Alabama receiver Amari Cooper// Photo credit Kevin C. Cox, Getty Images North America
by Lisa Horne
Remember when network analysts questioned whether a prolific Pac-12 quarterback could have the same successes against SEC defenses? Many football fans parroted that skepticism.
The passing game has almost always been met with derision from Big Ten and SEC traditionalists. Run the ball, they preach. The war is won in the trenches, they aver.
That's so yesterday. Go routes and bubble screens are now en fuego.
SEC fans are now being bombarded with more and more aerial shows. They appear to be enthralled with these new fangled offenses. They've also learned a few things.
Alabama receiver Amari Cooper can make Florida's secondary look slightly less ferocious than a fainting goat. Also, a big-armed passer can decimate an SEC defense.
Just ask Kenny Hill, Blake Sims or Dak Prescott.
Are great quarterbacks making the SEC defenses look bad or are bad defenses making SEC quarterbacks look great? While we are at it, which came first—the chicken or the egg?
In 2009, Texas A&M's offense attempted 509 passes—at that time it was playing in the Big 12. The Aggies averaged 281.6 passing yards per game. Football elitists dismissed those numbers as a reflection of a league riddled with porous defenses.
Kevin Sumlin was hired as the Aggies head coach for their inaugural season in the SEC. In 2012, the Aggies attempted 492 passes, threw for 4,114 yards, 28 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. They also averaged 316.5 passing yards per game, a significant increase over their previous Big 12 numbers.
If the SEC defenses are superior, why wasn't that reflected in the Aggies' passing stats?
In 2013, the Aggies attempted 489 passes with 69.3 percent of those being completed. They passed for 4,593 yards, 40 touchdowns, 13 interceptions and averaged 353.3 passing yards per game.
Since the Aggies have joined the SEC, their average passing yards per game have increased from 316.5 to 353.3. This year they are averaging more than 400 passing yards per game.
Apologists will point to weak early season opponents as the reason for such high passing numbers but Texas A&M's biggest passing stats came against an SEC team, not Lamar, Rice or SMU. Quarterback Kenny Hill completed 44-of-60 for 511 yards and three touchdowns against South Carolina.
Maybe using Kevin Sumlin's offense as an example is not fair. How have other SEC teams fared over the last four years?
Georgia has increased its passing yards per game average from 242.4 in 2010 to 314.2 this year. Ole Miss has increased from 192.3 to 283.3, Vanderbilt went from 159.4 to 227.5 and LSU from 152.5 to 251.1.
In the past three years, South Carolina has jumped from 181.5 to 253.8 and Alabama has increased from 215.2 to 248.5. The rest of the SEC teams have seen little to no increase in passing production.
Does an increase in passing productivity indicate the defenses are getting softer? Most likely, yes.
If an offense is facing a stingy pass defense, an offensive coordinator generally will not tempt fate by airing it out. If the offense is facing a porous secondary, the coordinator will usually dial up a lot of passing plays.
Missouri's foray into the Big 12 illustrates this point beautifully.
The Tigers attempted 384 passes in 2011, their last year playing in the pass-happy Big 12. Missouri increased its passing attempts to 414 in its first year in the SEC. Last year it attempted 454 passes in its tough path to winning the SEC East. Missouri recognized a chink in the SEC's armor and took advantage of that.
Missouri is not alone.
Four SEC teams are currently ranked among the top 20 passing offenses. It was not always this way.
Only two SEC teams were ranked in the top 20 in 2013 (Texas A&M and Georgia) and 2012 (Texas A&M and Tennessee). Arkansas was the lone SEC team in 2010-11.
The increase in passing is well-documented. Perhaps the increase is due to better quarterbacks. Perhaps it is due to more creative playcalling. It's more likely because SEC pass defenses just aren't as advertised.
In 2010 there were six SEC teams ranked among the top 20 pass defenses. In 2011 there were seven, including five in the top 10. In 2012, there were only four.
Four weeks into the 2014 season, the only SEC team ranked among the top 10 pass defenses is LSU—Ole Miss is the other top 20 SEC team. What has happened?
That was the year two Big 12 teams joined the SEC. Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel torched secondaries and made Alabama look vulnerable. Suddenly, the cool kids were winning with a vertical passing game.
Despite dire warnings from SEC fans, both Texas A&M and Missouri have had minimal problems adjusting to "big boy" football. The Aggies have a second Heisman Trophy and the Tigers have an SEC East title.
Two Big 12 teams debunked SEC defenses in only two years.
SEC fans had better prepare themselves. Defense may not win championships this year. Michigan State has already learned its lesson from Oregon.
I know, it is a tough pill to swallow. But until the league's defensive backs figure out how to prevent Amari Cooper and Co. from looking like unfettered wild mustangs running down sidelines, the smack talk on Big 12 or Pac-12 defenses should come to a screeching halt.
Lane Kiffin has his playbook wide open with Saban's blessings and he's coming in like a wrecking ball.
Welcome to the jungle.