Kicking around and debating about which team in the SEC has the best defense can be entertaining and can tend to get downright ugly. After all, the SEC is known for its physically punishing defenses, and every team wants to lay claim to being the ‘best’ one.
So, which SEC East defense will be the best in 2013?
There are way too many variables right now that we have to see play out during fall camp and on into the season, but let’s take a look at the ceiling (and the floor) of each SEC East defense.
Last year’s defense: 2nd in SEC
Why they could be the division’s best: Will Muschamp will always put a great product on the field, and while the Gators lost two first-round picks and five other starters, it’s important to note that Florida’s depth chart is loaded. The return of Ronald Powell only helps cement one of the SEC’s best defensive lines. Buck LB Dante Fowler is a budding superstar, and MLB Antonio Morrison is one of the best LBs in the SEC. Not to mention, Florida has two lockdown corners in Loucheiz Purifoy and Marcus Roberson.
Why they could be the division’s worst: Let’s face it: Florida’s not going to be the East’s worst defense. But they could certainly have a down year. The four key losses are DT Sharrif Floyd, MLB Jon Bostic, S Matt Elam and coordinator Dan Quinn, who went back to the NFL. The line will be solid and deep, but inexperience abounds at linebacker and safety, leaving too big of a hole for unproven players to plug. Florida could also have a tough time forcing turnovers, something the team lived and died on last year.
Last year’s defense: 6th in SEC
Why they could be the division’s best: Nothing is better than a group of young, talented and super hungry underclassmen. Last year’s defense screamed selfish, and players were particularly worried about their NFL dreams, but this group is super talented and ready to prove everyone wrong. Jordan Jenkins could be the SEC’s best rush OLB, while safeties Josh Harvey-Clemons and Tray Matthews are ready to be young superstars. The run defense can’t get any worse than last season’s, and Georgia, collectively, will be better than everyone thinks.
Why they could be the division’s worst: Replacing eight starters is no cakewalk in the SEC. When teams live and die on their defensive performance, the inexperience could catch up with the defense in a hurry. Let’s face it: Todd Grantham may not even be the coach we all thought, as he couldn’t coach one of the most talented defenses – on paper – in UGA history. In fact, Grantham’s defenses have given up virtually the same amount of points per game as Willie Martinez’s.
Last year’s defense: 11th in SEC
Why they could be the division’s best: Mark Stoops and DC DJ Eliot are great defensive minds and great leaders, and they will transform a Kentucky defense led by book-ends Bud Dupree and Za’Darius Smith. Avery Williamson will become one of the SEC’s better linebackers this season, and the Wildcats could shock the East.
Why they could be the division’s worst: Stoops and company just don’t have the horses they need to compete right now. Yeah, the first team is veteran-laid and is a solid group, but to compete in the SEC it takes stacked depth charts along the trenches, something the Wildcats just don’t have. Kentucky finished 10th in run defense last season, and that has to improve.
Last year’s defense: 10th in SEC
Why they could be the division’s best: Mizzou surprised its first year on defense, something few expected to actually happen. The Tigers will win up front, led by talented DE Kony Ealy and stout LB Andrew Wilson. The front seven should pretty be strong against the run.
Why they could be the division’s worst: While I think the front seven can be very good, the secondary is worrisome, namely at corner. Kip Edwards is gone, and finding his replacement to form a solid duo with EJ Gaines is proving to be difficult – not to mention the Tigers arguably lost the SEC’s most talented DT in Sheldon Richardson. The loss of Edwards, Richardson, Brad Madison, Zaviar Gooden and Will Ebner is just way too much to overcome.
South Carolina Gamecocks
Last year’s defense: 4th in SEC
Why they could be the division’s best: Headlined by Jadeveon Clowney, the one great thing Carolina has proven over the last couple years is they can flat out get to the quarterback. Clowney could rack up 16 or more sacks, making this defensive line – and the rest of the defense – the nastiest in the East.
Why they could be the division’s worst: Absent DJ Swearinger, the Gamecocks have no fearless leader. Swearinger was the heart and soul of the defense, and replacing him, along with four proven LBs and Spur, will be too much to be the top overall defense.
Last year’s defense: 14th in SEC
Why they could be the division’s best: Defensive coordinator John Jancek is bringing back the 4-3 to the Vols’ defense, which will instantly make them better. And his 11 starters are actually better than advertised, led by linebackers AJ Johnson and Curt Maggitt. The starting 11 has to stay healthy and Jacques Smith will have to have a big year as a pass rusher.
Why they could be the division’s worst: While the starting 11 is strong, there is little to no depth in the front seven. The secondary was one of the league’s worst, and the Vols were the SEC’s worst overall defense in 2012. Playing devil’s advocate: what makes you think they will improve in 2013? They couldn’t tackle air last season, and they were out of position 90 percent of the time.
Last year’s defense: 5th in SEC
Why they could be the division’s best: Vandy’s defense is led by the talented and studly defensive secondary. This group finished third in the SEC last season, and they return three of four, including one of the SEC’s top cover corners in Andre Hal. The Commodores also built some depth at linebacker and along the defensive line this spring, looking for an improved top-five SEC defense overall.
Why they could be the division’s worst: While the secondary is much better than advertised, the defensive line has holes. Losing three veteran and stout starters is tough for any team to overcome, and the teeth of the defense at tackle has the biggest void of playmakers. SEC defensive strength starts in the trenches, and the Commodores are thin at the one position they need the most depth.
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