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College Football: Big 12 offense (and defense) throughout the SEC

College football’s premier conference appears to be undergoing an offensive awakening.

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NCAA Football: Georgia at Alabama Gary Cosby Jr-USA TODAY Sports

The Alabama Crimson Tide and Ole Miss Rebels played a game two weeks ago that looked familiar to fans of the Oklahoma Sooners and other Big 12 programs.

The two teams combined for 111 points, nearly 1,400 yards in total offense and 68 first downs. Of the 21 drives in the game, the teams scored on 17 of them, including 15 touchdowns. Every drive in the second half resulted in points for the offense. The Tide won 63-48 after forcing the Rebels to punt twice and settle for two field goals.

It was like watching Baker Mayfield and Pat Mahomes duke it out back in the day. According to research from Seth Galina of Pro Football Focus, such shootouts and offensive explosions are becoming more common in the talent-rich SEC. As teams in the conference where It Just Means More have adapted to the modern game, points and yards are piling up like unopened emails from the compliance department in Nick Saban’s inbox. To wit:

Galina points out that the increased output coincides with SEC teams throwing the ball more and using heavy formations less. In his mind, the trend raises questions about long-held perceptions of teams and styles of play: “SEC defenses have been reeling to start the 2020 college football season, and it’s becoming fair to ask the question whether the issue in the Big 12 was actually a lack of defense or playing impossible-to-suppress offenses on a week-to-week basis.”

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“SEC defenses good; Big 12 defenses LOL” has been a thing for what seems like forever, and with good reason. For starters, SEC teams stockpile more talent than anywhere else in the country. It’s the same reason SEC teams have won 10 of the last 15 national championships. Naturally, they have superior players on the defensive side of the ball. From top to bottom, the Big 12 teams’ rosters don’t measure up.

Even so, the preening about the quality of defensive play in the SEC always felt a little hollow to me since its teams just didn’t know how to quit conventional schemes and tactics on offense. It’s like the league’s offensive coordinators made a blood oath to take it easy on the Ds.

NCAA Football: Mississippi at Arkansas Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

But now Air Raid guru Mike Leach is in year one at Mississippi State. New Ole Miss head coach Lane Kiffin, who’s no slouch as an offensive tactician in his own right, hired Art Briles disciple Jeff Lebby as his offensive coordinator. First-year Arkansas head coach Sam Pittman went directly to the Briles family tree and hired Art’s son, Kendal, to be his office coordinator. Missouri also went the offensive route with its latest hire in Eliah Drinkwitz of Appalachian State.

Meanwhile, the LSU Tigers rolled to a national championship last year behind a wide-open offense that may go down as the best in the history of college football. Additionally, Saban has put Alabama in the vanguard of the league’s offensive revolution.

While traditionalists may lament what football is becoming in the SEC, I’m more interested in seeing how programs adapt. To me, the prevailing dynamic in the Big 12 is simply that defending spread offenses every week is very difficult. Thus it’s better to be able to drop 45 points without breaking a sweat than to obsess too much over how to keep the other team out of the end zone.

If the tectonic plates in the SEC are shifting that way too, it seems fair to ask: How much does playing good defense matter in college football anymore? Can programs get better returns by investing in adding more fuel to their offensive tanks, or are they better off devoting their limited resources to slowing down their opponents?

Perhaps the SEC brain trust will come up with the formula for stopping the spread that has so far eluded Big 12 defensive coordinators. Don’t be surprised, though, if SEC programs decide to put even more emphasis on the offensive side of the ball in the near future.