Having now covered some of the things that are not primary drivers of the SEC’s recent six-year run (and counting) of national dominance in college football, and reviewing the first two key elements that are fueling this streak of superiority, we are down to the final two most significant factors that I believe are to credit for the rise to this unprecedented level of rule over the sport. The word “commitment” still rules the day, and it is probably most critical in Element 2 in forging the wide delta between the kings of college football and the peasants.
2. Commitment to Defense
This may seem simplistic — after all, the axiom that “defense wins championships” is as old as the hills, and generally embraced by all — but there is a big difference between paying this commitment lip service and paying it true dedication and primary focus. And then there is the SEC. Commitment to focus and priority are only the beginning. The top-tier SEC teams not only make defense the center of their universe, but they expand that universe to the size of most galaxies. And somewhat ironically, the SEC’s level of commitment to suffocating defense stems largely from its history of dominating offenses. If the SEC is looking for someone to thank for elevating the defensive power of the SEC to the greatest conference-wide peak in college football history, it need look no further than a couple of former Florida coaches and their special brands of offensive genius.
Gator Impetus 1: Steve Spurrier’s Fun ‘n’ Gun
Prior to the 1990 arrival of Steve Spurrier at Florida, the SEC had always — and I mean always — been a league built on plodding run-oriented offenses and staunch defenses. But one of the reasons the defenses were so strong is that the offenses were so predictable, homogeneous and single-dimensioned. The SEC (and most of the other conference’s power teams) resembled the boring NFL game of the day very much: three yards and a cloud of dust, and throw only when you really need to. Then came the Gators and their Fun ‘n’ Gun. Spurrier changed the entire SEC blood line. Florida was rolling up scores that were never even heard of against SEC competition, and they were doing it every single week, every single season. With rare exception over the years, he annihilated the staunch and powerful SEC defenses with an aggressive, attacking aerial assault and a speed-oriented ground game, as opposed to the power running to which the SEC defenses were accustomed. Although the Spurrier passing routes were fairly simple, Florida manned its offense with fast, capable receivers sometimes going five and six deep, and threw any pattern on any down and distance, at any time in the game. SEC secondaries simply had no way of keeping up. They had never seen anything like it, and through the years, they had no approximate scout team offenses against which to practice to develop.
The fast and furious Fun ‘n’ Gun domination of SEC defenses caused two things to happen. Once a few years passed, the league could no longer rest on its initial reaction that it was a flash-in-the-pan gimmick offense that would pass into the archives as soon as a certain wave of talent graduated. So they had to adjust. The first thing that occurred is that SEC teams started putting more and better skill athletes on the defensive side of the ball. No longer would they only recruit an elite prospect with a 4.3 40-yard dash to put him at receiver to block and catch 20 balls in a four-year career. They were putting them at cornerback and safety. No longer was the linebacker prototype a fireplug gap stuffer: the position was transformed into one with both size and speed to run sideline to sideline, to plug gaps and chase down wide receivers and fleet-footed tight ends. Emphasis on the defensive line moved away from sedentary immovable objects and sought to upgrade to the monster sizes that also had the quickness and agility to get upfield fast and get to the quarterback. Strength training and conditioning strategies had to adjust to help create and develop these kinds of athletes, as well.
Next, the defenses themselves had to become far more sophisticated. Not only had the Fun ‘n Gun arrived, but the rest of the SEC began to ramp up their offensive systems to try to emulate Florida’s success. The days of the cookie-cutter SEC offenses became extinct almost overnight. They had to be able to defend multiple offensive formations and schemes, and to do so, they had to be the aggressive unit on the field: the defenses had to take back the role of dictator. They had to not just handle multiple looks, they had to present multiple fronts and confuse the quarterbacks, offensive linemen, skill players and offensive coordinators. They had to jump to the 21st century like the Florida offense had done. By the end of the 1990s decade, the Fun ‘n Gun no longer could just plug in any fast athletes they had and dominate the league. They had to over-match personnel because the schematic and athletic advantages had finally evaporated. The oft-repeated mantra that SEC defenses “caught up” to the Fun ‘n’ Gun was both correct and incorrect. It was still a viably dominant offense (see: 2000 and 2001 teams, Spurrier’s last, for proof), but the advantage of superior athlete types and the big edge in sophistication both had been diminished and then eliminated. It wasn’t simply that the defenses had figured out how to stop the Fun ‘n’ Gun — it was that they were now it’s equal on all levels, and it would take a much higher level of personnel and execution to enforce the will of the Fun ‘n’ Gun on defenses. It is a real shame that Spurrier left for the NFL when he did, because he was very aptly offering a strong offensive counter-punch to this defensive resurgence in the dawn of the 2000s decade, and it would have been fun to watch how the balance shifts played out over the next decade. But he left, Ron Zook came in and the offense went to dirt and to a great extent the offensive-defensive arms race and schematic race took a breather. Overall, the defenses were back on top again in the SEC and the status quo maintained until a fresh-faced up-and-comer was brought to Florida from the Beehive State.
