It has been a veritable sackfest in the Southeastern Conference this season, for better and worse.
Nobody has made more sacks than Texas A&M, and few have allowed more than Alabama, South Carolina and Arkansas. Whether it’s improved pass rushes or offensive line struggles or both, one thing is certain: Quarterbacks are getting taken down with frequency in SEC games.
“The other day, I was looking at stats in SEC games only and you see the amount of sacks that these guys have in just SEC games and you think, ‘Holy Mackerel,’” Gamecocks coach Shane Beamer said. “And we’ve given up way too many in just SEC games and the teams around us have given up sacks as well.”
A notable exception has been No. 1 Georgia, which has yielded only six sacks all season despite offensive line injuries while producing a modest 12 defensively.
SEC teams are allowing 2.44 sacks per game this season, up from 2.12 a year ago. League defenses are averaging 2.5, up from 2.1.
It’s a good news/bad news situation.
Four of the five national leaders in sacks on defense are SEC teams. Texas A&M is tied for first in sacks with Penn State, up 104 spots from last season after a bountiful string of recruiting successes on the front seven.
No. 21 Tennessee ranks third, No. 9 Alabama fourth and No. 12 Mississippi fifth. The Volunteers and Crimson Tide both had strip sacks in their meeting last weekend.
Then there’s the flip side.
With three new offensive line starters, including freshman left tackle Kadynn Proctor, the Tide blockers have struggled to protect quarterback Jalen Milroe. Alabama has allowed a whopping 35 sacks in eight games, ranking 126th of 130 FBS teams. That's one spot ahead of South Carolina and six behind Arkansas.
It’s also at least eight more sacks already than any of Nick Saban’s six Tide national champions allowed all season, and more than double the 17 allowed in 2011 (13 games). It's also 13 more than last season, when the Tide attempted 11 more passes a game on average.
Both defenses in the Tennessee-Alabama game forced fumbles with sacks. A pivotal moment came in the fourth quarter when Chris Braswell (who has 6 1/2 sacks) jarred the ball loose from Volunteers quarterback Joe Milton III, and Jihaad Campbell returned it for a touchdown.
There’s no doubt the SEC has good pass rushers. It always does.
Five SEC players rank among the top 15 nationally in sacks per game, led by Mississippi State’s Nathaniel Watson, Tennessee’s James Pearce Jr. and Alabama’s Dallas Turner and Braswell.
Texas A&M has five players with at least three sacks, including linebacker Edgerrin Cooper (six). The Aggies have 29 sacks, 10 more than all of last season. Aggies coach Jimbo Fisher said credited an improved pass rush.
“You've got to affect the quarterback. Today's game is about the quarterback,” Fisher said.
Beamer figures offensive line is the hardest position for a youngster to play. South Carolina starts a pair of freshman blockers, Others like Auburn are leaning heavily on transfers.
The Tigers are starting four first-year transfers on the offensive line. They’ve given up one sack for every five pass completions.
“I think you’ve got some offensive lines in this league that have some youth playing some very, very talented defensive lines,” Beamer said. “People can talk about what’s the difference between the SEC and other conferences across the country. The defensive line is one of them. ... Just look at the defensive linemen in this league and it’s a who’s who of guys playing in the NFL the next few years.”
Georgia has certainly stood out in that regard, but also in their protection of Carson Beck. The Bulldogs have allowed so few sacks despite juggling ankle injuries to Amarius Mims and Xavier Truss.
Center Sedrick Van Prann, who has started 37 consecutive games, isn’t particularly impressed.
“That’s tough because personally I don’t really think that’s good,” Van Prann said. “I guess we’ve done an OK job of minimizing sacks. I think it comes from confidence. I think we do a decent job of protecting.”
That's no small feat in the SEC these days.
AP Sports Writers Charles Odum and Pete Iacobelli contributed to this report.
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