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Defensive Strengths and Weaknesses for 2012 SEC

With the college football season being just days away, I sort of got behind on my previews. I’m going to try and run through the defensive previews as quickly as I can. Of course these will be much shorter than the offensive previews, but hopefully we can get a pretty clear picture of what defenses will like to do and how best to attack these defenses. I will of course update these on my sidebar too so keep looking in case you miss one. Let’s get after it!

ALABAMA CRIMSON TIDE

Strengths: Let’s start with the D-Line. Despite the loss of NT Josh Chapman (2nd Team All SEC), the Tide bring back Damion Square (6’3/285lbs) and Jesse Williams (6’4/320lbs) as starters. Williams will likely move to NT from 3-4 DE last season and allow either Ed Stinson (6’4/280lbs) or Quinton Dial (6’6/300lbs) to take over at DE. Square & Williams have 32 starts between them and are hulking interior linemen in a 3-4 scheme. Williams should be an All-American DT this season in the same vein that Terrence Cody & Josh Chapman were. A lot of hype gets throwing around with Alabama’s linebackers and cornerbacks, but Saban is doing an incredible job of putting NFL caliber talent at the 3-4 NT position and dominating on defense. Linebackers should also be a significant strength for Alabama. Despite the loss of Dont’a Hightower & Courtney Upshaw, Alabama brings back CJ Mosley & Nico Johnson. They will be the best ILB combination in the country. Both could be first team All-Americans the way Hightower & Upshaw were in 2011. Xzavier Dickson (6’3/240lbs) and Adrian Hubbard (6’6/240lbs) are the two OLBs in this system. Keep an eye on Hubbard as Saban hasn’t had a legit 6’6-6’7 guy come off the edge. Very intriguing. It’s crazy to think Alabama will be strong at CB after losing guys like S Mark Barron (1st-Team All American), CB Dre Kirkpatrick (1st-Team All SEC) and CB DeQuan Menzie (2nd-Team All American), but the secondary is solid led by CB Dee Milliner & S Robert Lester. Both are All-American candidates with Lester most likely being the best strong safety in college football. Milliner is one of the premier shutdown corners in college football. He’ll be joined by Deion Belue while Vinnie Sunseri will team with Lester. Alabama lost 4 All-Americans last season and 6 All-SEC players. The 2011 defense was historically great evidenced by the 8.2 points allowed average, but this year isn’t going to be much different.

Weaknesses: Pass rush could be a problem for Alabama. Upshaw & Hightower were the main guys here along with DT Nick Gentry and all 3 are gone. There is a lot of pressure on Dickson & Hubbard to pick up the slack at the 3-4 OLB spot, but my guess is Alabama will be fine. I can’t really see a weakness on the defense, but if there is an area of concern for the Crimson Tide entering the 2012 season, it’s the questionable pass rush because these are players we haven’t seen.

Game Plan: Forget running the ball on Alabama. It’s not happening. The D-Line is simply too good and the ILB duo of Mosley & Johnson are going to make teams wish running the ball was outlawed. I also think having Lester & Sunseri as safeties will do a good job of limiting the opposition. That leaves a passing attack. The best you can hope for here is that Dickson & Hubbard completely suck and Alabama can’t get to the passer. That still leaves the QB with the problem of trying to complete passes on the Alabama secondary, but at least he might have time to figure out who to throw the ball to. If Alabama’s pass rush comes through then forget it. There will be no scoring on this defense.

ARKANSAS RAZORBACKS

Strengths: Saying an SEC defense is weak is somewhat misleading because typically SEC defenses are extremely good and only look poor in relation to other SEC defenses. Arkansas doesn’t have any defensive units that stand out but they do have a few good players worth mentioning. DT Bryan Jones (6’2/320lbs) started all 13 games last season and did a pretty good job disrupting things on the inside and should compete for All-SEC honors this season. LB Alonzo Highsmith was a 2nd-Team All SEC player last season, recorded 80 tackles and was 2nd on the team in sacks with 4.5. Breaking into 1st-Team territory for SEC linebackers is going to be practically impossible, but Highsmith is a solid OLB who holds his own. Safety Eric Bennett is also a solid player who was 4th on the team in tackles last season with 74. CB Tevin Mitchell is a solid player but is just a sophomore. The Razorbacks have some solid pieces in place, but no real outstanding individual units. If I had to give them one strength I’d give it to the linebackers. Along with Highsmith, Arkansas will throw out MLB Tenarius Wright who is also a returning starter. Matt Marshall is the other starting LB. As a whole, the linebacking unit is terrible when compared to other SEC squads, but isn’t too bad nationally and is probably Arkansas strongest defensive unit.

