With the season just around the corner it’s time to rank the top units in the SEC 1-28.
- Alabama Defense
The 2016 unit may not be as a dominant as the generational one that won a national title last year and finished first in the Football Study Halls S&P+ rankings, but it remains the best in the league.
Like every year, expect the Tide to win on early downs: Jonathan Allen, Da’Shawn Hand and Da’Ron Payne are as talented a group of defensive lineman as anywhere in the country.
Depth was a key factor for the defensive dominance in 2015. Nick Saban and Kirby Smart were able to consistently rotate a series of specialists against the run and the pass in order to keep everyone fresh. This year’s defense will feature similar star-power among the first string but lacks the depth that made it special a year ago. Edge-rushers Tim Williams and Ryan Anderson will go from being specialists to every down players. Williams was the most efficient pass-rusher in the country last year, generating the more pressures per snaps played than any defensive player in the country. How those two All-SEC caliber players adapt to playing every down will be a determining factor in the success of this year’s team.
In the secondary there will be few schematic changes despite the loss of Smart to Georgia. Safety Eddie Jackson will likely be asked to do more in coverage than he was a year ago, but given his past experience as a cornerback he should be up to the task.
- LSU Defense
The appointment of Dave Aranda as the defensive coordinator will see the Tigers transition from playing with a four-man front to a three-man front. Last year LSU was blown off the ball in its marquee matchup against Alabama. The move to three down linemen should see the Tigers get more bulk on the field to defend the run, before releasing their pass-rushers in obvious passing situations. The addition of Ed Orgeron as a defensive line coach should provide better play up front.
The Tigers return 10 starters from last year’s team with the foundation being a secondary that ranked as one of the best in the country. Starting safeties Jamal Adams and Rickey Jefferson return alongside Tre’Davious White — one of the most talented and versatile players in the SEC.
- Florida Defense
Jim McElwain got through his first year in Gainesville with luck, creativity, and a quality defense. Florida’s first string defense features as much talent as any individual unit anywhere in the nation. The defensive line is deep and talented, with Bryan Cox, Caleb Brantley, CeCe Jefferson, Jabari Zuniga, and Keivonnis Davis providing a quality number of pass-rushers that should keep the Gators among the top defenses in the nation at pressuring the quarterback.
The front is the foundation for a secondary that continues to make plays and make headlines. Teez Tabor is the star of the show but returning starters Marcus Maye and Quincy Wilson are every bit as important. Florida’s coaching staff stresses the importance of “money down” defense and it finished seventh in the country in third down defense last year. With a deeper and more experienced pass-rush paired with an equally experienced secondary, don’t be surprised to see the Gators leap into the top-5 nationally in creating stops on third downs.
- Ole Miss Offense
Ole Miss has far and away the best quarterback and most impactful offensive player in the SEC in Chad Kelly. An offense unto himself with outstanding deep ball accuracy, Kelly has the ability to create magic when plays break down.
The offensive line shuffling brought about by injuries a year ago has left the offense in a good place heading into the new campaign. Many lineman now have experience playing at multiple spots.
Despite losing two first round picks this offseason — Laremy Tunsil and Laquon Treadwell — there are blue-chip talents ready to step in. Treadwell’s production in particular will be shared around a steady stream of receivers as he was targeted on 26.2 percent of Ole Miss’ pass attempts in 2015. While there may not be a single player who can step into his role in the offense, there is a steady stream of talented receivers.
- Texas A&M Defense
The Aggies defense is beginning to grow up. It heads into the new year with talent at all levels of the defense, experience, a new coordinator and a number of game-changers.
Myles Garrett and Daeshon Hall form the best book-end pass-rushers in the conference and will force their opponents to run the ball through fear of falling into tough down-and-distance situations. Starting safeties Aramni Watts and Justin Evans are as good as any you will find in the conference. Also, watch out for Otaro Alaka (OLB) who started as a true freshman but missed all of last year due to an injury.
- Georgia Defense
Georgia’s defense is young and talented.
On the back-end Georgia will be installing a new system that should perfectly compliment its four returning starters in the secondary: Dominick Sanders (S), Quincy Mauger (S), Aaron Davis (CB), and Malkom Parrish (CB).
The front-seven is inexperienced, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Last year’s group struggled to effectively rush the passer — ranking 86th in the nation in adjusted sack rate. With Kirby Smart now in charge, expect to see more sub-packages and an established rotation of specialists.
- Tennessee Defense
Everything is looking good for Tennessee’s defense. It added Bob Shoop as defensive coordinator, returns nine starters to an already very good unit, and possess star talent at all three levels. The defensive front speaks for itself with of Derek Barnett, Jalen Reeves-Maybin and junior college transfer Jonathan Kongbo helping form a talented group.
