Ranking the SEC's defensive play-callers for 2020
We’ve ranked the Southeastern Conferences head coaches for the 2020 college football season and the best offensive minds in the nation’s toughest conference. Now it’s time to rank the best defensive play-callers in the league that values stopping opponents more than any other in the nation.
Keep in mind, this list set out to rank the 14 coaches who will call the vast majority of the plays. Many of the league’s head coaches have a hand in game-planning and might even call plays during critical situations, but these are the 14 coaches who will be making most of the calls on Saturdays.
Without further ado, here’s how we rank SEC’s defensive play-callers for 2020:
No. 14 DJ Durkin — Ole Miss
This was a strange hire for Lane Kiffin after the tragic events that transpired at Maryland, but Durkin has SEC experience running Florida’s defense. The main issue I have with Durkin is in recent seasons, whenever he leaves a program, they appear to get better immediately. Florida went from firing Will Muschamp (Durkin was the defensive coordinator that season) to winning the SEC East the next year; Michigan’s defense got better once Don Brown replaced Durkin and Mike Locksley led Maryland to a win over a ranked Syracuse team in his second game as the program’s head coach. If Kiffin hired Durkin for his recruiting ability, that has not really worked yet, either. The Rebels are ranked last among SEC teams in recruiting.
No. 13 Zach Arnett — Mississippi State
Ranking an assistant coach this low on a list like this might lead you to believe Arnett isn’t a good coordinator, but the reality is Mississippi State’s head defensive coach is walking into a tough situation being paired with Mike Leach. While Leach’s Washington State offenses practiced a good bit of ball control in recent seasons, it remains to be seen if the Bulldogs will have that level of success against SEC defenses next season. One good sign for Hail State fans when it comes to Arnett, he was targeted by Syracuse and was headed to coach for Dino Babers before Leach swooped in and hired him. The fact that Babers and Leach wanted to hire Arnett suggests two of the better offensive-minded coaches in the nation believe he’s a good fit to pair with their scheme. Arnett has no SEC experience, which can be overvalued at times, but there’s still likely going to be a learning curve there in his first season in the league.
No. 12 Ted Roof — Vanderbilt
One of the more experienced coaches on this list, Roof did an outstanding job running Appalachian State’s defense in 2019. Roof also has SEC experience, as he served as Gene Chizik’s defensive coordinator at Auburn from 2009-2011, which included the 2010 national championship season. Considering the success Roof had with Eli Drinkwitz last season, it was interesting to see Missouri’s new coach go in a different direction on defense, but that likely says more about Troy Walters than it does Roof. Getting the opportunity to combine knowledge and defensive schemes with Derek Mason could prove to be a big plus for the Commodores in 2020.
No. 11 Pete Golding — Alabama
How bad does Nick Saban miss Jeremy Pruitt? After finishing No. 1 in the nation in scoring defense in 2016 and 2017, Alabama has ranked outside the top 10 in consecutive seasons. Keep in mind, Alabama had a top 10 scoring defense every season from 2009-2017 — the lowest was No. 6. It’s not as if the talent has dropped off in Tuscaloosa, either. Some might point to the fact Alabama has suffered some tough injuries in recent seasons, but that excuse doesn’t hold as much water considering the surplus of available talent. In the games that matter the most, Alabama’s defense continues to come up short time and time again. If Golding and Nick Saban can’t get that corrected immediately, yet another coordinator change might be coming in Tuscaloosa.
No. 10 Brad White — Kentucky
White is a candidate to rise up this list as his unit played excellent football during the second half of the season. If Kentucky has another huge year like it had in 2018, it’s going to come as a result of a defense that looks to be Mark Stoops’ deepest and most talented in 2020. White’s defense ranked No. 3 in scoring defense in SEC play last fall, but there were issues. Kentucky needs to improve drastically stopping the run and preventing opponents from converting on 3rd down if 2020 is going to be a step forward for the defense. After only 1 season running the defense in Lexington, it appears Stoops has surrounded himself with another outstanding coordinator on his Kentucky staff.
No. 9 Derrick Ansley — Tennessee
Ansley is another coach likely to shoot up this list next year, but after having just 1 year of experience as a defensive coordinator, this feels like the appropriate ranking for Tennessee’s play-caller. After working out some early season issues, the defense became the strength of the team that won its final 6 games. In-game adjustments made by the defensive coaching staff played a huge role in wins against South Carolina, Kentucky, Missouri and Vanderbilt. While playmakers have emerged at all three levels, the strength has been the secondary, and to a man, all of those DBs played their best football once Ansley joined the staff. The former NFL defensive backs coach helped develop Nigel Warrior into an All-SEC performer and nickelback/slot corner Shawn Shamburger was the highest-graded player in the SEC at his position in 2019.
