HOOVER, Ala. -- Georgia and Alabama are going to be the favorites to win the SEC East and West, respectively. So one of the hottest topics during SEC Media Days has been, and will continue to be, their primary threats.
The Gators and Tigers made the rounds at the Hyatt Regency Birmingham -- the Wynfrey Hotel on Monday as the annual event kicked off, and defensive questions swirled faster than soft serve ice cream at the adjacent mall. Both traditional powers have the potential to be great, yet not a lot of time to fix lingering issues that plagued them last year.
For Florida, it's about limiting big plays. The Gators finished next-to-last in the SEC in opponent plays of 10 or more yards with a whopping 185 in 12 games, and ninth in opponents yards per play at 6.06. The aggressive scheme led by veteran coordinator Todd Grantham is at its best when its players take on the mindset of their coordinator. Coach Dan Mullen is pleased with that transformation so far this offseason.
"Defensive attitude. Today we brought two of our defensive players with us, [defensive lineman] Zachary Carter and [linebacker] Ventrell Miller," said Dan Mullen. "You look at the leadership those guys bring on defense that we have. We have some really young players in the secondary, but you have Trey Dean and Kyler Engel with some experience coming back there. Really, to me, the attitude of where our defense is at is what I'm really pleased with. The energy -- we play a lot of guys defensively, roll guys through to keep them fresh and healthy, and I'm really excited of the mindset, the attitude that the defense as a whole is bringing to the table and the leadership that they have within our program."
Miller, a junior, relishes a role that the defense sorely needed a year ago.
"It's a big role, a big role to play, but I embrace it," he said. "I like that coach believes in me that much to put the load on me. So just going out there, looking forward to doing everything that I can to help the team win."
Defense doesn't win championships anymore, just enough defense does. Mullen made sure to point out that styles make fights, and his offensive style doesn't lend itself to lockdown defense.
"There's some games we played really, really well defensively," he said. "There's games where I thought we played well, but statistically maybe weren't great. And if you look in a lot of those games, if you were going to play us on the other side of the ball, you had to play a different style game maybe than you wanted to or expected to, and take a lot of chances because we were going to try to score points and keep up with us, or we jumped out to a big lead and you were just kind of -- you know, just throw caution to the wind to try to put up yards and points as fast as possible."
Limiting big plays will go a long way toward fixing Florida's glaring problem.
It's the same problem for LSU, but that glare is as bright a thousand suns.
The Tigers gave up an SEC-record 623 passing yards to Mississippi State in last season's opener, which set the tone for one of the most disappointing seasons in program history. They gave up 7.26 yards per play, defensive back Derek Stingley Jr. fought through an ankle injury suffered in Week 3 when he stepped on a yard marker and ex-defensive coordinator Bo Pelini had his players' heads spinning.
"We have to eliminate explosive plays," coach Ed Orgeron said. "Too many explosive plays, too many missed assignments. Too many busts. Too many receivers running down the field free, and we played a lot of man and a lot of combination of man, stuff like that. Some of it was simple, some of it was too complicated. We're going to simplify stuff. We want our players to have their cleats in the grass."
First-year coordinator Daronte Jones, a defensive back coach by trade, has made an immediate impression on a unit that got torched a year ago.
"You can tell that he knows his stuff," said Stingley. "His experience and the way he has come in, simplified everything and allowed us to make plays has been great."
Pressure exists all over the SEC, and that pressure falls squarely on defenses in Gainesville and Baton Rouge. Fix it, and both can contend for the College Football Playoff.