FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — The Southeastern Conference held to the notion that defense won championships as long as it could.
Like the rest of the country, however, college football’s most dominant league has finally embraced an undeniable fact: Offense rules — and how.
With three of the top four scoring teams in the country this season, SEC teams lead all conferences with an average of 39.7 points per game. That’s up from 31.7 points last season and falls in line with the national rise in scoring totals in recent years.
Yes, even the league once known for Bear Bryant and defense has begun to out-Pac 12 the offensive-renowned Pac-12 Conference.
“I think it’s what football is right now,” Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze said. “The fans like it. It’s exciting ... It’s just kind of where we are right now. I don’t know what else the defenses can do. Trust me; it’s a chore to try to figure it out.”
Nowhere will the uptick in the SEC’s offensive prowess be on more display this weekend than when No. 6 Texas A&M and Arkansas meet in Arlington, Texas. The high-flying Aggies are second in the nation in scoring behind Baylor with an average of 55.3 points per game, while the resurgent Razorbacks are third at 48.8.
The two former Southwest Conference rivals arrive at their prolific scoring totals in vastly different ways — with Texas A&M primarily through the air and Arkansas on the ground — but they aren’t alone in the SEC. Seven of the conference’s schools are in the top 25 nationally in scoring, including Georgia at fourth with an average of 48.7 points per game.
Alabama coach Nick Saban, long known for coaching some of the best defenses in the country, said college football currently has an environment favorable for offenses.
Because of that, as well as rule changes such as ejections for targeting penalties, Saban said the Crimson Tide — which is allowing 14 points per game this season after allowing as few as 8.2 in 2011 — has adjusted its expectations on defense.
“I think you have to have a lot more patience on defense,” Saban said. “I think the whole approach to how you prepare for a game has to be completely different than what it used to be.”
Nationally, college football teams averaged 27.1 points per game nationally in 2009. It’s a number that’s steadily risen since, to 29.5 points per game last year and 31.6 so far this season.
Pac-12 teams led all conferences with an average of 33.4 points per game last season, and the conference has seen that number rise to 37.9 this season. Still, that’s second to the SEC’s offensive newfound prowess.
While points are up dramatically in the SEC this season, not everyone expects the scoring to continue at that rate once more conference games take place.
South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier called the rise “misleading” while pointing to overmatched nonconference opponents. Some of the blowouts have including Texas A&M’s 73-3 win over Lamar and Arkansas’ 73-7 victory over Nicholls State.
While SEC stalwarts such as Ole Miss and Auburn have transformed into up-tempo offensive teams in recent years, the league’s two newcomers — Missouri and Texas A&M — brought their hurry-up approach from the Big 12 Conference when they joined in 2012.
Missouri offensive coordinator Josh Henson was the tight ends coach at LSU in 2008, when SEC teams averaged a relatively paltry 25.6 points per game, and he agreed the league is more “wide open” and “spread out” now.
“If you look at what we’re doing, A&M’s doing, Florida’s doing, there’s obviously being more points scored,” Henson said. “The ball’s moving up and down the field faster. It seems that way; the numbers would say that. If you look back to 2007, you would say it’s a defensive league.”
Arkansas coach Bret Bielema echoed Saban’s comments about adjusting defensive expectations, saying he used to be a “17-point guy on defense.” This season, Bielema couldn’t have been happier with the Razorbacks after holding up-tempo Texas Tech to 353 total yards in a 49-28 win two weeks ago.
Bielema said, much to his chagrin, the days of 17-10 football games are likely finished for good.
“Yeah, those are,” Bielema said. “You know, everybody gets bored. You guys get mad; that’s so boring. To me, it’s awesome ... I don’t like high scoring, but it makes everybody happy, so it’s probably good.”