Power ranking the SEC defenses for 2020
This is going to sound cliché, but hear me out.
I get the feeling that there will be a lot of elite SEC defenses if we have a 2020 season. I realize you could probably say that any given year, but this year feels a little different.
Why do I say that? Well, when I was putting together these rankings of SEC defenses, I realized that I think 4 or 5 could easily rank in the top 10 nationally. Going through it, I wouldn’t be surprised if the SEC had 8 defenses rank in the top 30. Like, there are groups I’ve written extremely encouraging things about, and I don’t think they’re one of the 7 best SEC defenses to start 2020.
Consider that my way of saying that these rankings are relative to competition. Just because I put a defense at No. 8 doesn’t mean I think it’ll be mediocre.
Just so we’re clear, I try to avoid too much end-of-season projecting with this. I’d rather talk about what we’ve seen from a defense, and what we should expect from the jump. You’ll see me frequently reference Bill Connelly’s annual ranking of percentage of returning production, which is usually a good indicator of a potential roadblock is in the way (unless you’re Kentucky and you have the No. 14 defense after entering the season ranked No. 127 in percentage of returning defensive production).
So let’s get mad about some rankings:
14. Ole Miss
Have I mentioned that I wish Lane Kiffin would have found a way to retain Mike MacIntyre? I have? It should probably be said again. This comes back to my belief that DJ Durkin and Chris Partridge were subpar on-field hires to develop that unit. The No. 14 ranking is also partially because Ole Miss lost a lot of key contributors like Benito Jones and Josiah Coatney who were a big part of that significant 2019 defensive improvement. If I’m an Ole Miss fan, I’m awfully worried about reverting to the 2016-18 defensive struggles.
Rice, Georgia Tech and Houston. That’s the list of teams with a higher percentage of returning defensive production than Vandy. Key contributors like Dayo Odeyingbo and Allan George are back to lead virtually the same defense for Derek Mason. That’s the good news. The bad news is we’re talking about a group that allowed 36 points per SEC game last year. In other words, the only way to go is up.
12. Mississippi State
On one hand, MSU just added the defensive coordinator from the team that finished No. 2 in scoring last year. Zach Arnett joined Mike Leach’s staff after 2 years working as Rocky Long’s protege as San Diego State’s defensive coordinator (and less than 2 weeks in the same role at Syracuse). But an MSU defense that was average at best lost a ton of talent the past 2 years, including Willie Gay, Cam Dantzler and Brian Cole this past season. It’s a good thing Erroll Thompson is back because if not, MSU would be even worse than the nation’s No. 113 team in percentage of returning defensive production. Prepare for annual Egg Bowl shootouts until further notice.
Wait, seriously? The program that hasn’t had a top-80 defense since 2015 is now going to make a push toward mediocrity? Yep. Two words. Barry. Odom. He’s going to be to Arkansas what MacIntyre was to Ole Miss last year. Guys will be in better position to make plays, open-field tackling will improve immensely and Arkansas won’t be the defensive doormat it’s been in recent memory. Bumper Pool should take on the Nick Bolton/Cale Garrett role in this Arkansas defense. Sam Pittman made one of the best assistant hires of anybody in America by adding Odom, and that’s going to be said a lot more over the course of 2020.
Speaking of Odom, did you know that the Tigers had a top-20 defense last year? It was easy to forget that because of the second-half collapse. While the Tigers don’t have the aforementioned Odom, they did retain multiple defensive assistants, including coordinator Ryan Walters. Mizzou also brings back Nick Bolton, who turned into one of the nation’s best linebackers during that otherwise forgettable 2019 season in Columbia. His versatility is going to cover up a lot of the shortcomings for a defense in transition. Unfortunately, Garrett is gone, as is underrated run defender Jordan Elliott. A step back to defensive mediocrity feels imminent.
9. South Carolina
Call me crazy, but this seems like a crucial time for Will Muschamp to have an elite SEC defense. Will he do that? I’m not so sure. The secondary is all sorts of loaded with Jaycee Horn and Georgia heartbreaker Israel Mukuamu back. Up front, replacing Javon Kinlaw and D.J. Wonnum isn’t a given, even though South Carolina now has multiple 5-star defensive linemen with sophomore Zacch Pickens and incoming freshman Jordan Burch. If that duo looks the part this year, South Carolina will have a much better chance of reaching 2017 levels of success. But that’s a big “if.”
8. Texas A&M
This is where it gets tough. I won’t be surprised if A&M surpasses this ranking. With that schedule, yeah, there’s no reason this shouldn’t be a top-30 unit nationally. Mike Elko is one of the nation’s top defensive coordinators, and even with the loss of Justin Madubuike, there’s still plenty of returning production back for the Aggies with guys like Anthony Hines and Buddy Johnson back. That’s the positive spin.
The troubling thing is that A&M surrendered 33.2 points per division game last year. The Aggies made a habit of putting themselves in an early hole against quality competition. They need to be better from the jump to make a push into the SEC’s elite.
Before you rip me, Vols fans, understand this. Again, there’s reason to believe that Jeremy Pruitt is in the beginning of a streak of top-30 defenses. What he did to adjust last year and right the ship was largely because of the defensive adjustments made.
