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Tuesday, September 13, 2011
LSU gets early nod as SEC's best defense

By Chris Low

Two weeks into the 2011 college football season, there’s a familiar sight atop the defensive statistical rankings.

Four SEC teams -- Alabama (No. 5), Florida (No. 6), LSU (No. 12) and Arkansas (No. 16) -- rank among the top 16 in the country in total defense.

And in scoring defense, four SEC teams -- Florida (No. 1), Arkansas (No. 4), Kentucky (No. 9) and Alabama (No. 13) -- rank among the top 13 nationally.

The cyclical nature of the SEC is a fact of life. Teams go from winning national and/or conference championships to struggling to have winning seasons. Look at Georgia and Tennessee.

Teams also go from wading in mediocrity and specializing in coaching carousels to winning championships. Look at Alabama and LSU.

Tyrann Mathieu
Tyrann Mathieu headlines one of the deepest and most talented defensive backfields in the SEC.
It changes fast in this league, and if you blink, you’re going to get left behind.

What doesn’t change is the importance of playing good defense if you’re going to have a chance to win a championship in this league.

In fact, the only SEC national champion in the BCS era that hasn’t finished in the top 10 nationally in either total defense or scoring defense was Auburn last season.

The Tigers bucked the trend a little bit. They weren’t a dominant defense, necessarily, but were lights-out in the second half and had the most dominant interior defensive lineman in college football last season in Nick Fairley.

So yes, you still win with defense in this league, which brings us to the present.

Who has the best defense this season?

Alabama and LSU were expected to fight it out for that distinction coming into the season, and we’ve seen nothing to dispute that two games into the season.

John Chavis’ LSU defense clamped down on Oregon’s high-powered offense in the opener and combines one of the most talented defensive lines with one of the deepest defensive backfields in the league, which includes one of the league's pre-eminent defensive playmakers in sophomore nickelback Tyrann Mathieu. Throw in a dizzying amount of speed across the board, and you’ve got the LSU defense.

The Tigers have passed the stiffest test to this point, so they probably deserve the top spot two games into the season.

Of course, we all know it’s a debate that will rage all season.

Alabama leads the SEC and is ranked fifth nationally in total defense. The Crimson Tide, fresh off a 27-11 win over Penn State in Happy Valley, are allowing just 170.5 yards per game. Their opponents are averaging just 2.45 yards per play, which ranks second nationally.

Moving the ball against this Alabama defense is a lot like beating your head into a cement wall. The Crimson Tide have the best group of linebackers in the league (maybe in college football) and a talented secondary led by one of the best safeties in America -- Mark Barron.

In the past, when discussing defense in this league, Arkansas didn’t enter the conversation.

But don’t sleep on the Hogs this season. Not only is this Bobby Petrino’s best defense, it’s one of the best defenses in the conference.

Arkansas is loaded across the defensive front and able to rotate players in and out of the game. The other thing that sticks out about this defense is its experience. Guys like defensive end Jake Bequette, linebacker Jerry Franklin and safety Tramain Thomas have seemingly been playing forever. Don’t discount how important the addition of junior college linebacker Alonzo Highsmith was to this group, either.

The Hogs have only given up one touchdown in two games, but they also haven’t been tested. That’s obviously going to change in two weeks when they travel to Tuscaloosa.

The SEC defense with the best stats through two games is Florida, which will also receive its first test of the season Saturday when Tennessee brings its red-hot passing game to the Swamp.

The Gators are as talented as any team in the league in their front seven and should get even better this week with sophomore defensive end Sharrif Floyd returning from his two-game suspension.

Florida has yet to give up a touchdown through two games and leads the country in third-down defense. The Gators have allowed just three third-down conversions in 23 attempts. The jury’s still out on their young secondary, but shouldn’t be for long. The Vols will probably throw it 40-plus times this weekend.

So if you asked me to pick the top five defenses in the SEC right now, keeping in mind that the key showdowns (Arkansas at Alabama, LSU at Alabama, and Arkansas at LSU) are still to come, this is how I would rank them:

1. LSU
2. Alabama
3. Florida
4. Arkansas
5. Vanderbilt

Check back in a month to see how much this list has changed, although I don’t see the top two budging.

And yes, that's Vanderbilt I have at No. 5. First-year defensive coordinator Bob Shoop has a creative scheme, a veteran and talented secondary that gives him a lot of options and a defense that's playing with a lot of confidence right now.