NCF Nation: Devin Taylor

Everyone who knows anything about college football knows that one major thing that separates the SEC from all the other conferences is the play -- and talent -- along the defensive lines.

Ask any coach out there to describe the biggest difference and "defensive line" is bound to be one of the first things that slip out of his mouth. It truly is all about the trenches in the SEC, both defensively and offensively. The offensive lines deserve some love for just putting up with their burly counterparts, but the defensive lines really do get all the attention.

So it should come as no surprise that when Phil Steele ranked his top 15 defensive lines in college football that the SEC was represented by five teams -- the most of any conference.

[+] EnlargeJadeveon Clowney
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsJadeveon Clowney headlines a deep crop of SEC defensive linemen.
While none ranked first or second -- that was reserved for Notre Dame (No. 1) and USC (No. 2) -- South Carolina topped the SEC lines at No. 3 on Steele's list. Florida ranked sixth, Ole Miss was 12th, Alabama was 13th and LSU was 14th.

That's pretty good when you consider that Florida lost first-rounder Sharrif Floyd and Mr. Solid Omar Hunter in the middle, while LSU pretty much lost its entire starting defensive line from a year ago.

The SEC truly does just reload up front.

South Carolina's ranking isn't surprising because there's more than just Jadeveon Clowney to work with. Sure, Clowney might be the best player in the country, but he has help from Kelcy Quarles and J.T. Surratt inside and Chaz Sutton on the other side of him. Quarles was pretty consistent for the Gamecocks last year, while Sutton grabbed five sacks as a backup. The departure of starters Devin Taylor and Byron Jerideau shouldn't shake this lineup too much.

Getting Ronald Powell back should help the Gators with Lerentee McCray gone on the outside. Powell will play that hybrid linebacker/defensive end "Buck" position, where he'll get help from freshman All-SEC player Dante Fowler Jr. Dominique Easley is moving back to defensive tackle, where he was very disruptive during his first two years on campus. He can still move outside if needed. End Jonathan Bullard is coming off of a solid freshman season, while more is expected out of tackle Damien Jacobs, who came from the junior college ranks last year.

Ole Miss still has depth issues at defensive tackle, but has plenty to work with at end. C.J. Johnson should be healed from the leg injury he suffered this spring, while Cameron Whigham is coming off of a season in which he started 11 games. Rising sophomore Channing Ward should be fun to watch, and top recruit Robert Nkemdiche is expected to see the field very early. Tackle Issac Gross should be back from his groin injury this fall and he'll get help from juco transfer Lavon Hooks, who had a very good spring.

Alabama might not have the elite players it's had in the past up front, but defensive ends Jeoffrey Pagan and Ed Stinson could have big years. Pagan has a lot of potential, while Stinson recorded 30 tackles last season, including 8.5 for loss and three sacks. Stinson is versatile enough to play both inside and out. Then there's Brandon Ivory at noseguard, who has to replace the talented Jesse Williams. Alabama still needs players to step up more as starters and reserves because the line as a whole has a ways to go before the season starts.

You can tell how well Les Miles has recruited along the defensive line when the Tigers can lose so much but still have a line that's considered one of the nation's best. Tackle Anthony Johnson has so much potential and it sounds like he's ready to unleash his talents on the rest of the league. Miles raved about end Jermauria Rasco this spring and doesn't think the Tigers will miss much of a beat with him outside. True freshman Christian LeCouture played his way into the two-deep at defensive tackle this spring, while Miles expects to get more from tackle Ego Ferguson and ends Danielle Hunter and Jordan Allen.

South Carolina bowl X factor

January, 1, 2013
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We're taking a look at South Carolina's X factor against Michigan in today's Outback Bowl:

X FACTOR

Kelcy Quarles, So., DT: Sure, Denard Robinson isn't set to start at quarterback for the Wolverines, but Devin Gardner knows how to make a play or two. And Robinson should get some time at quarterback -- along with other positions. That means putting pressure on Michigan's backfield is going to be a big deal for the Gamecocks' defense. Defensive end Jadeveon Clowney will be expected to lead South Carolina's pass rush, but he's going to need some of the pressure taken off of him. He'll be battling All-American tackle Taylor Lewan, who should even give Clowney fits at times today. So, Quarles, who has been nicked up here and there this season will have to provide some extra pressure up the middle in order to help out Clowney on the edge. Devin Taylor should help on the other side of Clowney, but the Gamecocks want to get some nice push through the center of the line from Quarles in order to shake up the pass and the run, as the Wolverines are rushing for 187.3 yards per game. He tallied seven tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks and if he can become a nuisance in the middle, it will free Clowney from potential double teams. Dealing with Lewan will be enough for Clowney, so he doesn't need to worry about another big body coming his way. Getting pressure on that explosive backfield will be key for this defense. Michigan didn't exactly flourish the last time it faced pressure from an opposing SEC defense.

Ranking the SEC's bowls

December, 13, 2012
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The bowl season is getting closer and closer, and as we all prepare for what truly is the most wonderful time of year, it's time to rank the nine bowl games that involve SEC teams.

This month, ESPN colleague Mark Schlabach took the time to rank all 35 bowl games. We only have nine to discuss here, but some are very intriguing matchups.

Here's how the SEC's slate of bowls ranks from top to bottom:

[+] EnlargeAJ McCarron
Matthew Stockman/Getty ImagesAJ McCarron and Alabama are one win away from another national title.
1. Discover BCS National Championship: No. 1 Notre Dame vs. No. 2 Alabama (Jan. 7: ESPN, 8:30 p.m. ET, Sun Life Stadium, Miami) -- Two quintessential blue-collar football teams will smash into each other for the national championship. This game also features two of the most respected/hated football programs of all-time. People from all over will be disgusted with themselves for having to root for either squad in a game where some big hits and bruises will be given out.

2. AT&T Cotton Bowl: No. 9 Texas A&M vs. No. 11 Oklahoma (Jan. 4: Fox, 8 p.m. ET, Cowboys Stadium, Arlington, Texas) -- The scoreboard inside Jerry's World better have brand new bulbs, because there are going to be a lot of points in this one. The Aggies will be without offensive coordinator Kliff Kingsbury, who accepted the head-coaching job at Texas Tech, but Heisman winner Johnny Manziel and his group of playmakers will be ready -- and rested. Both teams are averaging more than 500 yards and 40 points a game.

3. Chick-fil-A Bowl: No. 8 LSU vs. No. 14 Clemson (Dec. 31: ESPN, 7:30 p.m. ET, Georgia Dome, Atlanta) -- One stout defense takes on one of the nation's flashiest offenses. The only thing is that LSU currently has some real bite on offense, so that Clemson defense better make adjustments after giving up 444 yards and 27 points in a home loss to South Carolina. Oh, and if Tajh Boyd thought Jadeveon Clowney was a handful, he now has to face Sam Montgomery and Barkevious Mingo coming at him from the outside.

4. Allstate Sugar Bowl: No. 21 Louisville vs. No. 3 Florida (Jan. 2: ESPN, 8:30 p.m. ET, Mercedes-Benz Superdome, New Orleans) -- Some people are turning their noses up at this game, but there are a lot of fun storylines. This is a huge bowl for the Cardinals, and coach Charlie Strong was once the Gators' defensive coordinator. Teddy Bridgewater was also recruited by Florida. We've also learned that Florida's offense can be pretty tough when healthy, and a month off should have the Gators in proper form.

5. Outback Bowl: No. 10 South Carolina vs. No. 18 Michigan (Jan. 1: ESPN, 1 p.m. ET, Raymond James Stadium, Tampa, Fla.) -- Clowney and fellow defensive end Devin Taylor get another mobile quarterback to chase around. Michigan had major issues with the last SEC team it played, and this South Carolina defense is a little more aggressive than the Alabama one that made the Wolverines' offense relatively obsolete in Arlington this year.

6. TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl: Mississippi State vs. Northwestern (Jan. 1, ESPN2, 12 p.m. ET, EverBank Field, Jacksonville, Fla.) -- At first, I wasn't thrilled about this game, considering how the Bulldogs ended the season. But the more I think about it, the more I realize that this team will be fired up to prove people that its better than its 1-4 finish to the regular season. Plus, Mississippi State is going for its second nine-win season in four years, something this program has never done.

7. Capital One Bowl: No. 7 Georgia vs. No. 16 Nebraska (Jan. 1: ABC, 1 p.m. ET, Florida Citrus Bowl, Orlando, Fla.) -- On the surface, this looks like a very fun matchup. But you have to wonder how both of these teams are feeling after they lost in their respective conference title games. The Bulldogs were literally a play away from the national championship, while the Huskers missed out on the Rose Bowl Game Presented by Vizio because of a blowout loss to Wisconsin. Both teams expected a much bigger bowl at season's end and could be a little down heading into this one.

8. BBVA Compass Bowl: Pittsburgh vs. Ole Miss (Jan. 5: ESPN, 1 p.m. ET, Legion Field, Birmingham, Ala.) -- So both teams are 6-6 and barely made the bowl cut. They're in the postseason, and both showed a lot of fight this year. Both are also averaging more than 400 yards of offense a game. Pitt took Notre Dame to the wire in triple overtime and owns the nation's No. 16 defense, which means the Rebels' offense will have to keep up its high-flying routine if it wants its first bowl win since 2009.

9. Franklin Mortgage Music City Bowl: NC State vs. Vanderbilt (Dec. 31: ESPN, noon ET, LP Field, Nashville, Tenn.) -- For starters, I'm opposed to any team having to play in its own city for a bowl game unless its a BCS bowl. The Commodores ended the season on a six-game winning streak, while NC State's season ended with the Wolfpack losing three of five and seeing head coach Tom O'Brien get fired. Dana Bible will be coaching in his place.

Welcome to the Bayou

October, 13, 2012
10/13/12
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BATON ROUGE, La. -- Greetings from Tiger Stadium. We have a big one between LSU and South Carolina.

Two top-10 teams and two very, very talented defenses will be going at it under the lights Saturday in one of college football's best environments.

The Tigers are limping in after that 14-6 loss to Florida, but interesting things happen under the lights in this place, and something tells me The Hat will have a few new things in store for the Gamecocks. It will be interesting to see how South Carolina deals with not just the crowd noise but with its own emotions after last week's blowout victory over Georgia.

This is South Carolina's first real road trip and the Tigers have their backs against the wall.

It'll be interesting to watch both of these offenses tonight. The Gamecocks have been very balanced and have one of the SEC's most efficient quarterbacks in Connor Shaw. That fractured shoulder hasn't been much of an issue at all. The Gamecocks will face their toughest test up front, and that is a concern for offensive-line coach Shawn Elliott. His line has been shaky at times this year, and the tackle spots are key. Corey Robinson and Brandon Shell will have their hands full with Sam Montgomery and Barkevious Mingo going at them.

For LSU, the Tigers were already without top offensive lineman Chris Faulk and will now be without starting left tackle Alex Hurst, who continues to deal with personal issues. Josh Dworaczyk will start at left tackle, where he has really struggled. Trai Turner will also start for the injured Josh Williford at right guard, while Vadal Alexander will start at right tackle; both are freshmen. LSU will have three underclassmen starting on the offensive line ... with Jadeveon Clowney, Devin Taylor and Kelcy Quarles to battle.

Talk about a lot of pressure up front ...

Gamecocks winning where it counts

October, 7, 2012
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COLUMBIA, S.C. -- Connor Shaw could see it in the Georgia players’ eyes on South Carolina’s first touchdown drive.

A few minutes later, it was even more obvious to Marcus Lattimore after the Gamecocks drove it right down the Bulldogs’ throats for their second touchdown in as many possessions.

“They were shell-shocked. We hit them in the mouth, and they weren’t ready for it,” Lattimore said.

Nope, not even close.

But in Georgia’s defense, it’s debatable whether anybody in college football would have been ready for what the Gamecocks unleashed Saturday night on the No. 5 Bulldogs in a 35-7 bludgeoning at Williams-Brice Stadium that sent a clear message about the shifting balance of power in the SEC.

“We definitely sent a message out to the whole country. This is not the old South Carolina. We can play with y’all. We can play with anybody,” said Lattimore, who rushed for 109 yards, his third consecutive 100-yard rushing performance against Georgia.

A year ago, South Carolina scored three non-offensive touchdowns in a wild 45-42 victory over Georgia. Even South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier said after that one that the Gamecocks were fortunate to win.

But there was nothing fluky about Saturday’s game.

The Gamecocks (6-0, 4-0) dominated the line of scrimmage on both sides, a telltale sign of how far this program has come under Spurrier.

Marquee skill players have come and gone through the years at South Carolina, but the Gamecocks haven’t always been able to measure up in the trenches, particularly against the elite teams.

Those days are over.

Not only did South Carolina grind out 230 rushing yards, but the Gamecocks held Georgia to 224 total yards -- the Bulldogs’ lowest output since a 2006 loss to Florida.

[+] EnlargeAaron Murray
Daniel Shirey/US PresswireSouth Carolina's defensive line harrassed Georgia QB Aaron Murray into an 11-of-31, one-pick night.
“Like I told the guys, we took a whipping,” Georgia coach Mark Richt said. “But the good news was that we all took it together.”

In other words, the Bulldogs didn’t have any answers on either side of the ball.

“Our offensive line was great,” said Shaw, who threw touchdown passes of 20 and 14 yards on the Gamecocks’ first two drives. “They just keep getting better. They came out and set the tone tonight.”

While South Carolina’s offensive line took its game to another level, Georgia’s offensive line never knew what hit it. The Gamecocks came into the game thinking they could exploit the Bulldogs’ offensive line.

They did more than exploit it. They rendered it helpless, and even when Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray wasn’t being hounded by Jadeveon Clowney or Devin Taylor, he didn’t have much success finding open receivers.

This is a Georgia offense that had scored 40 or more points in each of its first five games and was flirting with 500 yards per game in total offense.

On Saturday, much to the delight of a deafening and record crowd at Williams-Brice Stadium, it was 21-0 in favor of South Carolina, and Georgia had run all of six offensive plays.

“It wasn’t only the front four, but our linebackers played really well … and the perimeter,” said South Carolina defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward, whose defense has yet to give up more than 17 points this season.

“We were in position to make some plays. It’s a blessing to be able to rush four guys and drop seven when it’s time to play football.”

Indeed it is, especially when you have freakish athletes like Clowney coming off the edge and hurdling would-be blockers. He’s not the only one, either.

South Carolina is equally stout on the interior with defensive tackles Kelcy Quarles and Byron Jerideau, while the third end in the rotation, Chaz Sutton, is starting to play some of his best football.

“You can’t block our defensive line,” Shaw said. “I know. We have to go against them every day.”

After watching Georgia’s freshman running back duo of Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall torch Tennessee for three touchdown runs of 51 yards or longer last week, Ward said the Gamecocks were determined not to let the Bulldogs get outside.

As it was, Gurley and Marshall couldn’t find running room anywhere. They were held to 76 rushing yards on 25 carries, and their longest run was a 15-yarder by Gurley.

It only gets tougher from here for South Carolina, which will almost certainly move to No. 3 in the polls with both LSU and Florida State going down on Saturday.

The Gamecocks have to travel to LSU next week and then Florida on Oct. 20 in what could potentially be a huge Eastern Division showdown.

It’s the kind of position this program simply hasn’t been in over the years.

But, then, it’s a program that has the kind of muscle, physicality and explosiveness in the line of scrimmage that it’s never had.

