An influx of offensive innovation following the SEC’s many coaching changes in recent years has made defense all the more important. The plodding, single-digit final scores may be a thing of the SEC’s past, but those teams capable of limiting the conference’s suddenly prolific offenses set the pace.
No two teams hit the accelerator with as much vigor as Auburn and Texas A&M. Gus Malzahn and Kevin Sumlin turned the conference on its head with their brand of uptempo, spread offenses. But the frenetic pace at which both operate exposed their teams’ respective defenses in 2014, forcing both to hire new defensive coordinators. Neither had to go outside the SEC to find their men, with Malzahn snatching up Will Muschamp and Sumlin hiring John Chavis.
In a hotly contested SEC West, either Muschamp or Chavis could be the different in his team winning the division.
Auburn surrendered an average of 26.7 points per game in 2014 — on its own, and given the pace head coach Gus Malzahn likes to play, not a terrible number. But take away the customary, late-season body-bag game against FCS opponent Samford, and the Tigers surrendered totals of 38, 35, 31, 41, 34, 55 and 34 from Oct. 11 on.
The 55 points yielded to Alabama in the Iron Bowl proved especially troubling, as a 34-point deluge spanning a little over 15 minutes between the third and fourth quarters negated a two-touchdown Tiger lead.
Exit Ellis Johnson, enter Will Muschamp. Though the former Florida head coach failed to return the Gators to the level of success experienced and Steve Spurrier and Urban Meyer, their defenses throughout his tenure were stout. To wit, Florida finished in the top 20 of scoring defense each of the last two seasons — two seasons that were wildly disappointing in the win-loss column.
A return to Auburn as defensive coordinator, a role Muschamp filled in 2006 and 2007, seems a natural fit and prime opportunity to rejuvenate his coaching career. He’ll have the opportunity to prove himself as one of the game’s great defensive minds, and win with the benefit of a more an effective offense complementing his defense.
Auburn expects plenty of Muschamp, as Malzahn explained to Andy Johnson of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution:
“It helps me having a guy who’s been a head coach in our league, because our league is very unique. He brings a lot of experience, and he brings a lot of trust. We really worked hard on our players and coaches developing trust over the spring. His expectations are extremely high. The bar is set high. He holds them accountable, and he brings his A game every day to every meeting, every practice, and our defensive guys really responded, taking on his personality.”
Likewise, plenty of eager anticipation welcomes John Chavis in his first season at Texas A&M — starting with his own players.
“The buy-in has been great,” Sumlin said on the SEC spring teleconference call. One area in which Chavis’ presence could yield immediate dividends is in his blitzing schemes, which Sumlin described as putting “big smiles on [the] faces” of the Aggies defensive ends.
Pass-rushing was one area in which Texas A&M wasn’t bad last season, racking up 35 sacks on the campaign. With improvements in other facets, A&M should be able to blitz even more — but there are plenty of improvements to be made.
Texas A&M’s defensive situation was considerably more dire than Auburn’s in 2014. The Aggies pounded on nonconference opponents Rice, Lamar, Louisiana-Monroe and historically awful SMU, allowing a combined 35 points over those four contests.
Take those away, and Texas A&M gave up almost 37 points per game for the season. The 2014 campaign was A&M’s second plagued by serious defensive deficiencies, with the 2013 performance squandered another exemplary season from 2012 Heisman winner Johnny Manziel and wide receiver Mike Evans.
Chavis lacks the head coaching experience Muschamp boasts, but the former Tennessee and LSU defensive coordinator is entrenched in the fabric of the SEC nonetheless. He spent 13 years as Phil Fulmer’s defensive coordinator, helping the Vols win the 1998 BCS Championship. In his five years at LSU, the Tigers routinely featured dominant defenses, with the 2011 version powering LSU to an SEC championship.
On paper, Muschamp has the easier Year One job: the Tigers were simply better than Texas A&M statistically last season, and Auburn is not lacking for name-talent on the defensive side. Jonathan Jones and Johnathan Ford in the secondary, Cassanova McKinzy at linebacker and Carl Lawson and Montravius Adams on the line can all be impact players.
But Sumlin’s recruiting in his short time at A&M has been top-notch, and the Aggies have their own potential stars. Defensive end Myles Garrett is already established as one of the nation’s premier pass-rushers, but he needs others around him to step up.
Run-stopping is the big issue. Teams went for 216 rushing yards per game on A&M a season ago, which ranked the Aggies No. 111 against the run nationally.
Chavis has the more challenging task ahead of him, it would appear, but a heavy-duty job means potential for truly profound impact.