Print and Go Back ESPN.com: SEC [Print without images]

Friday, December 14, 2012
Poll: Who had the best defense in 2012?

By Edward Aschoff

The SEC is a conference founded on defensive principles. If you don't have a top-notch defense, chances are you won't rise to the top.

There are exceptions (Auburn in 2010), but for the most part, when you look at five of the past six national champions from this league you see a very good defense as well.

Last year, the SEC crowded the top 10 nationally when it came to defenses. This year, Alabama, Florida, LSU, South Carolina and Vanderbilt are all ranked within the top 17 in total defense.

But which team had the best defense in the SEC this season?

Was it Alabama, which currently owns the nation's top statistical defense? The Crimson Tide gave up 246 total yards of offense a game and allowed 4.09 yards per play, which was good enough for second nationally. Alabama also ranked first nationally in rushing defense (79.8 yards per game) and second in scoring defense (10.7).

But this unit had glaring weaknesses in its secondary. The Tide might have ranked sixth overall in pass defense, allowing 166 yards through the air per game, but teams found ways to make big plays on Alabama's less experienced defensive backs. Alabama gave up 400-plus yards to LSU and Texas A&M (the Tide's lone loss) in back-to-back weekends and surrendered 394 yards in its shootout win over Georgia in the SEC title game.

Unlike Alabama, Florida returned just about everyone from a defense that ranked eighth nationally in total defense. This year, the Gators were even more aggressive than last year and finished the regular season ranked fifth in total defense, giving up just 282.6 yards per game and also allowed just 12.9 points per game, which currently ranks third nationally behind Alabama. The most amount of offensive yards the Gators surrendered in a game this year was 363 to Vanderbilt.

The main differences this year compared to 2011 for the Gators defense was the lack of late breakage it showed in games because of poor endurance and the amount of turnovers it forced. Florida forced 29 turnovers in 2012, compared to 14 in 2011. But the Gators didn't register a lot of tackles for loss or sacks on the year.

Even after losing two starting linebackers, the Jim Thorpe Award winner in Morris Claiborne, Heisman Trophy finalist Tyrann Mathieu and defensive tackle Michael Brockers, the Tigers still finished the regular season with a top-10 defense. LSU tied for ninth nationally with 31 takeaways and allowed just 4.5 yards per play. The Tigers finished the season with 30 sacks and averaged 2.5 sacks per game.

LSU didn't surrender 300 yards or more through the first seven games, but did allow more than 400 yards three times in the final five games.

South Carolina quietly had another solid defensive year. The Gamecocks ranked 12th nationally in total defense (312.3) and tied for sixth with 40 sacks on the season. When you have a stud like Jadeveon Clowney directing things up front, its not surprising that South Carolina was so aggressive up front. What's also impressive is that the Gamecocks' young secondary played a lot better than what most expected.

But there were other defenses that played well, too. Vanderbilt ranked 17th nationally and led the SEC with 93 tackles for loss (ranked seventh nationally). The Commodores also ranked 10th nationally in pass defense.

Georgia might have had the most NFL talent on its defense this year and owned the country's No. 8 pass defense. It really came alive in the second half of the season, starting with the Florida game, and seemed to be regaining the elite status it had in 2011. But it gave up 300-plus rushing yards in the final three games, including allowing an SEC championship-record 350 to Alabama.

Or maybe there's another defense you fancy out there ...