Butler County Times Gazette
  • College Football Nation: Defense makes a national champion

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  • Nobody ran on Alabama two years ago, and nobody passed on the Crimson Tide either.
    They barely gave up points, and won their second national championship in three years. They led the country in rushing defense, passing defense and total defense. The 8.2 points they allowed per game were more than 3 points fewer than anyone else, and the fewest allowed this century.
    Alabama won the national championship on the strength of its defense.
    The Tide did the same thing in 2009, and last year as well.
    In all but two of the seven years since the SEC started hoarding crystal footballs, the national champion has been one of the top-six in scoring defense, and in just two of those years was the national champion not one of the top-three in total defense.
    Simply, the SEC has dominated college football for close to a decade with defense. At a time when scoring exploded in the Big 12 and Pac-10/12, when even Michigan and Ohio State gravitated toward a spread offense, SEC teams stayed true to traditions and won games by stopping people rather than outscoring them.
    Suddenly, however, it seems like no one in the SEC can play defense.
    So suddenly, is this finally the year when someone outside the conference claims the national title for the first time since Texas in 2005?
    “We knew we were going to have play this way on offense to have a chance in this game,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said a little less than three weeks ago after his Tide beat Texas A&M 49-42. “I didn’t think they were going to score 42 points, but I kind of thought they would score some points and they did.”
    Two years ago, no one scored more than 21 points on Alabama, and that was Georgia Southern of all teams. In games the Tide took seriously, only Arkansas and Auburn managed to reach 14. Alabama shut out LSU in the BCS Championship Game.
    Yet two years later, Texas A&M put up 42 on the Tide. And Saban wasn’t angry.
    Through four games this year, Florida is the only SEC team ranked in the top 10 in total defense, with Mississippi State next at No. 20. On a per play basis, it’s even worse for the SEC, with the Gators ranked sixth and no one else until Mississippi State at No. 37.
    As for scoring defense, only Florida represents the SEC in the top 10 with Alabama coming in at No. 13.
    The SEC still dominates the polls. Alabama is No. 1 in both the AP and coaches’ polls. Georgia in sixth in both, and Texas A&M is ninth. LSU comes in a No. 10 in the AP and 11th in the coaches’ poll, and South Carolina is ranked 13th by the AP and 12th by the coaches.
    Page 2 of 4 - Yet each of those teams has proven vulnerable on defense.
    Georgia is 3-1 with just a 3-point loss at No. 3 Clemson and wins over South Carolina and LSU. The Bulldogs are scary on offense, led by quarterback Aaron Murray and the powerful running of Todd Gurley. No one has been able to stop them.
    But they haven’t stopped anyone either.
    Georgia gave up 38 in that loss to Clemson, 30 in its win over South Carolina, and 41 last Saturday in its win over LSU.
    LSU looked like massive losses to graduation and early departures were no problem as it raced out to a 3-0 start. But then the Bulldogs shredded the Tigers for 44 points on Saturday.
    South Carolina held North Carolina to 10 points in its opener, but hasn’t given up less than 25 since. And Texas A&M simply stinks on defense, giving an average of 30.8 points per game.
    It’s a far cry from just a couple of years ago when SEC teams boasted dominant defenses, and cast a judgmental eye to the west where Big 12 teams were scoring at record rates but unable to stop anyone.
    But there are teams considered contenders for the national title who boast strong defenses to date.
    Oregon, most prominently, is giving up only 10.8 points per game while scoring 59.8. And the Ducks have done that against a schedule that, while not difficult yet, that includes Virginia, Tennessee, and Cal.
    Oklahoma and Washington also are playing stingy defense.
    So is this the year someone finally unseats the SEC?
    Well, Alabama just shut Ole Miss out. And against teams that don’t have Johnny Manziel at quarterback the Tide haven’t allowed more than 10.
    But if defense wins championships, the SEC’s streak is mighty vulnerable.
    What We Learned
    Lane Kiffin got what everyone knew was coming his way.
    Maybe the way it went down, at the airport after his USC team returned to Los Angeles from a 62-41 loss at Arizona State, was surprising, the swiftness of the move after athletic director Pat Haden had resisted firing Kiffin following a disastrous season a year ago when he seemed to have lost his team, when he was seemingly unaware of players’ meetings going on behind his back.
