SEC media days storylines -- No. 10

rblack@ledger-enquirer.comJuly 4, 2014 

In Alabama's Nick Saban (left) and Auburn's Gus Malzahn (right), the SEC has a philosophical divide between those favoring strong defenses (Saban) versus those preferring explosive offenses (Malzahn). The 2014 season will show whether SEC defenses can regain the upper hand or if frenetic offenses are here to stay.

BUTCH DILL — Associated Press

Editor's note: SEC media days begin July 14. Every year, a theme seems to emerge, whether it's a tiff between coaches or a cause taken up by commissioner Mike Slive. But with a little more than a week until it arrives, what are the top storylines entering the annual media event? Ryan Black gives his take, counting down from 10-1.

No. 10: Conference's identity changing?

In the week leading up to Auburn's game versus Ole Miss last year, Ellis Johnson was presented with a question: What did he believe was the reason for the staggering numbers offenses in the Southeastern Conference were putting up with ease?

For a man who's been in the college coaching ranks for more than 30 years, it's not a cliche to say Johnson has pretty much seen it all — it's the truth.

A verbose sort, it came as no surprise the Tigers' defensive coordinator gave a detailed answer, even if he acknowledged he didn't have exact figures in front of him.

"I think first of all you have a lot of experienced quarterbacks coming back," Johnson said. "I think the other thing, if you go back and look — I’m not going to say I can prove this — but it seemed to me that the larger number of NFL players that were taken out of the conference last year were defensive players. I think the draft really drained off a lot of the great defensive players that would have been returning."

He went on to mention that the SEC had lagged behind other leagues in embracing up-tempo schemes. That's certainly not the case any longer, as Auburn, Ole Miss and Texas A&M (just to name a few) use it as their base offense to great success.

"So you’re seeing scores go up and yardage go up and turnovers go up and a lot of things go up. It is what it is," Johnson continued. "I think you have to be prepared to play against so many different styles of offense in this conference, with the greatest athletes in the country (that) it’s tough to keep people off the board."

At least one part of Johnson's theory won't be hard to judge this season: quarterback play. Compared to last year, the league is sorely lacking in experienced signal-callers. Gone are Johnny Manziel, Aaron Murray and AJ McCarron. So too are Zach Mettenberger, James Franklin and Connor Shaw. Sure, there's still talent, notably Nick Marshall, Dak Prescott and Bo Wallace. But at nearly every other school, an unproven player is at the reins, which could bode well for defenses across the SEC.

Still, 2013 was a jolt to the senses for longtime SEC observers.

For a conference that has long staked its reputation on defense, last season appeared to signal a paradigm shift toward offense in the SEC, philosophies which had already taken root in leagues like the Pac-12 and Big 12.

So expect quite a few questions about this topic at media days. Will SEC defenses turn things around this year to reclaim their supremacy, rendering the offensive outburst a one-year anomaly? Or will things tilt even further in the direction of the offense, forcing defenses to play an unending game of catch-up?

Either way, Johnson knew, even last October, that he and other defensive coordinators in the league have to be ready for anything.

"Every year though somebody puts a new wrinkle in those systems. Somebody had a little different way of lining up in a formation that puts you in stress in coverage and play-action passes or unbalanced formations," he said. "They come up with something (and) once you get used to it and get it schemed up, they come up with something to get you out of place. It’s a never-ending process. We’re always adjusting."

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