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July 29, 2010

Defense rules the SEC, but will it this season?

Think of the defenses in the SEC as like bottlenecks on an expressway. Even the most turbo-charged football teams have grinded to halt in big games against SEC teams.

Examples of this gridiron gridlock:

Behind Heisman-winning quarterback Sam Bradford, Oklahoma averaged 51.14 points per game in 2008. Yet the Sooners managed just 14 in a loss to Florida in the BCS national championship game.

Ohio State also had a Heisman-winning quarterback in 2006. Led by Troy Smith, the Buckeyes averaged more than 34 points that year. But in the championship game against Florida, the Buckeyes were held to 14 points by the Gators, and seven of those came on a kickoff return.

Hawaii led the nation with a 43.4 scoring average in '07. The Warriors scored 10 points in a Sugar Bowl loss to Georgia.

Last season, Texas averaged more 40 points per game. The Longhorns were held to 21 in a championship game loss to Alabama.

The cliche that defense wins championships is older than Joe Paterno, but it has been proved over and over in the SEC, where suffocating defenses are as much a part of the region as suffocating heat.

In seven of the past eight seasons, at least five SEC teams have ranked among the nation's top 25 in total defense. In 2008, 11 of the SEC's 12 teams fielded defenses that ranked among the country's top 40.

But there are indicators that this season could be different. Several SEC teams must rebuild their defenses, and they have to do so with a lot of high-level talent gone to the NFL.

In April's draft, NFL teams selected 29 SEC defenders, with 15 going in the first three rounds. By comparison, the Pac-10 had 15 total defensive players selected. The Big 12 had 16. There were 21 defensive players taken from the Big Ten, but only seven went in the first three rounds.

Players exiting include Tennessee strong safety Eric Berry and defensive tackle Dan Williams, Florida cornerback Joe Haden and Alabama linebacker Rolando McClain and cornerback Kareem Jackson; each was a first-round selection.

Because of a tie in voting, there were 12 defenders on the official All-SEC first team last season -- and 11 are gone, all but Alabama strong safety Mark Barron. And 11 of the 16 defenders on the second team are gone, as well.

Can the SEC lose that many star-quality players and still field the nation's best defenses? Can it be taken for granted the SEC teams always will play strong defense?

"That's a good question," said former Georgia All-America defensive end David Pollack, now an analyst for ESPN. "Look at the two best defenses in the SEC last year. Hands down, it was Alabama and Florida.

"But Alabama has lost nine starters. Florida lost a bunch of starters and their defensive coordinator, Charlie Strong. Charlie Strong was one of the best defensive coordinators in the country, and losing him will have an impact."

The Gators lost much more than Strong -- now the coach at Louisville -- from last season's defense. They also lost five players who received first- or second-team All-SEC acclaim: Haden, defensive ends Jermaine Cunningham and Carlos Dunlap and linebackers Brandon Spikes and Ryan Stamper. Cunningham, Dunlap and Spikes were second-round picks in the NFL draft.

"Some guys aren't replaceable," Pollack said. "Think about Joe Haden. He's a cornerback who can shut off half the field."

SEC-ond to none
Here's a list of the SEC defensive players taken in April's NFL draft last April.
First round: S Eric Berry, Tennessee; CB Joe Haden, Florida; LB Rolando McClain, Alabama; CB Kareem Jackson, Alabama; DT Dan Williams, Tennessee.
Second round: CB Javier Arenas, Alabama; DE Jermaine Cunningham, Florida; DE Carlos Dunlap, Florida; DT Terrence Cody, Alabama; LB Brandon Spikes, Florida.
Third round: CB Myron Lewis, Vanderbilt; S Major Wright, Florida; S Chad Jones, LSU; DT Corey Peters, Kentucky; LB Rennie Curran, Georgia.
Fourth round: LB Perry Riley, LSU; CB Trevard Lindley, Kentucky, DT Geno Atkins, Georgia; DT Al Woods, LSU; LB Eric Norwood, South Carolina.
Fifth round: S Kendrick Lewis, Ole Miss; CB Walter McFadden, Auburn; S Reshad Jones, Georgia.
Sixth round: DE Greg Hardy, Ole Miss; DE Clifton Geathers, South Carolina.
Seventh round: CB Marquis Johnson, Alabama; LB Jamar Chaney, Mississippi State; DT Jeff Owens, Georgia; DE Brandon Deaderick, Alabama; DT Kade Weston, Georgia.
Of course, Florida isn't alone in having to fill gaping holes.

