Ranking the SEC East defenses for 2017

Dec 3, 2016; Atlanta, GA, USA; Florida Gators defensive lineman Jabari Zuniga (92) is called for a facemark against Alabama Crimson Tide running back Damien Harris (34) during the second quarter of the SEC Championship college football game at Georgia Dome. Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

In our latest burst of spring cleaning, we’re looking back to 2016 … and then ahead to 2017. We’re breaking down the SEC East’s defenses, looking at where they finished, whether they’ll improve or fall back in 2017, and then ranking them 1-7. Here’s how it all looks from here:

1. Florida

2016 points allowed: 16.8 points per game, third in SEC.

Better or worse in 2017? Worse, but still the best in the East.

Florida’s defense in 2016 was a historic level of excellent. Sure, it ended up third in the SEC in scoring defense (second in yardage allowed at just 293 per game). But that was a function of playing with a putrid offense (last in SEC in offensive yardage per game, 12th in scoring) and not anything the defense did. Not only did Florida allow the fewest passing yards per game in the league, but they held opposing passers to 45.1 percent completions and picked off 16 passes while allowing just eight touchdowns.

The only bad news for Florida is that the Gators do lose a lot — CBs Teez Tabor and Quincy Wilson, S Marcus Maye, LBs Alex Anzalone and Jarrad Davis, and DL Caleb Brantley. But even if Florida’s defense falls off a bit — allowing, say, 18 points and 320 yards per game — if it could be coupled with a competent offense, Florida would be almost certain to win the East again.

2. Georgia

2016 points allowed: 24.0 points per game, tied for 5th in SEC.

Better or worse in 2017? Better.

Kirby Smart preaches defense, and at times, his 2016 Bulldogs seemed to get the message. Georgia was fourth in the league in yardage allowed, giving up just 327.5 yards per game. The Bulldogs were second to Florida in pass defense, and actually topped the Gators to finish fourth in the SEC in rushing yardage allowed. Georgia’s defensive domination of an impressive Auburn offense showed what it can do.

And unlike Florida, the Bulldogs aren’t hurt too much by attrition. With guys like LB Lorenzo Carter and S Dominick Sanders (below) returning, UGA is a solid second-best defense in the East. Combine that with an offense with weapons like Jacob Eason, Nick Chubb and Sony Michel, and it’s not hard to see why UGA will be the preseason favorite to win the East (if not the entire league).

Oct 29, 2016; Jacksonville, FL, USA; Georgia Bulldogs safety Dominick Sanders (24) intercepted the ball during the first quarter against the Florida Gators at EverBank Field. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

3. South Carolina

2016 points allowed: 26.5 points per game, 8th in SEC

Better or worse in 2017? Better.

Carolina allowed 27.5 and 30.4 points per game in its previous two seasons, yielding 433 and 430 yards allowed per game. In 2016, first-year coach Will Muschamp trimmed those numbers to 26.5 points and 412 yards per game. Carolina was fourth in the East in most defensive categories in 2016.

Given the talent that Muschamp is recruiting to Columbia, it’s safe to expect improvement to continue. Muschamp could bring USC in under 25 points and 400 yards per game in 2017, and that sort of improvement would result in another bowl appearance for Carolina.

4. Vanderbilt

2016 points allowed: 24.0 points per game, tied for 5th in SEC.

Better or worse in 2017? Worse.

Vandy had an underrated defense going into the 2016 season. The Commodores ended up in the top half of the league in scoring defense, yardage allowed, and rushing yardage allowed. That said, all-everything LB Zach Cunningham is gone, and Vandy couldn’t name two linebackers who could combine to replace Cunningham. Vandy’s numbers are likely to drop slightly because of some losses, but this defense still will be notably better than the three groups ranked behind it.

5. Kentucky

2016 points allowed: 31.3 points per game, 11th in SEC.

Better or worse in 2017? Better.

Kentucky’s defense looks remarkably predictable. In 2012-2014, it allowed 31.0, 31.2, and 31.3 points per game. So if the numbers are the same in 2016, why the hope for improvement? Simply, Kentucky’s defense was young and got progressively better as the season went — and as coach Mark Stoops took more control over the defense. LB Jordan Jones (below) and S Mike Edwards would star anywhere.

Nov 26, 2016; Louisville, KY, USA; Kentucky Wildcats linebacker Jordan Jones (34) wraps up Louisville Cardinals wide receiver Reggie Bonnafon (7) during the second quarter at Papa John's Cardinal Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jamie Rhodes-USA TODAY Sports

Credit: Jamie Rhodes-USA TODAY Sports

If Kentucky can improve its line play, it could sneak up to fourth. If the Cats have some significant injuries, they could fall to sixth.

6. Tennessee

2016 points allowed: 28.8 points per game, 9th in SEC.

Better or worse in 2017? Better.

This is hardly a leap of faith, because Tennessee’s defense would be hard-pressed to play much worse than it did down the stretch in 2016. Teams ran at will on the Vols, racking up 218.5 yards per game on the ground, including 5.0 yards per carry. The stats were similar to Butch Jones’ 5-7 squad from 2013. And if UT doesn’t show marked improvement, to, say, 26 points per game and 410 yards per game (it allowed 449 in 2016), Jones may well be hunting a new job.

7. Missouri

2016 points allowed:  31.5 points per game, 12th in SEC.

Better or worse in 2017? Worse.

Mizzou was the worst defense in the East, coming off seasons where it had allowed 21.1 and 16.2 points per game. Granted, with Josh Heupel’s passing game going on offense, the defense’s numbers were bound to suffer. But some offseason losses and injuries further hurt this team, which also loses some significant seniors like LB Michael Scherer and CB Aarion Penton, as well as early NFL entrant DL Charles Harris. Barry Odom, like Mark Stoops, had to change his coaching situation in mid-season. Unlike Stoops, Odom didn’t see much in the way of results.

