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SEC Unit Rankings: Defensive Line

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A study in perspective in four parts

NCAA Football: CFP National Championship-Alabama vs Clemson
These guys are good. Damn them.
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

There’s two things I want my defensive line to do: stop the run and get to the quarterback. So I leaned heavily on the team’s overall sacks and TFL totals, plus the rushing average. Now, I know a lot of sacks aren’t made by the linemen themselves, but they do get partial credit for holding up blockers and suck. The tackles in the middle rarely rack up big numbers, but your safety blitz doesn’t work if the linemen aren’t engaged by your tackles.

There’s no hard and fast formula I used, but I did try to give equal credit to run and pass defense, while keeping an eye on returning starters and how much of the success is attributable to other units. That’s a lot of caveats, but here we go.

Poseur

1. Alabama: Yeah, they are awesome. Actually, Bama loses a majority of starters on the line, but I doubt it is going to matter much because Saban relies so heavily on depth and his rotation. It’s not like the backups haven’t seen a ton of important playing time. Heck, Da’Shawn Hand is technically not a returning starter, and he was a huge impact player last year. Not to mention that Jonathan Allen guy. Bama’s front can do anything.

2. Mizzou: I’m sorry for losing faith. I finally succumbed to pressure last year and went along with everyone else and finally predicted Mizzou’s front four to decline. They went out and lead the SEC in TFL/game. Oh, and they had a great run defense as well, with the second best defensive rush average in the SEC (behind Bama, of course). Mizzou returns four starters though they lose critical defensive line coach Craig Kuligowksi to Miami. That’s a huge loss which may lead to their decline, but not just yet.

3. Florida: How did Florida win the East last year with an offense so terrible? It started up front on defense. The Gators were second in sacks/game (behind Bama, shocker) and they had a very good run defense. Jefferson and Brantley return to anchor a top tier unit.

4. LSU: After years of under-performing, LSU finally rediscovered its pass rush. Even more encouraging, it wasn’t just one guy propping up the numbers: it was a deep unit and all of the starters contributed to the sack totals. LSU returns four starters, but shifts to a 3-4, so we’ll knock them down a tad for moving Key to the linebackers. Though that’ll help the LB corps.

5. Ole Miss: An all-around great unit last year, though Nkemdiche is now moving on to the NFL. The Rebels will return two starters, and Marquis Haynes is an All-SEC contender, but this unit likely won’t be quite as good as last season due to personnel losses. However, I doubt they turn into a pumpkin either.

6. Arkansas: Boring production is often underrated. We tend to overrate athletes, or teams, that do one thing exceptionally well and stink at other important skills, while ignoring across the board above average production. The Hogs don’t really excel at one thing, but they excel at not having any major weaknesses, so there’s no book on how to attack them. Give me reliability.

7. Texas A&M: Oh, what a terrific pass rush. Myles Garrett is a machine, and A&M is near the league leaders in both sacks and TFL’s. That said, they don’t lead the SEC in either category, and Bama is near lapping the field in sacks. And holy mother of God is their run defense terrible. While Garrett is sprinting after the QB like a bat out of hell, the running back slides underneath him and tears off a five yard run ON AVERAGE. Only South Carolina had a worse run defense.

8. Mississippi St.: They return two of three starters from a solid but unspectacular unit. Think of them as a less productive version of Arkansas.

9. Tennessee: Derek Barnett is a terrific player, but the Vols seem to suffer a bit from the same disease which afflicts the Aggies. They get after the quarterback by surrender huge chunks of rushing yards. Unfortunately for the Vols, they are only league average at generating pressure in the backfield, and below average in stopping the run.

10. Vanderbilt: Solid pass rush and middle of the pack run defense, giving up 4.02 yards per carry. They lose a lot from last year’s unit, so those numbers might decline.

11. Georgia: There’s two ways to look at this. The Dawgs lose every starter from last year’s line which would give me pause, but then again, last year’s line was pretty bad. Georgia had one of the worst pass rushes in the conference and a run defense that ranked behind Vanderbilt’s. I’ll give Vandy the benefit of the doubt just for returning a starter.

12. Auburn: Oh, Auburn. Dead last in sacks/pass attempt and well behind the rest of the league in TFL/play. They simply did not generate any pressure at all. All while boasting a run defense that couldn’t stop anybody. They return every starter, so maybe last year was just growing pains, but… woof. What an awful unit.

13. Kentucky: They actually had less sacks than Auburn, though the Cats had less opportunity. Their run defense was marginally worse than Auburn’s as well. On top of that, they return just one starter up front. While Auburn can expect to improve off of last year’s dismal performance, it likely is going to get worse in Lexington.

14. South Carolina: Cover your eyes awful last year, and not much help is on the way. Muschamp has his work cut out for himself here.

