Losing defensive grip may mean SEC losing championship grip

BY SCOTT RABALAIS

srabalais@theadvocate.com

Believe me, I like offense as much as the next guy. I am not of a mind to go to Tuscaloosa this November and see a remake of the 9-6 game — a game that went into overtime, mind you — between LSU and Alabama in 2011.

But to quote the late, great Slim Pickens, what in the wide, wide world of sports is a goin’ on in the Southeastern Conference with these defenses this year?

The SEC is looking more like the Big 12 or the Pac-12 or some other defensively challenged conference by the week. And while that may be good for ticket sales and TV viewership and Internet clicks, that’s not good for the SEC’s hopes of closing out the BCS era with an eighth straight national championship.

With this proliferation of passing and points, five wide receivers and Wildcat packages, I’m here to tell you the SEC is losing a bit of its soul. And I’m quite sure even though his team came out on the winning end, Nick Saban lost some of his mind after his Alabama team survived Texas A&M 49-42 earlier this season.

LSU’s 44-41 loss at Georgia on Saturday certainly sent up red flags for the Tigers — and a couple for the Bulldogs, too. The teams combined for nearly 950 yards of offense.

Did it make for an exciting game? Absolutely. It was a thrill a minute, which is the average length of time between each score.

But did it make for a great game, a classic, something to stand alongside the 1959 LSU-Ole Miss game or last year’s SEC Championship Game when Bama beat Georgia 32-28?

Not quite. Because to have a truly classic contest, you have to great play, not only on offense, but special teams and defense as well.

To the best of my observational skills Saturday, the Bulldogs’ defense wasn’t actually on the field but was shaking red pom-poms in the Georgia student section. And the Tigers’ defense was re-lighting the grill out by the RV for a second round of burgers and andouille.

Surprisingly, the defensive numbers SEC-wide are not that alarming. To date, seven teams are allowing fewer points than they did at the end of the 2012 season, and seven are allowing more. Eight teams are allowing more yards per game this year, and six are surrendering fewer yards than at the end of 2012. But you can certainly attribute that to the fact SEC teams have spent most of the season’s first month stuffing inferior nonconference opponents into manila envelopes and mailing them back home stapled to their guarantee checks.

Sometimes, numbers lie. I know what I see, and I see SEC defensive lines looking about as daunting as the Maginot Line. That’s the line of defenses the French built before World War II to keep out the Germans, never expecting the Wehrmacht to run an end around through Belgium.

Great quarterbacks and potent offenses have their place, but to my reckoning, the SEC has separated itself from the rest of college football for one reason: its ability to control the line of scrimmage, particularly on the defensive side.

The SEC is about a defender hitting someone so hard it loosens your teeth when you’re watching at home. Like it or not, Arizona quarterback Willie Tuitama couldn’t remember his own name after Darry Beckwith popped him right in the jaw in that 2006 game.

The SEC is about ruthless steamrolling power. It’s a column of Soviet tanks rumbling into a defenseless Eastern Bloc country. It’s Mike Tyson knocking someone out in the first round with a flurry of punches. It’s not pretty, it’s not nice, and it’s not apologetic.

Johnny Manziel smirking and dancing around and rolling imaginary C-notes in his fingertips may drive merchandise sales — it certainly sells autographed photos.

But if Johnny Football actually leads Texas A&M to a national championship with a defense giving up 31 points and 477 yards per game as his backup band, then I’m John Heisman.

Defense, guys. That’s the SEC’s trademark. That’s the SEC’s personality. That’s the SEC’s strength. And this year, not having defenses like that is a liability.

About the only SEC team playing SEC-like defense this year is Florida. The Gators are giving up, grudgingly, just 202.5 yards per game so far. Unfortunately for the Boys of Old Florida, its best defender, defensive tackle Dominique Easley, tore his ACL and will turn pro.

Mississippi State isn’t playing a bad brand of defense, either and (cue ominous music, please) the Bulldogs and Gators are LSU’s next two opponents.

If the Tigers, who are giving up 346.8 yards and 24.4 points per game, don’t start playing better defense, they can forget about playing in any championship games this season. The same for the SEC and the BCS.