It’s next to impossible.

Coming up with an All-Decade Defensive Team for the SEC is a task that I wish on nobody. Having just been through it myself, I can confirm that it’s a pain-staking process full of second-guessing and frustration. That stems from the fact that this squad is loaded. Absolutely loaded.

It’s not good enough to be an All-American. It’s not even good enough to be just the best defensive player in football for an entire year. That’s right. A guy like Quinnen Williams was left off this starting lineup. It’s not that Williams did anything wrong. He just didn’t have the multi-year success that other defensive linemen did.

And to be clear, if there’s a player who has a season so far above and beyond the competition — think 2010 Cam Newton — he earns a spot on this list. At the same time, if someone has a career body of work that’s just so impressive — think Nick Chubb — he earns a spot on this list.

So, let’s dig into this. Here is the SDS All-Decade SEC Defensive Team:

DL: Jadeveon Clowney, South Carolina

Say what you want about Clowney’s final year in Columbia, but he was a game-changer for the vast majority of his career. His sophomore season turned him into a household name. A year in which he had 23.5 tackles for loss and 13 sacks earned him 6th in the Heisman Trophy voting.

Oh, and he forced a fumble or 2:

Clowney’s play ushered in the viral era of college football content. That, however, isn’t the only reason he made this list. He finished his 3-year career with 47 tackles for loss, 24 sacks and 9 forced fumbles. The 2-time first-team All-American ranks in the top 5 in the SEC in career tackles for loss. He was a must-see superstar who made South Carolina relevant near the end of the Steve Spurrier era.

DL: Jonathan Allen, Alabama

I remember in 2016 when there was major midseason buzz for Allen to be the Heisman Trophy winner. That’s usually the sign of an incredible defensive player. It’s hard to settle on just 1 Alabama defensive lineman from the 2010s, but Allen is certainly worthy.

  • Double-digit sacks in 2015 and 2016
  • Double-digit tackles for loss in 2014, 2015 and 2016
  • No. 6 all-time in career sacks in the SEC
  • 2016 SEC Defensive Player of the Year
  • 2016 Nagurski Award winner
  • 2016 Bednarik Award winner
  • First-team All-SEC in 2014, 2015 and 2016

The résumé speaks for itself. Because he did his damage at Alabama, it might not have been appreciated enough. Allen was an every-down defensive end who could blow up plays in the backfield like nothing. The fact that he stayed at Alabama all 4 years only helped him add to his legacy.

DL: Myles Garrett, Texas A&M

In light of recent events, it’s worth remembering this is strictly based on his college performance. Garrett, in case you forgot, was remarkable. And don’t give me the declining sack numbers he had as a junior and tell me he was overrated. Garrett was an absolute terror rushing off the edge for Kevin Sumlin’s team. He was still a 1st-team All-American in consecutive seasons, and he finished his career with 47 tackles for loss (tied with Clowney for 5th in SEC history).

Like Allen and Clowney, it wasn’t just that he could rush the passer. Garrett made plays on ball-carriers in space that human beings his size shouldn’t have been able to make.

The bend, the tenacity, the motor, it was all there. Garrett would’ve been even more decorated as a college player had he been on teams that stayed relevant through November. Still, his dominance earned him an easy spot on this list.

DL: Derek Barnett, Tennessee

This is about the body of work. Say what you want about Tennessee’s struggles while Barnett was in Knoxville, but they would have been far worse without him. In just 3 years, he broke Reggie White’s career sacks record at Tennessee. He’s also 2nd on the SEC all-time list for TFLs. Perhaps the most impressive Barnett stat is that in his 3-year career, he never went consecutive games in a season without at least 1 TFL.

If that doesn’t show how dominant and consistent Barnett was, I don’t know what will. His ability to get to ball-carriers so often gave Tennessee the game-changing play it needed. Barnett might not have been a multi-year All-American like others on this list, but what he did in 3 years was as significant as any of the other all-decade defensive linemen. Where would the Vols have been without Barnett in the middle of the decade?

DL Honorable Mention:

Quinnien Williams (Alabama), Derrick Brown (Auburn), Nick Fairley (Auburn), Shane Ray (Mizzou), Melvin Ingram (South Carolina), Montez Sweat (Mississippi State), Jeffery Simmons (Mississippi State), Michael Sam (Mizzou), Marquis Haynes (Ole Miss), Trey Flowers (Arkansas).

