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2017 SEC Unit Rankings: Defensive Backs

One of us dissents on LSU as DBU...

NCAA Football: Texas A&M at Louisiana State
Donte celebrates being named #1
Crystal LoGiudice-USA TODAY Sports

The raging argument in this corner of the SEC is who is the true #DBU? LSU and Florida fight over the topic, comparing stats, NFL starters, and of course, the current crop of talent. And that’s cool, but we know the real answer… it’s the same as every other position. It’s Bama.

My rankings are based upon pass defense, of course. I start by sorting all the teams by yards/attempt to give me a general idea of their pass defense’s overall quality, and then I try and isolate how responsible for it the defensive backs are by looking at passes defended.

Interceptions tend to be a fluke event, about 20% of passes defended will turn into interceptions, but teams can vary wildly from that to pump up or deflate their INT totals. I’m more concerned with a team’s passes defended per pass attempt and the ratio of passes defended to completions. This gives me a pretty good look at the best secondaries in the SEC.

1. Alabama

The best pass defense in the SEC though, to be fair, part of that is their devastating pass rush. Still, the secondary is pretty damn great, too. Minkah Fitzpatrick is the star thanks to his 6 picks, but he was also top 5 in passes defended. Paired with Ronnie Harrison, Bama has the most devastating pair of safeties in the conference.

2. Auburn

Only one team faced more passes per game than Auburn (State), yet they were near the lead league in pass defense. This was due to a group of defensive backs that led the league in passes defended by a pretty wide margin. Three starters return, include lockdown corner Carlton Davis. This unit should be even better than last year’s, and last year’s was pretty damn good.

3. LSU

The Tigers had the highest ratio of pass defended per pass attempt and were second in PD/completions. They return perhaps the best corner tandem in the SEC in Tolliver and Jackson. They have talented seniors at the safety position and a plethora of talented underclassmen ready to break through in the lineup.

4. Florida

The last of the elite units, I had Florida higher in these rankings until the devastating season ending injury to Marcell Harris. They were the flip side to LSU’s rankings in passes defended (second in PD/Att, first in PD/Comp), but had an even more effective pass defense. Their 8/16 TD/INT ratio was frankly absurd last season. Even without Harris, this is still a great unit.

5. Georgia

Some feel that the Dawgs are on the level of the top tier, and they do return four starters and they added elite talent to the depth chart on Signing Day. The defensive backs carried their weight last season, but the low passing yards allowed was a bit of mirage. Their yards/attempt was slightly above league average as was their opposing passer rating. It’s just that they faced a mere 26.1 passes per game.

6. South Carolina

The Gamecocks pass defense went from near the worst in the SEC to above average in just one season. Credit Muschamp for that, and he gets three starters back, plus he has added more talent. The defensive backs had low passes defended numbers, so they weren’t the real driver of the pass defense numbers, but it is hard to deny the sudden improvement in Columbia.

7. Texas A&M

The power of perception. A&M’s defense, compared to Georgia, allowed the same yards/attempt, a slightly better completion percentage, and slightly worse passer rating. But their rate stats are near identical. A&M was also within 0.2% of Georgia’s PD/Att and PD/Comp rates. Yet A&M’s pass defense was considered much worse thanks to facing 123 more attempts. Three starters return. This unit is better than you think.

8. Tennessee

Emmanuel Mosely already learned to take over the #1 corner job thanks to Sutton’s injuries last season. They shouldn’t miss a beat. They had a slightly above average pass defense last season and should be right at the same level again.

9. Arkansas

We’re getting into the units I’m less confident in, but Ryan Pulley is the SEC’s returning leader in passes defended, so I gave the Hogs a bit of a talent bump to break away from the teams at the bottom.

10. Missouri

A pretty good pass defense that is losing both of its starting corners. The safeties return, so the cupboard isn’t fully bare, but they should be taking a step back.

11. Vanderbilt

That 20/5 TD/INT ratio will likely improve just through statistical variation. Converting just 7.81% of pass defended into interceptions is jaw droppingly low. That should start to revert to the mean.

12. Kentucky

One of the worst pass defenses in the SEC last season, they do return Mike Edwards, a tackling machine at safety. Which isn’t entirely a good thing.

13. Ole Miss

There wasn’t much the Rebels did well in pass defense last season, finding themselves near the bottom in nearly every metric of pass defense, and now they lose a bunch of talent. This is a bunch of underclassmen hoping they are ready for prime time. They aren’t.

