Here’s a weird little quirk of the SEC rosters: over half of the SEC had a senior punter last year. On top of that, the two best kickers in the SEC, and maybe the nation, both left for the NFL. There is a huge turnover in the special teams this season, which makes it hard to rate the units.
What does not graduate is the coverage teams. Kicking and punting are of course huge parts of special teams play, but another huge part is those coverage units. And those units stay fairly consistent over the years. So we’re primarily looking at the field goal kickers and coverage units, as nearly everyone is replacing their punter.
1. Georgia. Rodrigo Blankenship is the best kicker in the SEC, hitting 20 of 23 field goals last year. The Dawgs were second in the SEC in total punt return yardage, averaging over 10 yards per return.
2. Missouri. The only team in the conference to return a punter in the top five of punting average. Congrats Corey Fatony, you’re the default leader for the All-SEC team. The Tigers also have a stud kicker in Tucker McCann (15/17) and good coverage units.
3. Texas A&M. No longer have Christian Kirk returning punts, but they had a deep stable of returners last season even without Kirk. And they have a kicker in Daniel LaCamera who hit 18 of 21 attempts. They have good coverage units, but they did allow 2 TD’s last season, so they can drop the ball. But that’s the downside of a unit that blocked 8 kicks last year. They reap rewards from that aggressive unit more than they get hurt.
4. Mississippi St. Allowed just 43 return yards last season, based on a strategy of not terribly deep punts and a lot of fair catches. They returned two punts for touchdowns from two different returnees. Jace Christmann seized the kicking job as a freshman, and hit 12 of 14 attempts.
5. Alabama. OK, they don’t have a kicker and they graduated their punter, but Bama’ coverage units are still lights out. They lead the SEC in opponent net punt yardage as they had the most productive group of returners that fair caught less than 60% of punts. On the flip side, opponents fair caught 89.1% of Bama punts and had just 39 return yards all season. An example of how you can be awesome at special teams without a kicker.
6. South Carolina. Another schizophrenic unit like Bama. Deebo Samuel is the best punt returner in the SEC and a danger to score every time. The Gamecocks also return Joseph Carlton, easily the second best returning punter in the SEC. The problem is they can’t kick field goals at all. Parker White was 14 of 25 and his backups went 1 of 3. As a team, they hit just 53.6% of FG attempts.
7. Florida. Gone are Eddy Pineiro and Johnny Townsend, one of the best kicking batteries in SEC history. Who knows what they have left, so let’s give them a courtesy rank in the middle of the conference for a unit filling two mammoth holes for some all-time greats.
8. Kentucky. The unit keeps the lights on. The Wildcats had a decent net punt average, didn’t allow big returns, and while rarely making returns of their own, made big yards when they did. Replacing both kicking specialists as well.
9. Tennessee. We got a glimpse of Brent Cimaglia as a long distance specialist and he hit on 8 of 13 attempts, primarily from distance. The Vols had the highest net punt average in the SEC, but were second in most return yards allowed. Punter Trevor Daniel is a big loss.
10. Arkansas. The Hogs return their punter, but they also had one of the worst punting units in the SEC. They only returned 4 punts all year, yet somehow ranked 4th in opponent net punt average. Teams just punted it short against them. Connor Limpert hit on 8 of 9 attempts and could be duking it out for All-SEC honors.
11. Auburn. The Tigers lose Daniel Carlson in the kicking game, which wasn’t terribly good to be honest. They were the worst punting team in the SEC and one of the worst in punt coverage. They had a decent return unit, but nothing special.
12. Ole Miss. Poor coverage, not much on the return game, which seems impossible with all of those receivers. Luke Logan hit 2 of 3 field goal attempts last year and is the returning leader.
13. LSU. The field goal kicking was atrocious as was the punting. LSU still has a near elite coverage unit, but last year was the 3rd consecutive season LSU ranked at or near the bottom in punting average allowed. LSU hasn’t had a double digit ranking in opponent punting since 2013 (9th). Either LSU absolutely stinks at putting pressure on opposing punters or everyone becomes Ray Guy against the Tigers. Despite 191 return yards, LSU ranked dead last in net punt allowed average as well. Oh, and for some reason, opposing kickers went 18 of 21 against LSU.
14. Vanderbilt. They went 3 of 7 on field goals as a team, which defies explanation. Also, the single worst punting and punt coverage team in the conference. LSU is bad and unlucky. Vandy is just bad.
The league lost a number of good legs here, so that has to be factored in -- hell, bad kickers basically tanked LSU’s special teams single footedly.
1. Georgia. Among many horrible things about Alabama’s win in the title game, is that Rodrigo Blankenship’s all-timer of a kick was all for nothing.
2. Missouri. Why can’t their defense tackle this well?
3. South Carolina. Good punter, plus one helluva returner in Deebo Samuel.
4. Kentucky. Oddly consistent for the rest of the team.
5. Texas A&M. Solid kicker, but...they’ve added Bradley Dale Peveto to their staff as a special teams coach. That never ends well.
6. Mississippi State. After here, things get dicey, so this is kind of a placeholder.
7. Alabama. Alabama. Both kickers are gone, but this team has no excuse to struggle at anything. And the block/return units should be stout.
8. Arkansas. Might improve just on experience.
9. Tennessee. Might just have found themselves a kicker last year.
10. LSU. If the new kicker additions are as advertised, this group should rebound a bit.
11. Florida. They should have some solid return units, but they just lost their two most consistent players in Townsend and Pineiro.
12. Auburn. They had maybe the best kicker in SEC history, but this unit wasn’t really all that good otherwise.
13. Ole Miss. Special teams are an area where reduced recruiting resources really show up.
14. Vanderbilt. The sad thing is this is an area where Vandy should probably try and bolster just for the sake of having so many close games.
There’s general agreement if we are looking at the tiers, but almost no specific agreement other than Georgia is the best and Vandy is the worst. But that’s to be expected given that special teams is such an all-encompassing term which covers so many things: field goals, punting, returns, and coverage. It’s hard to get consensus because it’s hard to even get a handle on what we’re actually ranking in this case.
Which is why we do it last. We’ll finish up later this week as I put all of these ranks together to make some erroneous value judgments about the relative quality of the teams in the SEC, but for now, here’s our final special teams rank.
3 Texas A&M
4 South Carolina
5 Mississippi St
13 Ole Miss