And that’s where you win championships in this league.

“We’ll see where this leads us,” Spurrier said.

SEC power rankings: Week 1

August, 27, 2012
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Power Rankings: ACC | Big 12 | Big East | Big Ten | Pac-10 | SEC | Non-AQ

We are just days away from the college football season, so it's time to unveil our first batch of power rankings for the regular season.

A lot goes into our power rankings. It isn't just about how strong teams are right now. We look into our crystal ball as well to get a good read on how each team will finish the season -- before it has even started.

For each school, we look at talent coming back, coaching, roster changes, how teams have looked in practice now compared to the spring and uniform style. Well, maybe not that last part, but you get the point.

Here are our season-opening SEC power rankings for 2012:

1. LSU: The gap between the Tigers and Alabama got a lot smaller after Tyrann Mathieu's dismissal, so this could be viewed as 1A and 1B. Mathieu is a big loss for LSU on defense and special teams, but there is just way too much talent for this team not to make another title run. LSU's offense still has one of the best/deepest running games around and gets an upgrade with quarterback Zach Mettenberger. LSU also might have the best offensive line/defensive line combo in the nation.

2. Alabama: The defending champs lost a lot of star power on defense, but that unit should still be pretty darn good this fall. There could be some growing pains at times, but the Tide should still have one of the league's best defensive units this fall. The offense might be better and more balanced this fall, even without Trent Richardson. There is a good stable of backs, the nation's top offensive line and quarterback AJ McCarron has a little more explosiveness and athleticism to work with at receiver.

3. Arkansas: Bobby Petrino is gone, and that could be tough for the Razorbacks to overcome in the long run, but the team has bought in to what interim coach John L. Smith is saying. We still need to see how this team -- and Smith -- acts when adversity enters the picture. The offense has two of the league's best in quarterback Tyler Wilson and running back Knile Davis, who is back from a serious ankle injury. Wilson lost three NFL receivers, but his receiving corps doesn't lack talent. Questions still surround the defense, which lacked depth last season.

4. Georgia: A load of talent returns on both sides of the ball. Quarterback Aaron Murray could be a Heisman candidate, while linebacker Jarvis Jones might be one the country's best players, regardless of position. Isaiah Crowell is gone, but the Bulldogs seem happy with their stable of running backs and were probably going to run by committee again this season anyway. The defense will take a hit with a couple of key stars suspended to start the year, but this group has elite status. The schedule is set up again for a run to Atlanta.

5. South Carolina: The Gamecocks return a filthy defense headlined by sophomore defensive end Jadeveon Clowney. The defensive line should be one of the best in the league with Clowney and Devin Taylor on the ends and Kelcy Quarles coming back in the middle. The secondary has issues, especially with Akeem Auguste going down, but safety D.J. Swearinger and hybrid safety/linebacker DeVonte Holloman are studs. Marcus Lattimore is one of the nation's best, and he appears to be 100 percent after his ACL injury. The hope is that quarterback Connor Shaw will help take some pressure off of him.

6. Florida: The Gators return a fierce defense that should be strong across the board. End/tackle Dominique Easley is coming off an ACL injury, but has the ability to be one of the top linemen in this league. But for Will Muschamp, his second-year success will be determined by what the offense can do. Questions are everywhere, starting with a quarterback battle that isn't close to being settled. There are unproven pieces at receiver and the offensive line, which returns most of last year's parts, struggled mightily in 2011.

7. Tennessee: The Vols have a chance to challenge Arkansas for the league's best passing game. Tyler Bray can throw it all around a bit and has two potential stars in Justin Hunter and Cordarrelle Patterson to throw to. However, Da'Rick Rogers is gone, which means the pressure is on Hunter, who is coming off an ACL injury, and Patterson, who is in from the juco ranks. The defense has a lot of experience and talent, but four new coaches are on board, including defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri. Seven new coaches are in Knoxville, and it's no secret that Derek Dooley's seat is very hot there.

8. Mississippi State: There is a lot of confidence in quarterback Tyler Russell, who can finally call this team his. He'll have quite a bit of experienced weapons to throw to, including seniors Chad Bumphis, Arceto Clark and Chris Smith, who have combined to catch 221 passes for 2,782 yards and 22 touchdowns in their careers. The running game should be strong with LaDarius Perkins and Nick Griffin, while the offensive line is just hoping to stay healthy this year. The defense should be solid with a talented front seven and a very gifted secondary, starring potential All-American Johnthan Banks. The schedule is also very favorable in September and October.

9. Missouri: The newbies don't lack confidence, but on paper they lack size up front -- on both sides. The staff and players say it's not a problem, but let's see come mid-October. Quarterback James Franklin appears to be 100 percent after undergoing shoulder surgery and might be the league's best dual-threat QB. He's the key to a spread offense that returns a lot of speed. The defense is experienced and has a strong linebacker group. Ends Brad Madison and Kony Ealy could form a pretty good tandem this fall.

10. Auburn: The Tigers are still a young team and there are two new coordinators in town. Now that Kiehl Frazier has been named the starting quarterback, the offense can start molding around him. He'll have a solid group of running backs to work with, but the line is young and he needs more reliable receiving targets alongside Emory Blake and Philip Lutzenkirchen. The defense is loaded up front, headlined by end Corey Lemonier. But the defense as a whole still has a lot of questionable parts for new coordinator Brian VanGorder to work with.

11. Texas A&M: The Aggies have a new coaching staff, have to replace some key starters from last year and will be working with a very green quarterback in redshirt freshman Johnny Manziel. The good news for him is that the offensive line is very strong, starting with tackles Luke Joeckel and Jake Matthews. Helping Manziel will be senior receivers Ryan Swope and Uzoma Nwachukwu and stud running back Christine Michael, who is coming back from an ACL injury. The defense is moving to a 4-3, but is stacked at linebacker. The secondary is dangerously young and thin.

12. Vanderbilt: This team surprised a lot of people last year, but opponents won't be caught off guard by the Commodores in 2012. There is good offensive firepower coming back, with quarterback Jordan Rodgers, running back Zac Stacy and receivers Jordan Matthews and Chris Boyd. Plus, there is some good, young offensive talent. But the offensive line has depth issues and will have to use a lot of young guys this fall. The defense is also replacing some key components from last year's team.

13. Kentucky: The Wildcats saw their five-year postseason run end after having the SEC's worst statistical offense in 2011. Joker Phillips thinks he has more potential playmakers this fall and is excited about quarterback Maxwell Smith's potential. The offensive line is younger and can't afford an injury to either Matt Smith or Larry Warford. The defense will be strong up front, but is replacing all four linebackers and two starters in the secondary.

14. Ole Miss: New coach Hugh Freeze isn't working with a lot of numbers, as attrition from the past few years is catching up. The offense was one of the league's worst last year, and still has a quarterback battle between Bo Wallace and Barry Brunetti going on. The offensive line struggled mightily to grasp Freeze's spread this spring and has to improve quickly. Receivers Donte Moncrief and Ja-Mes Logan have a lot of upside, while the defense should be better, especially in the secondary. Still, depth is an issue overall.
Barkevious Mingo, Sam MontgomeryWesley Hitt/Getty ImagesLSU's Barkevious Mingo and Sam Montgomery will head up the strongest D-line in the SEC in 2012.
We’ve already gone through the different position groups on offense in SEC.

Now, it’s on to the side of the ball this league is known for -- defense.

More specifically, we examine the top defensive lines, and there are at least five or six in the SEC that would rank among the best in the country.

In fact, defensive line play is one of the things that has separated the SEC from everybody else over the years.

Here’s how we would rank the defensive lines going into the 2012 season:

1. LSU: All you really need to know about the Tigers’ defensive line is that they have three players -- ends Sam Montgomery and Barkevious Mingo and tackle Bennie Logan -- who may go in the first round of the 2013 NFL draft. Look for sophomore tackle Anthony Johnson to also become an every-down force this season, and sophomore Ego Ferguson could also make his move. LSU is swimming in talent and depth up front.