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  • So out of all the pictures that the Florida Defense has, SDS decided to use a picture of a clear facemask

  • I would be very surprised if Missouri’ defense actually got worse in 2017. They know they have a problem. I would hope the staff can get this figured. If not, Odom has to be in trouble. The offense can only carry them so far.

    • Well, given this is SDS, not surprised at bad writing and bad research. This is the same publication that was saying, going into last year, Mizzou’s defense was the strength of the team and the offense would struggle.

      Reasons for optimism:
      (1) Odom was the DC when Mizzou’s defense was ranked #6 overall in the nation. His mistake was hiring a DC who tried to implement a gap-control, read-and-react defense instead of the one-gap, penetrating defense Odom had run before. Odom forced the switch back to the old system for the last three games, and Mizzou won two – including a nice win over the Razorbacks.
      (2) We return seven of the starters and had two stellar JC transfers. The heart of the defense is the D-Line, and we look solid and deep.
      (3) Hiring Brick Haley to run the D-Line. Solid hire.

      Reasons for concern:
      (1) We lost both starting corners.
      (2) LB group lacks known depth.

      Overall I think we’re going to be much better than last year.

  • I swear 2 or 3 weeks ago you had this same article but you said Kentucky’s defense will be worse, what is the logic behind this??? I found the exact article, here’s an excerpt:

    Arkansas (31.1) – The Razorbacks are better than what their defense portrayed last season. New DC Paul Rhoads will need to fill in a few key gaps, especially along the line, but look for the Razorbacks defense to be much improved in 2017.

    Auburn (17.1) – Tigers DC Kevin Steele was outstanding in his first season with the program, and although replacing sack artists DE Carl Lawson and DT Montravius Adams is an impossible task, it appears the Auburn defense is in good hands.

    Georgia (24.0) – The Bulldogs return a defense nearly intact for DC Mel Tucker. That alone should make the Bulldogs an even better defensive unit than in 2016, which wasn’t bad at all. Georgia ranked fifth in the SEC in points allowed per game.

    Mississippi State (31.8) – It’s no secret that the Bulldogs have to tighten up on defense next season. That’s where new DC Todd Grantham comes into play. He led a Louisville defense last season that allowed 23.8 points per contest.

    Missouri (31.5) – The Tigers are hopeful of returning to the kind of defense they played in 2015, giving up just 16.2 points per game. It won’t be easy, losing DE Charles Harris, but historically they’ve been much better than the 2016 defense that allowed the most points per game since joining the SEC.

    Ole Miss (34.0) – There’s nowhere to go but up for the once proud “Land Shark” defense, last in the SEC in points allowed for the 2016 season. Former Auburn assistant Wesley McGriff is the new defensive coordinator and has some returning talent to work with.

    South Carolina (26.5) – With defensive-minded head coach Will Muschamp and DC Travaris Robinson, the Gamecocks should continue to improve after finishing last in the SEC in 2015 in average points allowed.

    Tennessee (28.8) – One would have to imagine that the Vols won’t be as unfortunate in the injury department next season as they were in 2016. Still, DC Bob Shoop must replace a pair of ends and corners as the Vols look forward to a healthier 2017.

    Texas A&M (24.5) – The Aggies took a step back in 2016 under DC John Chavis. That has to be a fluke, although he’ll have to find a way to make up for the departure of standout DEs Myles Garrett and Daeshon Hall. A seasoned secondary could provide some answers.

    Alabama (13.0) – Before you go racing for the comment section, know this: although the Alabama defense is going to be worse (how could it not be?), it will still be the best in the conference, if not the nation. That’s what years of top recruiting classes will do for you.

    Florida (16.8) – The Gators lose a ton of talent and will break in new DC Randy Shannon on somewhat of a rebuilding project. The schedule doesn’t help, either, with games against Michigan, LSU, Florida State and Tennessee.

    Kentucky (31.3) – The Wildcats haven’t exactly been the prototypical defensive juggernauts in recent years. Don’t look for that to change in 2017, although the secondary should stand out again.

    LSU (15.8) – The Tigers lose an incredible amount of talent after an outstanding effort in the first year under DC Dave Aranda. He’ll earn his keep in 2017 as he plugs in younger talent to fill the many holes.

    Vanderbilt (24.0) – The Commodores have been up and down defensively over the last several years. Replacing a talent like LB Zach Cunningham won’t be easy and could point toward a down year in 2017 after a very impressive 2016.

        • You might want to check the name of the author for the earlier article. The titles and premise may be the same but if it’s a diff author, makes sense the opinions would be diff. SDS does this alot where 2 diff guys give differing takes on the same subject and readers get confused.

          You really can’t expect 2 diff guys to have the same take. However this does point to a lack of imagination on the part of the writers. What else is new??

  • When you play in the top conference in the nation, everyone is going to shut everyone else out and score 60 every Saturday. I just wanted to illustrate how stupid it is to think this way. It makes more sense to wonder how much difference will there will be between the top offense and 14th offense, or between the top defense and 14th defense but that still not as good as wondering how many bowl games the SEC will get invited to and WIN. Last years .500 bowl record by both the East and West is positive because so many got invited but even considering that we would like to see it improve and include a National Championship. As for Missouri, Odom will put a defense on the field that works great in most games. He has some new faces but they are somewhat experience faces and they will be effective. It remains to be seen if Cross can and what Cross can contribute, but welcome to the real world of hiring assistant coaches and figuring out where their strengths are. There are a lot of job descriptions in NCAA football defenses.