Every Thursday, it’s four-down territory as we discuss SEC football on gridironnow.com. This week, we look at the league teams that have shown the most improvement on offense and defense — and the league teams that have regressed the most on offense and defense.
The best hire Derek Mason has made at Vanderbilt is … Derek Mason.
After last season’s 3-9 debacle, Mason fired both coordinators. When he surveyed the landscape for a defensive coordinator, he couldn’t find a better fit than himself.
Mason the defensive coordinator helped Mason the head coach win his first SEC game last Saturday after an 0-11 start, shutting down Missouri 10-3. The Tigers managed just 188 total yards and were 0-of-14 on third downs.
That’s quite a departure from last season, when Vandy had the worst scoring defense (33.2 points per game) in the SEC. Four SEC teams scored at least 40 points on Vandy. The Commodores were 10th in total defense (402.1 yards) and 11th in run defense (183.8).
What a remarkable turnaround from last season. Vanderbilt is giving up 16.3 points per game – second in the SEC. Five of seven opponents have scored fewer than 20 points. Vandy is sixth in total defense (316.6 yards per game), an improvement of more than 85 yards per game. It is third in run defense (109.9), an improvement of almost 75 yards per game.
Vanderbilt has basically the same defensive personnel as a year ago. The main difference: Mason is the defensive coordinator.
The next-most improved defense: Missouri. The Tigers have gone from allowing 21.1 points and 346.3 yards to 12.5 points and 282.1 yards.
At first blush, I would have thought Florida had made the most improvement on offense this season. But the Gators are averaging just 1.4 more points and a bit less than 9 more yards of total offense per game.
Instead, the most improved offensive team has been LSU. You can thank two players: running back Leonard Fournette and quarterback Brandon Harris.
LSU has gone from averaging 27.6 points per game to 38.9, second in the league. The Tigers also have gone from averaging 224.5 rushing yards to an SEC-best 309.1 and from 387.5 total yards to 466.0.
While the passing game remains last in terms of yards per game, the efficiency is much greater, going from ninth to third. LSU has nine touchdown passes against no interceptions and has completed 58 percent of its passes. Last year, LSU had 17 TD passes, nine picks and completed just 50 percent of its passes.
And unlike Ole Miss, which feasted on three weak non-conference foes to forge its league-leading scoring average, LSU has played just one weak foe.
Fournette has been brilliant, averaging 193.1 rush yards per game while scoring a league-high 15 touchdowns and averaging 7.7 yards per carry.
Harris has been effective. He was averaging fewer than 100 passing yards per game through four contests, but has thrown for at least 200 yards in each of the past three games to take over the No. 2 spot in the SEC in passing efficiency, behind Ole Miss’ Chad Kelly. Last season, LSU’s Anthony Jennings was 12th in the league in pass efficiency.
Missouri wasn’t great on offense last season, but it wasn’t miserable. Now it’s miserable.
The Tigers haven’t scored a touchdown in their past three games, losing to Florida 21-3, Georgia 9-6 and Vanderbilt 10-3. They have gone 40 possessions without a touchdown. They had just 188 total yards against Vanderbilt and went 0-of-14 on third downs. In the past three games, they are 3-of-41 on third downs.
It’s not surprising that Missouri would be struggling on offense. For the second year in a row, it lost its top three receivers. It returned a quarterback who was a 51 percent career passer and he got suspended, leaving coach Gary Pinkel to start a true freshman. Russell Hansbrough, a 1,000-yard rusher last season, has been slowed by an injury suffered on his first carry of the season.
It’s hard to imagine in this day and age that an SEC team would have just four touchdowns in five SEC games and would average a paltry 14.9 points per game against a schedule that includes Southeast Missouri State, Connecticut, Kentucky and Vanderbilt.
Missouri is last in the SEC in total offense by more than 75 yards per game, last in the league in rushing by more than 25 yards per game (with just two rushing TDs) and 13th in pass offense.
Auburn was supposed to be one of the league’s most improved defenses. Instead, it has the SEC’s worst defense based on scoring (29.7 points per game) and total yards allowed (430.6).
Auburn isn’t getting its money’s worth out of defensive coordinator Will Muschamp ($1.7 million a year). This is a defense with seven starters returning.
Here’s what baffles me: Does Vanderbilt really have more defensive talent than Auburn? If so, how? And why is Vandy’s defense so much better?
I realize Auburn has had some defensive injuries, defensive end Carl Lawson being the key one, but that doesn’t explain the missed tackles and missed assignments.
In addition, Auburn defenders need to quit poking the bear. Before the LSU game, safety Johnathan Ford said it wouldn’t be hard to contain Leonard Fournette — who proceeded to rip off more than 200 yards. This week, cornerback Jonathan Jones said Ole Miss’ Laquon Treadwell was just another receiver.
As a media member, I don’t like gag orders. But if I’m Gus Malzahn, I tell my defense to tackle, not talk.
One other defense that has taken a significant step back: Arkansas. The Hogs are giving up 7.2 points and almost 50 yards more per game than last season.
(You can follow Jimmy Hyams on Twitter @JimmyHyams)
© 2016, gridironnow.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.