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2021 SEC Unit Rankings: Defensive Line

Let’s get to the guys who win games

Arkansas v Texas A&M
Damn it. They are good.
Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images

After we tackled the glamorous high-profile quarterbacks, let’s get down to the guys who actually win titles: the line. Quarterbacks flash the stats and get the trophies and plaudits, but if you can’t dominate up front, you are probably going to lose.

There’s at least some glamor in being the guy who gets to hit the quarterback, but a lot of the job of the defensive line is simply controlling the line of scrimmage so other people can make lays. You don’t always notice a really good defensive line, but you sure as hell notice a bad one.

The stats we’re looking at here are threefold, and all work in concert with other positions, as the way on defense: Tackles for a loss, yards per play, and rushing average. Yards per play is the basic measure of defensive success, which puts all numbers in context, while a good pass rush gets into the backfield to make negative plays and a good run defense limits the holes in the line. It’s an imperfect formula, and we make exceptions for singularly impactful players.

1 Texas A&M. The Aggies were the only SEC defense to top over 10 TFL per 100 defensive snaps, which is simply phenomenal production. They also boasted the second lowest rushing average (3.25) allowed in the SEC. Yeah, Bobby Brown is off to the NFL, but they return three other starters, including DeMarvin Leal, who had 7 TFL, and Tyree Johnson, who had 6. The aggies are the anti-LSU, as there probably isn’t a team which benefited more from the COVID season than A&M, as they return several super seniors to the line.

2 LSU. Of all the things which wrong for the Tigers defense last year, the line was not one of them. LSU averaged 9.29 TFL/100, second in the SEC. OK, the run defense stunk out loud, but I will chalk that up to the system. More importantly, LSU returns all four starters, including All-SEC starter Ali Gaye. And that’s assuming the starters can hold off BJ Ojulari and Maason Smith, which they probably can’t. It’s an embarrassingly stacked two-deep.

3 Bama. Alabama’s defense line has slipped to merely outstanding from downright world destroying. In a very un-Bama-like move, Christian Barmore bolted to the NFL as a sophomore, leaving a bit of a gap of production for the front three, Oh no, how will Bama survive with a bunch of five-star recruits who are angling for playing time? The horror.

4 Georgia. The Dawgs were a step behind the Aggies when it came to line play last season, with a better run defense (2.39) and slightly worse disruption (9.228 TFL/100). If we’re rating last year’s units, I think they come out on top. The problem is they return only one starter, Devonte Wyatt. Georgia has recruited like crazy so it probably won’t be a huge loss, but it’s enough to knock them behind the other elite lines in the conference.

5 Florida. The Gators also only return one player from last year’s starting lineup, but they chose the right guy. With 9.5 TFL, Zachary Carter led all defensive linemen last year, and now he returns for another season. He’s the best lineman in the SEC, so Florida gets wide latitude for having to replace everyone else from a unit that was honestly pretty average last season.

6 Tennessee. The gap between #4 ad #5 is big, but the gap between #5 and the rest of the SEC is a chasm. Those top lines all have an argument for being one of the top 10 lines in the country, and you could put that top 4 in nearly any order with some justification. The Vols, while productive last year, are miles away. They return two of four starters, but lack star power.

7 Auburn. Defensive line used to be a specialty of Auburn defense, so seeing them with a good not great unit tells you all you need to know about why the Tigers have a new coaching staff. The Tigers didn’t have a single linemen with even 4 TFL, which doesn’t seem possible given their history, and the defense was decidedly middle of the pack. Two of three starters return, but this feels like a total rebuild.

8 Missouri. Trajan Jeffcoat and Isaiah McGuire were a productive pair, combining for 10 TFL. The Tigers allowed 4.53 yards per rush, pushing their YPP average over 6. So we’re starting to get into the bad defenses, though I don’t think we can pin it on the line. There’s room for improvement here, as they replace the guys around their top two.

9 South Carolina. On the one hand, the Gamecocks had a terrible line last season. Their 5.669 TFL/100 ranks near the bottom of the conference and their 4.91 rushing average lags behind even LSU. It was a bad unit on a bad defense. Here’s where I issue a COVID pass and point out they return all four starters and Kingsley Enagbare, who showed flashed of being an elite rush end. There are pieces here and while I don’t think this defense is suddenly going to become great, it won’t be the line holding them back.

10 Mississippi St. Let’s put it like this: State returns eight starters on defense and only one of them on the line. Jaden Crumedy is a good player, but he can’t do it alone, and he’s going to be surrounded by upperclassmen who couldn’t make an impact until now. In State’s defense, the unit was better than average last season, as they were one of the few teams which held things together in the Zombie Season. But I think basic competence won’t eb enough now that everyone else is going to be getting up to speed.

11 Arkansas. Probably the least productive pass rush in the conference paired with a mediocre run defense. They do return two of three starters, which is a good sign, but the Hogs simply don’t generate any pressure at all up front, and I don’t see how that is going to change this year.

12 Kentucky. A below average but not horrible defense that probably topped out last season. Josh Paschal is the only returning starter up front to a defense that has been gutted by graduation. Paschal’s a fairly disruptive presence, but it is going to be hard for him to do it by himself, which it looks like he will have to do until reinforcements arrive.

13 Ole Miss. The Rebels’ defense was horrific last season and if you think things are going to get better, well, they return zero starters up front. Maybe that’s good news, so Kiffin is going to rely pretty heavily on recruits and JUCO transfers to stem the tide. It would take a dramatic reversal to even get to average. This is the worst unit on the worst defense in the conference not located in Nashville.

14 Vanderbilt. Good Lord. I think Vandy stopped trying. The commodores ranked dead last in all three of the stats we were tracking, and they don’t even have any cover excuse. This is a bad defense that is simply physically outmatched at every position. They return one starter up front, but I don’t think it even matters. It’s like they’ve given up on fielding a competitive team.