The era of offense is over.
After erupting with fireworks the previous two seasons, the Southeastern Conference is expected to return this year to the pillars that have supported the league for two decades: ground on offense and pound on defense.
A half-dozen teams are losing a veteran, successful quarterback. Georgia, Alabama, LSU, Missouri, Texas A&M and South Carolina will be missing their playcalling stars — all of whom started at least two seasons.
The list is a gaggle of recognizable names: Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel of Texas A&M; LSU’s Zach Mettenberger; Alabama’s AJ McCarron, the winningest of the group; Aaron Murray, who started at Georgia for a whopping four seasons; and dual-threat guys James Franklin of Missouri and Connor Shaw of South Carolina.
In all, the quarterbacks accounted for more than 49,000 passing yards, 440 touchdowns and 150 wins. Most leave behind holes for a young and inexperienced passer.
What’s that mean?
“It’ll be back to defense first,” said Pat Forde, national college football reporter for Yahoo Sports.
“We wrote all of these stories last year how the SEC is high-octane and wide open,” said Andy Staples, college football reporter at Sports Illustrated. “Might be back to some 9-6 games.”
Even Staples admits that a 9-6 game would be tough to fathom in this up-tempo age of college football, but the SEC is undoubtedly taking a step back offensively.
Over the past two years, the league saw its offensive numbers soar to Big 12 levels. Its identity was lost, its fans were in a panic and its coaches — some of them, at least — became disgruntled.
A whopping 15 games last year featuring two SEC teams surpassed a cumulative score of 70 points. The lowest scoring game was LSU’s 17-6 win over Florida. Naturally, one of the biggest offensive showings was for the conference championship: Auburn’s 59-42 romp over Missouri.
Offense ruled the league until the very end.
“I think some folks were a bit bewildered and disoriented last year,” Forde said.
Entering the postseason in 2013, nine SEC teams averaged at least 426.2 yards. As recently as 2011, only two SEC teams — Arkansas and Alabama — averaged that many yards, according to data from USA Today.
Six SEC teams ranked among the nation’s top 26 in yards gained per game, while only five were in the top 25 in total defense.
“Last year was kind of a bit of an anomaly in terms of the offensive firepower and shootout games,” Forde said. “Definitely fewer of those. Some of the backup (quarterbacks) who step in may do very, very well. But I think a lot of them are going to take a step back in terms of productivity and aggressiveness. The SEC will be back to what its traditional DNA has been.”
That would be a tiring running attack and some suffocating defenses.
The six teams losing that veteran QB — Alabama, Georgia, LSU, Missouri, South Carolina and Texas A&M — were in the top seven of SEC team scoring leaders in 2013.
For those new QBs, a learning curve and some matured and veteran defenses await, Staples said.
“Last year was a perfect storm for offenses. You had all of these good quarterbacks, guys who have really proven themselves over the years, and you also had this massive talent drain on defense,” he said. “It’s the defensive guys who are going to wind up being pretty good this year. They’re going to have the edge.”
This doesn’t mean the SEC will take a back step in the national race. Most experts still have the SEC champion, and possibly another team from the league, in the new four-team College Football Playoff.
And while the league loses the Big 6 at QB, it returns seven others, including Ole Miss’ Bo Wallace, Florida’s Jeff Driskel, Auburn’s Nick Marshall and Mississippi State’s Dak Prescott.
There’s this, too: Not all of the new quarterbacks are completely inexperienced.
James Franklin’s backup at Missouri, Maty Mauk, started four games last year as a redshirt freshman. At LSU, Anthony Jennings led a 99-yard game-winning touchdown drive against Arkansas last season and started the Tigers’ Outback Bowl win.
Two of the new starters are fifth-year seniors: Georgia’s Hutson Mason and South Carolina’s Dylan Thompson, who is 3-0 in his career as a starter.
“It’s not like these guys can’t play,” Staples said. “They just haven’t played as much.”
Overall, though, the SEC is expected to return to its roots.
Does that mean 9-6?
“You might not see the 44-41 game as much,” Staples said.