No. 8 Ryan Walters — Missouri
One of the best young coaches in the SEC, Walters took over the play-calling duties while working under Barry Odom and the Tigers continued to improve. Walters had offers to leave Columbia this offseason, including some interest from SEC teams, but Eli Drinkwitz made keeping Missouri’s defensive coordinator a priority. That continuity should serve the Tigers well. In 2019, the Tigers held 5 opponents to 14 points or fewer and only 1 team scored more than 29 (inexplicably, Wyoming, which scored 37 in the opener).
No. 7 Travaris Robinson — South Carolina
Robinson has been working with Will Muschamp nearly a decade (since the 2011 season at Florida) and after slowly building the talent and depth in Columbia, the Gamecocks’ defense finally started to show the promise many expected. The statistics don’t bare out how good South Carolina’s defense was last fall thanks to an offense that self-destructed by season’s end, but it was clearly the team’s strength. That defense needs to take a step forward this season if Robinson eyes a top 5 selection on this list, but the unit showed signs that it will do just that thanks in part to a line that looks as deep and talented as any in the SEC.
No. 6 Bo Pelini — LSU
Two factors for Pelini’s ranking: LSU had the SEC’s best defenses during his previous stint in Baton Rouge, and Ed Orgeron has an outstanding recent track record of hiring assistants. So we can disregard anything Pelini’s defenses did at Youngstown State or Nebraska. I’m a big believer that a coach is only as good as the players available, and Pelini inherited one of the most talented defenses in the country when he decided to return to Baton Rouge. With LSU moving back to Orgeron’s preferred 4-3 style of defense, giving the program’s defensive linemen more responsibilities and more play-making opportunities, you can expect the Pelini hire to make an instant impact.
No. 5 Mike Elko — Texas A&M
Since Jimbo Fisher’s arrival, the side of the ball that has progressed the most has not been the offense. It’s been the defense, thanks to Elko and his defensive staff. Elko turned the Aggies into one of the league’s best run defenses immediately and now they’re getting off the field on 3rd down. These are two critical areas. The next challenge is reducing the number of big plays. Only 3 SEC defenses allowed more 10+ yard plays last season than A&M (186). A&M ranked 7th or worse in allowing plays of 20+, 30+ and 40+ yards, too. Fisher’s program has found a ton of success recruiting elite defensive backs, which should go far in preventing so many explosive pass plays in 2020.
No. 4 Barry Odom — Arkansas
Odom was Sam Pittman’s most important hire. The Razorbacks have struggled for years on defense, but that soon could change. Odom needed some time, but he turned Missouri’s defense into one of the better units in the SEC. When you compare Missouri’s talent to others, it makes the job Odom did that more impressive. He’ll need to follow a similar blueprint in Fayetteville. Arkansas needs better personnel to compete in the West, but Pittman could not have made a better hire than Odom as his staff looks to rebuild the program.
No. 3 Todd Grantham — Florida
Grantham has excelled at Mississippi State and Florida, but his unit will need to perform better against a retooled Georgia offense if he’s going to rise in this rankings next season. He deserves credit for rebuilding Florida’s defense, just like he did at MSU. Both were on hard times when he arrived. (MSU’s defense in 2016 might be the worst I’ve seen in my time covering the SEC, but he managed to quickly turn that unit around immediately.) Grantham’s defense lives and dies by the havoc he draws up on 3rd down, but they have been far more effective than not in recent seasons — no matter what Georgia fans say. The Gators lost edge rushers Jonathan Greenard (10 sacks in 2019) and Jabari Zuniga (3 sacks in 2019) to the NFL this offseason yet still return more sacks (28.5) than any other SEC program.
No. 2 Dan Lanning — Georgia
Lanning can’t match the SEC experience of some of his peers, and Kirby Smart obviously has his hands all over Georgia’s defense throughout the week, but Lanning calls the shots on Saturdays. He has done such an impressive job that his lofty ranking is warranted. Georgia arguably had the SEC’s best defense last season, and remarkably, the Bulldogs had just 1 defender (J.R. Reed) listed on the Coaches’ All-SEC First-Team by season’s end. That’s not to say Georgia was lacking talent, but it does prove the Bulldogs didn’t have much star power. With the defensive talent set to return in Athens and Lanning calling the plays, look for Georgia to have the nation’s best defense in 2020.
No. 1 Kevin Steele — Auburn
For my money, Steele is the most underrated assistant coach in the country. I would argue he’s been the best coach at Auburn for the past few seasons and played a key role in helping Gus Malzahn keep the head coaching job. The only thing that probably played a bigger role than Steele in that regard was Malzahn’s massive buyout. We all know the SEC has transitioned to more wide open and explosive offenses and Steele deserves credit for adapting his system and managing to keep up. In today’s age of college football, you aren’t going to shut down most offenses that feature a good quarterback and dynamic playmakers. The goal should be to limit them in key areas — notably scoring and explosive plays. Steele’s defense showcased that ability better than any unit last season against LSU, holding Joe Burrow and Co. to a season-low 23 points. How impressive was that? LSU led the country in scoring last season. The Tigers average 48.4 points per game — and 52.5 in the 2-game Playoff.