SEC: Tyrann Matheiu

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.

SportsNation

Which was the best SEC defense for 2012?

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    37%
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    28%
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    12%
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    15%
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    8%

Discuss (Total votes: 19,972)

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 ...
The dismissal of Tyrann Mathieu has created quite the debate about whether or not LSU should still be considered a legit contender for the national championship.

Yes, Mathieu was a big play waiting to happen whenever he was on the field last year, but was he so special that LSU's chances at competing for and winning a national championship should be considerably hindered? I think not. There's just too much talent on both sides of the ball in Baton Rouge.

Mathieu's playmaking ability and knack for creating turnovers will be deeply missed on defense, as will his ability to generate a huge play in the punt return game, but there are enough pieces to fill in and keep the Tigers in the hunt for multiple championships this season.

By that logic, Mathieue doesn't qualify as one of the SEC's most indispensable players. The Tigers might be better with him, but they certainly aren't slouches without him.

So who are the players teams can't survive without? Who are the most indispensable players for each team in the SEC?

Let's take a look:

ALABAMA
  • AJ McCarron, QB: The Crimson Tide certainly has a wealth of talent on offense, but take McCarron out of the equation and Alabama would be sunk. Last year’s backup, Phillip Sims, transferred to Virginia, and there isn’t any experience behind McCarron. Alabama might have to put its offense in the hands of a freshman if McCarron went down.
ARKANSAS
  • Tyler Wilson, QB: Like Alabama, Arkansas’ offense would suffer without Wilson, who enters the fall as the league’s top quarterback. Wilson not only has elite skill but he’s an exceptional game manager. Backup Brandon Mitchell has game reps under his belt, but he’s still unproven and has spent fall camp working at receiver. Redshirt freshman Brandon Allen could be the future of the position, but is he ready to guide Arkansas through the SEC West?
AUBURN
  • Emory Blake, WR: Blake is one of the league’s best receivers and without him, Auburn lacks a true game-changing receiving threat. The Tigers have depth at wide receiver, but no one has made close to the impact Blake has in the Tigers’ offense. Without him, Auburn’s quarterback might have trouble finding a consistent target outside of tight end Philip Lutzenkirchen.
FLORIDA
  • Mike Gillislee, RB: While he’s had an up-and-down career as a backup thus far, Gillislee has a ton of support from his coaches, who think he’s Florida’s most important offensive player. Florida has two young QBs working this fall and they’ll need all they can get from the running game to help ease the pressure. Gillislee is the best option at running back and without him the Gators would be in trouble.
GEORGIA
  • Kenarious Gates, OT: Aaron Murray might be the face of the program, but the coaches like the potential backup Hutson Mason has. The offensive line, on the other hand, has little room for error and Gates is Georgia’s most talented and versatile lineman. If he were to go down, the Dawgs would have to reorganize an already fragile line and would lose its linchpin up front, causing the offense to regress.
KENTUCKY
  • Larry Warford, OG: Like Georgia, Kentucky can’t afford to lose anyone up front, especially not Warford. He’s the Wildcats’ best lineman and has the ability to move around if needed. This offense already has its issues and there are too many young, inexperienced bodies up front. Losing a talented vet like Warford could cost Kentucky’s offense a lot.
LSU
  • Eric Reid, S: The loss of the Honey Badger will sting, but to lose Reid as well means LSU would be without two All-American talents in its secondary. Reid takes the deep ball away and can make plays all over the field. Take him out of the lineup, and the Tigers would have to turn to sophomore Ronald Martin, who filled in when Reid was hurt last year, and redshirt frosh Micah Eugene.
MISSISSIPPI STATE
  • Gabe Jackson, OG: The Bulldogs’ left guard is the most talented lineman on the team, and if last season proved anything, this line can’t afford to lose a key piece. Injuries rocked this line and Mississippi State’s offense last season. Losing Jackson, who has started 26 games, might be even worse for the Bulldogs and might cause the offense to take another dip in production.
MISSOURI
  • James Franklin, QB: He enjoyed a breakout season last year and enters his first season in the SEC as the Tigers’ most experienced quarterbacks. He’s probably the SEC’s best dual-threat QB as well. Offensive coordinator David Yost said Franklin is so important to Mizzou’s offensive scheme because he’s such a good runner and passer and understands the offense better than anyone. Losing him would put a dent in the Tigers’ first SEC season.
OLE MISS
  • Randall Mackey, WR: The former quarterback has quickly become very popular with Ole Miss’ coaches. They think he’s the Rebels’ most versatile offensive player and could be a nightmare for defenses to defend this fall. He’ll lineup all over, and the Rebels just don’t have anyone else who fits in the offense like Mackey.
SOUTH CAROLINA
  • Connor Shaw, QB: He’s turning more and more into the quarterback Steve Spurrier wants for his offense. Losing him now would be devastating, especially with the unproven players at wide receiver. The Gamecocks have depth at quarterback, but neither Andrew Clifford nor Dylan Thompson have much game experience at all.
TENNESSEE
  • Tyler Bray, QB: The Vols found out the hard way what life would be like without Bray in the lineup last year. Matt Sims and Justin Worley struggled mightily in relief, as the Vols went 1-4 without Bray. During that span, Tennessee scored more than seven points just once. Worley has grown and has solid weapons to work with, but not having Bray could cost Tennessee yet another bowl appearance.
TEXAS A&M
  • Luke Joeckel, OT: He’s one of the league’s top left tackles and is a future first-round draft pick. For a team working with young, inexperienced quarterbacks, losing Joeckel would be devastating. And experience is lacking behind him, as redshirt freshman Nathan Gutekunst is listed the No. 2 left tackle on the depth chart. You might see some rearranging in order to make up for the loss of Joeckel.
VANDERBILT
  • Wesley Johnson, OT: The left tackle is easily Vanderbilt’s top lineman. He can move around if needed and is more than solid at the most important position up front. The Commodores are already struggling with depth along the line, so having to replace Johnson would definitely halt its development and would set Vandy’s offense back in 2012.

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