How much benefit of the doubt does Alabama get? They lose three starters, including All-Everything LB CJ Mosley, and they return one starter, a senior who has mediocre production so far. Last year, he had a decent line of 65 tackles, 31 solo, 7.5 TFL, and 2 sacks. The media has reacted to these facts with all of the sobriety we've come to expect...
Just kidding. DePriest is a consensus preseason 1st team All-SEC player and All-American. The Bama LB core, which remember, only returns DePriest as a starter, is widely ranked as one of the very best units in the nation. There's track record and then there's just waiving your hand and saying they'll be good because. So, with each team, I will list their returning leading LB in tackles, just to give you an idea how unimpressive DePriest's numbers are. I think he's a very good player, but let's slow our roll just a tad.
Besides, it will be funny.
1 GEORGIA: Wilson 133 tackles, 76 solo, 11 TFL, 4 sacks
They return the SEC's leading tackler and the SEC's third leading tackler in Herrera. They also return a starter with 6.5 sacks and another with 12 TFL. This is a deep, talented unit surrounded by, unfortunately, the rest of the Georgia defense.
2 LSU: Welter 80 tackles, 25 solo, 4 TFL, 2 sacks
The Tigers return two starters plus Louis and Beckwith, who likely will be starting by the end of the Wisconsin game. Deep, talented, though no one single star player has emerged yet, thought that will likely change this season.
3 FLORIDA: Taylor 62 tackles, 30 solo, 3.5 TFL
Florida ranked 1st in the SEC in pass defense and 2nd in rush defense. They return two starters, but also a ton of depth due to the massive amounts of injuries forcing playing time up and down the roster. They also lack that one star player, but they boast a ton of talented depth.
4 MISSISSIPPI STATE: McKinney 70 tackles, 42 solo, 7 TFL, 3.5 sacks
Another incredibly deep unit, only they have a dynamic playmaker in the middle in McKinney. State actually was top 5 in the SEC in both rush and pass defense, and they return 9 starters this season. Quietly, Mullen has built a good defense and its based off of the LB corps.
5 ALABAMA: DePriest
Saban has recruited like mad, so the talent is there, but it is almost entirely unproven. DePriest isn't quite as good as the hype, but he's still solid. I'm not quite buying that they will be awesome just because Bama usually has awesome LB.
6 TENNESSEE: Johnson 106 tackles, 60 solo, 8.5 TFL
Johnson is the only returner starter, but they get Maggitt back from injury after he missed all of 2013 with injury. If he's ready to go, this could be one of the best units in the conference. If not, it won't be the best unit in the state.
7 SOUTH CAROLINA: Moore 56 tackles, 30 solo, 3.5 TFL, 0.5 sacks, 4 INT
Skai Moore was the man as a freshman. They return all three starters, and it's not a sure thing any of them other than Moore will start again this year. Another deep, experienced unit. Detect a theme, yet?
8 VANDY: Herring 84 tackles, 44 solo, 3 TFL, 1.5 sacks
Due to the depth at LB, they are shifting a 3-4 scheme. Not sure how that will affect their production, but they return three starters, even if they are now all changing position.
9 OLE MISS: Bryant 78 tackles, 52 solo, 12.5 TFL, 2 sacks
Bryant and Nkemdiche are a potent 1-2 punch. OM's defense wasn't much to write home about last year, but they have some excellent starting talent. Depth is still a major concern, though.
10 AUBURN: McKinzy 75 tackles, 43 solo, 8 TFL, 2 sacks
Auburn returns two starters, and their best returning player is shifting positions. They are going to rely heavily on incoming talent to step up quickly.
11 ARKANSAS: Mitchell 77 tackles, 31 solo, 2 TFL, 1 sack
They return two starters and a bunch of depth from a unit that wasn't particularly good. Not going to embarrass themselves, but not a top tier unit.
12 TEXAS A&M: Claiborne 89 tackles, 29 solo, 7 TFL, 1.5 sacks
Actually, that's misleading, as Claiborne has been dismissed from the team. This was a bad unit that was returning almost all of their starters, now it's a bad unit missing its best player. Good luck.
13 MIZZOU: Brothers 70 tackles, 40 solo, 6.5 TFL, 1 sack
They only return one starter and surprise! He had offseason surgery. Mizzou's back seven is pretty terrible.
14 KENTUCKY: Henderson 51 tackles, 24 solo, 3 TFL, 1 sack
When there is a cellar, Kentucky will be there to fill it.
This group looks a ton like the SEC WRs on paper. Tons of talent, but little of it weighed and measured. That makes it difficult to evaluate since any judgment will be heavily weighted in projecting. Do you side with upper classmen players that have played but not exceptionally well, like the ones at LSU? Or do you side with the multi-5-star depth chart of Alabama? DL play is a major component to LB play as well. Playing behind studs makes it easier to look great. If you stand out without them? You must be something. So that makes no. 1 an easy choice.
