Ranking Every SEC Football Team's Defense Heading into Spring Practice

Barrett Sallee@BarrettSalleeSEC Football Lead WriterFebruary 29, 2016

Ranking Every SEC Football Team's Defense Heading into Spring Practice

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    With the offenses in the SEC leaving plenty to be desired, division champions Alabama and Florida used stellar defenses to play for the SEC title last December.

    Those two defenses should be stout again in 2016, as should LSU's, Ole Miss' and Georgia's, among others. 

    Could some other traditional SEC powers that have been down defensively find their way back? The quest to do so starts this spring. 

    To get you prepared for spring practice, let's rank the SEC defenses based on talent, scheme and experience in this slideshow.

14. South Carolina Gamecocks

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    Will Muschamp was brought in to be the full-time successor to former head ball coach Steve Spurrier, and his first order of business is fixing a South Carolina defense that has been wretched since former star defensive end Jadeveon Clowney left following the 2013 season.

    The Gamecocks finished last season ranked last in the conference in total defense (429.8 yards per game) and third-down defense (46.99 percent), and 13th in yards per play (6.03) and opponent plays of 20 or more yards (63). 

    Muschamp brings a track record of defensive success with him, added Travaris Robinson as his defensive coordinator—who should be able to help out the defensive backfield as well—and got good news when linebacker Skai Moore—who could also drop back to safety at times—returned to school after leading the team in tackles for each of the last three years. 

    But the Gamecocks lack talent and depth everywhere, particularly along the defensive line. Until Muschamp proves that he can get that fixed, it's hard to trust the boys in Columbia.

13. Kentucky Wildcats

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    Kentucky enters its fourth spring practice session under head coach Mark Stoops in a defensive mess. 

    Not only do the Wildcats have to replace six of their top seven tacklers from a year ago, but stud defensive end/linebacker Jason Hatcher—who was slated to be the guy lining up all over the field in an effort to get pressure on the quarterback—was dismissed from the team in February.

    There are talented players on campus, including defensive tackle Matt Elam, sophomore tackle Denzil Ware and defensive back Chris Westry, along with veteran defensive backs Marcus McWilson and Blake McClain.

    But there are plenty of holes to fill, and Stoops doesn't have a lot of time to do it. Kentucky plays Florida, South Carolina and Alabama over the first five games of the season. A 2-3 start—especially if one is to a rebuilding Gamecocks team—won't sit well with Big Blue Nation.

12. Arkansas Razorbacks

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    There were some bright spots for the Arkansas defense last year, such as the success of linebacker Brooks Ellis and emergence of linebacker Dre Greenlaw, but a horrible pass defense (275.2 YPG) and a defense that gave up the most plays of 20 or more yards (66) in the conference prevented the Razorbacks from contending for the SEC West title.

    Will that change? 

    Ellis and Greenlaw are back, as is a defensive front that features Jeremiah Ledbetter, Deatrich Wise, Tevin Beanum and others. The foundation for success up front is there for head coach Bret Bielema and defensive coordinator Robb Smith, but Smith has to channel some of the success the Hogs had in 2014 if they want to make a run at the SEC West title in 2016. 

11. Mississippi State Bulldogs

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    Mississippi State lost linebacker Beniquez Brown and defensive lineman Chris Jones early to the NFL but get back leading tackler Richie Brown, as well as fellow linebackers Gerri Green and J.T. Gray. It will definitely be the strong point of the defense and a solid foundation for head coach Dan Mullen to build on.

    The secondary lost Taveze Calhoun and Will Redmond, but Kivon Coman is back after notching 76 tackles and a pick as a junior. Up front, A.J. Jefferson is solid but needs to become a difference-maker for a team that can't rely on the kind of consistent success it had offensively now that quarterback Dak Prescott has moved on.

    What's more, the entire defensive coaching staff is new heading into 2016. The transition coupled with some new faces contributing makes the Mississippi State defense a mystery this spring.

    That's not to say that it can't have success. The hard-hitting identity of the Bulldogs has endured as players and coaches have moved on under Mullen, but it's going to be a bit more challenging this time around.

10. Auburn Tigers

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    It's hard to believe, since the identity of Auburn football was once its stifling defense, but the Tigers haven't finished in the top half of the SEC in total defense since 2007—Tommy Tuberville's next-to-last campaign as the head coach on the Plains.