There are some valid concerns in the secondary, particularly at the safety spots. Bob Shoop’s appointment should see a rise in the number of split-safety coverages, thus limiting the amount of ground either safety will need to cover.
- Missouri Defense
There’s a new staff in place at Mizzou, but the output should be the same on defense. In Charles Harris Missouri may have the best defensive lineman to come through the school in a decade, and he is surrounded by a wealth of talent. The team ranked sixth in the nation in yards per game last year and returns eight of its defensive starters.
Whether or not Missouri remains as creative as in the past will be interesting. Under Gary Pinkel the Tigers ran every combination of defensive front and coverage you could possibly imagine. Barry Odom steps in as a coach who has run predominantly a 3-4 defense in the past. Plus, Charles Harris’ unique skill-set gives him the option to experiment with some creative fronts.
- Vanderbilt Defense
We knew Vandy’s defense would improve when head coach Derek Mason took ownership of it, but the scale of the improvement was still incredibly impassive. According to Athlon Sports, Vanderbilt allowed more than 31 points in a game just twice after doing so six times in 2014.
It’s a flexible defense that is built to deal with spread and tempo-based offenses, and features components that everyone in the SEC has been adopting. The Commodores face Auburn and Ole Miss in conference play this year and Mason’s brand of defense should help keep them close in games.
- LSU Offense
Everything is in place for LSU to have the best offense in the conference. The Tigers return eight starters, have the best player in college football, a pair of pterodactyl’s playing at receiver, and a number of blue-chip players across their offensive line. Obviously, the issue is with the quarterback spot.
Brandon Harris has by no means been great, but he’s been serviceable enough to keep the offense moving and win games. Interestingly, Harris ranked best in completion percentage on throws under pressure throughout the SEC in 2015 according to ProFootballFocus.
- Tennessee Offense
On the face of it, Tennessee’s smashmouth-spread is as intimidating an offense as anywhere in the conference. The Volunteers have as much talent as anyone else. The interior of the offensive line all returns. The running back position brings power, speed and an endless number of creative opportunities.
However, Tennessee has question marks at the quarterback position. Josh Dobbs isn’t a great player, but he fits what they need from that spot. With that said, the question remains whether he can complete throws into tight windows in a big spot like an SEC championship game.
- Alabama Offense
Who starts at quarterback? Who takes the most reps at running back? And, how do they replace Ryan Kelly? Yet it feels like Lane Kiffin has reached that place where we just begin to trust in his judgement on offense.
The Kelly question in particular has been one of the most under-discussed storylines of the offseason. Not only was Kelly a great player, he made all of the line adjustments and protection calls as the Tide rotated through a series of starting quarterbacks. Replacing that is going to be extremely difficult. Which makes one wonder how much is put onto the quarterbacks, or will the duty go to another offensive lineman?
- Ole Miss Defense
The offense carried the load in 2015, but I anticipate the Rebels’ defense returning to its 2014 form. It may have lost a big name in Robert Nkemdiche but Ole Miss’ defense is as talented as it was a year ago with edge-rushers Fadol Brown and Marquis Haynes both back. The Rebels have now added more depth to go alongside that talent. Senior Issac Gross could be a returning star after missing 2015 with a neck injury.
- Arkansas Offense
Bret Bielema’s offense was surprisingly great last year. Football Study Hall’s S&P+ ratings ranked the Razorback’s offense as the second best in the nation and quarterback Brandon Allen sported the best passer rating in the SEC.
A year later and things look very different. Allen is gone, the pair of talented running backs are trying to make it in the NFL, and the offensive line lost three starters. With a new starter at quarterback — Austin Allen, the younger brother of Brandon Allen — expect the Razorbacks to run the ball even more than usual.
- Texas A&M Offense
If I do these rankings again at the end of the season I wouldn’t be shocked to see the Aggies offense jumped into the top-5 in the conference. Trevor Knight brings experience and is a really good fit in new coordinator Noel Mazzone’s offense. The receiving corps is the best in the conference with Christian Kirk, Josh Reynolds and Ricky Seals-Jones all being legitimate All-Conference talents. The team’s performance will hinge an offensive line that lacks experience.
- Kentucky Offense
Feed the Boom! That has to be the battle cry for co-offensive coordinators Eddie Gran and Darin Hinshaw. Boom Williams is the star of a Wildcats offense that returns nine starters for the upcoming campaign. The running back can do a little bit of everything: run with power, make people miss in space, and catch the ball out of the backfield. He must become the focal point for their offense.
Drew Barker returns as the starting quarterback after playing in five games last year. The sophomore needs to improve quickly after completing just 35-of-70 passes for 364 yards, 1 touchdown and 2 interceptions. Head coach Mark Stoops needs a big year from the experienced offense and from Barker in order to keep his job.
