In a bold attempt to handicap the SEC West, a notoriously difficult division to predict heading into the 2015 season, we’ve decided to rank the division across several categories.

Later, we’ll compile the rankings to project the 2015 standings.

RELATED: Handicapping the SEC West by ranking the offenses

Today we’ve ranked the SEC West defenses. Can you blame any high-profile quarterback (coughEverett Golsoncough) for staying far away from this division?


Strength: Creating turnovers

Weakness: Middle linebacker

Best Player: DT Robert Nkemdiche

The Rebels lost two All-Americans in the secondary in Senquez Golson and safety Cody Prewitt. Yet the team’s pass defense could be just as good with Tony Conner as a blossoming star at safety, a pair of talented JUCO cornerbacks and holdovers Trae Elston and Mike Hilton. Denzel Nkemdiche is one of the best cover linebackers in the SEC.

Oh, and don’t forget that dominant defensive line, which could be the best in the SEC.

The aggressive Landshark defense has been particularly adept at taking away the football, leading the SEC with 32 turnovers in 2014. The team’s offense may need some short fields to operate successfully, and Ole Miss may get it if the secondary can produce another ball hawk like Golson.

There are playmakers at every level on this defense, and some very good players who will be overshadowed by others’ stardom. If the C.J. Johnson experiment at middle linebacker works, this unit will be scary tough.


Strength: Defensive line

Weakness: Pass defense, especially against up-tempo offenses

Best Player: LB Reggie Ragland

The Tide defensive front seven may fall a notch below the historically-great 2011 team, but it should be among the best in the country.

No offense to Trey DePriest, but Alabama will be better at linebacker by subtraction there, as he was too slow in coverage and couldn’t get sideline-to-sideline last year. The defensive line will be nasty as well, especially against the run. There may be singular players who are more dominant — Robert Nkemdiche and Myles Garrett, for example — but no team can match the Tide’s depth along the defensive line at every position.

Questions remain about the secondary, which lost its three best safeties. But at some point the Crimson Tide’s overwhelming amount of talent at cornerback will show up via interceptions and better coverage on Saturdays, right?

The team’s pass rush is better than average, but nowhere near elite. And the big, hulking bodies — and sometimes-suspect secondary — still mean that spread offenses with tempo and speedy playmakers could give the team a bit of trouble.


Strength: Depth at defensive line

Weakness: Depth at linebacker

Best Player: LB Brooks Ellis

There were games near the end of last season that I would’ve argued Arkansas as the best front seven in the country.

Sure, the Bermuda Triangle of Trey Flowers, Martrell Spaight and Darius Philon have departed. But what many outside of Fayetteville, Ark., don’t realize is that the Hogs will be even deeper at defensive line in 2015, if not better. The team essentially will rotate 10 players liberally, with a mix of building-size anchors against the run and crafty pass-rushers from end and tackle.

The secondary is good enough, and fits well with the team’s overall style by playing physical. Brooks Ellis should see some great production from the defense’s money position at weakside linebacker, just as Spaight did in ’14. The team’s overall talent pool at linebacker is shallow and thin, a concern in the SEC.

Overall, though, this Razorbacks defense has a chance to be a near carbon copy of the one that launched the team to a bowl win last season.


Strength: Pass defense

Weakness: Depth at linebacker

Best Player: S Jamal Adams

LSU put together the best pass defense in the SEC last season, and somewhat quietly, limiting opposing quarterbacks to just 5.5 yards per attempt. That was third in the country behind only Clemson and Stanford.

Tre’Davious White and Jamal Adams may make a case for best corner-safety tandem in the SEC this year. Jalen Mills flirted with the NFL before returning to play safety for LSU in ’15. Ed Paris and Kevin Toliver III are enormous young talents at the other corner spot.

If the team can generate a semblance of pass rush — remember, both starting defensive ends are gone, as is coordinator John Chavis — the pass defense will be brutal once again.

The team’s run defense wasn’t as strong as one would think last year, allowing 4.3 yards per carry to finish ninth in the SEC. Perhaps because Chavis prefers attacking, undersized defensive tackles. New defensive line coach Ed Orgeron has a crucial job.

Christian LaCouture and Davon Godchaux should be good players at defensive tackle and Kendell Beckwith is the best of an athletic group of linebackers. But the ends are unproven and the team holds just seven scholarship linebackers. Considering new coordinator Kevin Steele’s experience within a 3-4 scheme, that could prove to be an issue.


Strength: Depth at defensive line

Weakness: Depth in the secondary

Best Player: CB Jonathan Jones

New defensive coordinator Will Muschamp remarked that he himself was the team’s third safety after spring ball. He also rather bluntly said the team entered the summer with two cornerbacks on which he could rely. That was before three of the team’s defensive backs announced they will transfer.

At least Jonathan Jones leads a group that did manage to pick off 22 passes in ’14, tied with Ole Miss for most in the conference. That’s in part because the team faced so many passes. Which was in part because the defensive line couldn’t generate any pressure.

That line gains a healthy Carl Lawson, five-star true freshman Byron Cowart and a plethora of physically-gifted, experienced players. One has to figure that’s where the Tigers will improve most in Muschamp’s first season under Gus Malzahn. The unit also will benefit from the return of senior linebackers Cassanova McKinzy and Kris Frost.

It’s not easy operating a defense paired with an uptempo spread offense. The group is talented, but imperfect at this point — thin at some spots and needing more development in others. How quickly Muschamp can turn things around will be worth watching both in the SEC West and nationally in 2015.


Strength: Run defense

Weakness: Vulnerable to the deep ball

Best Player: LB Beniquez Brown

It’s a good thing coach Dan Mullen likes to play his reserves as often as any SEC West coach.

This unit got decimated by the NFL draft and graduation. Benardrick McKinney, Preston Smith, Kaleb Eulls, P.J. Jones, Matthew Wells, Jamerson Love and Jay Hughes are the biggest losses.

It’s crucial that defensive tackle Chris Jones grow into his five-star status as a junior. If that happens, he’ll team with A.J. Jefferson and Beniquez Brown to present a formidable trio up front that should remain pretty stout against the run.

Even UAB torched the secondary over the top several times last season. The team’s defensive backs can tackle pretty well when everything is in front of them, but speed is their kryptonite. The Bulldogs allowed an SEC-worst 25 passes of at least 30 yards before losing half the starting secondary.


Strength: Pass rush

Weakness: Tackling

Best Player: DE Myles Garrett

Stealing coordinator John Chavis from LSU was a tremendous coup, and (rightfully) is generating plenty of optimism in College Station, Texas.

The reality is that the Aggies finished dead last in the SEC in total defense each of the last two seasons, and by a wide margin.

Myles Garrett (pass rush) and Armani Watts (pass coverage) are elite young talents, but Chavis must get them to be more active, physical participants against the run.

The linebacker spot remains painfully thin and somewhat limited. Otaro Alaka, Shaan Washington, Josh Walker and A.J. Hilliard aren’t terrible, but probably rank last in the SEC West. De’Vante Harris is an OK corner, but looked silly sometimes last year with missed tackles.

There are some nice developments up front. Daylon Mack will help soon. Julien Obioha at defensive tackle is interesting and fits Chavis’ scheme. Daeshon Hall is a nice No. 2 end. Simplifying the scheme should help the group be more aggressive.

Expect nice improvement, but offenses Alabama, Arkansas, Auburn and even Arizona State will challenge this unit.