    That could change this year, and first-year defensive coordinator Kevin Steele has the players to make it happen. Steele steps into a situation that isn't as bad as the outside world seems to make it. He gets defensive end Carl Lawson and tackle Montravius Adams, a more comfortable end in sophomore Byron Cowart, a fantastic corner in 2015 freshman All-SEC performer Carlton Davis, hard-hitting safety Tray Matthews and graduate transfer linebacker A.J. Neal (he of 109 tackles and 14 tackles for loss) from Illinois.

    What's more, the Tigers gave up just 339 yards per game over the final five games of the season—which, not coincidentally, was when Lawson rejoined the team and got back up to speed. 

    If Lawson can stay healthy, Steele has the pieces to lead the Auburn defense back out of the abyss that it has been in for the better part of a decade.

9. Texas A&M Aggies

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    The Texas A&M defense used to be the punchline to a very depressing joke but made strides in 2015 under then-first-year defensive coordinator John Chavis.

    The Aggies finished eighth in the conference in total defense (380 YPG), fourth in sacks (34) and first in tackles for loss (111), and they get a bevy of talented players back.

    The defensive line is loaded with stud ends Myles Garrett and Daeshon Hall, along with sophomore defensive tackle Daylon Mack. The secondary returns reliable safety Armani Watts and gets former 4-star cornerback Priest Willis eligible after he transferred from UCLA following the 2014 season. Otaro Alaka should be back at 100 percent at linebacker, after earning defensive MVP honors of the Liberty Bowl two seasons ago.

    The Texas A&M defense isn't going to be near the top of the conference in terms of total defense. With tempo being a priority for the offense, Chavis' crew is out on the field too much for that to be realistic. But it should be middle-of-the-road with a ton of tackles behind the line. If that happens, the Aggies will be just fine.

8. Vanderbilt Commodores

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    Say it with me, and say it with feeling: "The Vanderbilt defense is legit."

    The Commodores finished last season sixth in the nation in third-down defense (28.16 percent), fourth nationally in red-zone touchdown percentage (38.78 percent) and 22nd in scoring defense (21 points per game).

    Head coach Derek Mason doubles as the coordinator of the 'Dores, linebacker Zach Cunningham and a talented and experienced defensive backfield return, and the team lost only three of its top 16 tacklers from a year ago.

    The jump up from No. 9 in the SEC to No. 8 is the size of the Grand Canyon, and the Vanderbilt defense has everything it takes to become one of the better units in the SEC. If Mason can find a pass rush, don't sleep on Vanderbilt.

7. Missouri Tigers

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    The good news for Missouri is that defensive linemen Charles Harris, Walter Brady, Josh Augusta and Terry Beckner should be back, as could Harold Brantley—who missed all of 2015 because of injuries suffered from a car accident—to continue the tradition of "D-Line Zou."

    The bad news is that star linebacker Kentrell Brothers exhausted his eligibility, after leading the nation with 152 tackles last year. For as well as the front four played last year and as loaded as it is, the Tigers still needed an all-everything year from Brothers, who won't be easily replaced.

    Missouri could easily finish with a top-20 defense nationally. But the absence of Brothers and the transition to a new head coach in Barry Odom forces the Tigers down near the bottom of the group of elite SEC defenses heading into spring practice.

6. Ole Miss Rebels

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    Yes, Ole Miss lost a ton of studs on the defensive side of the ball, including tackle Robert Nkemdiche, linebacker C.J. Johnson, and defensive backs Mike Hilton and Trae Elston. 

    No, it won't matter all that much.

    The Rebels have a deep and versatile defensive line that includes underrated tackle Breeland Speaks, pass-rusher Marquis Haynes and tackle Issac Gross (who missed most of last year with a neck injury). They get back leading tackler DeMarquis Gates at linebacker, nickel and hard hitter Tony Conner (who should be a star if healthy) and rising senior corner Tony Bridges. 

    Ole Miss' "Landshark" identity is founded on forcing turnovers and hitting hard.

    That shouldn't change in 2016, even if some of the most visible faces have.

5. Tennessee Volunteers

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    The Tennessee defense struggled on fourth downs last season, which directly impacted the loss to Florida and ultimately cost the Vols the SEC East title. 

