Defense is the key to elite performance in the SEC. Across college football, the ability to make stops is the difference between contenders and pretenders. Alabama and Clemson, the two teams who played in the national championship game last season, both ranked in the top 10 nationally in total defense.
With the elite level of running back talent in the conference, SEC teams must counter with attacking defenses. Here are five of the top rushing defenses in the SEC heading into this season.
Not only did Alabama have the top rushing defense in the SEC last season – it also ranked tops in college football. Saban’s squad gave up a ridiculous 75.7 rushing yards per game despite facing off against some of the top running backs in college football.
The most impressive performance came on Nov. 7, when the Crimson Tide faced off against LSU and star RB Leonard Fournette. Alabama held the Heisman favorite to 31 yards on 19 carries, or 1.6 yards per attempt. Outside of that one game, Fournette averaged 6.8 yards per rush. Some playmakers are gone, but the core of the defense is in place to replicate last season’s results.
The defense continued to be good in Jim McElwain’s first season in Gainesville. Though Will Muschamp had his struggles as Florida’s coach, recruiting was not one of them. The Gators produced had four defensive players selected in the first four rounds of the NFL draft but still return several key playmakers.
LB Jarrad Davis is the star of the run defense, but he has plenty of help. DT Caleb Brantley and DE Bryan Cox Jr. both can play effectively against the run. Sophomore DE Cece Jefferson was one of the top recruits in the high school class of 2015, and takes a starring role this season. The talent is there for Florida to once again have an elite defense.
The Tigers may have lost defensive coordinator Kevin Steele, but they replaced him with one of the hottest assistants in college football. Former Wisconsin coordinator Dave Aranda has produced top defenses each of years in coaching. Maintaining LSU’s defense will be his next challenge.
Aranda has plenty of talent to work with. The Tigers return almost all of their contributors on the defensive line last season. Linebacker has more question marks, but developing those is Aranda’s specialty. During his three seasons at Wisconsin, Aranda coached the Big Ten Linebacker of the Year twice.
Derek Mason knows defense. Last season, his second as the Vanderbilt head coach, he took over defensive coordinator duties, Mason’s defense improved from one of the worst in the SEC to one of the better units in the nation. Most impressively, the Commodores’ rushing defense ranked No. 33 nationally.
Vanderbilt brings back most of its star players from last season. The headliner is LB Zach Cunningham, who was named first-team All-SEC despite not starting until Week 3. Few expected him to make the leaps he made. Oren Burks also will be a vital piece in a hybrid linebacker/safety role. If Vanderbilt can improve on its scoring offense, which ranked No. 123 nationally last season, the Commodores should be that much more dangerous.
For all that went wrong last season in Columbia, Mo. — and there was plenty — the defense never faltered. Missouri has become well known for producing elite defensive lines, and this season should be no different. DE Charles Harris is one of the most disruptive linemen in the SEC, while Walter Brady added 12.5 tackles for loss as a freshman.
The key this season will be replacing Kentrell Brothers, who accumulated 152 tackles last season to lead the nation. Michael Scherer quickly becomes the leader of the group, but another player must step up in the linebacking corps to replace Brothers’ production.