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Ranking the SEC Defenses

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By Matt Osborne
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The conference should be very talented on defense once again this fall, but which defense will be the best of the best?

The SEC has not become the dominant conference in the country by accident; the league has established its dominance by assembling the best defensive talent in the land.

The conference should be very talented on defense once again this fall, but which defense will be the best of the best?

Here is a look at the rankings for the SEC defenses this fall.

No. 1 – Alabama

The Crimson Tide’s lofty defensive ranking certainly won’t come as a surprise to anyone who follows college football with even moderate interest. Alabama finished with the top ranked defense nationally in 2012, and with seven starters returning from that team, there is reason to believe that Kirby Smart’s unit could be even better this fall. No team in the country can even come close to competing with the back half of Alabama’s defense, and senior Ed Stinson will help anchor an immensely talented defensive line. Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, C.J. Mosley and Adrian Hubbard are expected to contend for first-team All-American honors.

No. 2 – LSU

Outside of Alabama, no team in the SEC has earned the benefit of the doubt when it comes to defensive efficiency more than the Bayou Bengals. Aside from hard-hitting safety Craig Loston, this unit surprisingly lacks name recognition. That will all change by the end of the season, however, as the Tigers have an overflow of talented young prospects who have anxiously been awaiting their turns in the spotlight. Though the defensive line appears to lack star power, defensive tackles Anthony Johnson and Ego Ferguson will be household names by the end of the fall. John Chavis is one of the top defensive coordinators in college football, and he will have this unit performing at a high level once again in 2013.

No. 3 – Florida

Florida had the second-ranked defense in the conference in 2012, and the Gators’ success this fall will undoubtedly have a lot to do with the fact that the team will once again have another powerful unit. Dominique Easley has already solidified himself as a star player at defensive tackle, and the return of Ronald Powell should help improve the pass rush tremendously. The Gators only return four starters from last season, but Florida has as much collective defensive speed as any team in the nation. That speed will especially help in the secondary, where the Gators have the top secondary in the SEC according to Phil Steele.

No. 4 – South Carolina

Even though South Carolina only returns five starters on defense, one of those starters is defensive end Jadeveon Clowney. Pairing last season’s SEC Defensive Player of the Year with Kelcy Quarles, Chaz Sutton and JT Surratt, the Gamecocks have the best starting defensive line in the conference. There are some question marks at linebacker with all three of 2012’ starters departing, but the secondary will be extremely experienced and talented. South Carolina may give up some yards on the ground early in the year, but an outstanding pass defense will erase any issues which could arise at linebacker.

No. 5 – Ole Miss

The Rebels finished seventh in the conference in total defense last fall, but are set to return nine starters from that unit. Amazingly, the entire back seven will return for Hugh Freeze’s squad, which should help a secondary which was one of the worst in the SEC in 2012. Denzel Nkemdiche and Mike Marry are easily one of the best linebacker combos in the nation, and the defensive front should be bolstered immediately from the presence of true freshman phenom Robert Nkemdiche. Dave Wommack did an exceptional job of improving a defense which finished dead last in the SEC in 2011, and he should continue to move the defense in the right direction.

No. 6 – Vanderbilt

It may come as a surprise to some, but Vanderbilt had a top 20 defense nationally last season. Although the Commodores’ 2013 defense may not be quite as good as last season’s, there is still plenty of talent on this unit. The defense appears to get stronger as you move back. Walker May is an outstanding player at defensive end, but he is the lone returning starter on a Vanderbilt defensive line which could struggle early. The strength of the unit will be a secondary which returns three starters, including All-American candidate Andre Hal. There is no doubt that James Franklin will have his defense playing an aggressive and physical brand of football yet again this fall.

No. 7 – Georgia

Todd Grantham’s unit greatly underachieved last season despite the presence of a small army of NFL draft selections. The Bulldogs only return three starters on defense this fall, but there is still plenty of talent to go around in Athens. Garrison Smith provides a steadying presence up front, while the coaching staff is hopeful that sophomore outside linebacker Jordan Jenkins can have an impact similar to that of Jarvis Jones. Damian Swann is the lone returning starter in the secondary, but there is a ton of potential stars in the making with players such as Tray Matthews, Sheldon Dawson and Josh Harvey-Clemons.