- Florida Offense
Florida’s offense collapsed after the suspension of Will Grier, but it showed some rather promising signs.
I love Jim McElwain as an offensive mind. He does interesting and creative things and forces the ball to his playmakers. The Gators have plenty of playmakers this year with Antonio Callaway (WR) cleared of a suspension, alongside Brandon Powell (WR), DeAndre Goolsby (TE) and C’Yontai Lewis (TE), all of whom possess are offensive mismatches.
Despite the positives there remains big questions at quarterback and along the offensive line.
- Arkansas Defense
Almost a complete reversal of Arkansas offense is the defense. Last year’s defense did not play well enough but returns nearly everyone, including nine returning starters.
With the same talent in the building, the defense needs to find a way to get creative in pressuring the quarterback.
- South Carolina Defense
This ranking reflects a full trust in Will Muschamp’s defensive chops. He arrived at South Carolina with a serious lack of talent that makes playing basic man-to-man coverage extremely difficult. Having said that, there are few coaches in college football who can get as creative as Muschamp in creating zone pressures.
- Georgia Offense
If Nick Chubb and Sony Michel are fully healthy there is no more feared one-two punch in the SEC. Building around the ground game is a must for the Bulldogs who will likely be starting a true freshman at quarterback and have to find a way to replace the lost production of Malcolm Mitchell who was targeted on 30 percent of Georgia’s pass attempts in 2015.
- Mississippi State Offense
Another trust-in-the-coach ranking. There are far too many question marks to rank the Mississippi State offense any higher than 20th on this list. How they go about replacing the best player in their program’s history — Dak Prescott — at the most important position in the sport is going to be nearly impossible.
Dan Mullen is a terrific offensive coach and with another dual-threat quarterback — Nick Fitzgerald — at his disposal. He will keep defenses on their heels as he grinds out another top-10 SEC offense.
- Auburn Offense
Like many, I appreciate the brilliance of Gus Malzahn. The man is an innovator and I appreciate that. However, last year was a complete mess — from the Jeremy Johnson Heisman hype (which he got rolling) to the consistently inept offensive performances, suspensions, and undisciplined football. Despite being led by one of the best offensive minds in the game, Auburn’s offensive production dropped by 1.3 yards per play from 2014 to 2015. I highly doubt that John Franklin III is the answer in 2016.
- Mississippi State Defense
New defensive coordinator Peter Sirmon is bringing change. Sirmon’s appointment will see the Bulldogs move to a multiple defense featuring both three and four-man fronts with a “Viper” defensive end/outside linebacker hybrid in Gerri Green that will provide pre-snap flexibility.
Fortunately for Sirmon, he inherits the Bulldog’s biggest defensive playmakers from a year ago. Richie Brown led the team in sacks. A.J Jefferson led the team in tackles for losses. Kivon Coman led the team in pass breakups. With a new hybrid defense and difference-makers at each level, Mississippi State could jump into the conference’s top-10 units by the end of the season.
- Auburn Defense
Auburn didn’t get the Muschamp bump it anticipated last year. Now the job falls to Kevin Steele to find the solution for building a competent defense that can complement Gus Malzahn’s offense playing at warp speed.
A big part of that will be praying that Carl Lawson is healthy. Although the pass-rusher did not put up the numbers of an individual star, he is having a star-like impact whenever he is on the field. Last year, in games without Lawson, Auburn’s opponents averaged 55 more yards per game and 8 more points per game. Not only that, but the Tigers defense averaged a half a sack less per game. When Lawson is on the field the Tigers are a touchdown better on defense.
- Missouri Offense
- Vanderbilt Offense
The Commodores 2015 offense can be summarized like this: it struggled to run the ball and struggled to throw the ball. Everything else was a success.
Heading into 2016, the team needs a big leap from the undeniably talented Kyle Shurmur at quarterback. Shurmur, who started five of the last six games as a true freshman, comes with all the “coach’s son” stereotypes of being smart and a leader. He throws with good anticipation and timing, but needs to be become a better decision-maker.
- South Carolina Offense
Steve Spurrier left the cupboard completely bare for the new staff. With Pharoh Cooper and Jerrell Adams now plying in the NFL, the Gamecocks need to replace 48.2 percent of the passing targets in 2015. With a lack of talent and experience it’s going to be tough viewing for Gamecock fans in 2016.
- Kentucky Defense
Kentucky’s offense may struggle, but its experience gives it some hope of life. On the other side of the ball the defense has just four returning starters and a shortage of talent. Nebraska transfer Courtney Love has come in and immediately been declared the leader of the defense. That sounds fantastic for Love and the Wildcats, but it’s fair to question where was the defensive leadership before that?