2. South Carolina: In his second tour through the SEC, sophomore end Jadeveon Clowney is poised to wreak some serious havoc. His partner on the other side, senior Devin Taylor, is also All-SEC material. Sophomore tackle Kelcy Quarles should take a big step, and senior tackle Byron Jerideau was one of the team’s most improved players this spring.

3. Georgia: The Bulldogs’ strength up front starts right there in the middle with 350-pound senior nose guard Jonathan Jenkins. Now that he’s been through an entire SEC season, he’ll be even more of a force in 2012. Cornelius Washington adds a real pass-rushing threat at end in the 3-4 scheme after moving from outside linebacker, and senior end Abry Jones had a great spring.

4. Florida: If not for the injuries to junior tackle Dominique Easley and junior end/linebacker Ronald Powell, the Gators would be ranked even higher. Both players are expected back, with Powell facing the longest odds of being all the way back. Junior Sharrif Floyd is back at his natural position of tackle, and keep an eye on junior college newcomer Damien Jacobs inside. He showed up repeatedly around the ball this spring.

5. Alabama: Jesse Williams moves from end to nose guard and has the strength and power to develop into an NFL first-round draft choice. He shouldn’t have any problem making the transition. Damion Square is an accomplished pass-rusher at one end, and talented guys like junior end Ed Stinson have patiently been waiting their turn.

[+] EnlargeRobert Griffin III
AP Photo/Jon EiltsTexas A&M's Damontre Moore is expected to play at a high level again this season.
6. Auburn: It wasn’t a season to remember on defense a year ago for the Tigers, but their defensive line should be one of the most improved units in the league if everyone returns healthy in the fall. Junior end Corey Lemonier tied for fourth in the SEC with 9.5 sacks a year ago, while Dee Ford looks to be healthy on the other side after missing most of last season. The Tigers have some of the best inside depth in the league.

7. Mississippi State: Fletcher Cox’s early departure stings, but his former running mate inside, senior Josh Boyd, is back for his senior season, and junior college newcomer Denico Autry was the rage this spring at end. If Autry turns out to be as good as he looked in the spring, the Bulldogs will have that finisher off the edge they lacked last season.

8. Arkansas: This is a group that could make a significant move upward if everybody stays healthy. Tackle Robert Thomas will be a key in the middle. He should be more consistent this season after coming over from junior college a year ago. Another junior college newcomer, Austin Flynn, was impressive this spring. That’s important because Tenarius Wright is moving from end to linebacker.

9. Texas A&M: Stopping the interior run remains the big question mark for the Aggies, who are moving from a 3-4 to a 4-3. Junior Damontre Moore is a natural at end and will make his presence felt right away. He rates up there with Jarvis Jones, Sam Montgomery, Barkevious Mingo and Corey Lemonier as one of the top defensive front-seven playmakers in the league.

10. Tennessee: The Vols are counting on a pair of junior college additions to come through this fall -- Daniel McCullers at nose tackle and Darrington Sentimore at end. They’re moving to a 3-4 in their base defense. Maurice Couch could factor in at nose guard or end, and junior Marlon Walls is back at end. Replacing Malik Jackson won’t be easy. He made a ton of plays for the Vols.

11. Vanderbilt: If you’re looking for the SEC’s top breakout players in 2012, junior defensive end Walker May should be near the top of your list. He had 4.5 sacks last season and is coming off a superb offseason. Senior tackle Rob Lohr was one of the more underrated interior linemen in the league last season, and the Commodores’ overall depth across the front has improved greatly.

12. Kentucky: The Wildcats won’t be hurting in the experience department. They just don’t have a lot of proven depth. The junior tackle tandem of Mister Cobble and Donte Rumph gives Kentucky more than 600 pounds of muscle in the middle. Senior end Collins Ukwu was slowed during the spring, but has all the tools to be a big-time pass-rusher in this league.

13. Missouri: The Tigers lost three starters from a year ago, and they’re also undersized up front. They have some talent coming, and sophomore end Kony Ealy is primed for a breakout season. Sheldon Richardson will be a key in the middle. He missed the spring with a shoulder injury. Senior end Brad Madison has All-SEC potential, but is also coming off a shoulder injury.

14. Ole Miss: The Rebels don’t have any depth at defensive tackle, which is a major concern for first-year coach Hugh Freeze. They could also use some help at end, which means getting freshman end Channing Ward eligible this fall is a must. Sophomore end C.J. Johnson played well this spring.
When it comes to handicapping conference title outlooks, it's all about finding out which team is more likely to win than those around it; not the team most likely to win.

ESPN's Will Harris did just that on Monday when he evaluated the conference title odds Insider for the SEC, Big Ten, Big 12, ACC and Pac-12.

[+] EnlargeConnor Shaw
Daniel Shirey/US PresswireQuarterback Connor Shaw will be key player to the Gamecocks' success in 2012.
For the SEC, Harris gave Alabama the best odds to win the SEC (+220 to win the West and +145 to win the conference). LSU was second (+225 for the West and +145 for the conference).

But his best value pick came from the East, which has been overlooked by the West in the last few years. Harris made South Carolina the best play in the SEC (+1,100/+240).

Harris reiterated some of my same sentiments when it came to the Gamecocks' chances of winning the SEC in 2012. All the talk has been about running back Marcus Lattimore and his health, but one area that South Carolina's faithful has to be pleased with is the quarterback spot.

A position that was marred in inconsistency for the last few seasons saw vast improvement during the latter part of the 2011 season with Connor Shaw under center. While he went through some growing pains when he first took over for the drama-ridden Stephen Garcia, who was dismissed halfway through the season, he really came alive in the season finale against Clemson and carried that over to the bowl win against Nebraska.

Lattimore is very important and could decide whether this team returns to Atlanta, but Shaw's play will mean a lot for this team in the fall, especially if Lattimore isn't 100 percent healthy. Coach Steve Spurrier wanted him to become a more consistent passer and we saw that toward the end of last year and during the spring.

I also really like this defense. Jadeveon Clowney could be a real star in this league at defensive end and he'll get a lot of help from fellow linemen Devin Taylor, Kelcy Quarles and Byron Jerideau. The returning linebackers have a lot of experience and D.J. Swearinger is primed to have a big year at safety.

There are some concerns with the youth and inexperience in the secondary, but overall, South Carolina certainly has the talent all around to get through the SEC East for the second time in three years and could take the whole thing.

SEC post-spring power rankings

May, 18, 2012
5/18/12
11:09
AM ET

We're putting spring behind us and looking toward the fall with our post-spring power rankings:

1. LSU: The Tigers had one of the best springs around. Things were quiet off the field, and the offense rallied behind quarterback Zach Mettenberger. Coach Les Miles was very impressed with Mettenberger's play and maturity, and expects LSU's offense to be more balanced with him under center. LSU can still use four or five running backs, as well. Defensively, the Tigers are stacked once again, especially up front with two potential first-rounders in ends Sam Montgomery and Barkevious Mingo. Questions surround the inexperienced linebackers, but Kevin Minter had a tremendous spring in the middle. On paper, LSU is equipped with the talent to make another title run, and gets Alabama at home this year.

2. Alabama: While the defending national champs saw a lot of "new" faces on defense this spring, coach Nick Saban left happy with where his players were -- but not satisfied. There is still work to be done, especially in the secondary, where the Tide must replace three starters. Dont'a Hightower and Courtney Upshaw are gone at linebacker, but the coaches were impressed with how Nico Johnson, C.J. Mosley and Adrian Hubbard played this spring. Some think Hubbard, a redshirt sophomore, could be Bama's top pass-rusher. Offensively, quarterback AJ McCarron is back, more mature and surrounded by a very veteran line. He has a group of younger receivers to throw to, but has at least four quality running backs. Alabama's road to repeating is tougher, with games at Arkansas and LSU.

