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SEC Unit Rankings: Special Teams

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Yeah, we don't agree.

We're #1! We're #1!
We're #1! We're #1!
Spruce Derden-USA TODAY Sports

Special teams has always been the secret weapon of Miles' LSU teams, and this year will be no different. However, it's important to know what we're talking about when we say "special teams". It's not just your kicker and punter, but it is the return game and the almost always ignored coverage unit. When coming up with my rankings, I looked at four major stats: field goal percentage, net punting, opp. return yards, and return yards. I didn't really look at kickoff returns because everyone clusters near the same. There's not a huge difference in kickoff return and coverage units, except at the extreme ends.

Poseur

1 LSU Colby Delahoussaye missed one field goal attempt last season, though he only had 14 total kicks. The strength of the LSU unit is the coverage unit, which was again tops in the SEC last year. Believe it or not, but Beckham was a middle of the pack return guy, so the Tigers shouldn't see much drop off in their return game. Even a repeat of a middle of the pack return game makes this the top unit in the conference because it is great at all other phases of special teams.

2 Alabama The one Alabama unit that is honest to God underrated. Christion Jones is the only elite return man returning this season in the SEC and their coverage unit is one of the best in the nation. They will be breaking in a new kicker, which hurts them a tad. While they have had some high profile breakdowns which I'm not above mentioning (Kick Six, the Game of the Century, pretty much any FG attempt beyond 40 yards), this is an all-around great unit.

3 Georgia The best returning kicker (Marshall Morgan) in the SEC, and a contender for the best punter (Collin Barber). The Dawgs also boast a terrific coverage unit that rivals LSU and Bama. So what's the problem? They can't return the ball. Like, at all. Their dismal 2.92 yards/return was by far the worst in the conference, which keeps them out of the top spot. They are a return man away from being the best special teams not just in the SEC, but the nation.

4 Auburn They are breaking in a new kicker and a punter. They are also replacing one of the most explosive return men in the conference. Just too much uncertainty, but this was a top tier unit last year and I don't expect them to slip too much. Special teams isn't about personnel as other units.

5 Florida Only LSU had a better coverage unit, as teams didn't crack 4 yards/return on them. Andre DeBose missed last year with an injury, but you couldn't tell from the stat sheet, as the Gators averaged over 10 yards/return. But the kicking. Oh my God, the kicking. Austin Hardin went 4 of 12 last year which is unimaginably terrible.

6 South Carolina Sort of the polar opposite of Florida. They return a reliable kicker in Elliott Fry and a solid senior punter. But their coverage unit was mediocre at best, and Gamecock returners averaged 3.77 per attempt.

7 Texas A&M Josh Lambo went 8-10 as a freshman, but didn't have a chance to show much range. But their coverage unit was just as bad as their defense, as teams routinely beat the Aggies for huge returns.

8 Mizzou Thoroughly mediocre in every phase of special teams last year. They were middle of the pack in field goal percentage, returns, and coverage. Serviceable in every way.

9 Tennessee Matt Darr is a pretty good punter, but their coverage unit flat out sucks. Auburn is still running back kicks against them. However, they return the favor pretty well when they return punts themselves.

10 Ole Miss They don't really excel at anything and will be breaking in a new kicker.

11 Kentucky Landon Foster can occasionally boot a long punt. That's all I got. They aren't cover your eyes awful.

12 Mississippi St They return a kicker with a 42.9% success rate. That feels like a threat. One of the worst return games in the SEC as well.

13 Arkansas Teams average 13.16 yards/return against them. That's off the charts terrible.

14 Vanderbilt They do nothing well in special teams now that Carey Spear is gone.

Billy

1. Georgia

I'm going to give the Bulldogs the nod here on the strength of Marshall Morgan and Collin Barber. The coverage units aren't the best, but they aren't bad, and both return men are back.

2. LSU

Delahoussaye went from a question mark to a strength last season, and while Jamie Keehn was inconsistent, he also really improved down the stretch and finished with a solid net. Plus, the Tigers have the league's best punt coverage unit and a kickoff team that, aside from some iffy games early on, had another strong year. Return men are gone but that's not something I'd be worried about replacing on a team like this.

3. Florida

The kickers are a little iffy but Kyle Christy is a good punter, and the coverage units are stout. Andre Debose has been in school since the Spurrier days, but he's a good returner.|

4. Alabama

I'm going to disagree with Poseur on the Tide. They replace both kickers, the coverage units weren't as good as the teams ranked ahead and Christion Jones parlayed two huge days versus Virginia Tech and Chattanooga into an out-sized average. As a punt returner he was held under 30 yards in all but three games last season, and as a kick returner he averaged less than 25 yards in more than half of the games he played in.

After this, the units kind of plummet.

5. South Carolina

Like Poseur said, thoroughly mediocre in coverage and on returns, but two solid kickers return.

6. Texas A&M

I feel like the Aggies are getting a ton of pub for punter Drew Kaser, and yeah he has some nice averages, but when you allow a 10 yard average per return, some of that has to go on the punter. Either he's not getting any hang time at all or not angling his kicks right. At least some times. Trey Williams is a solid returner, and the kickers are back, so there's that.

