THE SEC CATCHES ON - Sports Illustrated Vault |
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Like the rest of the country, the Southeastern Conference has learned that defense is gone with the wind and that if you want to win you've got to have a passer and some boys who can catch and run

Remember the South, the magnolias and mockingbirds and muddy roads, and the cane poles and odor of wood smoke and somewhere, far off, the baying of hound dogs, and those big iron-eyed Southeastern Conference football players who kicked the hawg out of a ball on third down and just dared someone to try and score? Ah, those great ante-bedlam days of the 7-3 scores, when any barefooted kid out of Opelousas or Pontotoc or Tuscumbia knew you could score five ways on defense. And that a six-point lead was better than a pond full of hungry catfish. But no more. Take, for instance, last week. Alabama and Ole Miss threw a combined 81 passes—and completed 55 of them, breaking an NCAA record—as Alabama won 33-32, which was just a little bitty score. LSU scored 63 points, all by itself. Tennessee scored 55. Mississippi State lost by 74. Just like that, snap! the stubborn old SEC is swinging, and the music isn't Grand Ole Opry.

Yes, indeed, there's a wild new game in town, something called pitch and catch, and they are piling up the points so quickly it hardly pays to wave a Confederate flag at the enemy anymore. Just when you get your arm moving real good, the other guys have scored and are waving their flags right back. Last week, for instance, in eight games involving SEC teams, 472 points were scored. There hasn't been that much offense generated in the South since Sherman. When the late General R. R. Neyland was coaching, for example, Tennessee only gave up 485 points—in 14 years. "Football is nothing more than a series of actions, mistakes and miscalculations," Neyland preached. "Punt and let your opposition make the mistakes. Most of them will feel that possession of the ball is to be desired above everything else. I disagree."

But today, with the wide-open offenses and the speed and wondrous throwing arms that make them work, possession of the ball, even in the SEC, is a necessity. Perhaps even Neyland would change his style if he could see some of the area's high-powered teams in action. The conference always has its share of winners, maybe more, but this season there are a whole bunch, with not a solid favorite for the championship in sight. There's Georgia (see cover), undefeated, sleek and polished, and still not at all convinced that defense is dead. There also is Tennessee and Alabama and they're undefeated, too, even if the Bear says his defenders are too small and too slow and it's damn inconsiderate for anyone to think that they can stop anybody from scoring at will. And there's LSU, a great tiger stalking in its mossy old coliseum, a team that has run up 140 points while giving up only 14. What's more, there's even Florida, which has never won the SEC title but which, like the others, is undefeated, too. Maybe, just maybe, this is a Gator year.

Some of the SEC's defeated teams look mighty tough, too. Mississippi, whom many people picked to win the title, is 1-2, but those two losses were by one point apiece. And Auburn, 2-1, has averaged 40 points a game, fourth best in the conference.

If anything so bold could be ventured at this early date, Georgia and LSU might be said to be running neck and neck ahead of the rest, because they have the best defenses. Or maybe the only defenses. Certainly they can both score. LSU has its 140 points, Georgia 106. But, then, 106 is only sixth best in the conference. What impresses most people is that Georgia blanked its first two opponents before being touched for 16 points by South Carolina last week, while LSU went in against Baylor leading the SEC by a wide margin in total defense (166.5 yards per game), a record the Bears did not disturb. Neither Georgia nor LSU has played an SEC rival, however, and that really is what it's all about.

Georgia opens its conference campaign Saturday against Ole Miss, and then, in order, must play Vanderbilt, Kentucky, Tennessee, Florida and Auburn. It's as rugged a schedule as any of the unbeaten five must face, and if Georgia comes out of that unscathed, certainly there won't be any cries of cheese champion. As good as the defense is, it will need all the scoring punch it can get from the likes of Quarterback Mike Cavan, who would rather run than throw, making him unique in this age, and from Vince Dooley's large squad of talented running backs—Bruce Kemp, Dennis Hughes, Craig Elrod and Julian Smiley. "Let me say this about Georgia," said South Carolina's Paul Dietzel last week. "It has a small but quick defensive line, but there's nothing small about that offensive line. It simply intimidates you by knocking you over and making room for Kemp and all those other big running backs."