3. South Carolina: A healthy Marcus Lattimore (knee) at RB makes South Carolina an even better contender for the SEC East crown. His status is uncertain, but the pieces around him are pretty impressive. Quarterback Connor Shaw had an impressive spring, and looks ready to be the passer coach Steve Spurrier wants him to be. The defense is once again stacked, especially up front with ends Jadeveon Clowney and Devin Taylor. There are questions in the secondary, with two new, young starters in Victor Hampton (cornerback) and Brison Williams (safety), while senior Akeem Auguste returns after missing last season with a foot injury. Still, Spurrier is chirping about his SEC counterparts, so you know he thinks he's got a good team this year.

4. Georgia: The Bulldogs should be higher on this list, but when you take into account the suspensions of four defensive starters at the beginning of the season, they slide a little. Georgia returns nine defensive starters, including one of the nation's best linebackers in Jarvis Jones, and some firepower on offense, led by veteran quarterback Aaron Murray, who could get some early Heisman love. It also sounds like enigmatic running back Isaiah Crowell is slowly turning things around. Yet again, the Bulldogs have a favorable SEC schedule, with no games against Alabama, Arkansas or LSU, so their road to the SEC championship is easier than South Carolina's, but keep an eye on that inexperienced offensive line.

5. Arkansas: If not for Bobby Petrino's embarrassing dismissal, the Razorbacks might be ranked higher. Offensively, it doesn't get much better than what Arkansas has. Tyler Wilson returns as arguably the league's best quarterback, and he'll get to work with one of the most complete backs around, Knile Davis, who is returning from a devastating ankle injury. An older and more improved offensive line returns, and so does a talented receiving corps led by Cobi Hamilton. But there are questions. How effective will interim coach John L. Smith be, especially if something goes wrong? Will Marquel Wade's suspension leak into the fall after his spring arrest? And will the defense improve and be more aggressive under new coordinator Paul Haynes? The good news is that Alabama and LSU play in Fayetteville this fall.

6. Florida: The chemistry is much better in Gainesville. Florida returns 10 starters from a defense that ranked eighth nationally in 2011. Matt Elam looks like a budding star at safety, and Florida's linebacking group is solid. Buck/defensive end Ronald Powell could be out after tearing his ACL this spring, but coach Will Muschamp recently said Powell is off crutches. Stud defensive tackle Dominique Easley is also walking fine after tearing his ACL in last year's season finale. The Gators have their third offensive coordinator in three years, and unproven sophomore quarterbacks Jacoby Brissett and Jeff Driskel are still battling. Florida has unproven running backs and receivers, but the offensive line toughened up tremendously.

7. Auburn: The Tigers welcomed two new coordinators, Scot Loeffler and Brian VanGorder, this spring, and by all accounts players were very receptive. Coach Gene Chizik is still dealing with a lot of youth, as close to 70 percent of his roster is made up of underclassmen. One of those underclassmen is quarterback Kiehl Frazier, who made strides as a passer this spring and seems to have the edge in the quarterback race with Clint Moseley, who missed some of the spring with a sore shoulder. The defensive line will be the team's strength, with end Dee Ford exploding this spring and Corey Lemonier returning. There is a lot of depth up front on defense, which will go a long way for the Tigers.

8. Missouri: Coach Gary Pinkel and his players have made it clear they aren't intimidated by the move to the SEC. These new Tigers return solid offensive firepower, but there has to be some concern about quarterback James Franklin, who missed most of the spring after having surgery on his throwing shoulder. Plus, Mizzou's backup QB could miss games this fall after his recent arrest, so the Tigers' offensive success will be riding on Franklin's health. The Tigers are replacing a few starters on both lines, but feel confident about both areas. Mizzou will face a Georgia team down a few defensive players in Week 2, but must travel to South Carolina, Florida, Tennessee and Texas A&M.

9. Tennessee: A lot is different in Knoxville, as the Vols welcomed seven new assistant coaches. Coach Derek Dooley insists the changes were for the best, but there's still going to be some adjusting to do this fall. The good news is that Tennessee returns a lot on both sides of the ball, starting with quarterback Tyler Bray and receivers Justin Hunter and Da'Rick Rogers. A healthy trio there makes Tennessee's passing game one of the best in the league. Questions remain on the offensive line and at running back, but improvements were made this spring. New defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri would like to run more 3-4 this fall, but players aren't totally comfortable, leaving some concerns.

10. Mississippi State: Quarterback Tyler Russell finally looks ready to take over as the guy in Starkville, and he'll have a veteran receiving corps to work with. However, that group still has a lot to prove, especially senior Chad Bumphis. The running game looks solid with LaDarius Perkins and Nick Griffin, and the offensive line got help from the junior college ranks. Defensively, there are a few holes to fill up front and in the secondary, but Johnthan Banks and Corey Broomfield are a solid cornerback tandem and linebacker is set with a few vets back, including stud Cameron Lawrence. Junior college defensive end Denico Autry has to perform early to help a line with a couple of holes.

11. Texas A&M: The Aggies have some holes to fill this year, but the offensive line will be a strength. Left tackle Luke Joeckel, a future first-rounder, leads a line that returns four starters. Star wide receiver Ryan Swope is back, and running back Christine Michael should be healthy (knee) this fall, but quarterback is an issue. Sophomore Jameill Showers has the edge right now, but like all of his competitors, he lacks experience. The defense will lean on linebackers Sean Porter, Steven Jenkins, Jonathan Stewart and converted end Damontre Moore, but the secondary has depth and experience issues, and the team will still be adjusting to a new staff led by coach Kevin Sumlin.

12. Vanderbilt: There is some solid offensive talent in Nashville, starting with running back Zac Stacy and receivers Jordan Matthews and Chris Boyd, but coach James Franklin is still waiting for quarterback Jordan Rodgers to be more consistent. The offensive line is very thin and could barely get through spring. The defense must replace a handful of starters and leaders, but Franklin felt better about guys like linebacker Chase Garnham, defensive end Walker May and cornerback Trey Wilson. Vandy's schedule will be tough this fall, and if that offensive line doesn't hold up, getting back to a bowl will be tough.

13. Kentucky: Coach Joker Phillips was pleased with how spring practice ended, especially when it came to finding offensive playmakers, like receivers Demarco Robinson and Daryl Collins. Quarterback Maxwell Smith had a solid spring, but struggled during the spring game, meaning the battle with Morgan Newton and freshman Patrick Towles should go into the fall. The offensive line is still trying to get by after losing three starters, and the Wildcats must replace six starters at linebacker and in the secondary. Given the Wildcats' schedule, they will need to sweep their nonconference games to be in bowl shape.

14. Ole Miss: The arrival of coach Hugh Freeze brought a lot of positive change to Ole Miss, especially off the field, but there are still a lot of concerns. There are depth issues at just about every position, especially running back and defensive tackle. Even one of the most experienced groups, the offensive line, has struggled mightily with picking up Freeze's spread offense and is the team's biggest weakness. Academic issues are also worrying Ole Miss' staff, and top running back Jeff Scott and cornerback/receiver Nickolas Brassell are in that group. Quarterback is still up for grabs, but progress was made on defense, especially in the secondary.


A lot of votes were cast and it came down to the wire, but the fans have spoken and South Carolina has won the poll battle of the defenses.

With nearly 12,000 votes cast, South Carolina barely claimed first place with 24 percent of the vote. Alabama was second with 23 percent, while LSU grabbed 21 percent. Georgia got 13 percent of the vote while the category of "Other" received 19 percent.