LB: Josh Allen, Kentucky

When draft time rolled around, I remember getting frustrated whenever I would see Allen listed as “Edge.” To me, that implied that all he knew was how to rush the passer. Anybody who watched Allen play football knew that couldn’t have been further from the truth.

Allen was a linebacker, and a program-changing one at that. He could cover well in space, he could move laterally to take down ball-carriers and he could lead a defense like few SEC players in recent memory. And I’m not just talking about providing the occasional pass-breakup on a quick slant. Allen could flat out cover:

Allen’s 2018 season was one for the ages (he set the single-season SEC sack mark with 17). He was the heart and soul of Kentucky’s best season in 4 decades. By the time his career wrapped up, he ranked 3rd in the SEC in sacks and he was No. 11 in tackles for loss. But everyone in Lexington knew that Allen’s impact went well beyond the stat sheet. He was a once-in-a-generation player who Kentucky fans appreciated every minute of.

LB: Jarvis Jones, Georgia

The 2012 Jack Lambert Award winner was the best player on a Georgia team that was a play from playing for a national championship. Jones was virtually unblockable as a senior, which is somewhat amazing considering the way his career started. Jones transferred to Georgia after the USC medical staff wouldn’t clear him to play with a neck injury.

But once Jones got his career started in 2011, he did plenty to make up for lost time. In 2 years at Georgia, Jones racked up 44 tackles for loss and 28 sacks. He still ranks in the top 10 in the SEC in career tackles for loss and sacks. Jones could have been a 1st-round pick had he left Athens after his burst-onto-the-scene season in 2011. Instead, he stayed and became what Mark Richt called “the best player in college football.”

It’s a shame Jones couldn’t overcome his health issues in the NFL, but UGA fans will always appreciate how he played the game during those 2 years he terrorized SEC offenses.

LB: C.J. Mosley, Alabama

What a year 2012 was for linebackers. Between the aforementioned Jones, Manti Te’o and Mosley, those 3 All-American spots were locks.

Saban put Mosley in charge of doing everything, and that’s exactly what he did. The Alabama junior was everywhere. In addition to being the best player on a national champion, Mosley was a 4-year starter. He did everything well. Whether that was tie the Alabama record for touchdown returns or rack up 100-plus tackles in each of his final 2 seasons in Tuscaloosa, Mosley was incredibly valuable during a dominant stretch of Alabama’s run.

The “Decade of Dominance” isn’t quite as dominant without Mosley patrolling the middle of Saban’s defense.

LB: Devin White, LSU

Yes, I added an extra linebacker. Sue me. White was that good at LSU.

He was the lifeblood of an LSU team that was supposed to fall off the map in 2018. Instead of Ed Orgeron getting fired and LSU starting over, White was the guy who led the Tigers to their first New Year’s 6 Bowl of the Playoff era. The 2018 Butkus Award winner was twice named 1st-team All-SEC as a middle linebacker, and twice he exceeded 120 tackles.

He was LSU’s Team MVP in consecutive seasons, and with good reason. He was the leader in Dave Aranda’s defense. Whenever it felt like LSU needed a big play, White always delivered:

White might be remembered by some for his horse-riding (R.I.P. Daisy Mae) and his first-half targeting suspension against Alabama, but he’ll go down as one of the top middle linebackers to ever play in the SEC.

LB Honorable Mention:

Roquan Smith (Georgia), Reuben Foster (Alabama), Reggie Ragland (Alabama), Zach Cunningham (Vanderbilt), Courtney Upshaw (Alabama), Kentrell Brothers (Mizzou), Danny Trevathan (Kentucky), A.J. Johnson (Tennessee).

DB: Vernon Hargreaves, Florida

It’s a shame that Hargreaves didn’t get to play opposite of someone like CJ Henderson. Still, Hargreaves had a dominant career as a lockdown cover corner. He picked off at least 3 passes in all 3 seasons, which helped earn him 1st-team All-SEC honors all 3 years. That’s not easy, especially at that position.

His ball skills fueled a Florida defense that was the backbone of some up-and-down years with Will Muschamp and the first year of the Jim McElwain era. He just had the proverbial “nose for the football.” He could jump routes, beat receivers when left on an island and he could chase down an overthrown pass.

