LSU vs. Georgia and the revenge of the SEC offense

Kevin C. Cox

Because experience still matters, we probably should have seen the SEC's early defensive regression (and offensive surge) coming. But before the Ds figure things out, the Os should have a nice time when LSU takes on Georgia in Athens on Saturday.

It is sometimes difficult to see the big picture until you're forced to see it. Two of the most dominant narratives in college football right now are a) the SEC is awesome, and b) SEC defenses are even more awesome. And for the most part, this has been ironclad in recent years.

In 2013, however, it hasn't necessarily been the case. SEC defenses actually seem vulnerable. Of the top 17 current defenses in Yards Per Game, only one is from the SEC (No. 2 Florida at 212.3 per game). Hell, only five are in the top 40 (Florida, No. 18 Arkansas, No. 24 LSU, No. 24 Mississippi State, No. 33 Ole Miss). Alabama's vaunted defense was lit up by Texas A&M even worse than last year, Georgia's allowing more yards than UTSA, South Carolina's allowing more yards than East Carolina, Texas A&M's allowing more yards than (gasp) Texas, etc.

Total yardage is never a very good measuring stick, of course. You have to take opponent and pace into account to truly get a good read for quality. (This is an odd experience, by the way; I'm usually making this argument to defend the Big 12 or Pac-12.) Plus, it's early. One bad game or one really good offensive opponent (Alabama played A&M, Georgia played Clemson, etc.) can skew the averages dramatically. But even in the opponent-adjusted Def. S&P+ rankings (which also suffer from a sample size problem), the SEC only has three teams in the top 25, and Texas A&M (No. 106) still ranks below UAB and Western Michigan.

For all we know, the defensive struggles are temporary. September results are not November results. But at least in the short term, we should have seen this shift coming.

We also should have figured that SEC offenses would be clicking at a pretty high level. For one thing, league offenses weren't really bad last year. Texas A&M, Alabama, and Georgia were among the top four in 2012 Off. F/+, and four other teams were in the top 35. But while the three elite offenses are once again looking pretty good -- Texas A&M is fifth in total yardage, Georgia is sixth, and Alabama's offense looked outstanding the one time it had to (against A&M) -- others have joined in the prolific start. LSU is 33rd in yards per game and 12th in Off. S&P+. South Carolina is 35th and ninth, respectively. Missouri is seventh and 25th. Kentucky is 25th and 21st.

Why should we have known that there would be a shift toward the offense? Experience. We can talk all we want about star ratings and reputations, but experience still has a major role to play in success. In 2013, SEC offenses have a solid amount of experience, especially at the top; last year's elite SEC defenses, meanwhile, have had some rebuilding to do.

Bill Connelly's NumericalWeek 4's best stats

Here's a look at each SEC team and some percentages: percent of passing yards returning at quarterback, percent of rushing yards returning at running back, percent of receiving yards returning at wide receiver and tight end, and percent of career starts returning on the offensive line.

I've separated the league's teams into two bunches: last year's top six (which all finished among the overall F/+ top 13) and last year's bottom eight.

In all, 11 of the league's 14 teams returned a vast majority of last year's passing yards, nine returned at least half of their rushing yards (10 if you include Missouri with the return from injury of Henry Josey), and eight returned at least half of their offensive line starts. A healthy James Franklin has helped at Missouri, and new offensive systems have led to solid early upgrades for Kentucky and Auburn. And in all, this league has improved by quite a bit on the offensive side of the ball.

Now here's a look at the league's defenses. Included are the following percentages: percent of tackles and tackles for loss returning on the line, percent of tackles and combined TFLs and passes defensed returning at linebacker, and percent of tackles and passes defensed returning in the secondary.

That's a lot of red at the top there.

In 2012, the SEC's top six overall teams all had defenses ranked 18th or better in Def. F/+. Of those six teams, four lost at least 50 percent of their defensive line tackles and tackles for loss and three were crushed by attrition at linebacker (only one returned any major level of experience), and while five of the six were reasonably experienced in the secondary, none were vastly experienced. It is very difficult to maintain an elite level while rebuilding, and that's what we've seen thus far. Again, it's early, and these new pieces could round into shape at some point. But we probably should have expected at least a temporary step backwards.

Of course, there has been another plot twist in 2013: The rest of the league appears to have caught up, at least for now. Last year was a pretty good year for the "SEC is top-heavy" argument. If you're trying to make a case that the league really isn't the best conference, or at least, it isn't nearly as dominant as it thinks it is, you start by talking about depth. In 2012, the SEC was loaded at the top, with six of the top 13 teams in the country: No. 1 Alabama, No. 3 Texas A&M, No. 4 Florida, No. 6 Georgia, No. 10 LSU, and No. 13 South Carolina. But after the Gamecocks, the next-best team was No. 40 Ole Miss. Five teams ranked between 50th and 62nd, and two ranked worse than 100th. The drop-off was pretty swift.