South Carolina is a solid pick when you look at who returns. Defensive ends Jadeveon Clowney and Devin Taylor are back alongside tackle Kelcy Quarles. Clowney and Taylor combined for 20.5 tackles for loss and 14 sacks. Quarles really progressed as the season went on and provided a nice big, disruptive body against the run.

Veterans return at linebacker, with seniors Shaq Wilson and Reginald Bowens in the middle and DeVonte Holloman is back at the Spur, where he's at his best. Seniors D.J. Swearinger (safety) and Akeem Auguste (cornerback) are back in the secondary, as well.

Most of the questions for this defense lie in the secondary, with sophomores-to-be Victor Hampton (cornerback) and Brison Williams (safety) expected to start this fall. Williams collected a start against Florida last year, while Hampton did most of his damage on special teams. Expect offenses to key in on them early.

At this moment, I'd have to go with LSU. The Tigers return one of the best defensive lines in the country, with two potential first-rounders in ends Barkevious Mingo and Sam Montgomery. And LSU's staff is very excited about what Bennie Logan and Anthony Johnson can do at the tackle spots. This line should be the strength of this team and it will make it hard to run and throw on the Tigers. It'll take pressure off the linebackers, which lose two starters.

The secondary loses Morris Claiborne and Brandon Taylor, but the Honey Badger (Tyrann Mathieu) is back and so is Eric Reid, who might be the league's top safety. Keep an eye on Tharold Simon at cornerback. He should be a solid cover corner this fall.

Alabama is down a handful of starters from last year, but don't think that will send this unit into a tailspin. Defensive tackle Jesse Williams is an animal and linebackers C.J. Mosley, Nico Johnson and Adrian Hubbard aren't slouches by any means. Yes, the secondary is a little green, but corner Dee Milliner and Robert Lester should help provide some stability. JUCO standouts Deion Belue and Travell Dixon impressed this spring and youngsters Vinnie Sunseri and Ha'Sean Clinton-Dix look ready to be big contributors.

And with nine starters returning for Georgia, the Bulldogs should have another solid defensive squad this fall. There has to be some worry with four starters suspended for the beginning of the season, but at full strength, this defense will be a handful, especially with one of the best linebacking corps in the country that includes All-American Jarvis Jones, speedster Alec Ogletree and work horse Michael Gilliard. Once Bacarri Rambo, Sanders Commings, Shawn Williams and Branden Smith are all back and together, Georgia's secondary will be potent.
We all know that defense wins championships and the SEC is very much a testament to that. Alabama possessed the nation's No. 1 defense last season and now possesses another national championship. Runner-up LSU ranked second nationally.

Alabama ran away with the crown as the nation's and the SEC's best defense, but that title is for the taking in 2012. Alabama is down key players from last year's squad, like linebackers Courtney Upshaw and Dont'a Hightower, defensive tackle Josh Chapman, and defensive backs Mark Barron, Dre Kirkpatrick, and DeQuan Menzie.

SportsNation

Who will have the best defense in 2012?

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    24%
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    19%
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    23%
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    13%
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    21%

Discuss (Total votes: 12,039)

Alabama's defense isn't as green as the 2010 group, but it's still drawing some comparisons to it. That's exactly what the Tide wants to hear. Nico Johnson seems primed to be a true leader at linebacker, while Adrian Hubbard could be a budding star at Upshaw's old position. Defensive backs Robert Lester and Dee Milliner are back and will be joined by a couple of JUCO standouts and talented sophomores Vinnie Sunseri and Ha'Sean Clinton-Dix. Jesse Williams could be a real force at defensive tackle along with end Damion Square.

Then you have LSU. The Tigers lost All-World cornerback Morris Claiborne to the NFL draft and two starting linebackers. Michael Brockers is gone at defensive tackle as well. But LSU is still loaded. The Tigers return Heisman finalist Tyrann Mathieu and Tharold Simon, who should be fine with an expanded role at cornerback. Junior Kevin Minter really stepped up at linebacker last year and should pick up right where he left off. Even without Brockers, the line is solid with future first-rounder Sam Montgomery at one end position and the underrated Barkevious Mingo at the other. The two combined for 17 sacks last season.

Bennie Logan and Anthony Johnson should provide some meat nastiness in the interior, while the very talented Eric Reid is back at free safety.

Georgia and South Carolina both finished the 2011 season ranked in the top five nationally in total defense. South Carolina was third, while Georgia was fifth, respectively. The Gamecocks lost first-round defensive end Melvin Ingram, but return freshman standout Jadeveon Clowney and Devin Taylor, who many thought would be better than Ingram last season. Kelcy Quarles is back at defensive tackle and the coaches think he'll be even better in his second year.

Shaq Wilson and Reginald Bowens, who combined for 96 tackles last year, will grab time at linebacker again, while the very athletic DeVonte Holloman returns to the Spur for his senior year. There are questions in the secondary, but seniors D.J. Swearinger (safety) and Akeem Auguste (cornerback) return.

Georgia returns nine defensive starters. Brandon Boykin is gone at corner, and the Bulldogs will enter the fall with a lot questions in the secondary, especially with starters Branden Smith, Sanders Commings and Bacarri Rambo suspended to start the season. Star freshman receiver Malcolm Mitchell moved to corner this spring and fits right in, but there are depth issues at the position.

Other than that, the Bulldogs are still pretty stacked. Inside linebacker Alec Ogletree will serve a suspension to start the year, but Georgia will fill his spot by committee. Mike Gilliard, Cornelius Washington, Christian Robinson, Amarlo Herrera and Ramik Wilson provide Georgia with a very solid linebacking unit alongside star Jarvis Jones, who racked up 19.5 tackles for loss and 13.5 sacks. Georgia's defensive line should also be pretty stout with the massive John Jenkins and Kwame Geathers battling in the middle. Abry Jones really progressed at end as well this spring.

Or maybe someone else will step up and take the crown ...
Devin Taylor is noticing all the attention surrounding South Carolina’s program, and he likes it.

It means people are expecting big things from the Gamecocks, and some might even be a little fearful of them.

“It’s almost like a target on our backs,” South Carolina’s senior defensive end said.

But that target didn’t just appear in Columbia, S.C. It started to form after South Carolina’s first trip to the SEC championship game in 2010, and Taylor said he could sense it every week last season. He could tell that the perception of South Carolina’s team had changed around the league and more respect was thrown the Gamecocks’ way.

“You could just feel it,” he said.

[+] EnlargeSouth Carolina's Devin Taylor
Jeremy Brevard/US PresswireDefensive end Devin Taylor says South Carolina's defense isn't rebuilding, it's reloading.
It’s not hard to believe that the team that once struggled to make upward moves in the SEC's Eastern Division is now linked to divisional favorite talk. In coach Steve Spurrier’s seven seasons at South Carolina, he has compiled 55 wins (leaving him nine away from tying Rex Enright’s school record for career wins), took South Carolina to Atlanta, and led the Gamecocks to their first 11-win season in 2011.

The next step? An SEC championship.

It’s a goal that Spurrier said he expects, and so do his players. Taylor said winning the East is no longer the No. 1 goal. They want to be showered with celebratory confetti inside the Georgia Dome in December.

And South Carolina has the parts in place to make such a run. The offense loses star receiver Alshon Jeffery and returns a cluster of unproven receivers, but the plus is that there is a ton of depth there. Also, much-ballyhooed incoming freshman WR Shaq Roland will be in town this summer, and a lot is expected of him.

On the offensive line, Rokevious Watkins and Terrence Campbell are gone (both were seniors in 2011). But South Carolina returns three starters, and the coaches expect redshirt freshman Brandon Shell to step right in at left tackle for Watkins. Get him going and South Carolina’s line should be fine.

Quarterback Connor Shaw returns after really starting to come into his own as more of a passer at the end of last season. He’ll always run the ball, but he showed he can be disciplined and lead with his arm.