Few cornerbacks dominated the game like he did for 3 years, and while he never won the Jim Thorpe Award, the 3-year body of work was too impressive not to include him on this list.

DB: Patrick Peterson, LSU

I know, I know. Peterson only had 1 season this decade. He played the majority of his college career in the 2000s, which some would argue should leave him off this list.

Well, that 2010 season was pretty special. Peterson was not only a unanimous All-American cornerback, he also won the Jim Thorpe Award AND the Chuck Bednarik as the best defensive player in college football. In addition to intercepting 4 passes for an LSU team who won 11 games in 2010, Peterson also returned a pair of punts for touchdowns. He proved to be an exceptional special teams weapon when he debuted as a returner in 2010.

Few players could impact the game in a variety of ways like Peterson could. He was an obvious All-American choice and an eventual top-5 draft pick.

DB: Tyrann Mathieu, LSU

Of course “The Honey Badger” was going to earn a spot on this list. While his run of dominance wasn’t as long as some of the other guys on this list — that was his own doing — Mathieu still was a game-changing player who was must-see TV in 2011. The Heisman Trophy finalist quickly became a household name in part because of his hair and his nickname, but more so because he stuffed the stat sheet like few defensive backs have in recent memory.

Go back and look at that 2011 season and you’ll see that Mathieu had:

  • 77 tackles
  • 17 passes defensed
  • 7.5 tackles for loss
  • 6 forced fumbles (!)
  • 5 fumble recoveries
  • 4 total touchdowns (2 via punt returns, 2 via fumble returns)
  • 2 interceptions
  • 1.5 sacks

Uh, no wonder the guy won the Bednarik Award as the best defensive player in the country. You think of the word “electric” and Honey Badger comes to mind. He was everything that LSU could’ve wanted in terms of being a physical, game-changing playmaker. He still holds the LSU record for career forced fumbles (11), which is tied for the SEC record and seventh in NCAA history.

The amazing thing was that Mathieu did that all in his first 2 years at LSU. And while they were unforgettable — LSU doesn’t get to a national championship berth without him — it’s amazing to think about where his all-time numbers would’ve ranked had he been able to stay out of trouble his junior year. Still, the guy is an all-time great who LSU fans will appreciate forever.

DB: Minkah Fitzpatrick, Alabama

Fitzpatrick had the type of career that I think is easy to take for granted at a place like Alabama. The accolades aren’t necessarily unprecedented — 2-time consensus All-American, 2-time 1st-team All-SEC, 2017 Jim Thorpe Award winner, 2017 Bednarik Award winner, etc. Just another decorated Alabama player during the Saban era, right?

Yeah, that’s underselling the you-know-what out of what Fitzpatrick was for that team. He could play cornerback and safety at an elite level, which was why he started — and excelled — as a true freshman. Fitzpatrick really took off as a sophomore in 2016 when he had 6 interceptions, 2 of which were returned for touchdowns (he took 4 back to the house in his career).

Here’s the other amazing thing. Fitzpatrick went to 3 national championships and won 2 of them. I’d argue he was the best player on the 2016 and 2017 teams. Look at where Alabama’s defenses ranked in FBS with Fitzpatrick:

Alabama D ranks
2015
2016
2017
Rushing D
No. 1
No. 1
No. 2
Pass D
No. 30
No. 24
No. 6
Total D
No. 3
No. 2
No. 1
Scoring D
No. 2
No. 1
No. 1

Yes, I included the run defense numbers because that was an area that Fitzpatrick made his mark on, especially his junior year when he had 8 tackles for loss. He did everything that Saban could have ever asked of him. When Saban recruits defensive backs, you know that Fitzpatrick’s name has to come up. All he ever did was show up with the right attitude and produce at an exceptionally high level for 3 years. No drama, just results.

Minkah Fitzpatricks don’t grow on trees. Few SEC defensive backs have ever been as rock solid as him.

DB Honorable Mention:

Morris Claiborne (LSU), Mark Barron (Alabama), Grant Delpit (LSU), Dee Milliner (Alabama), Deandre Baker (Georgia), Landon Collins (Alabama), Teez Tabor (Florida), Johnthan Banks (Mississippi State), Senquez Golson (Ole Miss).

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