<
>

Defensive carnage in SEC West eye-opening

Four of the seven SEC West teams will have new defensive coordinators next season, which is fitting, given the carnage we saw in that division during the bowl season.

It's a carnage particularly glaring on the defensive side and yet another reminder that times are changing -- or, more precisely, have changed -- in college football.

Remember when the SEC was known for its defense?

Well, there is no defending how the five Western Division teams that lost in bowl games played, defensively, last week.

The numbers were abysmal, the kind of cataclysmic meltdown that only lends credence to the biggest criticism of SEC defenses over the past few years: They rack up most of their numbers against offenses within the league that aren't very explosive.

Now, before we go any further, not everybody in the West suddenly forgot how to play defense during the postseason.

Arkansas crushed Texas 31-7 in the Advocare V100 Texas Bowl and made the Longhorns look even worse than they really were offensively, which took some doing. The Hogs held the Longhorns to 59 total yards on 43 offensive plays, which marks the fewest yards by any FBS team this season.

It wasn't just that Texas was that bad, either. First-year Arkansas defensive coordinator Robb Smith did an amazing job of transforming the Hogs' defense all season. They held opponents to 17 or fewer points in eight of their 13 games, and six of the eight were against bowl teams.

With only the College Football Playoff National Championship presented by AT&T remaining, Arkansas ranks 10th nationally in both scoring defense and total defense and 12th in rushing defense. The only other SEC team in the top 12 in all three categories is Alabama.

No wonder Arkansas coach Bret Bielema moved fast to make sure Smith had a new three-year deal that will pay him $750,000 annually. But the way Arkansas' defense played in the bowl game was the exception to the rule for the West this postseason.

Alabama, Auburn, LSU, Mississippi State, Ole Miss and Texas A&M all gave up more than 30 points each in their games. The Aggies were able to escape with a 45-37 win against West Virginia, though their biggest win might have been prying away defensive coordinator John Chavis from LSU a few days later.

It wasn't a memorable final game for Chavis' LSU defense. The Tigers gave up 263 rushing yards to Notre Dame in a 31-28 loss and were especially vulnerable on third down. The Irish converted 11 of 17 third-down opportunities and drove 71 yards in 14 plays for the winning field goal.

As it was, LSU's defensive performance might have been the best one of the bunch among the five West teams that lost bowl games, which underscores what a shoddy three days of defense it was for those five teams.

The final damage: Averages of 39.6 points allowed, 501.4 total yards allowed and 314.6 rushing yards allowed, not to mention a combined defensive third-down percentage of 55.4 percent.

The rushing totals were most incriminating. Mississippi State was gashed for 452 yards on the ground by Georgia Tech's option attack and gave up 49 points.

Melvin Gordon and Wisconsin did a number on Auburn, to the tune of 400 rushing yards, and Alabama allowed 281 rushing yards -- including a back-breaking 85-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter -- in its 42-35 playoff loss to Ohio State.

That's two bowl games in a row in which Alabama has laid an egg defensively. The Tide gave up a combined 87 points and 966 yards in losses to Oklahoma a year ago in the Sugar Bowl and Ohio State this year in the playoff.

Does that mean Alabama has lost it defensively? Of course not. The Tide are always going to be a force defensively as long as Nick Saban is around.

But it is fair to say they haven't been nearly as dominant defensively on some of the biggest stages as they were during their national championship seasons in 2009, 2011 and 2012.

In their 55-44 win against Auburn this season, they gave up a school-record 630 total yards. In the 34-28 loss to Auburn last season, they gave up 296 rushing yards, and earlier in that year, they allowed 628 total yards to Johnny Manziel and Texas A&M in a wild 49-42 win over the Aggies.

Spotty play at cornerback has been a recurring problem for the Tide the past two seasons. They've had trouble covering people, which has been magnified by their inability to consistently get to the quarterback.

Nobody's writing off the Tide defensively. Teams all over the country would gladly take their numbers -- and certainly their talent. But mobile quarterbacks have tormented them, and the way they've finished seasons defensively each of the past two seasons has been a concern.

Last impressions are what they remember in college football, and that also goes for Alabama's brethren in the West.

Reputations are earned. Right now, the entire SEC -- specifically the West -- has some work to do in earning back its reputation on the defensive side of the ball.