7. Missouri

The returners and kickers are all back, which is a leg up on the rest of this list.

8. Tennessee

Like Poseur said, they have a good punter, and you have to figure last year's recruiting class will start to show up on the coverage units. About that kicker though...

9. Auburn

Starting from scratch everywhere but at kick returner, where Quan Bray has been mediocre. The best thing they have going for them is that they've been recruiting the kind of athletes that make for good units.

10. Mississippi State

Having the principle players back at least provides  some hope that there might be some improvement, and it's more than the rest of the teams on this list have. Jameon Lewis could be dangerous on returns if they could give him room.

11. Ole Miss

No more Jeff Scott or Tyler Campbell. Feels like the first time that's been true in a decade.

12. Kentucky

13. Arkansas

14. Vanderbilt

Paul

Projecting special teams performance often proves even more difficult than any another unit, specifically any other position group. We're all fluent in breaking out the other positions and discussing their strengths and weaknesses. But discussing how and why a special teams unit excels is typically foreign to us. We can throw out terms like gunners and keeping your lanes, but it's not nearly as simplistic as stating, "Well, their DL isn't that strong, so the rest of their defense may struggle." Why? Well, primarily because we don't often know who will fulfill those roles on game day. Les Miles has never had to answer, "Who will be your starting gunners?" in a press conference. They don't get their own depth chart in the media guide, though as a former player, I can you tell they most certainly do within the team. So it really is one of those things you find out during the first game and even then, only if you can spot the players by numbers from the wide angle shot on kickoffs.

If we try to turn to coaching as an explanation, it gets murky. For example, LSU dominated punt return coverage last year, holding opponents, on average, over half a yard short of their next closest competitor. Yet, on KO return data, they were 11th in the conference, allowing over 23 yards a return, which ranked 99th nationally. Perhaps Thomas McGaughey especially excelled at punt coverage but struggled on kickoffs. Perhaps the SEC featured an abundant number of stellar KO return men. The point is, the explanations for the success and failure of coverage units are far reaching and nearly impossible to pin point.

So let's isolate what we do know: K (isolating kickoff specialist and fg specialist, if need be), P, KR, PR. Fittingly the only special teams positions recognized, beyond the long snapper and the holder, on any depth chart.

1) LSU

LSU only returns 2 of the five key starters: Delahoussaye and Keehn, but outside of KO coverage last season, they featured outstanding units. Losing McGaughey hurts, but this should still be a very good core.

2) Bama

They return only two of the five specialists, but they were pretty strong last season. Let's see if Nick Saban decides to give his STs a little more practice time after the Kick 6 debacle.

3) Auburn

They weren't a great FG kicking team last year, but they excelled in returns and KOs. They are ushering in a new K, but they should be alright.

4) Mizzou

They were average at best year, but the thing is they return every single specialist. That's a major boost in my opinion.

5) A&M

Middle of the pack everywhere last year, but they return three of five specialists.

6) Arkansas

Above average in everything but KO returns, though they return no one from last year's group.

7) Florida

Putrid FG kicking tore down an otherwise bright unit. Those kickers will have matured some, so that should propel them up a bit.

8) Georgia

Woo boy am I the one singing a different tune here. Georgia stunk at everything but FGs last year. I'd have them lower but they do return four of five specialists. You guys are overrating them cause they are Georgia.

9) Mississippi State

They stunk at everything but do manage to get 5 starters back.

10) South Carolina

Returning four of five starters, though they weren't any good at anything but FGs last year. Pretty much Georgia with less talent.

11) Vandy

Hey, it ain't pretty.

12) Ole Miss

Who cares about the Rebs?

13) Tennessee


Average last year and return zero specialists. Gonna be a rough year at rocky top, I do believe.

14) Kentucky

They were dreadful last year and return one specialist. Why should I believe? Good thing we hired their STs coach!

Poseur

Georgia was top 5 in punt return coverage, net punting, and field goals. So, basically they were great at everything except for returns. They have the best kicker, arguably the best punter, and one of the top three coverage units in the conference. That has nothing to do with the logo on their helmet. I rate them because they were pretty much great at every phase of special teams last year except for returns. If they had a merely decent return game, it would be the special teams unit in the nation.

But have no fear, due to our almost uniform disagreement on nearly every team not in the bottom quartile of the conference, Georgia still finish 3rd. In your face, Mr. Crewe. Actually, our range of disagreement is a testament to how hard it is to rate special teams (and also how many facets the term encompasses):

Georgia ranged from 1st to 8th.
Auburn ranged from 3rd to 9th.
Arkansas ranged from 6th to 13th.
Tennessee ranged from 8th to 13th.
Florida ranged from 3rd to 7th.
Mizzou ranged from 4th to 8th.
South Carolina ranged from 6th to 10th.

That's half the conference that we had a spread of at least four places on. There is no consensus, but here it is anyway.

1 LSU
2 Alabama
3 Georgia
4 Florida
5 Auburn
6 Texas A&M
7 Mizzou
8 South Carolina
9 Tennessee
10 Mississippi St
11 Arkansas
12 Ole Miss
13 Kentucky
14 Vandy