Paul

1. Alabama: Look, you me and everyone else wants this unit to regress, but it's hard to project. Jon Allen is probably the best DL in the conference. Yeah, every A&M fan reading this is ready to fight right now, but Allen does it all. Myles Garrett is an elite edge/penetration player, but his skills against the run are sorely lacking. Tim Williams should probably count as DL for this team, because his role is basically to pin his ears back and rush. Da'Shawn Hand is one of those top 10 players that's quietly been maturing behind a bevy of other 1st rounders at Bama. Losing Ashawn Robinson is a blow, but this kid Daron Payne is gigantic and should play the space eating role just fine.

2. Texas A&M: Going on a limb here, but Myles Garrett and Daeshon Hall are two of the best pass rushers in the conference. Daylon Mack isn't a freshman anymore, so I expect a leap forward there. I don't love their depth and they've been woeful against the run, but some of that blame falls to their woeful LB core.

3. LSU: LSU's group has been maligned due in recent years for regression from their normal elite standards. Scheme changes means the LSU DL will look a bit different than we've become accustomed to in the Miles era, but I still see a player like Arden Key as more of a DL/Edge than a true LB. LSU was strong against the run and the pass last year and they return quality depth and experience. I gave A&M the edge because of star power, but LSU has a better overall collection of talent.

4. Tennessee: I'm prospecting here. I'm a fan of Bob Shoop and I think he can maximize what's been a mostly talented but largely underachieving bunch. Derek Barnett is a pretty great player, but guys like Khalil Mackenzie and Shy Tuttle should be impact DL and they haven't been, yet.

5. Missouri: Not nearly as high on this unit as Poseur, but they were solidly productive last year and return a bunch. Losing Kuligowski is pretty immeasurable. Charles Harris and Walter Brady are quality players and Terry Beckner Jr. is one of the highest rated recruits in school history.

6. Auburn: Don't do it Paul, no, no, no, nooooooo fuck, god dammit, Paul.

7. Arkansas: I have more faith in Arkansas' unsung gaggle of experienced beefy bodies than I do in the rest of the teams on this list, thus the ranking. I don't think this is an especially strong group, but middle of the pack with standout Deatrich Wise Jr.

8. Florida: I so badly want to penalize Florida but I can't go any worse than 8. UF turned in a quality team performance last year without any standout individual performances. Jon Bullard was the nexus of that and I think his loss will be significant. Alex McCallister is also gone. All of this falls for Cece Jefferson to pick up and he wasn't especially great as a freshman.

9. Ole Miss: Like Florida with worse depth. They lose their best player up front. Let's see how good Marquis Haynes is without teams honing in on Nkemdiche. Can Breeland Speaks step into that role? DJ jones is a solid player and Fadol Brown is an above average starter, but little else to jump for here.

10. Mississippi St.: They weren't particularly dominant without Geoff Collins and just like Florida and Ole Miss, they too lose their best player, BUT, they do have 6 Seniors in their front 4. That's impressive!

11. Georgia: This is one group that could wildly leap to the top. They were atrocious last season, but new coaching staff means new life in Athens. Trenton Thompson could be a break through star.

12. Vanderbilt: Probably being harsh here considering their relative performance, but you know me, I'm the talent guy. This is a solid if unspectacular unit.

13. South Carolina: They should get improved production with the addition of Will Muschamp. Then again, we thought so of Auburn last year and they had considerably more talent and still sucked. That's just enough to keep them out the cellar.

14. Kentucky: Wasn't Mark Stoops supposed to fix the defense?

Billy

Before I start, can we talk about how loaded the league is this year at defensive end? The quarterbacks in this conference aren't much to look at, but the guys chasing them? Yeesh. Jonathan Allen, Myles Garrett, Derek Barnett, Daeshon Hall, Charles Harris, Carl Lawson, Marquis Haynes, Lewis Neal, Bryan Cox Jr., and that's before counting end/linebacker tweeners like Tim Williams and Arden Key.

1. Alabama: The king until somebody throws a wedding. Bama probably isn't QUITE as deep as they were last year, but that just means they may only have 6-7 premium bodies to rotate instead of 9 or 10. They lucked out with Jon Allen's injury bringing him back, and then there's Hand, Payne (because of course Bama has a lineman named Payne) and Tim Williams out wide, basically playing defensive end even if he's listed as a linebacker.

2. Missouri: I try not to get focused on track record, but Mizzou has earned a lot of benefit of the doubt here, and they still have a lot of talent even with Kuligowski leaving. Charles Harris and Walter Brady, plus some size inside with Augusta and Brantley, if he can get healthy. Well-balanced group, too, not just a bunch of pass-rushers that can get run over, either.

3. Tennessee: Here's my big projection, mostly based on Barnett. But there's enough size inside that he's going to be really tough to double-team, and that should lead to a special season. The new DC there has a pretty good track record of unleashing his ends, too.

4. Texas A&M: It's hard not to rank them here by default because of Garrett and Hall, but I'm not as impressed by a line that gets pushed around in the running game as easily as this group. They really need the tackles to step up.

5. LSU: The Tigers could be hitting that sweet spot of reliable veterans plus a big spark from talented newcomers. With Arden Key in the "Buck" position the pass-rush will be even better, and I think Christian LaCouture and Davon Godchaux are going to adapt to their new roles in this defense very well.

