC had against other conferences was they were the most physical, NFL-like conference there was,” he said. “If they try to morph too much into becoming a fantasy league, they are going to cede their position as the toughest and best conference in college football.”

Florida hired Jim McElwain to replace Muschamp. McElwain is not just an offensive coach but a Missoula, Mont., native who cut his teeth in the freewheeling offenses of the West.

“Growing up out west, we threw it around the park quite a bit, and that’s something we believe in,” he said.

In his opening remarks, McElwain mentioned how happy he was to be the “head ball coach at Florida,” harkening back to the days Steve Spurrier was changing offense in the SEC.

“I always enjoyed watching his teams play, obviously,” McElwain said. “When he was coaching there, the things he was doing, advancing the ball through the air, it was a lot of fun to watch. He’s one of the true guys offensively who knows how to get it done.”

Prior to McElwain’s hiring, the most recent hire in the league was a defensive assistant – Derek Mason, who went from Stanford’s defensive coordinator position to head coach at Vanderbilt – and he didn’t do his defensive counterparts any favors in his first season. The Commodores went from two straight nine-win seasons under James Franklin (an offensive coach who injected energy into the program) to 3-9 and winless in the SEC under Mason.

“I think it’s hard as a defensive coach,” Mason said. “I felt like you had to work a little harder, be a little better. In this conference, you have to play good defensive football at some point in time to be a champion.”

But you have to play offense, too. Like Muschamp’s Gators, Mason’s Commodores embarrassed themselves on offense. Vanderbilt was No. 119 in the country in scoring last year, averaging 17.2 point per game. Mason promised improvement in his second year without guaranteeing a win total.

“I’m not about predictions,” he said. “I’m just going to be about the work and let the season tell the story.”

If this season doesn’t tell a much different story, the SEC probably will be 11 offensive coaches and three defensive coaches by this time next year.

BEFORE THEY WERE HEAD COACHES

Ten of the SEC’s 14 head coaches have offensive backgrounds:

SEC EAST

Steve Spurrier, USC: Played QB in college, pros

Mark Richt, Georgia: QBs, offensive coordinator

Jim McElwain, Florida: Offensive coordinator

Butch Jones, Tennessee: RBs, TEs, offensive coordinator

Mark Stoops, Kentucky: DBs, defensive coordinator

Gary Pinkel, Missouri: Played TE in college

Derek Mason, Vanderbilt: DBs, defensive coordinator

SEC WEST

Nick Saban, Alabama: Secondary, defensive coordinator

Gus Malzahn, Auburn: Offensive coordinator

Bret Bielema, Arkansas: LB, defensive coordinator

Dan Mullen, Miss. State: QBs, WRs, offensive coordinator

Hugh Freeze, Ole Miss: Offensive coordinator

Les Miles, LSU: Offensive coordinator

Kevin Sumlin, Texas A&M: Offensive coordinator

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