No. 8 – Arkansas

The key to solid defensive play in the SEC is having a talented defensive line, and that is exactly what Bret Bielema’s staff is inheriting in Fayetteville. Chris Smith registered 9.5 sacks in 2012 and he is poised for a stellar senior campaign. He will be joined on the defensive line by defensive tackle Byran Jones, who should demand serious All-SEC considerations. The Razorbacks currently have just one projected senior starter in the back seven – safety Eric Bennett – but the squad should benefit from the fact that so many young players played significant minutes last fall. Arkansas will also benefit from the physical play-calling of new defensive coordinator Chris Ash.

No. 9 – Auburn

The Tigers had the second-worst defense in the conference last fall, but tremendous improvement should be expected with the return of eight starters. The defensive line will undoubtedly be the strength of the unit, as defensive end Dee Ford hopes to improve upon the six sacks he registered a year ago. There are some early concerns about the linebackers corps, but the Tigers do welcome back Jake Holland in the middle. The entire secondary returns from last fall, so the pass defense should be much better than it was in 2012. Ellis Johnson is also a veteran defensive coordinator who has tons of experience calling plays in the SEC.

No. 10 – Texas A&M

The Aggies were carried by a high-powered offense in 2012, and the team may have to hope for similar output from Johnny Manziel and company if the program wants to replicate last season’s win total. Unfortunately for Kevin Sumlin, Texas A&M has one of the worst defensive lines in the conference on paper heading into the fall. The Aggies are hoping that returning defensive line starters Julien Obioha and Kirby Ennis can exponentially increase their production from last season. The back seven should be relatively solid, although the recent off-the-field problems of a couple of projected starters in the secondary could present problems early.

No. 11 – Tennessee

It is hard to believe that a Tennessee program rich with history produced the worst defense in the conference last fall by a significant margin. Although the Volunteers were over 50 yards per game worse than the second-to-last defense in the conference, the defense is certainly not devoid of talent or experience. Eight starters are set to return, including star defensive tackle Daniel McCullers who is one of the top prospects for the 2014 NFL Draft. Linebacker A.J. Johnson led the SEC in tackles last year with 138, and he will continue to produce at a high level playing under new defensive coordinator John Jancek.

No. 12 – Mississippi State

Mississippi State finished in the bottom half of the conference in total defense last season, and the Bulldogs are in serious danger of regressing with just five starters returning. The strength of last year’s defense was unquestionably a secondary led by Darius Slay, Johnthan Banks and Corey Broomfield. With all of those players now in the NFL, though, the Bulldogs could struggle to defend against the pass, especially if the team does not generate a better pass rush. Defensive end Denico Autry has the potential to be a star in the SEC, but he must show the ability to be more consistent on a week to week basis.

No. 13 – Kentucky

The Wildcats return seven starters on defense, but the problem is that Kentucky’s unit was pretty dismal last fall and not much has been done to drastically improve the talent. The leader of the defense is middle linebacker Avery Williamson who finished 2012 with 135 tackles, the second-best total in the conference. As of right now, every projected starter in the front seven is either a junior or senior, meaning that the team will be experienced up front. Unfortunately, the Wildcats will not have a single senior starter in the secondary. Kentucky also only returns two starters from the defensive backfield, and the Wildcats could have the worst back four in the SEC this fall.

No. 14 – Missouri

The Tigers finished 10th in the conference in total defense last fall and it could be even worse in the program’s second season in the nation’s premier conference. Michael Sam and Kony Ealy combine to give Missouri a solid combo at defensive end, but the Tigers are not particularly strong on the middle of the defensive line, and the Tigers very well could have the worst collection of linebackers in the league. Senior cornerback E.J. Gaines could contend for All-SEC honors, but the rest of the secondary lacks proven playmakers. Defensive coordinator Dave Steckel will do his best to improve his defense, but at the end of the day it will be prove to not be enough.

Matt Osborne – Matt Osborne currently serves as the director of recruiting and lead editor for Southern Pigskin. His work has been published in a number of national publications, including USA Today. Although he loves all levels of football, Matt’s number one joy in his life is his relationship with Jesus Christ. Follow Matt on Twitter: @MattOsborne200. For media requests, please email Matt at [email protected].

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