LSU has one more nonconference foe left, Miami, before swinging into five straight SEC games, starting with Kentucky. The Tigers then have Auburn, Ole Miss and Alabama before tapering off against Mississippi State. Of the five, only Kentucky and Ole Miss will escape the Baton Rouge snake pit, and if LSU needs any kind of an edge, it needn't ask for more than that.

LSU used all of its 58 players against Baylor, including Andy Hamilton, a 6'3" 175-pound sophomore split back who scored four touchdowns, tying a school record set in 1939 by Ken Kavanaugh and later matched by Johnny Robinson 11 years ago. "They sure have a lot more blue-chip athletes than us," moaned Baylor Coach Bill Beall when the slaughter was over.

Just a shade, but no more than a shade, behind those two—and you can get a lot of argument here—are Florida, Tennessee and Alabama. In last week's victory over Florida State, the Gators came up with something that has eluded them thus far, a defense. And in the doing they uncovered yet another supersoph, Bob Harrell, a 6'2" 221-pound defensive end, who helped stifle Florida State with a minus-18 yards rushing. That's a school record for Florida.

The Gators got to FSU Quarterback Bill Cappleman 11 times for a minus-91 yards, recovered five Florida State fumbles, intercepted three passes and blocked a field-goal attempt early in the game. Other than that they didn't do much. The offense, of course, was all John Reaves, who threw for two touchdowns, raising his three-game total of touchdown passes to 10. If the defense has indeed found itself after a two-game struggle—Florida gave up 69 points—and Reaves continues his assaults on other people's secondaries, the schedule could swing it all Florida's way. Certainly it's the easiest facing any of the top teams. The Gators already have beaten Mississippi State and now must play only Vanderbilt, Auburn, Georgia and Kentucky. Some easy schedule.

Alabama had another one of those nights, a striking offense led by Quarterback Scott Hunter, who broke three school offensive records, and not much defense. In fact, the Tide's defense was so bad that Ole Miss Quarterback Archie Manning broke four SEC offensive records and the Ole Miss team broke three more. You could have won a lot of money betting that no one would break seven SEC offensive records against a Bryant-coached team. Next Alabama faces Vanderbilt and then must still play Tennessee, Mississippi State, LSU and Auburn. That's asking a lot unless Bryant shores his defenses in a hurry.

Somehow no one is getting excited about Tennessee, which should please Doug Dickey. After all, they did whomp Auburn 45-19 two weeks ago, and then last Saturday night really turned it on against Memphis State 55-16. The most exciting moment for the Vols against Memphis State came in midweek before the game, when a fellow standing on the railroad tracks overlooking the MSU practice field was apprehended with a notebook containing Tiger defensive diagrams. Dickey denied that the man was a Vol scout and, while the incident was inflated in Memphis papers, it has now been deflated by the size of the score. Tennessee showed a well-balanced attack with eight players scoring. The Vols gained 239 yards rushing and 226 passing and that's about as balanced as you can get. Six of the scores came after pass interceptions (3) and fumble recoveries (3), and all were from inside the 35-yard line. Tennessee has a tough SEC schedule the rest of the way, facing Alabama, Georgia, Ole Miss and Kentucky on the road, before getting home to play Vanderbilt.

This wealth of good teams has Southerners bubbling with excitement, but, then, they always are. With its small towns tucked away out of casual reach, the SEC is unbelievably provincial. Fanatic loyalty, like the sword grandpappy wore at Vicksburg, is handed down through the generations. Down South—and it may be the last outpost—they still make gods of football players. At Ole Miss, they speak with pride of Placekicker Bob Khayat. Not for any football exploits, but because he dated both Lynda Lee Mead and Mary Ann Mobley, back-to-back Miss Americas. An NCAA record.

