As part of our look back to the 10th Anniversary of the ’98 Vols and their National Championship—a team that featured excellence in the backfield and on defense—earlier we ranked the Top-10 Rushing Offenses in the SEC’s modern era, since expansion in 1992.
Today we turn our attention to the defensive side of the football, and look at the best defensive units here in the same era.
A couple of ground rules: no consecutive seasons were included because often the personnel is virtually the same. So you won’t see ’93 Alabama or ’07 LSU, for example, because we went with one of the adjacent years.
Unlike the rushing-offenses piece, where we used NFL success to help rank the tandems, with defenses, you’re talking about eleven guys instead of just two or three, and their ability to work as a unit is what makes the defense great, so we placed almost no emphasis on the NFL or name value.
However, like the previous piece, a team’s on-field success is factored into the rankings. And obviously, the numbers were crunched, especially scoring defense and total yardage.
And so away we go.
Top 10 SEC Defenses: 1992-2007
10. 2002 Georgia (15.4 PPG allowed, 13-1, SEC Champions)
Key Players: DE David Pollack, DT Jonathan Sullivan, LB Boss Bailey, LB Tony Gilbert, FS Kentrell Curry
In Mark Richt’s second season, the Dawgs took lofty preseason expectations and made the most of them, running the table outside of their usual struggles with Florida. It was Georgia’s first SEC Championship in 20 years and their first ever East Division title.
This was a team that improved over the season—their worst defensive performance was in the opener against Clemson, which would be the first and last time they’d surrender four touchdowns in one game all year.
Along the way, the defense carried them to a 13-7 win over South Carolina and an 18-13 win over Tennessee. Then they dominated late, providing the most lopsided win in program history against Georgia Tech 51-7, completely putting the brakes on Arkansas in the SEC Championship 30-3, and then using an interception return for a TD to key a 26-13 win over Florida State in the Sugar Bowl.
David Pollack was the 2002 SEC Defensive Player of the Year.
9. 1998 Florida (13.8 PPG allowed, 10-2, BCS at-large)
Key Players: DT Reggie McGrew, LB Jevon Kearse, LB Mike Peterson, LB Johnny Rutledge, FS Tony George
The defenses on the Danny Wuerffel Gator teams were really good too, but for my money, this one was better; bolstered by the fact that they had to do so much more work without inflated offensive numbers in 1998.
Against the Vols, they played well enough to get the game to overtime, despite five Gator turnovers. Against Florida State in their only other loss on the year, a fluke tipped pass turned the whole game around, but this UF defense played well enough to win every single game.
In between, they completely shut down Auburn (24-3) and Georgia (38-7), and finished off the year by taking care of Donovan McNabb and Syracuse 31-10 in the Orange Bowl.
Kearse led the way with 7.5 sacks and George with four INTs. Aside from the No. 1 team on this list, I’d fear this defense the most if I saw them again.
8. 1994 Alabama (15.1 PPG allowed, 12-1, SEC West Champions)
Key Players: DE Dameian Jeffries, SS Sam Shade
Oft forgotten is the 1994 Crimson Tide season, the last hurrah of Jay Barker and his “no matter what, we’re going to win this game” offense, coupled with some of the last vestiges from the ’92 Championship defense.
The Tide ran to an 11-0 start behind especially dominating performances against Southern Miss (a 14-6 save for the defense), Tennessee (17-13 with a last second goal-line stop), and 21-14 against Auburn in an Iron Bowl for the ages.
The Tide broke only once, to Danny Wuerffel, late in the SEC Championship Game, 24-23. They rebounded to shut down Ohio State in the Citrus Bowl 24-17. They carried their offense more than teams like ’02 Georgia, which is why they’re slightly higher on the list.
7. 2005 Alabama (10.7 PPG allowed, 10-2, Cotton Bowl)
Key Players: DE Mark Anderson, LB DeMeco Ryans, LB Freddie Roach, FS Roman Harper
The little defense that could...based on total points per game allowed, this is the second best defense of the modern era. This Tide team ran to 9-0 behind this defense and clutch kicking, after being bolstered by Tyrone Protho’s catch against Southern Miss in the second game of the season; after that game the defense went on one of the best stretches in SEC history.
