- Chris Low, ESPN Senior Staff Writer
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We turn our attention to defense today, specifically the top defensive lines in the SEC during the 2011 season.
Year in and year out, strong defensive line play is what separates the SEC from other leagues, so there’s no shame in finishing in the bottom half of these rankings.
You can see our preseason rankings here.
Now onto our postseason rankings:
1. LSU: The Tigers overwhelmed teams this season up front with numbers, power and speed. They had the luxury of running fresh guys in and out of the game and not dropping off one bit. Michael Brockers was one of the top interior linemen in the league, while Sam Montgomery and Barkevious Mingo combined for 28.5 tackles for loss, including 17 sacks, off the edge. Finding a better collection of defensive linemen anywhere in college football would be difficult.
2. Alabama: Even Nick Saban said before the season that Alabama didn’t have that dominant difference-maker up front this season in the mold of a Marcell Darius, but it didn’t matter. The Crimson Tide’s play up front was still dominant. Nose guard Josh Chapman courageously played through a torn ACL and plugged the middle, and nobody got any push against the Alabama front when it came to running the ball. The Tide led the country in rushing defense with opponents managing just 2.4 yards per carry.
3. South Carolina: The Gamecocks’ specialty was rushing the passer, and they ended the season with six sacks against Nebraska in the bowl game. Senior defensive end Melvin Ingram was a consensus All-American with 10 sacks, but he had plenty of good players around him. Freshman defensive end Jadeveon Clowney is next in line for All-America honors. He tied for the lead in league games with five forced fumbles.
4. Georgia: Not only were the Bulldogs one of the best defensive lines in the league, but they were also one of the most improved. Junior college newcomer John Jenkins made a huge difference at nose guard, and junior end Abry Jones had a breakout season with seven tackles for loss and 20 quarterback hurries. The Bulldogs were a lot bigger up front this season, too, which comes in handy when you’re playing a 3-4.
5. Florida: The Gators could have used some more depth in their defensive line, but they held up surprisingly well this season despite getting very little help from their offense. Sophomore Dominique Easley emerged as one of the more active defensive tackles in the league before tearing his ACL against Florida State, and Sharrif Floyd played both inside and outside for the Gators. With just about everybody back, Florida should have one of the top lines in the SEC next season.
6. Vanderbilt: A few eyebrows might be raised to see the Commodores ranked in the top half of the league when it comes to defensive line play, but look at the numbers. In SEC games, Vanderbilt held opponents to an average of 111 rushing yards per game, which was fourth in the league. Senior defensive end Tim Fugger might have been the most underrated player in the league with 13.5 tackles for loss, including eight sacks. Junior tackle Rob Lohr wasn’t too far behind with 11.5 tackles for loss, including five sacks.
7. Mississippi State: It wasn’t the best start to the season for Mississippi State’s defense, but the Bulldogs closed with a flurry thanks in large part to the way they played up front the last half of the season. Tackle Fletcher Cox led the charge down the stretch and led all SEC interior linemen in league games with 12.5 tackles for loss. Cox’s running mate inside, Josh Boyd, also did his share of damage with eight tackles for loss.
8. Arkansas: Coming into the 2011 season, the Hogs looked like they had one of the deepest defensive lines in the SEC. But star defensive end Jake Bequette was plagued by a nasty hamstring injury early in the season, and his sidekick on the other end, Tenarius Wright, broke his arm in the fourth game against Alabama. Bequette still responded with seven sacks in seven SEC games, and Wright also returned late in the season. The Hogs’ weakness was stopping the run. It was a problem all season long.
9. Auburn: The Tigers had some decent sack numbers, but that’s where it ends for them up front defensively. Sophomore defensive end Corey Lemonier was second in the SEC in league games with 8.5 sacks, but the Tigers were carved apart up front more times than not. They allowed more than 200 rushing yards per game to SEC foes, and had a terrible time getting off the field on third down. Auburn was painfully young up front defensively this season, but everybody returns in 2012.
10. Tennessee: The Vols had trouble getting to the passer this season, and they also weren’t especially good at stopping the run. That’s a combination that’s difficult to overcome for any defense. They finished with just 10 sacks in SEC games, which was 11th in the league, and they also gave up an average of 178.8 rushing yards per game to league foes. The Vols were hurting at tackle, which is why Malik Jackson played inside. He led the team with 11 tackles for loss.
11. Kentucky: As a whole, Kentucky improved defensively under first-year coordinator Rick Minter, particularly when it came to forcing turnovers. The Wildcats collected 16 in eight league games. They still need to get better up front after allowing an average of 203.8 rushing yards per game to SEC opponents. They also managed just 13 sacks in eight SEC contests. This is a big offseason for guys like Mister Cobble and Donte Rumph.
12. Ole Miss: One of the biggest blows for the Rebels was senior defensive end Kentrell Lockett not being able to make it all the way back from his knee injury. Ole Miss was left without any finishers up front and also couldn’t stop the run. In SEC contests, the Rebels gave up an average of 256.5 rushing yards per game, which ranked them last in the league and was 50 yards more than the 11th place team.