The major problem in evaluating line play is the dearth of statistics to verify performance (that, and I cannot harp on this enough, is that most opinions on line play is people parroting the generally agreed upon narrative, which often has no basis in actual performance). Now, we move on to linebackers, where the problem is the exact opposite: too much data.
Linebackers touch upon every aspect of defensive performance, and like everyone, their performance is dependent on how the others perform as well. It’s nearly impossible to separate linebacker performance from the noise.
So the method here is to look at overall defensive performance and our old friend ATVSDPI, which essentially takes our QB statistical toy, and applies it to defensive performance: what is the average modified yard per play allowed? Then, we look at the number of starters returning and as a rough stand in for quality, the number of those starters who ranked top 30 in tackles in the SEC. Of last year’s top 30 tacklers, 20 were linebackers, and of those, 13 return (including the top three).
1 BAMA. Bama returns two of its three starters, but somehow gets stronger by adding Henry To’o To’o from Tennessee. Just another instance of the rich getting richer. For years, the heart of Bama’s defense has been its line, but that has recently moved the LB corps. They are awesome, and maybe the best in the nation.
2 ARKANSAS. The Hogs defense ranked 6th in ATVSDPI last season (5.678), well behind Bama and UGa, who lapped the field, and were a good half yard ahead of everyone. The Hog return two starters, Grant Morgan and Bumper Pool, and they ranked 1-2 in tackles last year. They are the playmakers on the Hogs’ defense, and they also combined for 14 TFL and 10 PBU’s. They do it all. These guys are for real in the middle.
3 AUBURN. Fresh off of making Auburn mad for saying their o-line effectively blocked people, I will make them mad by pointing out that Auburn had a perfectly mediocre defense last year, but they return Zakoby McClain (113) and Owen Pappoe (93), who both rank top-5 in returning SEC tacklers. Pappoe added 6 TFL and 2 PBU while McClain added 5.5 TFL. They can get in the backfield and make disruptive plays.
4 GEORGIA. The Bulldogs had the best ATVSDPI in the SEC last season at 4.599, which rang rings around the conference. Kirby has recruited like mad and we can expect them to continue to perform, but they only return one starter from last year’s unit, so a bit of a drop off is to be expected. Nakone Dean had 71 tackles, but he lacks the peripheral numbers to lead you to believe he’s the guy who is wreaking havoc.
5 MISSISSIPPI ST. One of the biggest surprises of Mike Leach’s first season in Starkville is how well the defense performed under his watch, not a traditional Leach specialty. MSU posted a 5.573 ATVSDPI, above league average, and the LB unit was the team’s strength. Yes, Erroll Thompson has moved on, but Aaron Brule stepped up already to fill his playmaking shoes with 8.5 TFL and 3 PBU. They are still in good hands.
(This is the ranking that would make people upset, if State had any fans).
6 FLORIDA. The Gators were not terribly stout defensively last season, allowing a 6.418 ATVSDPI. Still ahead of the truly bad defenses, but not a real asset. That said, Florida returns two playmaking linebackers in Ventrell Miller and Mohamoud Diabate. The duo combined for 14.5 TFL and 154 tackles. Miller is the star, but Diabate makes plays, notching an interception and 3 forced fumbles.
7 TEXAS A&M. They look a lot like Kentucky below, only with a slightly worse ATVSDPI (5.266). The Aggies return just one starter, Aaron Harsford, though he did manage 7 TFL, so he showed an ability to get to the backfield. They have recruited better than the wildcats, so I’ll give them the bump, but this unit looks fairly pedestrian unless someone emerges.
8 KENTUCKY. The Wildcats had a near elite defense last season, with a 5.187 ATVSDPI, mostly driven by the unit’s ability to force turnovers. The problem is they return only one starter, and it was not All-Everything Jamin Davis. DeAndre Square’s line of 60 tackles, 2.5 TFL, and 1 PBU is not exactly awe inducing. They will fall from the ranks of the elite this year.
9 MIZZOU. There was a pretty big gap between the top ten and bottom four defenses, and Mizzou is the last of that top ten to hang on the right side of that chasm. They return just one starter, but Devin Nicholson made 82 tackles and found himself in the middle of most of the defense. If you are only going to return one guy, he’s a pretty good one to return, even if the defense needs work.
10 LSU. At 7.227, LSU ranked 13th in the SEC in ATVSDPI, and a lot of that was due to some atrocious play by the linebackers. They turned decent gains into huge ones. Their leading returning tackler, Damone Clark, is not likely to retain his starting gig, for obvious reasons. There’s a lot of optimism around the program that they have found the pieces to course correct, but this is the biggest question mark on the team. LSU needs some newcomers to be great, and some old hands to bounce back.
11 OLE MISS. When returning most of your linebacking unit is actually a bad thing. Ole Miss wasn’t much better than LSU, mainly due to a run defense that couldn’t stop a thing. Not that the pass defense was much better. Even worse, Ole Miss actually lost their leading tackler, so as bad as their LB corps was, they failed to keep their most productive player.
12 SOUTH CAROLINA. Another wretched defense losing its most productive tackler. USC’s 7.137 ATVSDPI was somehow topped by even worse defenses, but that says more about how bad everyone else was. It’s a bad defense, and I don’t see how they are getting better.
13 TENNESSEE. The Vols managed a 6.079 ATVSDPI, which is right at the league average. So what are the doing down here? Attrition. The Vols lost every starter plus have a new coaching staff installing a brand new system. They start at zero and don’t have last year’s playmakers to build off of. Believe it or not, we do have a team which is worse than zero…
14 VANDERBILT. How bad was Vanderbilt’s defense? They allowed 7.28 yards per play worst in the conference. They allowed 5.69 yards per rush, four tenths worse than Ole Miss, the penultimate SEC rush defense. They allowed 8.7 yards per pass, topped only by LSU, but they allowed a completion rate of 73.4 percent, which has to count for something. The Dores allowed 41 touchdowns and forced just 9 turnovers, both last in the SEC. Add it together and you have an ATVSDPI of 8.282, which is almost incalculably awful. Vandy, simply put, does nothing well on defense.