COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — The Southeastern Conference has an identity crisis.
Turn on SEC game tape the past few decades and themes jump off the screen — a league stacked with talented runners; fierce, strong, fast defenders or elusive, accurate passers who lead their teams to titles.
This year? It appears parity rules the league.
“When I say that, the separation is really thin,” Tennessee coach Josh Heupel said. “You have to be on the right side of it.”
And in finding ways to maintain your edge through the new world of transfer portal departures. No longer can SEC powers stockpile three- and four-star players and keep them on track to develop into difference makers.
“I think there is more parity,” said Alabama coach Nick Saban, who’s won six national titles with the Crimson Tide, the last one in 2020. “And I think that because there’s more multiples of ways to bring players to your team.”
The cracks in the SEC wall have shown themselves early this season with some of the league’s marquee programs losing high profile, non-conference games, like No. 13 LSU’s 45-24 loss to No. 5 Florida State in Week One or the 12th-ranked Crimson Tide falling to No. 3 Texas 34-24 a week later.
“The observations that we didn’t perform to our standard level of performance are real, but we’re still going to have great competition,” SEC commissioner Greg Sankey said. “It’s competitive. You live with those things.”
A check through the statistics through four games shows playmakers excelling throughout the SEC.
The league has only two teams among the nation’s top 20 in offensive yards per game (LSU is seventh and two-time defending national champion Georgia is 13th). Things are a bit stouter on the defensive side where four teams, led by No. 22 Florida, among the top 20 in yards given up this season.
LSU, a month into the season, is the SEC’s highest-scoring team, but the Tigers are 11th of 14 teams in a total defense and points allowed. Auburn is second in rushing yards and second to last in stopping the run.
Among individuals, leaders are spread across the entire SEC. Vanderbilt quarterback A.J. Swann is at or near the top of several categories, including most offensive plays run. His teammate Will Sheppard has six TD catches to top the league.
South Carolina’s Xavier Legette leads in all-purpose yards and receiving yards per game. Missouri runner Cody Schrader, a one-time walk-on from Truman State, leads the SEC with 403 yards rushing and a 6.02 yard average per carry.
On defense, Mississippi State has the first and third best tacklers so far this season in linebackers Jett Johnson and Nathaniel Johnson.
“I think college football in general, and this league, every Saturday is its own entity,” said Heupel, the Vols coach. “Your preparation, a play here or there that turns the momentum in the football game a little bit, it’s fine lines.”
Longtime CBS Sports analyst Gary Danielson believes the SEC can always count on defense, even if it doesn’t always grab the headlines. He’s watched the rise of prolific offenses in the Big 12 and Pac 12 conferences put up video game numbers that immediately draw attention. He’s not so sure they’d fare well against the SEC’s steadiness and strength on defense.
“I still do think, as pretty as it looks in the Pac 12, I don’t believe week in and week out, they would have the same success” in the SEC, he said.
South Carolina tight end Trey Knox played his first four seasons at Arkansas before following Razorbacks assistant Dowell Loggains to the Gamecocks.
“I think the biggest thing you see is the size, SEC guys are just big and strong guys,” said Knox, who’s 6-foot-5, 240 pounds. “A lot of twitchy athletes that can fly off the ball and make plays. You’ll see that year in and year out. Now, schemes may change, but that’s the biggest things, the way guys play and the body types and the athleticism.”
Whether those players stay the course at their original SEC school is another matter. Saban has benefitted from transfers like Georgia Tech tailback Jahmyr Gibbs joining the Crimson Tide before 2022. Saban’s also lost starting guard Javion Cohen to Miami, among 18 players who used to portal to leave the past year.
“I think sometimes the stronger teams lose some of their depth on their team that go someplace else to play,” Saban said.
These days, Danielson said, power SEC teams can watch how players on their old recruiting boards who they didn’t take develop elsewhere before luring them later in their college careers.
In the end, Danielson thinks the SEC’s identity remains its stellar players on the offensive and defensive lines that outpaces most all of its Power Five competitors.
“Top to bottom, I don’t if the other leagues can stand up to the NFL-ready talent” in the SEC, he said.
AP Sports Writers Brett Martell in New Orleans, Teresa Walker in Nashville and John Zenor in Birmingham, Alabama contributed to this report.
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