Gator Impetus 2: Urban Meyer’s Spread Option
Urban Meyer’s spread option changed the game in the SEC once again. Like the Fun ‘n’ Gun in 1990, it upped the ante. It brought yet another level of sophistication and certainly a new level of elite athlete to the table with the likes of Tim Tebow, Percy Harvin and Aaron Hernandez. And this time the SEC defenses were much faster to adapt. The spread-option really took off for Meyer and Florida in 2007. The Tim Tebow Show was the main event on every college football highlight reel — heck every sports show of any kind in the country. The gaudy Gators scores of the 1990s were back, and they were being thrown up every week again, no matter if the opponent was then-still-powerful Tennessee, LSU, Alabama, and of course Georgia — you name it. In 2008, despite all the hype the Big 12 got with its record-setting offenses, it was shown clearly in the BCS title game (and every year since then) that they were simply a function of playing against terrible defenses. And it was also demonstrated that the true offensive powerhouse of the day was the one in Gainesville.
But as mentioned, this time the defensive reaction came much quicker. By 2009, the sophistication level across the conference had already started to catch up. The nuances of the spread option were broken down and countered, and as it turns out, when there isn’t a roster full of future NFL studs at every position, the spread option was trumped by strong and smart defense. Witness the Gators going down in flames in the 2009 SEC Championship Game to Alabama. That was the Meyer S.O.’s last hurrah. The following year, the spread option’s top end success in the SEC gasped its last, and only because another once-in-a-generation Urban Meyer recruit, Cam Newton, was able to impose his will and all-world skill on the competition. Even then, by the end of the year, the dominant Tiger offense was starting to crumble. LSU nearly had Auburn’s number in October, holding them to 24 points in a seven-point loss. In November, AU was completely shut down for a half and only a late-game flurry of Auburn big plays and Tide blunders allowed the Tigers to nip a three-loss Alabama team in the Iron Bowl by a single point, scoring just 28. Then in the national title game, even Oregon from the then defense-void Pac-10 shut them down 22 points — their lowest output since Sept. 9 when they hadn’t yet found their sea legs. In the end, even with Cam Newton running the show, the spread-option had been counter-punched and exceeded by the defenses, and it was in fact Auburn’s defense that carried the day in the second half of the Iron Bowl and the entire BCS title game. To put final emphasis on the SEC defenses’s fast adjustment to “cover the spread” (option), one of the new coaching kingpins of the SEC elite — Will Muschamp — was the only defensive coordinator in the league who could contain the Urban Meyer sprea-option when it was running at its fullest high-octane fever pitch. Muschamp all but shut down the unstoppable machine two years in a row as the Auburn defensive skipper, and now he is the head coach and guiding architect of the defensive philosophies for the Florida Gators.
In the first half of the six-season national title streak, the Florida spread-option carried the load — though the championships were still largely won (2006) or at least preserved (2008, South Carolina and Oklahoma games) by the dominating Gators defenses — but by the second half of the streak, it was all defense. The defenses of Alabama, LSU and Auburn for a year that ruled the land. And over the last three years, the defenses of South Carolina, Georgia and Florida once again have driven the SEC to even higher levels of control over the college football world. And like I mentioned in the last installment of this series, it is a function of the SEC seeing what works, and making a commitment to doing it faster, bigger and better than everyone else. In all the previous years in the Bowl Coalition era (which started in 1992), the SEC teams that won it all were those that dominated on defense. The 1992 Tide, the 1998 Vols, the 2003 LSU Tigers. And even though Florida flew to the highest height in 1996 riding the Fun ‘n’ Gun at its peak, the Gators could not get the program over the hump to win it all until they hired defensive guru Bob Stoops and upgraded their defense to a new level of national elite.
Meanwhile, across the country, most of the top programs put all their best athletes on offense and run up gaudy numbers and scores, and then lose every time they face a good defense. The only teams outside the SEC that are even in the discussion as elite teams are Notre Dame, Stanford, and Oregon. The first two of them are the only other teams in the country that have followed the SEC blueprint of toughness and defensive uber-focus. The latter, Oregon Ducks, are only still in the discussion because they only played one team all year with a strong defense … and lost to that team. Until they start to put a lot more of their all-world speedsters on defense instead of offense, and put a lot more practice time focus on scheming defense instead of offense, they will always be a great, high-scoring team that floats around the top 10 in the nation, but always loses every time it plays a team with a good defense.
In the final installment of this series, I’ll look at the No. 1 factor in the supreme power currently surging through the veins of the SEC’s football factories. Until then, remember that every day is a gift, that’s why they call it the present.