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The Changing Look of SEC Defenses

Streeter Lecka - Getty Images

The standard sportswriter's caveat concerning Spring practice is that the information derived thereof is of limited predictive value. Or, more bluntly, "Don't look at me when something else happens."

The problem is the scarcity of data. Workouts tend to focus on fundamentals rather than the nuances of a team's strategy. Players have the entire summer of conditioning (or rehabilitation) work ahead and then the team has the whole of August to put the whole mess together. April, by that point, was a lifetime ago.

Yet there are a few key ways Spring practice can help understand the geography of the coming season and no more so than through the defensive scheme. Now that the coaching carousel has reached full stop and all the promises of changes have been made, we can finally see who is committing to what basic defensive alignment and, possibly, deduce a thing or two from there.

Here is a rough tally of the base defenses we expect to see next season for every Southeastern Conference school. The chart also shows what squads have changed defenses since Alabama switched to the 3-4 defense with the arrival of Coach Saban in 2007.

2012 SEC Base Defenses
West Division
Team Defense Switch
Alabama 3-4 2007
Arkansas 4-3
Auburn 4-3
LSU 4-3
Ole Miss 4-2-5 2008
Miss State 4-3
Texas A&M 4-3 2012
East Division
Team Defense Switch
Florida 4-3
Georgia 3-4 2010
Kentucky 4-3
Missouri 4-3
S. Carolina 4-2-5 2008
Tennessee 3-4 2012
Vanderbilt 4-3

First off, let's be clear about what this tells us. In this day and age in the SEC most teams run hybrid defenses that push the boundaries of their "base" definition. A number of SEC DC's (like Florida's Dan Quinn, Kentucky's Rick Minter and Arkansas' new hire Paul Haynes) bristle at labeling their scheme one or the other. Whatevs. For this analysis we're more interested in the types of players a given scheme demands and the problems for teams changing from one to the other. Lets start with the latter.

Three SEC teams have brought on new defensive coordinators who are overhauling things on their side of the ball this off-season. Tennessee is switching to the 3-4 under former Alabama linebackers coach Sal Sunseri while Texas A&M is bringing a three-year experiment with the same defense to an end. Ole Miss may transition away from the 4-2-5 run under former DC Tyrone Nix but with a goofy co-defensive coordinator system, anything is possible from the boys from Oxford in 2012.

The compelling point to be made is that both of the conference's divisions will boast at least one squad caught in defensive transition next season. Oh my, won't that be fun?

Since Alabama changed its defense in 2007, three (current) SEC teams have made the switch from the 4-3 to the 3-4. In each case, the immediate results have been... underwhelming. This is probably due to the defense's complexity.

"The one thing that any kind of a 3-4 gives you is better multiples to pressure," Saban says. "You're symmetrical so you can do it either way. In a 4-3, it's a little easier to read the overloads."

The upshot is you can have four linebackers rushing at any time. The downside is players have to recognize far more situations presented by the offense and react to them -- all by the time the offense gets set and snap of the ball. The learning curve can be pretty steep and squads usually need a year or so to grasp the scheme and make it work.

The chart below shows the final Defensive Rank and record of each of these teams including the season prior to the change, the season of the change (in bold) and the season following.

Switching from the 4-3 to the 3-4
Season 2006 2007 2008
Def Rank 23rd 31st (t) 3rd (t)
Record 6-7 7-6 12-2
Season 2009 2010 2011
Def Rank 38th 23rd 5th
Record 8-5 6-7 10-4
Season 2008 2009 2010
Def Rank 115th 105th 55th
Record 4-8 6-7 9-4
Season 2011 2012 2013
Def Rank 27th n/a n/a
Record 5-7 n/a n/a

Alabama's first year of the 3-4 saw a dip in the defensive ranking but a slight improvement in the overall record. Georgia was the complete reverse; the record slumped but the defensive ranking actually improved. The Aggies improved their defensive ranking the year they put in Tim DeRuyter's 3-4 but when you are that far down, just about anything you do differently will be for the better.

What is consistent across each of these examples is year one was holding steady at best but, in each case, in the second year running the 3-4 system there was a very significant upswing in defensive ranking and overall record.

So, on the face of it, this suggests the Vols are in for a meat grinder of a 2012 season with the prospect of an improved defensive corps in the campaign after that. Of course if Tennessee puts up another 7-or-so loss season, odds are good Mama Dooley's favorite son ain't gonna be wearing those orange pants much past Christmas.

Now the Texas A&M switch back to the 4-3 in 2012 may affect Alabama a little more directly. The Aggies defensive transformation ensures the Tide will be the only 3-4 team in the West. That means the rest of the offensive coordinators in the division will have to change gears the week they face Alabama in order to handle it. Moreover, they won't have the luxury of facing a high power version of the scheme in practice while the Tide probably has a pretty solid 4-3 scrub team by this point.

But lets not go getting all excited just yet. The SEC's reputation as home to defensive powerhouses isn't exactly defined by types of schemes themselves. Yes, Alabama and Georgia's 3-4 defenses came in 1st and 5th for total defense respectively last year but LSU's 4-3 defense was the second best in the country and South Carolina's 4-2-5 was ranked third. The key to any defense is talent and there's not a lack of it in the SEC.

2011 College Football Defenses

The more concerning implication of the growing number of 3-4 SEC teams has to do with obtaining that talent down the road. One of the immediate advantages Alabama enjoyed by changing to the defense in 2007 was the luxury of looking for different types of players than the rest of the conference tended to target.

According to a rough tally by SB Nation's Bill Connelly, about 75% of the teams in the country ran a 4-3 scheme last year. That's roughly the same proportion found in the SEC. That means a whole lotta schools are looking for the same types of athletes to fill the defensive roster.

The 3-4's de-emphasis on down linemen alone is an advantage since these are the most difficult type of players to find among the recruiting ranks. Instead of battling the rest of the conference for those guys, Saban and his coaches were able to specifically target the fast and powerful linebackers needed for the 3-4.

Now, there are three SEC schools in adjoining states searching for the same types of defensive players in the same geographical region. The return of recruiting ace Lance Thompson to the Capstone after a sojourn in Knoxville suddenly seems like a much more important development than folks might have thought at first glance.

Obviously none of this is to suggest that the sky is about to fall on Alabama recruiting. The backlog of top-ranked recruiting classes augmented with a pair of crystal footballs in the trophy case within the past three years ensures that the Crimson Tide will be dealing from a position of power in the more difficult recruiting battles. But the Tide's success is creating a change in the defensive geography in the SEC and keeping ahead of the competition is only going to get harder from here on out.