09/20/2013 07:46 PM
For years, the SEC was regarded as the conference where high-scoring offenses went to die. The league developed a reputation as the hotbed of big-boy, defensive-minded football, thanks largely to lockdown units that led Alabama, Auburn, Florida and LSU to BCS titles over the past seven seasons. This fall, however, a culture shift has started to occur. The SEC’s success has come primarily on the other side of the ball.
Through three games, seven of the 14 teams in the SEC rank among the top 40 nationally in total offense. Alabama won a 49-42 shootout over Texas A&M last Saturday, a game that included a whopping 1,196 yards of total offense and 91 combined points. Up-tempo offenses are the style du jour in college football, and the SEC finally appears ready to jump onboard. “This year,” Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban said during the SEC’s weekly teleconference, “we have some really high-powered offensive teams.”
On Saturday night, two teams benefiting from that trend will face off in Baton Rouge. No. 6 LSU and Auburn have both enjoyed hot starts behind largely improved offenses. Based on early-season results, fans should expect plenty of points in this matchup.
The high-powered beginning to 2013 is a refreshing sight for both Auburn and LSU, neither of which finished among the top 10 in the SEC in total offense last season. LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger struggled through the majority of the 2012 campaign, while the Tigers’ defense, which finished eighth nationally, largely carried LSU to a 10-3 record. The offense mustered more than 25 points on only six occasions.
Yet even though the defense has played formidably despite returning just three starters, the Bayou Bengals are singing a different tune this year. New offensive coordinator Cam Cameron, who was hired by Les Miles in the offseason, has rejuvenated the Tigers’ attack. Through Week 3, LSU is third in the league in scoring (46 points per game) and sixth in total offense (488 yards per game). Cameron’s unit isn’t wasting possessions, either; the Tigers average 7.7 yards per play, second only to Texas A&M in the conference.
“I think there’s a real confident attack that’s taking place here, both on the ground and in the air,” Miles told reporters this week. “Some of the things we do are similar [to last year] and some of the things we do are completely different. But I think Cam’s having a real impact.”
Much of LSU’s production has been generated by Mettenberger, who looks remarkably more consistent than he did last fall. He threw four touchdowns and two interceptions through his first three games in 2012. This year, Mettenberger has tossed nine touchdowns without a pick while also leading the league in passing efficiency. “He’s really embraced a work ethic that’s allowed him to enjoy practice, to really enjoy the position,” Miles said of his quarterback. “There’s more leadership.”
Mettenberger is one of a handful of obstacles that LSU’s offense poses for Auburn. Cameron also trots out three running backs — Jeremy Hill, Terrence Magee and Alfred Blue — who have combined for more than 500 rushing yards. “Their quarterback has done a good job and protected the ball,” said Auburn coach Gus Malzahn at his weekly press conference. “He hasn’t thrown an interception yet and he has thrown quite a few touchdowns. Any time you can couple that with a good run game ‐‐ which they do have a very good run game ‐‐ that is a challenge.”
Auburn’s offensive deficiencies last year were even more apparent than LSU’s. Three different quarterbacks saw significant playing time, none with particularly memorable results. Then-coach Gene Chizik’s attack ranked 115th nationally and averaged a mere 18.7 points per game. This season, the Tigers are diving headfirst into Malzahn’s up-tempo style, averaging 10 more offensive plays per game (68) than last fall (58). The philosophy is working: Auburn has scored on all 10 of its trips to the red zone.
Malzahn, the offensive coordinator on Auburn’s 2010 BCS title team, credits much of his squad’s 3-0 start to quarterback Nick Marshall. The junior college product threw an 11-yard touchdown strike with 10 seconds remaining to knock off Mississippi State last weekend for Auburn’s first SEC wins in 10 tries. He’s already thrown as many touchdown passes (four) as Auburn’s leader in that category last season, Jonathan Wallace.
“He’s kind of a quiet leader,” Malzahn said of Marshall, “but he doesn’t get too high or too low. He stays calm and collected in all moments, and he has earned the respect of his teammates through his practice habits and the way he handles himself.”
Both defenses appear stout. LSU and Auburn have each allowed fewer than 20 points per game thus far, respectively, and LSU coordinator John Chavis’ group has given up just five touchdowns. Though both attacks are rolling, this matchup could go a long way toward proving whether the offensive trend is here to stay.
“In the [SEC] West, specifically, there may be a week where a team gives up a lot of yards,” Malzahn said, “but year in and year out, this is going to be the best defensive league in college football, and I still believe at the end of the day, it will be.”