Measuring offense is a tricky thing, really. Today I just want to take a look at scoring. Specifically, scoring in conference games.
The proliferation of bad non-conference opponents has made it difficult to believe blanket, season-long stats. In 2009, more than half of the SEC's 12 teams see their scoring averages fall by a touchdown or more when non-conference games are factored out.
Just from looking at the top of last year's conference scoring list, here are the candidates for highest scoring team in 2010.
Arkansas -- 29.3 PPG in '09
The Razorbacks are everyone's favorites in this category, returning QB Ryan Mallett and an impressive array of skill position players. Part of the reason why this team is being floated by some as a dark horse in the SEC West is due to its impressive offensive potential.
Arkansas was a bit of a feast-or-famine team last season though. Against the three toughest SEC defenses it faced (Alabama, Florida, Ole Miss), the Hogs managed just 14.6 points per game. Against the other five conference teams they played, they rang up 38 points per game with a low of 30 and a high of 44.
In 2010, Florida rotates off the schedule and Vanderbilt comes on to it. That alone should keep Arkansas up in the scoring rankings. The Razorbacks must travel to Georgia though, and this time they won't be going up against a tissue paper-like Willie Martinez defense. Alabama and Ole Miss are still there too, and LSU figures to be even better on defense in John Chavis' second year. Still, the betting man's money is probably on this team.
Georgia -- 29.3 PPG
No, that's not a misprint. The Bulldogs, despite suffering through a terrible turnover margin and the Jekyll-and-Hyde play of Joe Cox, tied Arkansas for the highest scoring team in SEC play last year.
UGA was also a hot-and-cold team, as it either scored 27+ points or was held to below 20 in each of its conference games. For 2010 trading LSU for Mississippi State will help things, as will the fact that both Florida and Tennessee are breaking in new defensive coordinators while dealing with serious personnel losses.
It's true that the Bulldogs will likely be starting a freshman quarterback this fall, but he will have a wealth of backs and receivers around him. Depending on how the SEC West defenses fare against the Pigs, it would not be absurd to think that the red and black will end up the top scoring offense in the SEC.
Alabama -- 26.7 PPG
It somewhat surprised me that Bama didn't score more points in conference play in '09 despite having the year's Heisman winner on its offense. Then, I remembered that it was his heroics through October that kept the team afloat while Greg McElroy was having a meltdown month.
From October 10 to November 7, the Tide scored only 19.5 a game against Ole Miss, South Carolina, Tennessee, and LSU. In its other five SEC games (including the one in Atlanta), the team rolled up 32.4 points a game. With basically the entire offense back and McElroy having had some good experience (especially his masterpiece in the SEC title game), it makes sense to pencil the Tide in for some more scoring in 2010.
Alabama does lose Kentucky and gain Florida on the schedule though, and the Gators' defense will be better than Kentucky's no matter what kind of first-year issues Teryl Austin may have. The Crimson Tide defense will likely take a step back after losing nearly everyone, and that could result in fewer possessions for the offense. Either way, I would be surprised if Alabama wasn't near the top of the conference's scoring list at the end of next year.
Florida -- 26.0 PPG
Despite the 13-1 record and Heisman campaign for Tim Tebow, the offense wasn't exceptional against stiff competition. It did score 62 against Charleston Southern, 56 against Troy, 62 against FIU, and 51 against Cincinnati. However, it just didn't produce as well against SEC competition. Part of that was due a thin receiving corps, part to Tebow's concussion, part to conservative play calling, and part simply due to feeling the immense pressure of the expectations of a repeat.
QB John Brantley now leads the offense with a slew of talented but largely untested players at the skill positions. No one though, not even the head coach, is sure of what things will look like come the fall. Regardless, there are more capable playmakers available than what Urban Meyer had in 2005 (25.6 PPG in conference) and 2006 (24 PPG), and if Brantley doesn't fall to injury, then things through the middle of the schedule will be in better shape than in '09.
Arkansas's weak defense rotates off the schedule as Alabama comes on to it, although getting LSU at home this fall helps. Florida will not score as much as it did in 2007 (38.1 PPG) or 2008 (43.1 PPG), and it may not even reach where it did in Ron Zook's last season (31.4 PPG) under reasonable circumstances. Still with all the talent available, this team might contend for the conference's top scoring slot if all the young guys pan out.
Auburn -- 25.0 PPG
Auburn may seem an odd pick for this list as the Tigers only managed to get to 30 points twice against SEC competition in 2009. In fact it only managed to score above its average three times: against Mississippi State (49 points) against Tennessee (26 points) and against Ole Miss (33 points). Auburn won't be a bad offensive team in 2010, but could it really have a chance at being the top scoring team in the conference?
With these Tigers, conditioning was an issue last season. It's a factor of Gus Malzahn's fast tempo offense being at the extreme end of the spectrum. The team was great in September, including those 49 points on the Bulldogs and another 41 on West Virginia (the most either allowed all season). The team wore down as the season dragged on, partly due to its bye week not coming until before the Iron Bowl. Against Bama after that week off, the Tigers scored the second most points and gained the third most yards that the Tide gave up all year.
The Tigers drop Tennessee for South Carolina on the 2010 slate, which might be a bit tougher if not a wash. They also trade the limited abilities of Chris Todd for the highly touted Cameron Newton behind center, a guy who figures to be a great fit for Malzahn's scheme if he can increase his accuracy this off season. Losing RB Ben Tate hurts, but there are plenty of other options on offense. With another year of conditioning for the offense under its belt, this team is poised for a noticeable jump in offensive output.