Alabama beat South Carolina 37-14 and Arkansas 24-13 before they made the nation stand up and take note with the 31-3 decimation of No. 5 Florida.
The defense literally won the game against the Vols, keeping Tennessee at bay the entire game and getting a Tennessee fumble through the end zone when it looked like they’d finally crack in an eventual 6-3 victory.
And the D got the game to overtime against LSU before finally falling in an equally low-scoring affair 16-13. Though Auburn got the best of them, they finished the year by locking down Texas Tech in a 13-10 Cotton Bowl win.
No other defense on this list did more winning with less contribution from the offense.
6. 2006 LSU (12.6 PPG allowed, 11-2, BCS at-large)
Key Players: DE Tyson Jackson, DE Chase Pittman, DT Glenn Dorsey, DT Rickey Jean-Francois, LB Ali Highsmith, FS LaRon Landry
The ’07 National Champion defense was good, but this one was better. Interestingly enough, though they played with eventual No. 1 pick JaMarcus Russell, like ’98 Florida, they played well enough to win every game, but didn’t get the breaks they needed from their offense.
The two losses on the year came at Auburn 7-3, and at Florida 23-10 thanks to turnovers.
Aside from that, the Tigers rolled behind a defense that finished fourth nationally, with one of the best career, defensive-line units in SEC history and the all-everything Landry. They really showed their worth in the Sugar Bowl, crushing Brady Quinn and Notre Dame 41-14.
5. 2004 Auburn (11.3 PPG allowed, 13-0, SEC Champions)
Key Players: DT Stanley McClover, LB Travis Williams, CB Carlos Rogers, FS Junior Rosegreen
The perfect example of a great offense and a great defense coming together at the right time (even though 2004 turned into the wrong time in the BCS).
After carrying the team to a 10-9 win over LSU in September, the Tigers and their defense weren’t threatened again until the final game of the season in the Iron Bowl.
They had a field day in Knoxville with a 34-10 win and held a great Georgia offense to six points. Things got a bit dicey in their final three, but they were up to the task against Alabama 21-13, then had a strange off-day against Tennessee in the SEC Championship, but their offense was up to the task in a 38-28 win.
And when their offense needed them to return the favor, they delivered in a 16-13 win over Virginia Tech. You would’ve loved to see this defense go up against USC’s offense, but alas...
4. 1998 Tennessee (14.5 PPG allowed, 13-0, National Champions)
Key Players: DE Shaun Ellis, DT Darwin Walker, LB Al Wilson, LB Raynoch Thompson, CB Dwayne Goodrich, FS Deon Grant
After a tough day against Syracuse in the opener, the Vols put the clamps down and carried an offense featuring a completely inexperienced backfield to perfection.
They forced five turnovers and five sacks against Florida, kept Auburn out of the end zone with a goal-line stand in a 17-9 win, got four turnovers in a 22-3 decimation of Georgia, and the list goes on.
While Arkansas got the best of them in the first half, they held the Pigs to a field goal in the second, then helped build a 59-7 lead on Tim Couch and Kentucky before retiring to the backups.
In the SEC Championship Game against Mississippi State, they surrendered less than 160 yards of total offense and allowed no offensive touchdowns.
And with it all on the line, they forced three turnovers (including a Goodrich INT for six) and held Peter Warrick to one catch for seven yards in the National Championship. The NFL pedigrees of several of these players have also played out well over time. The backbone of perfection.
3. 2006 Florida (13.5 PPG allowed, 13-1, National Champions)
Key Players: DE Derrick Harvey, DT Ray McDonald, LB Brandon Siler, LB Earl Everett, CB Ryan Smith, FS Reggie Nelson
No team on this list has asked its defense to step up and come through in crucial situations more than the ’06 National Champions. And the Gators always provided. Tennessee’s complete inability to run the football on them (negative rushing yards for the day) paved the way for a 21-20 win in Knoxville.
They locked down JaMarcus Russell and LSU 23-10. Even in the loss to Auburn, they played well enough to win; the Tigers got a safety plus two touchdowns off a fumble and a blocked punt to contribute to their 27 points. Right back to work against Georgia, where they surrendered only 14 points.
