- Chris Low, ESPN Senior Staff Writer
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Just like there was no shortage of defenses in the SEC this season, there was no shortage of defensive backfields.
Here’s the way we would rank them.
1. LSU: Where do you start? The Tigers had a Heisman Trophy finalist in their secondary (Tyrann Mathieu). They also had the Thorpe Award winner as the best defensive back in college football (Morris Claiborne) and a pair of safeties (Eric Reid and Brandon Taylor) who were both outstanding. They were as deep as they were talented in the secondary and allowed just four touchdown passes and intercepted 13 passes in 10 games against SEC foes.
2. Alabama: In any other league, Alabama would be at the top, and it wasn’t a slam-dunk that LSU would get the No. 1 spot. Mark Barron was the best safety in America. Cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick is poised to be a first-round draft choice, while the Tide’s other cornerback, DeQuan Menzie, was one of the more underrated players in the country. Alabama’s defense was menacing this season, and a big reason why goes back to how much they improved from 2010 to 2011 in the secondary.
3. Georgia: Imagine being as good as Georgia was in the secondary this season, but only third in your conference. Welcome to the SEC. Safety Bacarri Rambo led the league with eight interceptions, while cornerback Brandon Boykin did a little bit of everything for the Bulldogs and was named the winner of the Paul Hornung Award as the nation’s most versatile player. In league play, Georgia finished second in pass efficiency defense and tied for second with 12 interceptions.
4. South Carolina: Nobody in the league made more improvement than South Carolina from last season to this season when it came to defending the pass. A big part of that was the Gamecocks’ pass rush, but they also intercepted an SEC-high 15 passes in league games and ranked atop the league in pass efficiency defense. Cornerback Stephon Gilmore led the team with four interceptions. Safety D.J. Swearinger was second on the team with 80 tackles, and linebacker/safety Antonio Allen, who played the hybrid Spur position for the Gamecocks, turned in an All-SEC season.
5. Vanderbilt: It seems like Casey Hayward and Sean Richardson have been playing for six seasons in the Vanderbilt secondary. It always seems that way when two players step in and play the way Hayward and Richardson have since their freshman seasons. Hayward had seven interceptions this season and led the SEC with 17 passes defended. The emergence of Trey Wilson at the other cornerback spot was also a big factor in the way Vanderbilt played defense this season.
6. Mississippi State: Johnthan Banks developed into one of the SEC’s top cornerbacks and had a big year with five interceptions and 14 passes defended. Safety Nickoe Whitley also was a big part of the Bulldogs’ secondary. He was one of the enforcers back there with his customary big hits and four picks, but missed the final four games with a ruptured Achilles tendon. It’s a secondary that’s been together for a while, but the Bulldogs were still ninth in the league in passing defense against SEC competition.
7. Arkansas: There were a lot of bright spots in the Hogs' secondary despite disappointing overall defensive numbers. Freshman cornerback Tevin Mitchel wound up starting and showing a lot of promise. Sophomore Eric Bennett moved from cornerback to safety and wound up fourth on the team with 74 tackles. He also had three interceptions. Senior safety Tramain Thomas was the anchor back there with five interceptions and 91 total tackles, ranking him among the leading tacklers in the league.
8. Florida: Will Muschamp is excited about the young talent in his secondary. Freshman cornerbacks Marcus Roberson and Loucheiz Purifoy both have a chance to be stars, although both endured their share of growing pains this season. Safety Matt Elam was one of the veterans of the unit, and he was only a sophomore. He played beyond his years with 11.5 tackles for loss, two interceptions and two forced fumbles. This biggest thing working against the Gators this season was youth, and that cost them in some games.
9. Tennessee: Losing safety Janzen Jackson prior to the season was a big blow for the Vols. They finished next to last in the league in interceptions with nine and struggled all season at the cornerback position. The good news for them is that it looks like freshman safety Brian Randolph is a keeper. He was fifth on the team with 55 tackles, and junior college newcomer Izauea Lanier was the Vols’ top cornerback. Tennessee finished the season by giving up 11 touchdown passes and intercepting just six passes in SEC play.
10. Kentucky: The Wildcats didn’t have a lot of depth in the secondary, and it didn’t help any when safety Martavius Neloms hurt his ankle late in the season. Neloms still wound up third on the team with 71 total tackles. Winston Guy played a linebacker/safety hybrid role and had a huge season with 120 total tackles, including 14 for loss. He was a second-team All-SEC selection. Big plays hurt the Wildcats. They gave up 19 touchdown passes, which was next to last in the league.
11. Ole Miss: The Rebels’ defense spent the entire 2011 season on the field, which meant the secondary gave up its share of big plays. In SEC play, Ole Miss finished last in pass defense efficiency. The Rebels gave up 12 touchdown passes and intercepted only three passes. Freshman Nickolas Brassell wound up playing both offense and defense and has a bright future, and sophomore Charles Sawyer led the team with four interceptions and was second on the team with 70 total tackles. It simply wasn’t a season to remember all the way around for the Rebels.
12. Auburn: There wasn’t a lot that went right for Auburn on defense this season, but the Tigers’ struggles in the secondary were particularly glaring. They gave up an SEC-high 21 touchdown passes and finished last in the league in pass efficiency defense. Cornerback Chris Davis has a ton of potential, but was limited early in the season by injuries. Safety Neiko Thorpe finished with 102 total tackles and three interceptions, but the bottom line is that it’s hard to see past nearly 3,000 passing yards allowed.
1293dChris Low and Edward Aschoff