So far in 2013, the top six are a little bit worse overall so far. Alabama, Florida, and LSU are still in the top 10, but Georgia is 12th, South Carolina is 19th, and thanks to that dreadful defense, Texas A&M is 21st. This has led to the creation of a different "The SEC is down!" narrative. And hey, that's only fair. But while the elites have slipped a little bit, the rest of the conference has held its own. Missouri is 3-0 and 17th, Ole Miss is 28th, and the dregs of the conference have improved dramatically.

Again, it's early. I can't say "so far" enough times here. But early indications are that, as conference play reaches full-steam in the coming weeks, we could see more competitive games, more upsets, and more points from the Southeastern Conference this year. And while that might hurt the odds of the conference winning its eighth straight national title (at least, until Alabama reaches fifth gear and makes us feel silly for doubting), this could end up being the deepest SEC in a few years.

So what does that mean for Saturday's LSU-Georgia game? Points, probably. Georgia was already the league's least-stable elite squad in 2012, with better-than-normal offense and worse-than-normal defense. Now with youth on defense and lovely experience and explosiveness on offense, that has become a little bit more well-defined in 2013, even despite the loss of star receiver Malcolm Mitchell. Meanwhile, quarterback Zach Mettenberger and the LSU offense have taken well to the introduction of offensive coordinator Cam Cameron, and the Tigers are playing better offensively than they have since probably 2007.

Some of the advantages are not incredibly stark, but offenses hold the edge nearly across the board here.

Unit
Off. S&P+
Rk
Success
Rate Rk
PPP
Rk
Rushing
S&P Rk
Passing
S&P Rk
Std. Downs
S&P Rk
Pass. Downs
S&P Rk
Georgia offense 11 53 13 81 4 18 25
LSU defense 25 73 24 59 28 26 63
Unit
Off. S&P+
Rk
Success
Rate Rk
PPP
Rk
Rushing
S&P Rk
Passing
S&P Rk
Std. Downs
S&P Rk
Pass. Downs
S&P Rk
LSU offense 12 57 10 62 7 24 12
Georgia defense 30 40 81 42 89 79 42

Can Georgia run?

In all, Georgia's offense has been as good as advertised. The passing game has clicked at a pretty ridiculous level, with five players catching between seven and 10 passes and big-play threats everywhere you look. Justin Scott-Wesley is averaging 23.4 yards per catch (and 19.5 yards per target), Chris Conley is brutally fast, tight end Arthur Lynch is averaging 16.1 yards per catch, and Reggie Davis caught a 98-yard touchdown last week.

Strength versus strength and weakness versus weakness when Georgia has the ball.

But the Georgia run game hasn't really clicked yet. Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall have averaged a healthy but unspectacular 5.3 yards per carry, and despite the fact that the Bulldogs have already faced Clemson and South Carolina, opponent adjustments haven't been that kind. Gurley is a devastating punisher, and we know from last year that Marshall is explosive on the outside, but we don't know how much room either will have to run.

Of course, we also don't know much about a retooled LSU front seven that has been fine against the pass and relatively shaky against the run. It's strength versus strength and weakness versus weakness when Georgia has the ball.

Can Georgia stop the pass?

The single biggest disadvantage in the tables above comes when Mettenberger is throwing the ball. Two-thirds of his passes have been directed at just two players, Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry, but that's all he's needed. The duo has caught 44 of 60 passes (73 percent catch rate) for 753 yards (12.6 per target) and 10 touchdowns in four games. Landry is a possession receiver with solid explosiveness, and Beckham is a big-play threat who has been wonderfully efficient this year; the two navigated a complicated, athletic TCU secondary in the season opener, and while Georgia has speed to burn, the Dawgs are inexperienced in the back.

Of the eight members of Georgia's DB two-deep, four are freshmen, including starters Brendan Langley (cornerback) and Tray Matthews (free safety), and two more are sophomores. We knew this would be a young unit heading into the season, and opponents have thus far completed 63 percent of their passes at 7.0 yards per attempt, with six touchdowns to one interception. Again, Georgia's level of competition has been stiffer than most at this point in the season, but those numbers still give you pause considering how effective Mettenberger has been.

Despite home-field advantage, it appears Georgia might have a few more questions to answer in a game that it must win to remain in the national title hunt. (The SEC East race, however, still runs through Athens at this point, at least until the Georgia-Florida game.) Meanwhile, LSU probably doesn't need this one quite as much (beat Alabama and Texas A&M, and the Tigers will probably win the West regardless), but the "Zach Mettenberger's revenge" story line (the LSU quarterback began his career at Georgia) should still carry some heft and provide extra motivation.

In all, it makes perfect sense that SEC defenses would be a step behind the norm early in the season. And before they begin to catch up, the state of flux should result in a pretty high-scoring, aesthetically pleasing battle in Athens this weekend.

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