College football is college football, right?
Not in the Southeastern Conference, home to six straight National Championships and the inside track to a seventh this season. The players seem faster, the talent level is higher, the scrutiny hotter than anywhere else.
Take it from the coaches and coordinators — especially the new arrivals who have to adjust quickly if they want to stick around for any length of time.
"It's like every week is murderers' row," Arkansas coach John L. Smith said. "You've got to prepare for the real guys, the guys who look like they should be playing on Sundays."
Smith has seen college football from just about every angle in his 40 years of coaching. His career began at his alma mater, Weber State, and his 19 years as a head coach has included stops at Louisville and Michigan State.
The 63-year-old Smith received his first full-time taste of the SEC in 2009 when he was hired at Arkansas by Bobby Petrino as an assistant. Smith coached against SEC teams at his previous stops, including an annual matchup with Kentucky while with the Cardinals, but nothing prepared him for the athleticism he saw in the SEC on a weekly basis — leading to fewer running lanes and even fewer open receivers.
"I'm not downgrading any of the other leagues, but you take a look at some of the other leagues and you say, 'My goodness, that's slow football,'" Smith said. "From the sideline sometimes, you're saying 'OK, we've got a hole and we're going to get 7 to 10 (yards).' And you look back and you've got 2 to 3, just because it's a faster game."
Coaches enter the league with reputations as an offensive whiz, only to find they must quickly change plans to counter the oncoming rush of the SEC's defensive linemen.
First-year Florida offensive coordinator Brent Pease, who spent two seasons in the same position at Kentucky in 2001-02, said keeping the quarterback in one place in the pocket simply isn't an option. The undefeated Gators are last in the SEC in passing offense this season, averaging 137.7 yards per game through the air, but their spread-option attack has kept defenses off balance and led to 212.7 yards rushing per game.
Florida coach Will Muschamp cut his coaching teeth as a graduate assistant at Auburn before later coaching at LSU and then back to Auburn. Muschamp left the SEC in 2008 for a three-year stint in the pass-happy Big 12 as Texas' defensive coordinator.
The second-year Florida coach said he believes in doing whatever it takes to win games, even if that means throwing the ball "60 times a game." That said, he echoed Pease's thoughts about the difficulty of trying to do exactly that in the SEC — where four teams (Alabama, LSU, Florida and South Carolina) are in the top 10 nationally in total defense.
"The defensive lines, that's the difference in playing in this league and these other leagues you watch on TV," Muschamp said. "I know y'all like all these points being scored, but the quarterback won't make it through the game and the season in our league."
Former Auburn offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn, now in his first season as the head coach at Arkansas State, spent 15 years as a high school coach in Arkansas before earning his first chance as the Razorbacks offensive coordinator in 2006. During his last prep stop at Springdale High School, Malzahn would often times leave Saturday afternoon film sessions and make the 15-minute drive to go watch Arkansas play — likely preparing in his own mind for his future as a college coach.
"(The speed) was overwhelming, especially if you're not used to it," Malzahn said. "It's just a different game as far as the speed factor is concerned."
Malzahn spent two seasons at Tulsa's offensive coordinator before returning to the SEC and helping the Cam Newton-led Tigers to the national championship two seasons ago. He said the biggest adjustment as an offensive coach in the SEC was how the league's defenses play more man-to-man coverage than most — relying on the cornerbacks' sheer speed and skill to shut down opposing receivers.
Malzahn replaced current first-year Mississippi coach Hugh Freeze at Arkansas State. Both brought reputations of up-tempo, spread offenses with them, and Freeze has done his best to stay true to that with the Rebels.
Mississippi is fourth in the league in total offense this season, showing flashes of Freeze's same offensive creativity that led to 10 wins last season at Arkansas State. Freeze said there was "no question" that his previous SEC experience — a two-year stint with the Rebels — has helped with his transition, as well as understanding the adjustments aren't just on the field.
"From speaking engagements to media requests, it's a much higher magnitude here," Freeze said. "But as far as the day to day operations, the kids are the same, the headaches are the same, the challenges are the same."
Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin, in his first year with the Aggies, has a team that leads the conference in total offense. Sumlin, who guided Houston to the top passing, total and scoring offense in the country last season, has had little trouble adapting his offensive philosophy to the SEC.
Sumlin said he used to get input from opposing coaches about other teams while at Houston, joking that "people don't give me a lot of advice anymore" with the Aggies in the ultra-competitive SEC.
He said the biggest change in the league has been adapting to its year-round nature.
"The coaches in this league are extremely aggressive on the football field and in recruiting," Sumlin said. "Aggressive is probably not the right word, but competitive is. Because of that there's some very, very talented guys in this league and some really, really good coaching."