14. Mississippi St.

State’s pass defense was God awful last year. It allowed a 61.7-percent completion rate, 7.8 yards/attempt, 3660 total yards, a 143.92 passer rating, and a 33/14 TD/INT rating. State’s defense turned opposing QB’s into virtual Heisman contenders. And the DB’s take a large share of the blame, turning just 10.4% of pass attempts into passes defended, about 5 points below league average. Their 16.8% PD/Comp ratio is almost 10 points below SEC average. They got lapped by the field.

Billy

This is a position where a number of teams took a big hit to the NFL Draft and graduation. But the top recruiters are borne out by what's left. Also, as bad as the passing can be in this league, the bottom level of pass defense is just absolutely awful.

1. LSU

Two first-round picks gone and LSU still, somehow, returns three starters thanks to Kevin Toliver's re-emergence. I expect him to establish himself as one of the more physically dominant corners in the game. Then you have college football's fastest man, Donte Jackson, and another veteran leader at safety in John Battle. Oh, and the top group of safety recruits in the country coming in to add depth.

2. Alabama

Minkah Fitzpatrick is the rarest of birds — an underrated Alabama player. As much pub as he gets, he probably doesn't get enough to match his production. Ronnie Harrison is more of a line-of-scrimmage guy but he's really good at that. The corners are kind of eh by Bama standards, but that's not exactly bad.

3. Auburn

Honestly, I was surprised to see how well this group performed on paper, but credit where it's due. Carlton Davis played really well this year. Tray Matthews is about two weeks from retirement.

4. Georgia

All four starters are back from one of the more disruptive groups last season with 15 picks.

5. Texas A&M

Again, hard to argue with numbers. Three starters back, and a pretty good safety in Armani Watts. But I can't help but wonder if A&M's success is predicated by the fact that most teams know they can just run at will.

6. Tennessee

A couple of seniors on hand that have been through some stuff and were relatively respectable. But you have to wonder if losing an ace pass-rusher like Derek Barnett will hurt.

7. Florida

The Gators were the league's best unit last year. Thing is, they lost the two corners that were most responsible, and now will be without a very good safety in Marcell Harris. Duke Dawson is a pretty good corner, but I don't think he makes up for what's departed.

8. Missouri

Performed like a middle-of-the-pack unit last year, getting a light down rating on talent.

9. South Carolina

Have a feeling this is a defense that might take a nice step forward for Boom in year two.

10. Kentucky

Three starters back from a group that quietly improved down the stretch.

11. Vanderbilt

A well-coached unit that seems to avoid giving up too many big plays.

12. Arkansas

Yeah, so it turns out taking a bunch of third-tier Louisiana kids to try and "create in-roads in recruiting" isn't all that great of a strategy.

13. Ole Miss

Still waiting on this group to tackle somebody.

14. Mississippi St.

If "Mississippi State opponents" had been one player last year they would have led the league in passing touchdowns and been in the top four in efficiency rating. Sweet Moses.

Paul

The SEC gets attention for a lot of things, but I kinda feel like DBs are our currency. The league is just loaded with SEC DBs. Well us and Kansas. Seriously, of the 5 NFL All-Pro DBs, 2 are from the SEC and 2 are from Kansas and none of them are Patrick Peterson or Tyrann Mathieu. Anyway, let's get into actual college football. As usual, I will disregard any facts and toss out extremely lightly researched opinions:

1. LSU

I'm with Billy. Usually, when you lose players as good as Tre and Jamal you expect regression, but Corey Raymond has stocked the cupboard so full you kinda just expect the next group to pick up where the last left off. We've seen Toliver be great before. Donte draws a lot of ire, but he is growing into top CB form. Battle is a solid, steady hand at safety and your choice for the other safety spot is one of three four- or five-star recruits. Oh yeah, then you got all those other blue-chippers sitting around waiting to be rotated in to find roles. Stacked.

2. Auburn

Oh my god, it's a sneaky good secondary.

3 Bama. Fitzpatrick is a star, but the rest of these guys are just solid guys. It's interesting to look at their 2nd string, which consists largely of guys LSU struck out on (Tony Brown, Hootie Jones, Shyheim Carter), who lost out to lesser rated (though still 4-stars, duh) recruits.

4. Georgia

I'm a big fan of this solid group that lacks star power... until you introduce freshman Richard LeCounte, who should push for Freshman All-SEC honors.