Clear cut number one with a stud LB in Ramik Wilson, a very, very good ILB in Amarlo Herrera and then some pass rushing threats like Leonard Floyd and Jordan Jenkins. All of this without playing behind a particularly prolific DL.
Auburn's group is sneaky good without much hype. They return 113 solo tackles from McKinzy, Frost and Therezie. Therezie's an interesting player as sort of a combo DB/LB, but he plays in the box almost exclusively. This is a good group playing behind a talented DL even with the losses of Dee Ford and potentially Carl Lawson.
Here's a testament to how green the SEC LB corps are this year: I'm not sure I even like LSU's group and they may be the 3rd best in the conference. Welter's total tackles numbers look nice, but we all witnessed he was hardly effective. He did seem to improve late. Kwon is a guy we gush over, but he's yet to put it all together. Lamar Louis and Kendall Beckwith were pretty heralded recruits, so there's some talented depth behind them. I expect Clifton Garrett could be starting by year's end.
DePriest is good but overhyped. He's not done anything more than Kwon Alexander but cracks pre-season award lists? I'm not even sure he's the best player in this unit, as Denzel Devall could be on the cusp of breaking out. Really it's their insane depth and talent and the fact that their LB play rarely dips from anything other than good, and this unit will be strong once again.
McKinney is a solid player along with Matthew Wells. They have some young guys that should be okay playing next to them.
I like Michael Taylor and Dog Barker Antonio Morrison. Muschamp always gets production out of these guys.
A.J. Johnson is great and Maggitt could be. They are playing in front of a green DL, which concerns me, but they should be solid to very good.
8) South Carolina
Skai Moore looks like a stud in the making and they return everyone here, though none were super productive. A middle of the road grouping.
9) Ole Miss
Serderius Bryant is one of the best LBs in the conference, and if Denzel Nkemdiche can keep his head on straight, they have a solid duo.
10) Texas A&M
Looks grim, but they have more talent than any other team after them on this list.
They could be majorly improved as I think their DL is pretty solid.
Losing your top few players and replacing them with players without distinction usually isn't a recipe for success.
Can any of their basketball players tackle?
They get No. 1 with a bullet here -- Amarlo Herrera and Ramik Wilson alone are a better twosome than anybody has back, and Leonard Floyd/Jordan Jenkins return as well. They could both be poised for breakout seasons as pass-rushers.
2. Mississippi State
Bernardrick McKinney is straight out of central casting for Mississippi State linebackers. Big and fast like Jamar Taylor a few years ago and Mario Hagan back in the day. Matthew Wells was solid last season as well.
Michael Taylor and Antonio Morrison are a big, athletic twosome that almost any team would take.
I'm with Paul -- Cassanova McKenzie, aside from having a great name, was sneaky productive behind an iffy defensive line last year, and Robinson Therezie plays the "star" position in Ellis Johnson's defense pretty well. Kris Frost was pretty productive for a backup last year as well.
We might have been a year too early on this group. It didn't meet expectations last year, but Kwon Alexander closed out the season really really well. D.J. Welter was everybody's favorite punching bag last season but he still finished with 80 tackles. This group also drew a lot of rave reviews in the spring.
A.J. Johnson is a really, really good linebacker playing without much help. That gives Tennesee an edge here because most of these units can't even match a returning player like him.
Trey DePriest has all the pub as the next great Alabama linebacker, and he should step up well as a senior. But he's surrounded by unproven guys. Highly recruited guys, but unproven nonetheless.
8. Ole Miss
Serderius Bryant was fairly productive, but he's the only returnee.
142 tackles returning, including senior Braylon Mitchell.
10. South Carolina
Veteran group, but nobody that stands out.
A nice returning middle guy in Kentrell Brothers, but he's surrounded by n00bs.
No Darian Claiborne equals not a lot to be excited about.
A lot of agreement again, and a unanimous #1 in Georgia. Our only major disagreement appears to be Auburn, who the other guys think was "sneaky good". To which I reply, no. No, they were not. They were openly bad.
Here are Auburn's SEC defensive ranks last year:
Scoring - 9th
Yards - 12th
Yards/play - 10th
Rushing - 10th
Passing - 13th
Auburn only held one BCS conference team under 20 points, when Arkansas only managed to score 17. They allowed over 7 yards/play four times, 300 passing yards five times, 400 yards passing two times, and over 200 yards rushing six times.
They weren't in the ballpark of sneaky good. Teams moved the ball nearly at will on Auburn, en route to scoring a bunch of points. They played a really good first half in the BCSCG, before falling apart in the second and surrendering a total of 34 points. I expect Auburn to improve, but it would take a large leap just to get to "pretty good". No part of Auburn's defense was sneaky good. Y'all are doing drugs. Without me. Totally not cool.
Phew. On to the rankings:
3 Mississippi St
8 South Carolina
9 Ole Miss
12 Texas A&M