Which SEC East team will have the best defense in 2014?

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Which SEC East team will have the best defense?

We’ll not know the answer to that question until December, but it’s fun to speculate in May. There’s about four months until college football returns, but we can begin to look at spring developments, incoming players and new coaches who will bolster success in 2014.

The SEC East welcomes two new defensive coordinators in Georgia’s Jeremy Pruitt and Vanderbilt’s David Kotulski. Pruitt will try to transform the Bulldogs’ underachieving unit, while Kotulski will try to maintain the status quo in Nashville.

There are 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.

RELATED: Biggest takeaways from every SEC team this spring

PPG: Points per game; YPP: Yard per play

Florida Gators

PPG: 21.1 (3rd)
YPP: 5.3 (5th)
Total defense: 314.3 YPG (2nd)
Why they could be the division’s best: Will Muschamp is an elite defensive mind, and Florida has built up considerable depth at all three levels of the defense, headlined by DE Dante Fowler and CB Vernon Hargreaves. With an improved offense and the defense actually playing with a lead, it could become the SEC’s best.

Why they could be the division’s worst: The Gators won’t be the division’s worst defense, but the Gators are replacing two secondary players, have little-known linebackers and don’t have an elite pass rusher. Fowler can become that player, but he’s not there yet. If the offense struggles again, the defense could face a considerable amount of snaps.

Georgia Bulldogs

PPG: 29 (10th)
YPP: 5.41 (6th)
Total defense: 375.5 YPG (8th)
Why they could be the division’s best: The addition of Jeremy Pruitt could become the biggest and best hire of any team in college football. Pruitt simplified the defense this spring, and the Dawgs have nine returning starters to go along with talent and depth. With Jordan Jenkins and Leonard Floyd wreaking havoc, the Dawgs could have the conference’s best defense.

Why they could be the division’s worst: The secondary will be the main catalyst to how much the defense improves. Last year the secondary was about two missed tackles and blown coverages from being awful. The front seven is loaded, but the defensive backs have to make major strides to improve from last year, and that’s without the most talented player in Josh Harvey-Clemons.

Kentucky Wildcats

PPG: 31.2 (13th)
YPP: 6.26 (13th)
Total defense: 427.2 YPG (13th)
Why they could be the division’s best: Mark Stoops is a defensive guy, and he has two nice defensive ends in Za’Darius Smith and Bud Dupree to anchor the unit. The Cats’ depth is improving, along with the caliber of players Stoops is signing. The secondary is a year more experienced, and the linebackers have some depth.

Why they could be the division’s worst: If UK’s offense doesn’t get moving, the defense will get the brunt end of the deal. The Cats want to throw it 40 times, and that probably means more three-and-outs than most. The defense loses two defensive tackles and defensive leader Avery Williamson. Collectively, the unit could experience an overall setback.

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Missouri Tigers

PPG: 23.1 (7th)
YPP: 5.42 (7th)
Total defense: 417.9 YPG (10th)
Why they could be the division’s best: Missouri’s defense has surprised folks over the last two years. Dave Steckel’s unit has done a fabulous job. The defensive line should be stacked with talent and should feature bookends once again, headlined by Markus Golden. The secondary may not have proven players, but they were regarded as ‘unproven’ entering last year, too. With another ferocious pass rush, the Tigers’ defense could be nasty again.

Why they could be the division’s worst: But do you just replace players like Michael Sam, Kony Ealy, Andrew Wilson and EJ Gaines? The Tigers lose three of four secondary starters. Many unproven names will have to play impact roles, and a team with several first-time starters at linebacker and defensive back could spell trouble.

South Carolina Gamecocks

PPG: 20.3 (2nd)
YPP: 5.46 (9th)
Total defense: 350 YPG (5th)
Why they could be the division’s best: Carolina boasts one of the league’s best coordinators in Lorenzo Ward, along with one of the deepest linebacking units in the conference. Fueled by athletes, Carolina’s defensive line replaces key faces, headlined by returning starter JT Surratt and rising star Darius English. Skai Moore should be a force, and the secondary should replace Vic Hampton and Jimmy Legree.

Why they could be the division’s worst: Simply replacing three key starters in Kelcy Quarles, Chaz Sutton and Jadeveon Clowney will be tough, and a decrease in pass rush could hurt the inexperienced corners. That’s why Ward toyed with the idea of playing some 3-4 scheme, but a lack of proven defensive tackles could spoil the plans. Bottom line: SC may just not have the hawses to maintain such great defensive play.

Tennessee Volunteers

PPG: 29 (10th)
YPP: 6.07 (11th)
Total defense: 418.4 YPG (11th)
Why they could be the division’s best: The Vols will get an instant splash with the return of OLB/DE Curt Maggitt, who’s primed for a big season. AJ Johnson and Cameron Sutton are both All-SEC caliber players. The linebackers and secondary should be much improved and much more athletic, along with an added year in the same system. That will pay dividends in 2014.

Why they could be the division’s worst: In a line-of-scrimmage league, the Vols lose all four defensive line starters. Yes, there’s athleticism and talent, but it’s young and hasn’t developed yet. Any time teams play many freshmen on defense – what Tennessee is forced to do in 2014 – choppy waters are ahead.

Vanderbilt Commodores

PPG: 24.6 (8th)
YPP: 5.07 (2nd)
Total defense: 354.8 YPG (5th)
Why they could be the division’s best: The Commodores’ defense has consistently been one of the most underrated units over the last few years. Yes, a new coordinator is in town, and the defensive scheme switch from a 4-3 to a 3-4 could actually benefit the Commodores because of athletes like Caleb Azubike playing a bigger role. Honestly, all three levels of the defense have nice talent and even better depth.

Why they could be the division’s worst: The secondary has really fueled the Commodores’ defensive success the last few years, and no starters return. Both corners and safeties are gone, and teams just don’t replace every starter with ease.

Photo Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

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COMMENTS

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  • I have high hopes for UGA’s defense this year. Really hope this is the year they finally start to put everything together. Usually offense or defense is good, rarely both. This could be chance for things to work right.

  • I know the Spring Game is no measure of success but the Secondary looked horrible. Tackling has to improve, reduce Yards after Catch etc. A good pass rush will help tremendously. The Offense is capable of 30+ points per game and UGA’s Defense may need it. I am not confident at this point.

    • If they have another bad year with Pruitt, who has had success and is shown to be good, where does the problem fall? Are they players not as good as other elite players? Is the atmosphere at UGA allowing them to be slack? If they are bad under Grantham and Pruitt I gotta think the problem is not the d coordinator.

    • Be mindful we do have a long time until the season. Coverages might take longer to pick up and build chemistry than others. Also some people are playing dback that may not be comfortable yet. I do feel like Pruitt will have them playing better than Grantham, but how much is a good question.