The list goes on: 25-19 over Vanderbilt, 17-16 over South Carolina, 21-14 over FSU.
Arkansas appeared to expose them by scoring 28 in the SEC Championship, but all the questions were answered in one of the most dominant championship defensive performances of all-time.
Against Heisman winner Troy Smith and undefeated Ohio State, the Gators held Ohio State to an absurd 82 yards of total offense en route to a 41-14 win. In all, the ’06 Gators played five games that were decided by one possession and another four that were still much in dispute in the fourth quarter, which obviously doesn’t include the National Championship. This defense delivered time and again.
2. 2003 LSU (11.0 PPG allowed, 13-1, National Champions)
Key Players: DE Marcus Spears, DE Marquise Hill, DT Chad Lavalais, DT Melvin Oliver, CB Corey Webster
While the ’06-’08 LSU defensive line is incredibly good, these guys are one step above them. The Tigers continued their struggles against Florida in 2003, losing 19-7 in a game that appeared to knock them from the National Championship race. But their complete decimation of Auburn (31-7) in the coming weeks put them back in it, which was followed by a November stretch that saw them dominate Alabama 27-3 and then shut down Eli Manning in the de facto SEC West Championship game 17-14.
In a rematch against No. 5 Georgia in the SEC Championship, the Tigers had won the first meeting 17-10 in Baton Rouge, LSU completely dominated 34-13. They rose to No. 2 in the BCS, and got the opportunity to face Oklahoma in the friendly Sugar Bowl confines, which they took advantage of in a 21-14 win that saw this LSU defense put the clamps on Heisman winner Jason White.
1. 1992 Alabama (9.4 PPG allowed, 13-0, National Champions)
Key Players: DE John Copeland, DE Eric Curry, LB Lemanski Hall, LB Michael Rogers, LB Antonio London, CB Antonio Langham, CB George Teague, SS Sam Shade
There’s a lot of debate on some of these, I’m sure—you can really interchange ’03 LSU and ’06 Florida because they’re so similar and both have the dominant title-game performances. '98 Tennessee and '04 Auburn were both undefeated with incredible defenses.
But if you even begin to argue against '92 Alabama at the top of this list, you either didn’t see them play or you can’t do math.
Copeland and Curry is easily the best defensive-end tandem in modern SEC history, if not all SEC history; they each had 10.5 sacks on the season. And you can argue Langham and Teague for best corner duo in SEC history, as they each had six interceptions.
The worst thing I can say about them would be to make a joke about Langham, but he was still agent free in 1992.
While their offense would struggle at times, it was always steadied by Jay Barker, with a dose of playmaking from David “The Deuce is Loose” Palmer.
True story: It took me several episodes to be okay with 24 because I so disliked the fact that the President of the United States shared "The Deuce’s" name.
While the offense was putting it together, the defense was impenetrable from day one. Entering the showdown with Heath Shuler and the Top 10 Vols on the third Saturday in October 1992, what was considered to be a relatively untested Alabama defense had given up 36 points in six games. The Vols broke the bank and scored 10...but a late turnover sealed a 17-10 Bama win.
None of the games on their schedule really stand out, because the defense dominated them all. They shut out Auburn in the Iron Bowl to clinch 11-0, then got torched by Shane Matthews for 21 points and 317 total yards in the SEC Championship. Bama still won 28-21.
It was the second time all season the Tide had allowed more than 20 points (Miss. State also got 21) and the first time they’d given up more than 300 yards. Insane.
Then, when a team thought to have no offense and a defense that was still somehow underrated by the nation at large went to play fast and loose No. 1 Miami in the Sugar Bowl, this team sealed their place with a 34-13 woodshed job to win it all, with George Teague making a name for himself.
More insane stats? Most rushing yards allowed all season: 138 (to Vanderbilt, of all people). Most passing yards allowed all season: Matthews' 287. They forced seven fumbles against South Carolina and shut out three opponents.
They were simply the best...and in today’s ever-faster game, I may live to be 100 and never see a better defense. Accept no substitutes.