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 murderer's 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 7-10 (yards).' And you look back and you've got 2-3, 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 just 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 in 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."