Alabama has to replace nine full-time starters, including three All-Americans -- McClain, tackle Terrence Cody and cornerback Javier Arenas. LSU and Georgia must replace seven, and the Bulldogs also are switching schemes (from a 4-3 to a 3-4). Florida, Kentucky, Mississippi State, Tennessee and Vanderbilt will have six new starters, and Ole Miss will have five.

Alabama's defense has an added measure of uncertainty with star end Marcell Dareus apparently included in a scandal involving players from various teams attending an agent-held party in Miami. If Dareus is found to have accepted any improper benefits, he could be suspended for a few games.

Alabama also could have issues in the secondary, where it must replace three starters and some key backups from last season. But with former five-star prospects such as Dre Kirkpatrick and B.J. Scott ready to step in at corner, coach Nick Saban has indicated that talent isn't a problem.

"I think a lot of players buy into our system," Saban said. "They just don't have the knowledge and experience, the game-time experience we'd like for them to have. We don't have a lot of depth. We haven't defined all the roles, especially in the secondary because we don't have a lot of experience there.

"I do like the talent level we have. I do like the attitude that the players have worked with. I think this is going to be a defensive team that improves throughout the course of the season."

Auburn, Arkansas, Kentucky and Mississippi State are hoping to see improvement, too. They're trying to bolster defenses that ranged from so-so to so bad.

"Arkansas' defense had more holes than Swiss cheese," Pollack said. "Auburn's was dreadful."

Some feel Arkansas could be a threat in the SEC West if it can improve its defense. That's a big "if."

Last season, the Razorbacks' defense was the conference's weakest, allowing 401.2 yards per game. Several opposing quarterbacks enjoyed their best performances of the season at Arkansas' expense.

"We must learn how to eliminate the big play," Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino said. "There are times we played very, very good defense but got beat by the big play."

South Carolina has aspirations to finally legitimately challenge for the East Division title. Though the Gamecocks were 15th in the nation in total defense last season, return seven starters and have highly respected Ellis Johnson at coordinator, they have to replace end Clifton Geathers and linebacker Eric Norwood, who were selected in the NFL draft.

"Who is going to make all the sacks the way Norwood did? We have to wait to find out," South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier said. "We think we're going to have a real good defense and hopefully get a few more turnovers this year."

Of course, the caliber of SEC defenses likely will be judged by whether they can help the SEC win another championship. Despite their personnel losses, Alabama and Florida are viewed as the SEC's leading championship contenders.

"You wonder how much SEC teams like Florida and Alabama are really rebuilding," Pollack said. "It's more like reloading. When you lose guys like Terrence Cody and Rolando McClain, it doesn't help, but they have may have a lot of [future] All-Americans you just haven't heard of yet."

That's what SEC coaches are counting on. They need new starters to emerge as dominant forces, and that seems to happen every season.

Still, it shouldn't be taken for granted.

Numbers game
By Mike Huguenin

Here's a look at each SEC team and how it fared in some key defensive areas last season. In addition, we look at the number of returning full-time starters (defined as at least seven starts).