    On third downs, though, the Vols were elite. Thanks to stud defensive end Derek Barnett, linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin and corner Cam Sutton, they finished second in the nation, giving up first downs on just 27.6 percent of third-down attempts.

    Those three stars are back, along with an ultra-talented and deep defensive line, a versatile secondary and an upgrade at defensive coordinator in former Penn State assistant Bob Shoop, who said, "I wanted this job before Butch offered it to me, but when he did offer it I tried to be cool, like, 'I gotta talk to the wife,'" per Wes Rucker of GoVols247.

    Barring a rash of injuries that drastically changes the complexion of the roster, Tennessee should contend with the big boys in the SEC from a defensive standpoint.

4. Florida Gators

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    Florida has a ton of pieces to replace on a defense that finished fourth in the SEC last year at 310.2 yards per game.

    Luckily for head coach Jim McElwain and defensive coordinator Geoff Collins, they're replacing blue-chippers with more blue-chippers.

    Jalen Tabor and Quincy Wilson will be fine in the defensive backfield even without former star Vernon Hargreaves III locking down one side of the field, Jarrad Davis should be a star at linebacker, and a defensive front that features Cece Jefferson and Bryan Cox will be a force once again.

    The Florida defense will keep the Gators in games in 2016. If the offense can help out a little bit, a return trip to Atlanta to play in the SEC Championship Game isn't out of the question.

3. Georgia Bulldogs

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    Georgia finished third in the SEC in total defense last year after giving up just 305.9 yards per game and returns a loaded defensive line, one of the best linebackers in the country in hard-hitting junior Lorenzo Carter and an experienced secondary that includes junior Dominick Sanders—who tied for the conference lead with six picks in 2015.

    The transition from former coordinator Jeremy Pruitt to the system employed by new head coach Kirby Smart and defensive coordinator Mel Tucker shouldn't be difficult to navigate, and Trent Thompson should anchor a defensive line that has boatloads of talent.

    Replacing linebackers Jordan Jenkins, Jake Ganus and Leonard Floyd will be challenging, but there are plenty of versatile options for Smart to work with, including Reggie Carter, Natrez Patrick, Tim Kimbrough and injured sophomore Roquon Smith.

    As will be the case with Florida, the Georgia defense will give the Bulldogs a chance. It will be up to the offense to capitalize. 

2. LSU Tigers

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    Defense won't be an issue in Baton Rouge this year, because for the first time in a long time, LSU didn't suffer a from a rash of early entrants to the NFL draft.

    Linebackers Kendell Beckwith, corner Tre'Davious White and linemen Lewis Neal and Christian LaCouture all passed on NFL dollars to return to the program and will be joined by pass-rushing monster Arden Key, veteran tackle Davon Godchaux, veteran safety Jamal Adams and a host of talented players that reads more like an All-Conference team than just one roster.

    What's more, new coordinator Dave Aranda—formerly of Wisconsin—brings a track record of success to the program that should have it back dancing in the top 10 nationally in team defense.

    This defense is absolutely loaded, and as long as everybody stays healthy, it should be one of the best in the country.

1. Alabama Crimson Tide

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    New Alabama defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt got great news upon arriving back in Tuscaloosa, when stud defensive end Jonathan Allen passed on the chance to jump to the NFL to return to school for his senior season.

    That's way better than recruiting a 5-star freshman. After all, Allen—a 6'3", 283-pound monster with cat-like quickness—notched 36 tackles and a team-high 12 sacks during Alabama's national title run in 2015.

    He'll be joined in the Crimson Tide front seven with stars such as "Sam" linebacker Ryan Anderson, "Jack" Tim Williams, middle linebackers Reuben Foster and Shaun Dion Hamilton and a defensive line that includes Daron Payne, Dalvin Tomlinson, Da'Shawn Hand and others. 

    The Crimson Tide return valuable members of the secondary, including safety Eddie Jackson and corners Minkah Fitzpatrick and Marlon Humphrey.

    Defense won't be an issue in Tuscaloosa.

    But you've probably heard that before.


    Quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Statistics are courtesy of CFBStats.com, and recruiting information is courtesy of 247Sports.

    Barrett Sallee is the lead SEC college football writer and national college football video analyst for Bleacher Report as well as a host on Bleacher Report Radio on SiriusXM 83. Follow Barrett on Twitter @BarrettSallee.