Special teams consists of four unequal parts: field goals, punting, returns, and coverage. I'm a huge proponent of the hidden yards of football, and I place a lot of weight in return and coverage units. Punting is important, but it is not the gross punting yard that matters, but the net. I want to see what your averages look like after the returns are factored.
As is my wont, I created another stat to evaluate the units: I looked at the net punt differential. That is a team's net punting average minus their opponent's net average, which encapsulates punting, returning, and coverage. This is how many yards is it worth to a team on the average exchange of punts. I also looked at the differential between kickoff returns and of course, kicking field goals.
1 LSU. Colby Delahoussaye got a case of the yips, but he still was about league average in field goal percentage. That's the only knock on the unit. Jamie Keehn ranked second in punting, the coverage units were excellent, and LSU had the third best punting differential and far and away the top kickoff differential. LSU was the only team whose special teams units were worth, combined, more than 10 yards per exchange.
2 Mississippi St. Evan Sobiesk is the top returning kicker and Devon Bell makers State the only team to return a top 5 kicker and punter in the SEC. Positive coverage units weren't elite, but still top tier in the conference.
3 Texas A&M. The Aggies need to replace an excellent kicker, but everything else is in place. Probably the only coverage/return unit in the same league as LSU. Their punt coverage unit was particularly excellent.
4 Tennessee. Aaron Medley has a decent claim to the top returning kicker if you account not just for accuracy but volume. Of course, the Vols would like some of those field goals to turn into PAT attempts. The Vols lose their punter, but they had excellent coverage units. The issue for Tennessee is in the return game, which is middle of the pack.
5 Alabama. What to do with Bama? They had, by far, the best punter in JK Scott, and their coverage units were nearly 4 yards better than any other team. That is a massive, massive gap. But oh God, the kicker. Adam Griffith hit 63.2% of his attempts, which is pretty terrible. Bama also boasted nearly the worst return units in both punting and on kickoffs. Bama was either the best or the worst at each component, it seems.
6 Florida. Both kicking specialists graduate, but Florida had a great differential based not on their coverage, but an excellent return game. They should see much drop in performance in overall special teams, though no one likes breaking in a new kicker.
7 Georgia. The only team worse at punt coverage than Auburn. Georgia was just awful at it, though they never gave up a TD. Their return unit was, of course, pretty damn awesome. They also boast one of the better kickers in Marshall Morgan. They also somehow learn how to cover when it comes to kickoffs, and rank only behind LSU in kickoff quality.
8 Auburn. The false Tigers boasted the best punt return game in the SEC. Which is good, because their coverage unit ranked 13th. They were like Alabama in reverse on a smaller scale, and without quite the highs and lows in the kicking game.
9 South Carolina. Solidly middle of the pack in everything. They didn't do anything particularly well, but give credit, special teams didn't hurt them. Sometimes, that's enough.
10 Ole Miss. Their return was spectacularly bad, which is not what you would expect with the athletes they have. But they got killed in the return game. Their coverage units were pretty good, but not good enough to cover up the return game's flaws. Needs a news kicker as well.
11 Mizzou. Can't cover. However, their special teams is essentially a coin flip. They rate almost perfectly zero. They did not gain or lose any yards on a kick exchange. They return kicker Andrew Baggett who, in true Mizzou fashion, was neither good nor bad.
12 Kentucky. Austin MacGinnis is one of the best kickers in the SEC. Everything else... I'd prefer not to talk about. It's not good.
13 Vanderbilt. Well, at least they return both of their kicking specialists.
14 Arkansas. The Hogs' special teams were horrific last year. Adam McFain was the worst kicker in the SEC not playing for the Tide. Their punt return game was anemic and their coverage units were even worse. I'm not sure if it's a fluke or something systemic, but their special teams were simply not good in any phase of the game.... Except kickoff returns. They got that on lockdown.
1 LSU. Most complete unit back. Experienced kicker, albeit one who followed up a really strong year with a shaky one. Strong punter, great coverage units and dynamic returns.
2 Mississippi State. Solid all around. Really something Dan Mullen has made a point of at Mississippi State. Just missing that dynamic return man on punts.
