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Tuesday, November 3, 2009
Making a case for the SEC's best defense

By ESPN.com staff
ESPN.com

Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low

Who has the best defense in the SEC?

If ever there was a loaded question, that’s a loaded question.

Depending on what zip code you’re in, what statistical categories you’re looking at and which game tape you watch, you could get an assortment of different answers.

If you haven’t noticed, there are a few good defenses in this league.

But with November upon us, we’ve narrowed it to four. At least the four defenses that are playing the best right now.

Again, these aren’t necessarily the four most talented defenses or the four defenses with the gaudiest numbers. Rather, they’re the four defenses that are having the greatest impact on the game heading into the final month of the season.

In alphabetical order, they are Alabama, Florida, LSU and Tennessee.

We’ll make a case for each being No. 1:

ALABAMA

Numbers: The Crimson Tide are ranked fourth nationally in total defense (240.9 yards per game), fifth in scoring defense (11.4 points per game) and seventh in third-down efficiency defense (29.8 percent).

Players:Rolando McClain might be the best inside linebacker in college football, and Javier Arenas is one of the most versatile cornerbacks in the SEC. Defensive end Marcell Dareus is a budding star. Linebacker Dont’a Hightower was also an All-SEC caliber performer, but was lost for the season in the Arkansas game with a knee injury.

Scheme: Alabama operates out of a 3-4 scheme and loves to move people around, disguise coverages and come with pressure from all sorts of different angles. Nick Saban’s defenses have always feasted on getting teams into third-and-long situations and then lowering the boom. This defense has done that as well as any.  

Results:If the Crimson Tide are going to win a national title, it will be with their defense. In a lot of ways, this season bears some similarities to the 1992 national championship season when that Alabama defense gained legendary status. The Tide have given up just one touchdown in their last three games, and coming off the bye week, should be rested for LSU on Saturday.

FLORIDA

Numbers: The Gators are ranked second nationally in total defense (236.6 yards per game), second in scoring defense (11 points per game) and second in third-down efficiency defense (24.6 percent).

Players: There are future NFL players all over the field. Take your pick: middle linebacker Brandon Spikes, defensive end Carlos Dunlap. cornerbacks Janoris Jenkins and Joe Haden and safety Major Wright. The Gators returned all but one player from their two-deep in last year’s BCS National Championship Game.

Scheme: Defensive coordinator Charlie Strong uses a traditional 4-3 set, although the Gators like to move Spikes around on passing downs. Sometimes he will line up outside, but he will also line up over the nose occasionally and blitz up the middle. The key to the Gators’ scheme is being so good in man coverage. Strong isn’t afraid to leave Haden and Jenkins out there alone.

Results: The Gators were dominant defensively in their 13-3 win at LSU several weeks ago. They haven’t been quite as dominant the last few weeks. Arkansas moved the ball some on them, and Georgia had some success in the first half. But the Gators just have that knack for coming up with the big play when they need it and lead the SEC with 14 interceptions. They’re getting healthy, too, which is bad news for the rest of the league.

LSU

Numbers: The Tigers are ranked 15th nationally in total defense (293 yards per game), seventh in scoring defense (12.1 points per game) and 68th in third-down efficiency defense (38.7 percent).

Players: Sophomore cornerback Patrick Peterson is one of the best lock-down corners in the SEC. He’s also big enough and physical enough to be a force against the run. Chad Jones has had a big year at free safety, and the Tigers’ defensive front is one of the most underrated in the league.

Scheme: First-year LSU defensive coordinator John Chavis uses a 4-3 base, but often times will go to multiple defensive backs. He moved Harry Coleman from safety to outside linebacker before the season and loves to bring pressure up the middle. He’s also a big believer in his cornerbacks being able to play man coverage.

Results: It’s difficult to find much wrong with anything the Tigers have done defensively the last month. They haven’t given up more than 13 points in their last four games and have played much more instinctively as they’ve gained a better understanding of Chavis’ scheme. It's a defense that's clearly playing its best football heading into the Alabama game on Saturday.

TENNESSEE

Numbers: The Vols are ranked 13th nationally in total defense (281.6 yards per game), 22nd in scoring defense (17.7 points per game) and 13th in third-down efficiency defense (32.2 percent).

Players: Junior Eric Berry is the best safety in college football and likely a top 2 or 3 pick in April’s draft. Tackle Dan Williams has turned his game up and is playing as well as any interior lineman in the league right now. Outside linebacker Rico McCoy is another guy who’s taken his game to another level.

Scheme: Monte Kiffin’s famed “Tampa-2” defense has been plenty effective in the SEC, and Kiffin thinks he’ll be able to do even more once Vols improve their talent and improve their depth in coming years. He’s used Berry a lot more around the line of scrimmage this season. The Vols’ linebackers may blitz on one play and then drop all the way back into coverage on the next.

Results: The Vols have given up just one defensive touchdown in the last three games and allowed just three trips inside their 20-yard line during that span. They don’t give up big plays and are rarely out of position, as evidenced by the fact that they lead the country with fewest plays allowed of longer than 25 yards (5). This is a unit that’s gone from being a good defense to being a great defense.