5. Tennessee

Much keener on this group than Poseur. Getting rid of Willie Martinez is a good way to fix your pass defense. There are three seniors atop the depth chart and Nigel Warrior, the lone sophomore of the group, is the most talented player out there.

6. South Carolina

Like he's done virtually everywhere but Auburn under Malzahn, Muschamp churns out quality defensive performance. His secondary immediately improved and will continue to ascend with another year in the system.

7. Texas A&M

I'm betting on experience and Chavis here. They aren't a great unit and they lose mega talent up front, which doesn't help, but they should be middle of the pack.

8. Florida

My UF hatred continues with me looking at this depth chart wondering where all the talent has gone in Gainesville in such a short time period? UF is in for a major regression and injuries like Marcell Harris don't help a damn bit. Duke Dawson is a dog, but it's 1 great player and... not much else.

9. Missouri

You'd think having a defensive minded coach would help. They aren't terribly talented, and they aren't terrible, but not a unit I have a ton of faith in.

10. Arkansas

There are some guys here, like Chevin Calloway, that give you hope they can improve, but the Hog defense is weak on all 3 levels right now.

11. Ole Miss

The pro here is they aren't the worst pass defense in Mississippi. The con is that they are the 2nd worst pass defense in the conference.

12. Kentucky

They weren't very good, but they return a bunch, so they should improve... right?

13. Vanderbilt

A real studious bunch. A bunch of film rats.

14. Mississippi St.

There are no pros. This is a really, really bad unit with little to look forward to for improvement.

Crissy

1. LSU

Any sort of bias aside, we all know LSU is the true DBU. So much, in fact, that the unit lost two key players in the first round of the 2017 NFL Draft. But there's a ton of talent still left behind in guys like Kevin Toliver, Donte Jackson and John Battle. They've played the recruiting game well across the entire defense as a whole.

2. Alabama

Another good unit that has consistently recruited well. Minkah Fitzpatrick will have a standout season alone, and will also have the help of some of the best safeties in the conference.

3. Auburn

The Tigers' secondary is loaded. This was a very productive unit last year that put up some respectable numbers, and they'll come back with three starters. They'll continue to build off of this success into this season.

4. Georgia

Having all four starters return is huge for this Bulldogs team. They put up some good numbers last season, and have some promising young talent to create more depth.

5. Tennessee

There's a decent amount of experience here, with some really exciting emerging talent.

6. Texas A&M

This group falls almost directly in the center on this list, and rightfully so. The Aggies will be hoping to become an elite unit with three starters coming back this season. A lot of experience to build something potentially very solid here.

7. Florida

The Gators featured one of the best defenses last year, but will be without many of the guys who made it just that heading into this season. They'll be looking to one key player to carry most of the weight. That typically doesn't work out well.

8. South Carolina

The Gamecocks haven't put up the best numbers in recent years. Actually, they've put up some of the worst. But we can expect to continue to see the major turnaround they've been making since last season.

9. Missouri

A pretty unspectacular group overall. They lost some significant starters, and will be almost totally back to square one. They do have a head coach with a focus on defense, so maybe that will help speed up their development a bit.

10. Ole Miss

For starters, the Rebels have the second-worst pass defense in the SEC. After losing a lot of their better players in this category last year, they'll be looking to the new kids to get something going on defense. And that's not exactly something you can confidently bet on.

11. Arkansas

The Hogs haven't been spectacular in recruiting here, and the defense overall isn't anything special. They'll likely have one-star player — possibly someone like Ryan Pulley — to carry the load for an unimpressive unit.

12. Vanderbilt

Could be developed into something a little more, but this won't be a unit to look forward to this year by any means.

13. Kentucky

There's a lot of returners here, but not much talent to speak of. Perhaps they can build a little on experience.

14. Mississippi St.

A lot of work to be done, but not a whole lot to work with.

Poseur

Sorry for ruining the LSU clean sweep, everybody. I’m not going to argue against LSU being the top secondary, and the Tigers certainly have the track record, but I do like the production and returning talent on Auburn and Bama just a bit more. But we all agree those are the top three on their own tier.

Florida, on the other hand, sparked some of our biggest disagreement. I just can’t see their DB unit falling that far, even with the injuries. There’s still talent there. I can see being wrong on Tennessee. It’s a bit of a jumble in the middle, and they could easily step up to the top half of the rankings where everyone else has them. Most everyone agrees that South Carolina will improve, we just disagree on whether they already have taken the step up.

And we all think State sucks. We did get a clean sweep at the bottom.

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