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SEC Offenses Going Vertical

By Matt Smith
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If you’re looking for an overarching SEC Media Days storyline, perhaps it’s the increasing explosiveness of the league’s offenses.

If you peruse the attendant list for next week’s SEC Media Days, you’ll notice that 9 of the league’s 14 teams are bringing quarterbacks to the event, highlighted by reigning Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel and two-time national champion AJ McCarron.

While quarterbacks are often the face of a team and are frequently present at these large media gatherings, there’s a more complex reason. While there won’t be any 70-63 games anytime soon, the SEC is gradually becoming an explosive passing league.

Is that simply a product of the current class of quarterbacks in the league, or is it a sign of a philosophical shift in the way a conference known for dominant running games is designing its offenses?

While the rise of the “Air Raid”-style offenses has led to an increase in passing throughout the country, the SEC was relatively immune to these "new school" schemes, outside of Steve Spurrier’s Fun ‘N’ Gun (from which he has since gone away) and a brief period at Kentucky in the ‘90s. Times are changing, however.

In 2007, the SEC’s six best teams (Arkansas, Auburn, Florida, Georgia, LSU, Tennessee) combined to throw for 214 yards per game. In 2012, the top six teams (Alabama, Florida, Georgia, LSU, South Carolina, Texas A&M) averaged 234 yards per game through the air. SEC teams are throwing the ball now more so than ever before.

Much of that comes back to coaching. 10 of the league’s 14 current head coaches come from an offensive background. Only Bret Bielema (Arkansas), Will Muschamp (Florida), Nick Saban (Alabama) and Mark Stoops (Kentucky) made their way to the top of the coaching ladder from the defensive side of the ball. Recent coordinator hires would tell you, however, that even the coaches with defensive backgrounds like explosive offenses.

Stoops chose Neal Brown, who ran an Air Raid attack at both Troy and Texas Tech, to direct the Wildcats attack. Bielema, whose Wisconsin teams were predominantly ground-oriented, hired Jim Chaney, a disciple of Joe Tiller, who first brought “basketball on grass” to the Big Ten when he was hired by Purdue in 1997. LSU’s Les Miles went from an offensive line coach in Greg Studrawa to the coordinator of one of the NFL’s most potent deep passing games in Cam Cameron. Even the great Saban raided the pass-happy Pac-12 for his most recent offensive coordinator hire, plucking Doug Nussmeier away from Washington prior to last season.

It’s reflective in game scores as well. Alabama and Georgia combined for 60 points in last year’s SEC Championship Game. The Pac-12? Just 51. The ACC? A measly 36. Even the regular season game between the two best teams in the wide open Big 12, Kansas State and Oklahoma, featured just 43 points. Has the old WAC been reincarnated in the form of the SEC?

OK, let’s not get carried away. The nation’s two best running back duos in 2012 both resided in the SEC, and Saban and Dana Holgorsen aren’t going to be diagramming plays on napkins over Red Bull and Little Debbie bars anytime soon.

But the skill position talent is the best it’s ever been in the SEC. You’d have to go back to Spurrier’s Florida teams to find a receiving corps as potent as what we’ve seen in the past few seasons at Arkansas and Tennessee and will see this year with Alabama, Georgia, LSU and even Vanderbilt.

During the league’s run of seven consecutive national titles, defensive front play and a power running game had often been the difference when SEC teams faced top-ranked opponents from other leagues. When Alabama opens its season next month against Virginia Tech, the Hokies’ biggest concern (among many) will be shutting down the McCarron-to-Amari Cooper connection that combined for 11 touchdowns a year ago. When Georgia visits Clemson some two hours later, it’s not a matter of if the Tigers will score, it’s can they keep up with Aaron Murray and the Bulldogs.

After seeing just three of its quarterbacks drafted in the first two rounds of the past six NFL Drafts (Cam Newton, Matthew Stafford, Tim Tebow), it could see as many as three next May with Manziel, McCarron and Murray. No longer are the Big 12 and Pac-12 the only conferences known for consistently producing elite quarterbacks.

If you’re looking for an overarching SEC Media Days storyline, perhaps it’s the increasing explosiveness of the league’s offenses. With the influx of offensive coaches to the league, it’s a trend that likely won’t reverse.

Matt Smith - Matt is a 2007 graduate of Notre Dame and has spent most of his life pondering why most people in the Mid-Atlantic actually think there are more important things than college football. He has blogged for College Football News, covering both national news as well as Notre Dame and the service academies. He credits Steve Spurrier and Danny Wuerffel for his love of college football and tailgating at Florida, Tennessee, and Auburn for his love of sundresses. Matt covers the ACC as well as the national scene.