Football weekends are an endless series of cocktail parties—or just a bunch of good old boys sitting around sipping an endless stream of bourbon—and crowds are raucous. When you hear 80,000 people screaming for your blood, and meaning it, it can be a little eerie. Once, after escaping from Baton Rouge with his Georgia Tech team, Bobby Dodd said: "I know now I'd rather face the lions in the coliseum." But if you escape from Baton Rouge, there's still Oxford and Starkville and Athens and Tuscaloosa and Auburn and Gainesville. And they are all lions and coliseums, except maybe at Gainesville. No one worries about trips to Kentucky. It thinks it's in the South, but it isn't, and the fans at Vanderbilt and Kentucky are a gentler breed. Lately, so are the football teams.

Part of the charm of the SEC is its traffic problems. Most of the towns have one road in and one out, and madness in between. In Oxford, which quaintly approves hard liquor but bans beer, the fans of Ole Miss solve the problem of traffic by parking their cars and trudging off to the student union. There they have been known to plunk their bottles of bourbon on the tables, often right under the eyes of the local police, who look the other way. The other gathering spot is the local Holiday Inn. Oxford was William Faulkner's town, and it's hard to tell whether the people there are proud of that or not. "That book that got him famous, Sanctuary, was one of the nastiest books you ever saw," says Tad Smith, the athletic director at Ole Miss. "Hell, we could tell his characters were taken right off those special trains that would go from here to Mississippi State for the game. He was a football fan."

The problem of traffic is not so complex in Athens, the home base of the Georgia Bulldogs, who can point with pride to the city's find old antebellum homes. With a population of only 58,000, the city has 70 churches, which seems remarkable. There also are three houses of ill repute, none of them antebellum, but still, in their own fashion, quite historic. It was in Athens in 1929 that Georgia played Yale in what has become known as The Greatest Day in the History of Football in the South. Yale, with Albie Booth, was a national power, but it was a hot, muggy day and the Yale players, wearing thick blue stockings, soon wilted. Georgia won 15-0. Dan Magill, Georgia's sports information director, calls the day "the biggest thing to happen in the South since Appomattox. Except we won."

And it was from Athens that the Bulldogs left in 1908 for Knoxville and a game with the Tennessee Volunteers, who already hated them. And perhaps it was that day that the spirit of Southern football was born. Late in the first half a Georgia football player swept around his end and was shouldered out of bounds at the Tennessee one. At this point there appeared a large mountaineer wearing a green frock coat and a four-gallon hat and reeking of sour mash. In one hand he carried a .38 revolver. With the other he pointed to the goal. "The first man who crosses that line," he snarled, "will get a bullet in his carcass." On the next play, not surprisingly, Georgia fumbled. Tennessee won 10-0. Apparently the mountaineer lost interest in football because Georgia won the next two years.

There are thousands of such stories, each carefully recorded—after, perhaps, a bit of polishing and honing—and every bit as important to an SEC fan as, say, knowing that since 1951 the old league has turned out seven national champions; that since 1947 the SEC has had 48 teams in the top 10 to only 43 for the Big Ten. Well, almost as important. SEC fans, too, have been known to mention casually that in bowls it's Us'uns 70, and the Other'uns 42, with six ties, and since the Associated Press picked Alabama End Wu Winslett as its first All-America from the South, the SEC has produced more All-Americas than any other conference. Oh, they can get downright boring with that stuff if you listen. And downright nasty if you don't. Just because the Civil War ended in a draw doesn't mean they intend to lose any football battles.


Scoring 1969 style, Florida's Carlos Alvarez outruns a Florida State defender, makes a lunging catch and falls into the end zone.


There have always been some aspects of football at Florida that needed no improvement.


However, sophomore passer John Reaves has made Florida a winner.


Auburn's Pat Sullivan, another sophomore, has seven touchdown passes.


Mississippi's Archie Manning was 33 for 52 against Alabama.


But 'Bama's Scott Hunter threw the one that beat Ole Miss 33-32.


Defense is not entirely dead, as Georgia's Phil Sullivan proves to one Carolina runner.