    Was Kiffin’s firing deserved?
    Absolutely.
    His team was ranked atop the preseason polls in 2012 yet finished 7-6, including a loss to a very mediocre Georgia Tech team in the Peach Bowl. And then his team started 2-2 this year with a horrid home loss to a Washington State team that won just three games last year and the beatdown in Tempe.
    “I just felt like we haven’t been the consistent team that we need to be at USC,” Haden said about the move. “We’ve played 125 years of some pretty doggone good football here at USC. We’re just all a piece of the continuum. We’re going to be playing football 125 years from now. I was just a tiny little piece of it, Lane was, Pete Carroll was, and we all add up into this continuum of USC football, and we just realized that our history has been great, and we need to be great again.”
    Page 3 of 4 - But was early Sunday morning the right time? Would Haden have been better served waiting until after the season to relieve Kiffin of his duties.
    Unlike at UConn, where Paul Pasqualoni was fired on Monday, it probably was the right time for USC to act.
    USC is simply one of the marquee programs in college football, a destination job along the lines of Texas, Ohio State, Alabama and Notre Dame. It’s college football royalty, and almost anyone not at one of those other royalty programs can’t help but be intrigued by the idea of leading the men of Troy.
    By firing Kiffin now, Haden can begin his search before other programs fire coaches at the end of the season, have under-the-table conversations with even currently employed head coaches that won’t lead to a move now but could lead to one just after the regular season, before someone like Texas, for example, even starts a search if Mack Brown is relieved of his duties.
    UConn, however, is no one’s destination job. It’s a stepping stone. Athletic director Warde Manuel isn’t going to get into conversations with Texas A&M’s Kevin Sumlin, or Boise State’s Chris Petersen, or Washington’s Steve Sarkisian the way Haden might.
    The next head coach of UConn is likely an assistant on someone’s staff now, and won’t talk about moving up until after the season.
    So unless UConn was losing commits, why not wait?
    As for USC, why wait?
    Game of the Week
    If Ohio State is going to fall once this season, Saturday seems the most like time.
    The Buckeyes are at Northwestern in prime time, and likely won’t face a tougher test all season.
    Wait, Northwestern?
    Yes, Northwestern.
    The Wildcats haven’t blown anyone out, and even struggled a bit against Maine two weeks ago. But they’re 4-0 and ranked 16th in the AP poll. They were 10-3 a year ago, losing a fourth-quarter lead to Penn State, falling by a point to Iowa, and losing in overtime to Michigan.
    They’ve brought back not merely quarterback Kain Colter from that team, but 15 starters, and their rushing attack, gaining 249.5 yards per game, causes opposing teams fits.
    “Really difficult game coming up,” Ohio State coach Urban Meyer said during his weekly press conference, “back to back games against ranked teams. ... Another night game. Gameday I hear is going to be there, and it will be a heck of an atmosphere so we look forward to this challenge.”
    If Ohio State, which got a solid 31-24 win over Wisconsin last weekend, survives Northwestern, it’s smooth sailing until the final week of the regular season. Iowa, Penn State, Purdue, Illinois and Indiana are all that will stand between the Buckeyes and a visit to Ann Arbor to play archrival Michigan.
    Page 4 of 4 - Iowa and Illinois each have just one loss and look improved, but neither has proven themselves against quality competition. It’s really just the Wolverines, after the Wildcats, who stand between Ohio State and a second straight 12-0 season, though this time the Buckeyes will also have to survive the Big Ten Championship Game to finish unbeaten.
    First, however, a tough team in Evanston, coming off a bye week, lies in wait.
    My Top 5
    1. Alabama (4-0): An easy road is ahead until LSU on Nov. 9.
    2. Oregon (4-0): At Washington on Oct. 12 looms huge.
    3. Clemson (4-0): Neither Syracuse nor BC should pose a problem the next two weeks.
    4. Ohio State (5-0): Perhaps the toughest game of the Buckeyes’ season awaits.
    5. Stanford (4-0): A visit from Washington, even in Palo Alto, is a stiff test.
    Eric Avidon is a voter in the AP Poll and can be reached at 508-626-3809 or eavidon@wickedlocal.com. Follow him on Twitter at @ericavidon.
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