But yes, I have concerns about Pruitt losing 3 members of his defensive staff. He doesn’t have a single defensive assistant from his original staff left. That’s not always easy to deal with. Neither is losing your best pass-rusher (Darrell Taylor) and your best player in the secondary (Nigel Warrior). If Henry To’o To’o and Bryce Thompson can become first-team All-SEC guys and if someone like Quavaris Crouch or Aubrey Solomon can emerge, Tennessee can pick up right where it left off.
I’m actually not worried about Bo Pelini messing with LSU’s culture, and I’m not concerned about the implementation of the 4-3 defense, either. That makes sense considering LSU’s strength is built on Tyler Shelvin and that defensive line. Having said that, it’s fair to have at least some concern about a unit that just lost 6 players to the first 4 rounds of the NFL Draft. Even if JaCoby Stevens can do a lot of the things that Grant Delpit did, there’s still no guarantee that an extremely new group of linebackers will do everything that Pelini needs.
The good news? LSU has the best defensive player in America in cornerback Derek Stingley, who should once again take away half the field. That’ll make life a whole lot easier than it could’ve been for a defense that ranks No. 92 in percentage of returning production.
I’ll be honest. This ranking is mainly a Kevin Steele thing. If we were just looking at returning talent, I’d probably have Auburn somewhere in the 7-8 range, despite the fact that K.J. Britt is a run-stopping machine and Owen Pappoe has the makings of a breakout star. I have serious questions about what Auburn is going to look like in a post-Derrick Brown/Marlon Davidson world. Life is much easier for a defense when it can get pressure with 3 down linemen, which the Tigers did regularly with those 2 on the field.
But Steele, who has done nothing but crank out top-20 defenses since he arrived on The Plains, is in for a unique transition. If he continues that streak, he’ll once again show that he’s worthy of being in that $2 million club.
The Georgia loss overshadowed the fact that the Gators had the No. 7 defense in America last year. That was for a team that seemingly couldn’t get the invaluable Jon Greenard and Jabari Zuniga healthy at the same time. Losing C.J. Henderson will hurt, but Kaiir Elam is more than capable of being an All-SEC cornerback as a sophomore. The secondary is in good hands with Shawn Davis and Marco Wilson back. How will Todd Grantham maximize the ability of his pass-rushers? For the most part, he’s made a habit of taking that in stride. Mohamoud Diabate and Jeremiah Moon are obvious breakout candidates, as is former Georgia transfer Brenton Cox.
After consecutive top-20 defenses for Grantham, he should have plenty of weapons to make that 3 in a row.
That’s right. Kentucky at No. 3. Think that’s crazy? It’s not. The casual fan might have missed last year when Kentucky finished No. 4 in the SEC and No. 14 nationally in scoring. That was after it entered the season ranked No. 127 (!) in percentage of returning defensive production. This year, the Cats are No. 27 in that department. Of the top 15 defenses from 2019, only 11 rank in the top 50 in terms of percentage of returning defensive production. The Cats will have to find new leadership, but man, they return a lot.
The No. 2 pass defense in America returns nearly all of its key contributors on the back end, and it’ll get a boost from LSU transfer Kelvin Joseph, who sat in 2019 because of NCAA transfer rules. Boogie Watson, Joshua Paschal, DeAndre Square and Quinton Bohanna are all back for a front 7 that played a key part in last year’s midseason turnaround. If you’re sleeping on Mark Stoops’ defense (again), consider this your warning to wake up.
I’m not saying Pete Golding and Jeremy Pruitt are in the same universe as coordinators, but yes, I do believe that Alabama will be much improved defensively after Nick Saban made the controversial decision to keep his DC another year.
Getting Dylan Moses back will be monumental for a defense that found itself starting 4 true freshmen in the front 7 in September. LaBryan Ray’s return will also be crucial for a Crimson Tide run defense that looked hopeless at times. All that experience that Alabama’s young front 7 got should pay dividends. Christian Barmore emerged into a dominant pass-rusher and Shane Lee was Alabama’s 2nd-leading tackler as a true freshman.
There are some key pieces to replace in the secondary with Xavier McKinney and Trevon Diggs gone, but as long as that doesn’t become a liability, it’s not far-fetched to think that Alabama could produce its first top-5 defense since 2017.
If I wanted to stir the pot, I’d say that the No. 1 defense in America from 2019 that returns a whopping 80% of its production won’t be the league’s best group in 2020. But I’d rather be right than stir the pot. Georgia dubbed itself a “no-name defense” in 2019, but there are plenty of names to know. Richard LeCounte is the SEC’s top returning safety while the returns of linebackers Monty Rice and Azeez Ojulari were among the most significant in the group of national title contenders. Georgia will miss the likes of Tyler Clark, J.R. Reed and Tae Crowder, but the way Kirby Smart recruited the last 3 years gave the Dawgs to shortage of replacement options (Smart signed 8 defensive players rated 5-stars or better from 2018-20).
The only thing giving me pause to suggest that this will be a historically good Georgia defense is the new offense. Todd Monken’s version of the Air Raid offense hasn’t typically coincided with quality defenses. Well, few Air Raids have ever coincided with quality defenses.
But if there was ever a team with the foundation to overcome that, it’s a deep, gap-disciplined talented group like Georgia.
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