3 Texas A&M. Strong punter, solid coverage units and a dynamic return man in Speedy Noil. Just has to replace a kicker.
4 Georgia. You can make the argument that Isiah McKenzie is the league's best punt returner, and the rest of the unit is solid, but again, new kicker.
5 Alabama. Honestly, JK Scott is this good on his own. He was the best punter I've ever seen last season. The question is, can Alabama find any kicker to be somewhat reliable, or shore up those return units? Still, Scott is amazing.
6 Tennessee. They do have to find new return guys, but I think UT's recruiting pays off there. And Aaron Medley was pretty consistent inside of 40 yards.
7 South Carolina. I'm giving their returners a lot of benefit of the doubt. Kicker's not horrible inside of 40.
8 Auburn. Both return coverage units were pretty rough last year, and neither return man is back. Although both the punter and kicker are.
9 Ole Miss. Gary Wunderlich is a decent short-range kicker, but the rest of this unit was not very good last year.
10 Florida. New punter, new kicker, oh and Andre Debose finally retired.
11 Arkansas. If Arkansas is going to make the run a lot of people think they're capable of, they'll need a bigger contribution here. New kicker, new punter and they need to find some explosive returners.
12 Kentucky. Good kicker. Bad everything else.
13 Mizzou. Has to replace a really good returner in Marcus Murphy. Coverage units were bad, and replacing a pretty solid punter.
14 Vandy. Return the kicker and the punter, but neither have much range. I wouldn't ask about the return men.
Along came me to throw a wrinkle. I don't put as much stock in losing returners, as it's a spot young dudes do well all the time. Especially when you recruit like some of the top teams in the conference do.
1 Texas A&M. Ranked near the top of the conference in every major category. They have a dynamic return man in speedy and one of the best punters in the nation in Drew Kaser to go along with really good coverage units.
2 Georgia. Ranked 9th nationally in ST FEI, the best in the conference. I like their return game. Their coverage is solid, which makes up for their admittedly terrible punter.
3 LSU. Look, there's a lot to like here. I totally get ranking them no. 1. My issue is both their terrible KO coverage and a STs coach we've seen produce mediocre results before. Losing McGaughey was big, and we saw it last year as the units took steps backward.
4 Alabama. Ok, I'm spitballing here. I know their STs have become a running joke, and their FG kicking leaves something to be desired. But they are the only team in the conference that doesn't really tread into the very bottom in any particular area. Yes, a bunch of average performance, but enough for me to think a step forward is in order to go with their stud Punter.
5 Tennessee. Like Georgia, ranked highly in FEI last season. They've got enough athletes to find new returners, and that's a spot where young unproven guys can thrive anyhow.
6 Mississippi State. Like the rest of this team, I see them taking steps backward with the loss of so much veteran experience.
7 Auburn. I'm gambling on athletes here. They can't be so god awful in coverage again... right?
8 South Carolina. Just sorta there. Not dynamic, but not awful. They should be okay.
9 Kentucky. I put this on the back of Boom Williams, who I think is a sleeper player that could blow up this season and make a huge impact on returns.
10 Florida. They lose a lot. Kicker, punter and top returner. Replacing one of the three would throw them up pretty high. Replacing two, bump them a few spots. But all 3? Can't put them higher.
11 Missouri. They aren't very good at anything.
12 Ole Miss. They were pretty bad at most things and lose their kicker. Their returns blow chunks despite all the athletic guys they have that can do the job. That's a sign of poor coaching.
13 Arkansas. Losing a ton off a unit that wasn't particularly great in the first place.
14 Vanderbilt. A bad unit with not great athletes spells disaster Nashville.
I rather agree with PaulDan on returning returners. If you have athletes, you'll find a returner. OK, if you lose a truly exceptional returner, you will take a hit, but I care much more about your kicker and punter returning. Though I do give Florida the benefit of the doubt on their coverage and return units despite bringing in new specialists. I just care about coverage units, which usually comes down to coaching.
Anyway, no big controversies in our rankings other than, well, me being the big outlier on Georgia and Florida. But we all agree that Vandy stinks again.
2 Texas A&M
3 Mississippi St.
8 South Carolina
10 Ole Miss