Scoring binge

There was a time when 24 points would virtually assure you a win in Southeastern Conference play. Nowadays, 24 points doesn't even assure you a halftime lead.

Just one month into the season it appears that 2007 is going to be a much better year for SEC offenses than SEC defenses.

Consider:

- LSU hung 45 points on Mississippi State and 48 on Virginia Tech in its first two games.

- Kentucky scored at least 40 points in each of its first five games, including a 42-29 win at Arkansas on Sept. 22.

- Alabama (41) and Arkansas (38) combined for 79 points on Sept. 15.

- Florida hung 59 points on Tennessee, also on Sept. 15.

- Georgia scored 45 on Ole Miss on Sept. 29.

- Arkansas struck for 66 points against North Texas, also on Sept. 29.

Perhaps you're wondering: What in the wide world of sports is going on here?

For one thing, the SEC has some offensive-minded head coaches nowadays – Steve Spurrier at South Carolina, Urban Meyer at Florida, Mark Richt at Georgia and Les Miles at LSU. For another, the league boasts some outstanding offensive coordinators – Al Borges at Auburn, David Cutcliffe at Tennessee, Joker Phillips at Kentucky and Gary Crowton at LSU.

In addition, many teams are using variations of the spread – a scheme that is forcing defensive coordinators to adapt, much as the I-formation did in the 1940s and the triple-option did in the 1970s.

"Offenses are more spread out and open," Tennessee head coach Phillip Fulmer recently noted. "They're using the (whole) field, and a lot more big plays are happening."

That's a fact. Through the first four games Fulmer's Vols have produced 20 scrimmage plays that gained 20 yards or more while allowing 27 scrimmage plays of 20 yards or more.

Perhaps the biggest single factor in the scoring binge of 2007, though, is the new NCAA rule forcing teams to kick off from the 30-yard line instead of the 35. Kickoffs that were downed in the end zone for touchbacks in '06 are being fielded and returned in '07. Thus, possessions that used to begin on the 20-yard line are now beginning on the 30, the 35 or the 40. Obviously, it's much easier to drive 60 yards for a score than to drive 80 yards for a score.

No one is more acutely aware of this than Tennessee defensive coordinator John Chavis. When asked about the conference-wide increase in scoring, he replied: "You look at field position. See how many times somebody has gone 75 or 80 yards and see how many times they've gone 55 yards. I think that'll answer the question."

Naturally, the new kickoff rule has been a godsend for Tennessee's offense but a curse for Tennessee's defense. The Vols are scoring 34.5 points per game but allowing 37.5 this season.

"Offensively, the field position has helped," Fulmer said. "We've done a good job with our field position for the most part, and Erik (Ainge) has done a fantastic job of moving the team.

"Defensively, it's been some poor field position with the kickoff (change) and mistakes we've made along the way."

Those "mistakes" weren't always made by defensive players, however. The Vols allowed two punt returns for touchdowns, two fumble returns for touchdowns and an interception return for a touchdown in September.

"We've given up a lot of points," Chavis conceded, "but 35 of them we haven't been on the field. That's a lot of points."

The 1998 Vols allowed just 189 points in 13 games en route to the national title. The 2007 Vols have allowed 150 points in just four games. Still, Fulmer says he is not resigned to the idea that Tennessee will continue allowing 30-plus points per game.

"I don't think you resign yourself to that," he said. "You focus on what you have to do to get better."

After watching Tennessee surrender 59 points in Game 3 at Florida, Fulmer saw signs of improvement in the Vols' Game 4 defeat of Arkansas State. There were fewer alignment and assignment errors, along with fewer missed tackles.

"You can see on tape a lot more times that we were in the right places and making good, solid tackles," he said. "But then that ugly monster shows up where we get out of place, don't fill a gap or miss a tackle."


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