THE STATS: No. 2 in nation in rushing defense, No. 10 in pass defense, No. 2 in total defense, No. 2 in scoring defense
QUICK TAKE: The only returning starter is SS Mark Barron. Despite all those holes to be filled, there looks to be only one potential trouble spot and that's cornerback.
THE STATS: No. 73 in nation in rushing defense, No. 99 in pass defense, No. 89 in total defense, No. 58 in scoring defense
QUICK TAKE: The return from injury of CB Isaac Madison is good news for the Hogs, whose pass defense was lousy last season.
THE STATS: No. 78 in nation in rushing defense, No. 57 in pass defense, No. 68 in total defense, No. 79 in scoring defense
QUICK TAKE: Given coach Gene Chizik's background, last season's defensive showing was surprisingly bad. An improved run defense is vital this season.
THE STATS: No. 12 in nation in rushing defense, No. 2 in pass defense, No. 4 in total defense, No. 4 in scoring defense
QUICK TAKE: Finding some pass rushers is of the utmost importance. And the cornerback spot opposite junior Janoris Jenkins could be a problem. The new coordinator is Teryl Austin, who had been secondary coach of the NFL's Arizona Cardinals; he replaced Charlie Strong, who became coach at Louisville.
THE STATS: No. 36 in nation in rushing defense, No. 52 in pass defense, No. 38 in total defense, No. 63 in scoring defense.
QUICK TAKE: New coordinator Todd Grantham, who had been the Dallas Cowboys' defensive line coach, has installed a 3-4 defense. The Bulldogs need to do a better job of forcing turnovers; they forced just 12 last season. The secondary has three new starters and bears watching.
THE STATS: No. 100 in nation in rushing defense, No. 17 in pass defense, No. 53 in total defense, No. 43 in scoring defense
QUICK TAKE: Unless UK gets much more physical up front, it's going to struggle to stop any good opponent. The linebackers could be a problem this season.
THE STATS: No. 46 in nation in rushing defense, No. 29 in pass defense, No. 26 in total defense, No. 11 in scoring defense
QUICK TAKE: Veteran coordinator John Chavis has a lot of holes to fill. One huge positive would be if the LSU offense could actually stay on the field; too often last season, LSU's defense was put in situations where it had to win games because of offensive ineptitude.
Ole Miss
THE STATS: No. 58 in nation in rushing defense, No. 15 in pass defense, No. 21 in total defense, No. 15 in scoring defense
QUICK TAKE: Ole Miss was surprisingly stout last season, and the Rebels should have one of the best front fours in the SEC - and in the nation. A rebuilt secondary is a concern this season.
Mississippi State
THE STATS: No. 62 in nation in rushing defense, No. 64 in pass defense, No. 58 in total defense, No. 71 in scoring defense.
QUICK TAKE: New co-coordinators Manny Diaz and Chris Wilson don't have great overall talent to work with. But the Bulldogs played a lot of newcomers last season, and that should pay off - to an extent, at least - this season. They have to get more physical against the run.
South Carolina
THE STATS: No. 52 in nation in rushing defense, No. 8 in pass defense, No. 15 in total defense, No. 24 in scoring defense
QUICK TAKE: Coordinator Ellis Johnson is under-recognized, but he does a great job with the talent he has to work with. The secondary could be quite good, but the Gamecocks are going to miss big-play LB Eric Norwood.
THE STATS: No. 65 in nation in rushing defense, No. 12 in pass defense, No. 22 in total defense, No. 38 in scoring defense
QUICK TAKE: Despite all the praise heaped on Monte Kiffin and the highly paid defensive staff last season, the Vols' defensive numbers were down across the board - and quite significantly in some areas - from 2008. The real bad news? The Vols lost their best lineman, their best linebacker and their best defensive back. They also are painfully thin at tackle. How new coordinator Justin Wilcox, who comes from Boise State, chooses to deploy his players will be one of the most interesting story lines in the league this season.
THE STATS: No. 105 in nation in rushing defense, No. 9 in pass defense, No. 56 in total defense, No. 46 in scoring defense
QUICK TAKE: The good pass defense numbers last season were a bit overblown; the Commodores' run defense was so bad that no opponent needed to throw the ball. It doesn't help that Vandy's offense is so inept that the defense always seems to be on the field.

Olin Buchanan is a senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com.

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