6. Ole Miss: Marquis Haynes seems like a prime candidate for "now we're gonna double-team YOU" regression, but there's still some talent here with Breland Speaks and Isaac Gross. The question is, who else steps up without Nkemdiche taking double-teams.

7. Florida: Harold Brantley and Bryan Cox are solid two-way guys, and I like that foundation. This unit needs CeCe Jefferson to become a more productive pass-rusher though.

8. Auburn: When he's healthy, Carl Lawson may be the best defensive lineman in the league. That just hasn't happened in two seasons. Montravius Adams has talent, he just hasn't produced to date. But if Lawson is around, that might change.

9. Arkansas: Beefy group that does their job, which is keep Brooks Ellis and those linebackers clean to make tackles. Just missing that big-time disruptor that can get in the backfield.

10. Mississippi St.: Similar to Arkansas. Big, veteran group that operates their scheme well. Having actual adults can be pretty useful up front.

11. Georgia: I'm with Dan and Poseur in that I very much expect this group to climb in the rankings over the course of the season. But I'm a believer in using skins on the wall for preseason rankings, and the Dawgs just don't have 'em yet.

12. Vanderbilt: They play better than their rankings, but that's still not enough to crack this list.

13. South Carolina: Recruiting really fell off here in the final years of the Spurrier Era, and it shows.

14. Kentucky: Remember when Kentucky beat out Alabama to sign the Big Show of defensive tackles, 6-7, 350-pound Matt Elam? Yeah, the WWE's version still puts on a better performance in middle-age.

Jake

1. Alabama: They go from having an all time DL to just the best in the conference. What a drop off. Tim Williams is a ridiculous speed rusher as a sort of tweener like Billy mentioned. Jonathan Allen is a monster. And they've always got a couple more ready to break out.

2. Missouri: Alabama's probably the best defensive line every year, but Mizzou's the most consistent. Once again they've got guys who are the total package and do it all.

3. LSU: The pass rush finally came back this year, and they bring back pretty close to complete DT in LaCouture and Godchaux. Arden Key should get even better as a premier pass rusher as well.

4. Tennessee: They were top 5 in the league last year in sacks and now they bring in an elite DC in Bob Shoop who should help push Barnett to an elite level like he's done with other DL in the past.

5. Texas A&M: I struggled with this, but the pass rush wins out. Garrett's other worldly, Hall isn't far off, and Mack's jump is so incredible I swear he's offside every time. But....the run defense is laughable. A sieve. They get pushed around way too easily. However I trust them more than the other options here

6. Ole Miss: Nkemdiche finally broke through as a real dominant force last year and now he's gone. Haynes is very good, but can he eat double teams to let others get to the QB? We'll see. Have the talent though.

7. Florida: They lose quite a bit, but you can almost guarantee them producing here and Bryan Cox is a very solid player. CeCe Jefferson could be a breakout candidate as well.

8. Arkansas: They're not spectacular, weren't great in sacks or TFL's, but they do strong in run D, eat up doubles, and let LB's run free. Just a solid, do their job unit.

9. Auburn: The perennial "maybe this is the year" group, that never breaks through. They have talent, but it never seems to shine through enough, especially with Carl Lawson always being hurt.

10. Georgia: Talent's beginning to creep through, but it's not there yet. If it does though, with Kirby Smart running the D...look out.

11. Vandy: They weren't bad last year! Top 10 in the conference in sacks and TFL's. The talent's well...not super talented but they were okay in their production.

12. Mississippi St.: Solid, hardworking unit. Not gonna allow themselves to be pushed around easily. But the loss of Chris Jones is big. Lot of teams in the conference last year wish they had a DT as good as him.

13. South Carolina: Bad.

14. Kentucky: Worse.

Poseur

Now, things get interesting. After the unanimity on Alabama being the top unit and relative consensus on the bottom four, the rest of the conference rankings are all over the place.

Part of this is due to the fact we can’t even agree on rating a unit once all of the data is in, much less projecting forward. I punish Tennessee and A&M far harsher than my colleagues due to their inability to stop the run (which also explains why I’m the only one who put the Gamecocks in the basement instead of the Wildcats). It also means I’m far kinder to teams that show a proclivity to stop the run like Florida, who got absolutely hammered be the rest of the voters.

That’s before we even get into the fact that we come at evaluation from a totally different place. Paul cares far more about raw talent than anyone else, playing it safe that talent will usually win out. I sit on the other pole, caring very little for the projected raw talent, instead looking at production. Billy and Jake sit between these two extreme poles of analysis.

What we get is a delightful hodgepodge of rankings that we won’t even begin to agree on who was right about once the results are in. and that’s okay. In fact, it’s kind of great. There’s this tendency on the internet to call anyone who does not agree with you a moron, especially if they use a different method for coming to their own conclusions. This kind of thinking shuts all of us out from knowledge and general enjoyment. It’s a good thing there are multiple ways of looking at the same problem, and if we all cracked this nut the same way, that would be pretty damn boring.

Defensive line is nearly as immune to analysis as offensive line, but here are our final ranks:

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