Crunch time: SEC teams relying on defense - again

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) -- It's the time of year when SEC teams seem to start flexing their defensive muscle. Offenses have deservingly garnered headlines in an age of spread offenses and run-it-up attacks, but the league that built its national championship run on defense has taken another step forward this season: 10 Southeastern Conference teams have allowed fewer yards this year than last and half of the 14 league members are among the country's 30 stingiest in points given up. ''There's no question that defense is most important at this time of the year,'' said LSU coach Les Miles, who won the 2007 national title and played for a second crown in 2011. The sentiment is shared throughout the SEC. It also may be one reason there were six SEC teams in the initial College Football Playoff rankings, four in the top six. No. 3 Alabama (No. 6 CFP) is the country's fifth best defense, giving up about 10 fewer yards a game than in 2013. Seventh-ranked Mississippi (No. 4 CFP) is yielding 305 yards, 65 fewer a game than last season. No. 4 Auburn (No. 3 CFP), No. 9 Georgia (No. 11 CFP) and No. 16 LSU (No. 19 CFP) are all allowing less yards than last season. Ole Miss leads the country with just 10.5 points a game, a decrease of nearly two touchdowns from the 23.7 yielded a year ago. Alabama, LSU, Georgia, Missouri, Auburn and top-ranked Mississippi State (No. 1 CFP) are all in the top 30 of the FBS in that category. ''That's just the culture in the SEC,'' former Texas coach and ESPN analyst Mack Brown said. ''That hasn't changed.'' While TCU's 82-point outburst against Texas Tech gained headlines last week, the SEC answered with a 10-7 defensive struggle with LSU topping Ole Miss. The SEC's defensive push comes during a year after some of its marquee stars on that side of the ball left for the NFL - including South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, Alabama's C.J. Mosley and Missouri's Michael Sam left for the pros. Now, others have filled the void. - Tennessee linebacker A.J. Johnson leads the SEC with 86 tackles for the Vols, who are holding opponents to almost 80 yards less this season than last. - Missouri defensive end Shane Ray picked up where Sam left off, on top in the SEC - and third nationally - with 10 sacks. - Mississippi's Senquez Golson has eight interceptions to tie for most in the country. Not everything's rosy for all SEC defenses. One the league's leading groups the past few years could be found in South Carolina. But the Gamecocks have allowed 38 points a game in its six SEC contests, an increase of 18 points from a year ago and a major reason the Gamecocks went from preseason SEC East favorites to 2-4 in the conference. And then there's Mississippi State. The Bulldogs have managed to win though statistically they are not as strong defensively as they were last year: Mississippi State is last in SEC defense, giving up 90 yards more a game than in 2013. Brian Jones, a former Texas linebacker and current CBS Sports analyst, said the numbers are misleading. He said the Bulldogs offense, led by Heisman Trophy contender Dak Prescott, builds big leads and forces opponents to throw the ball to get back in games, and that skews the numbers. ''The key,'' Jones said, ''is what they do in the red zone and the turnovers they get.'' Tennessee coach Butch Jones thinks improved defense as the season moves on is as much a product of more opponent game film as work on the field. ''So, the more video you have out there, the more games you play, the more things you have to game plan,'' he said. Injuries also can affect teams on top defensively. Ole Miss lost starting linebacker Denzel Nkemdiche to a broken ankle against LSU this past week and won't have him for critical games against Auburn this week and Mississippi State down the road. ''You look at the teams that win consistently in November, late October, that go on championship stretch runs,'' Jones said, ''they have great depth.'' There's also a competition in the league to be considered the SEC's top defense. ''I know our defense enjoys playing and wants to be the best,'' said Vols linebacker-defensive end Curt Maggitt, whose four sacks rank 10th in the SEC. ''We play to be the best, and I'm sure other teams could say the same.'' --- AP Sports Writers Brett Martel in Baton Rouge, Louisiana; Gary B. Graves in Lexington, Kentucky; David Brandt in Oxford, Mississippi; Steve Megargee in Knoxville, Tennessee; and John Zenor in Auburn, Alabama, contributed to this report.