Running back Marcus Lattimore (knee) won’t practice in the spring, but he certainly hasn’t been ruled out for the regular season. A healthy Lattimore, who has racked up 2,015 rushing yards and 27 touchdowns in 20 career games, is an obvious Heisman Trophy candidate.

Defensively, Taylor can’t help but get excited. While South Carolina enters spring camp down in numbers in the secondary -- especially with injuries to Akeem Auguste and D.J. Swearinger -- Taylor said he’s seen younger players (such as cornerback Victor Hampton) make improvements during offseason workouts. And Taylor has really been impressed with DeVonte Holloman, who is transitioning back to the spur position from safety.

When it comes to the front seven, Taylor knows the key names are Jadeveon Clowney -- who was seventh in the SEC in sacks (eight) and 11th in tackles for loss (12) -- along with Kelcy Quarles, Shaq Wilson and Reginald Bowens. But you can’t sleep on defensive tackle Byron Jerideau or linebacker Damario Jeffery, who moves to middle linebacker from the spur.

Taylor said South Carolina isn’t rebuilding on defense, it’s reloading, which is a scary thought. South Carolina was third nationally in total defense in 2011, and Taylor thinks the Gamecocks are equipped with just as much talent to have a similar year in 2012.

Even with the skill that returns on both sides for South Carolina, Taylor still expects the Gamecocks to be overlooked at times -- maybe not by opposing teams, but by those on the periphery.

And he’s fine with that.

“We can do the underdog thing and then come back and bite them in the butt,” he said.

Taylor hopes that “underdog thing” will take South Carolina to the top of the SEC in 2012. From where this program has been to where it is now, a win in Atlanta in early December would show just how big a turnover the Gamecocks have made, Taylor said.

“That would mean a lot, and it would let this entire program shine [and show] how much it’s grown and how much it’s willing to grow for future players coming here,” he said.

“I’ve worked hard over all these summers, and all this work actually paid off to do something great.”
The postseason top 25 countdown is done and it's time for us to discuss our reasons for how we sorted our list and why we left some players off.

Anytime you do this sort of thing you always second-guess yourself. There are always players you wish you had put higher, slid down lower, left off or put on the list. The only thing that's for sure is that you'll never be perfect and you'll never please everyone, but that's the way it goes.

Alabama running back Trent Richardson was the obvious choice to be first on our list. He was named the nation's top running back and was a unanimous first team All-American and All-SEC member. He accounted for more than 36 percent of Alabama's offense last year and became just the third player in SEC history to rush for 20 or more touchdowns.

Richardson is a track star built like a tank.

While Richardson was spot on, there was another player who we felt should have been higher. At second glance, Chris and I felt that Georgia linebacker Jarvis Jones was too low. He ended up sixth, but we now feel like we should have had him above both Melvin Ingram and Courtney Upshaw.

When you finish the year with an SEC-best 19.5 tackles for loss and 13.5 sacks after a a year away from the field you deserve to be higher.

Our bad.

We took some heat from the College GameDay crew during the season for having only one LSU player — cornerback Morris Claiborne — on our preseason list. (We didn't even have Tyrann Mathieu on the preseason list! We sure look boneheaded now.) Well, we certainly deserved that and had four Tigers on the postseason list, including No. 2 (Claiborne) and No. 3 (Mathieu). Defensive end Sam Montgomery and guard Will Blackwell just missed the cut, too.

We've also received word from some readers that we missed on Tennessee wide receiver Da'Rick Rogers, who was passed by LSU's Rueben Randle and South Carolina's Alshon Jeffery.

When we created this list we took into consideration stats and total impact on a team — good and bad. Yes, Rogers led the SEC in receiving, but his impact wasn't as positive as the others. Randle was LSU's top receiving target all season, was a true leader and finished the year third in the SEC in receiving. Jeffery was South Carolina's only real dependable receiver all season and of his eight touchdowns, five came in conference games. Jeffery also spent the first eight games on a team that didn't have much of a passing game and was still sixth in the league in receiving.

Also, Jeffery had a monster outing in South Carolina's bowl win, while when Tennessee needed a win over Kentucky to become bowl eligible, Rogers caught just two passes in the loss and was openly complaining and being divisive on the sideline.

Rogers had a solid season, but more was taken into consideration than just his play.

Five players — Richardson, Upshaw, Dont'a Hightower, Barrett Jones and Mark Barron — from our preseason top 10 remained there in our postseason countdown, so that made us look good.

We missed on two South Carolina players in the preseason in Devin Taylor (No. 6) and Stephon Gilmore (No. 12) and didn't see Ingram (postseason No. 5) coming. But we did have 14 of 25 from our preseason list back on our postseason list. It probably would have been more if not for injuries to South Carolina running back Marcus Lattimore, Arkansas running back Knile Davis and defensive end Jake Bequette, or the dismissal of former Tennessee safety Janzen Jackson.

Here's a breakdown of the list by team, position, side of the field, year and division:

TEAM
  • Alabama (7)
  • Georgia (5)
  • LSU (4)
  • Arkansas (3)
  • South Carolina (2)
  • Auburn (1)
  • Kentucky (1)
  • Mississippi State (1)
  • Vanderbilt (1)
POSITION
  • DB (7)
  • LB (4)
  • WR/TE (4)
  • DL (3)
  • QB (2)
  • RB (2)
  • OL (3)
SIDE OF THE FIELD
  • Defense (14)
  • Offense (11)
YEAR
  • Senior (11)
  • Junior (9)
  • Sophomore (5)
DIVISION
  • West (16)
  • East (9)

Check in tomorrow to see players who just missed the cut for the postseason top 25.
Speed and athleticism are always immediately mentioned when talking about SEC defenses, but there’s a mental side that’s often overlooked.

For Alabama linebacker Nico Johnson, it’s the first thing he notices when he sees youngsters competing in practices. Their speed is always impressive, but the way younger players are dissecting and learning defenses these days has Johnson shocked. It also has defensive coordinators around the league giddy with the thought of not having to simplify things for youngsters.

“The more recruits that come in, year in and year out, it seems like they’re smarter and faster figures,” Johnson said. “It just keeps going and going.

[+] EnlargeNico Johnson
Marvin Gentry/US PresswireAlabama linebacker Nico Johnson says today's young SEC players enter the league with an impressive grasp of defensive schemes.
“I don’t know how it’s happening, but it’s happening.”

That accelerated learning is one of the main reasons Johnson thinks the SEC has been so dominant defensively, and why the conference will continue to be for years to come. Since 2007, the SEC has had at least two teams ranked in the top 10 nationally in total defense, including having four ranked in the top five in 2011.

Johnson says the way players respond to coaching and changes in defensive schemes have been enhanced since he arrived in Tuscaloosa in 2009. The senior-to-be said it was amazing to see younger players, like linebackers C.J. Mosley and Trey DePriest, pick up things so quickly, and admitted they were much farther ahead during their first camps than he was.

And Johnson thinks that it’s going on all around the league.

As the SEC looks to earn its seventh straight national title, teams are looking to continue the tradition of having the staunchest defenses around. Like Johnson, Georgia coach Mark Richt believes that will start with the quicker breed of players who have entered the league.

Richt said he thinks the SEC’s defensive success should absolutely be attributed to the type of athletes who circulate throughout the league, but he also thinks the speed with which athletes adapt to the college level helps. He sees what he and his coaching staff are doing being duplicated at the high school level by coaching staffs, but he also sees younger athletes understanding the game more, especially in the Southeast.

Explaining schemes has almost become a thing of the past.

But it isn’t just preparation that will go into making sure SEC teams return to their defensive perches in 2012. Richt and Johnson agreed that it comes down to having the right mindset -- to be better than those before.

At Alabama, that won’t be easy. The Crimson Tide had one of the all-time best defenses in 2011, ranking first nationally in total defense, rushing defense, passing defense and scoring defense, and will lose a host of players who made all that possible.

Linebackers Courtney Upshaw and Dont'a Hightower are gone. So is defensive tackle Josh Chapman and defensive backs Mark Barron, Dre Kirkpatrick and DeQuan Menzie. It seems like Alabama will be in a rebuilding mode similar to 2010, but Johnson disagrees. With a handful of juniors and seniors returning, Johnson said Alabama’s defense will be far from inexperienced, and will feed off the talk of possibly resembling the 2010 squad.

“We want to make ourselves better than the defense last year,” Johnson said. “We want to create our own identity.

“We know what we’re capable of, and we know what can happen if we don’t do our job 24/7. We use that ... to keep us motivated to keep us going, because we don’t want that to happen anymore.”

But what about the other top defenses? Well, there isn’t much drop-off …

LSU returns nearly everyone who helped the Tigers rank second in total defense. What’s scary is that while Morris Claiborne is gone at cornerback, Tyrann Mathieu could be better this fall, and Tharold Simon could be just as deadly in coverage.

LSU must replace two linebackers, including leader Ryan Baker, but returns three starting defense linemen, including ends Barkevious Mingo and Sam Montgomery, who combined for 16 sacks in 2011.

Georgia loses star cornerback Brandon Boykin, but returns 10 starters, including top pass-rusher Jarvis Jones, from a defense that ranked fifth nationally last season. In order to keep its edge, Richt said his players must eliminate complacency and can’t think 2011’s success will propel them.

“We don’t want to rest on any accomplishments of the past,” Richt said. “I don’t think our coaches will allow that. I don’t think our leaders will allow that.”

South Carolina and Florida are in similar situations. The Gamecocks ranked third nationally in total defense, while Florida was eighth. South Carolina loses playmakers in defensive end Melvin Ingram, Spur Antonio Allen and cornerback Stephon Gilmore, but welcomes back six starters and a hefty line that features Jadeveon Clowney, Devin Taylor and Kelcy Quarles, or 22.5 tackles for loss and 14 sacks.

South Carolina also returns most of its front seven, including linebackers Shaq Wilson and Reginald Bowens, who combined for 96 tackles last season.

The Gators lose defensive tackle Jaye Howard, but should be equipped with all of their remaining defensive parts, including rising star Matt Elam at safety. Dominique Easley will be recovering from a serious knee injury he suffered at the end of the season, but the Gators added depth up front and moved Sharrif Floyd back inside.

The SEC’s top defenses from a season ago return enough talent in 2012 to keep their names near the top of the national rankings. The talent will always remain in the SEC, but the idea of maintaining the tradition of defensive dominance for players keeps teams at the top of the defensive charts, Johnson said.

“I don’t see how anybody in any other conference can compare to it, because of what we do year in and year out,” he said. “We take pride in it, and it makes me feel good that people do look at us like that. We want to go out and prove to every team that’s not in the SEC that it’s no fluke that we’re that good.”
Now that you've seen the recruiting needs for the SEC Western Division teams, it's time to check what teams in the East needed to focus on when it came to recruiting for the 2012 class:

FLORIDA

Offensive line: There's no getting around how much Florida's offensive line struggled in 2011. Florida doesn't lose a lot from its line, but the Gators need more talent. There are a lot of questions surrounding this position and getting qualities bodies is a must.

Running back: Florida loses seniors Chris Rainey and Jeff Demps, and will enter the fall with unproven players in Mike Gillislee and Mack Brown. As Florida continues to move closer to a more traditional/pro-style offense, the Gators also need to add size to the position.

Wide receiver: Again, this is a position in which the Gators need to improve in the talent category. Florida lost just one senior from last year's squad, but unproven players lurk. What Florida needs to get in this class is a true playmaker at receiver. There is hope that Quinton Dunbar, Andre Debose and Frankie Hammond can step up, but some solid competition won't hurt.

GEORGIA

Offensive line: Georgia loses three starters in Cordy Glenn, Ben Jones and Justin Anderson. The Bulldogs would like to add a few more big bodies up front in this class to help with all that unproven depth.

Linebacker: In Todd Grantham's 3-4 defense, linebackers are extremely important. The Bulldogs will likely lose a couple bodies at outside linebacker next year, including star Jarvis Jones, and would like to add a couple of true playmakers at that position in this class.

Wide receiver: Come 2013, Georgia will have taken some hits at its wide receiver depth. There is young talent in Malcolm Mitchell, Chris Conley and Michael Bennett, but veterans like Tavarres King, Marlon Brown and Rantavious Wooten will be gone. Adding a couple standouts at wide receiver in this class would be nice.

KENTUCKY

Offensive playmakers: Whether it comes at quarterback, wide receiver, running back or tight end, the Wildcats need to find players who can make plays when they get the ball in their hands. Kentucky's offense was hard to watch all season because there was no one who could consistently move the ball.

Offensive line: Kentucky loses three starters -- Chandler Burden, Stuart Hines and Billy Joe Murphy -- from its offensive line and needs to load up here in this class. There is a handful of young players at each offensive line position, but the Wildcats need to think about adding more for the future.

Defensive back: Veterans are leaving the Wildcats' secondary, so it's time to stock up. Winston Guy, Taiedo Smith, Randall Burden and Anthony Mosley will all be gone, meaning the Wildcats are in need of adding some depth to both the cornerback and safety positions.

MISSOURI

Running back: Leading rusher Henry Josey suffered a severe knee injury toward the end of the 2011 season and the Tigers have some veterans jam packed at the top of the depth chart at the position. Getting help to add to future rosters would really help this offense as it moves to the SEC.

Defensive line: The Tigers are losing three starters along the defensive line and 10 players from 2011 will be gone by the end of next season. There are some youngsters there, but it's time to getting into restocking mode along the defensive line. Also, this is where games are won and lost in the SEC. Finding more athleticism here is crucial.

Offensive line: Like the defensive line, Missouri will lose three starters here. There are some bodies to fill in for now, but you can never have too many offensive linemen and now that the Tigers are headed to the SEC, getting some bigger, more athletic linemen will be key to survival in this jungle.

SOUTH CAROLINA

Defensive line: The Gamecocks have gotten a ton of production from here lately, but South Carolina will lose two starters in Melvin Ingram and Travian Robertson. South Carolina might want to add to defensive end the most, with Ingram leaving and Devin Taylor getting ready to depart in a year.

Linebacker: Over the next two years, the Gamecocks will lose some quality players at linebacker and even the spur position. A handful of veterans occupy the depth chart at linebacker, so that means South Carolina needs to add a few quality bodies for the future.

Defensive back: South Carolina's depth in its defensive backfield could be considered thin. The Gamecocks are down two starters at cornerback and will lose solid players in D.J. Swearinger and DeVonte Holloman in 2013.

TENNESSEE

Running back: The Vols never figured out how to run the ball last year and will now turn to a group of unproven running backs. Marlin Lane has the talent to excel, but he needs to be more consistent. Finding a couple talented backs in this class would help this position tremendously.

Defensive tackle: The Vols need some help inside, and now that they are moving to the 3-4, getting quality nose guards is a must for Tennessee. Adding some girth inside will be very important in order to improving this position.

Defensive back: Tennessee will say goodbye to quite a bit of their defensive backs in the next couple of years, so getting a head start on adding to players to both safety and corner would be a plus.

VANDERBILT

Offensive line: The Commodores return the bulk of their offensive line next year, but after that, Vanderbilt will be pretty thin and very young up front. Adding four or five bodies to the offensive line would go a long way for Vanderbilt.

Linebacker: Vanderbilt loses one starter, in Chris Marve, here for next season, but the year after will see a lot of turnover at the position, with four rising seniors on the roster.

Defensive end: Two starters — Tim Fugger and T.J. Greenstone — are gone and Vanderbilt will lose a handful more after the 2012 season. Getting some help at this position is another must for coach James Franklin.

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