Weaknesses: Pass rush is going to be a weakness. Arkansas lost DE Jake Bequette who led the team with 10 sacks last season and was a 3rd round draft pick by the New England Patriots in this past year’s NFL draft. The 6’5/271lbs lineman was a beast to stop and Arkansas is going to suffer for not having a player of his size & ability. The Hogs also lost MLB Jerry Franklin who led the team in tackles last season with 101 and was also a two-time 2nd-Team All SEC linebacker. It’s hard to put a finger on what is weak with Arkansas’s defense. As there aren’t really any strengths, there are only weaknesses. The last time Arkansas returned fewer than 7 starters on defense they allowed 30+PPG! That isn’t a good omen for the Razorbacks considering the expectations this season.

Game Plan: Arkansas runs a 4-3 scheme and after losing both DEs last season, I’d go after their passing defense. The Hogs are most likely going to struggle to put pressure on the QB and if that’s the case there is no reason not to attack the defense through the air. If the one strength of the Arkansas defense is their linebacking crew, then running against them wouldn’t be your first choice. Overall the Arkansas defense isn’t too good so if you want to run against them you’d probably be fine too. It’ll be interesting to see how the Arkansas defense adjusts this season because this program legitimately believes it has a shot at a national championship even with Bobby Petrino not as head coach. The defense is going to be key.

AUBURN TIGERS

Strengths: The biggest strength of the Auburn defense is their D-Line led by 1st Team All SEC DE Corey Lemonier. The 6’4/240lbs lineman led War Eagle last season with 9.5 sacks and 15 QB hurries. Lemonier should be a 1st-Team All SEC player once again in 2012 and will actually contend for an All-American spot! Joining Lemonier is DT Jeffrey Whitaker, DT Kenneth Carter and DE nosa Eguare. All 4 projected starters are juniors meaning the Tigers could be in for an EXTRAORDINARY D-Line in 2013 if all 4 choose to return to Auburn. Eguae has good size at 6’3/260lbs but didn’t record a sack last season. Lemonier is the star here but keep an eye on the DTs. There is a lot of depth there & a guy like sophomore Gabe Wright could have a huge impact. Auburn should also have a fairly strong secondary. The Tigers return both starting CBs in Chris Davids & T’Sharvan Bell & also return SS Demtruce McNeal. Auburn does lose Neiko Thorpe but Erique Florence & Jermaine Whitehead will try to replace him. There aren’t any household names in the secondary, but they do return 3 starters with all 3 of them being upperclassmen. Florence & Whitehead will be fine replacing Thorpe & the secondary should be pretty good.

Weaknesses: The LB unit for Auburn is pretty darn weak. They return a couple of starters in Jonathan Evans & Daren Bates, but both are extremely undersized. Evans is 5’11/225lbs while Bates clocks in at 5’11/211lbs. They are both seniors but most of the running backs in the SEC are bigger than these LBs. Auburn also lost their MLB Eltoro Freeman which means they are going to have to break in a new QB of the defense which makes their overall LB unit a huge question mark entering the 2012 season. Even with the unit being weak, there are a ton of players on the come that will make an impact. Kris Frost, Chris Landrum, Jason Garrett, Cassanova McKinzy & JaViere Mitchell could all play a role this year at the position.

Game Plan: With the LB unit being a big source of weakness in Auburn’s 4-3 scheme, the obvious play to beat Auburn is to run right at them. For the most part the D-Line, especially the ends, & the secondary are going to be Auburn’s two biggest area of strengths so running right through the middle should be the strategic move. Remember too that the strength of the Auburn D-Line is their edge rushers meaning the interior of the D-line is vulnerable along with the linebackers. That means running against Auburn. If War Eagle can figure out a way to completely shut down the run then of course Lemonier can pin his ears back and go to town. Auburn’s rush defense has to step up if the Tigers are going to make a run at the SEC West.

FLORIDA GATORS

Strengths: Florida’s LB unit should be one of the most premiere units in the nation led by LBs Jelani Jenkins & Jonathan Bostic. Neither LB is huge as Jenkins is 6’0/233lbs while Bostic clocks in at 6’1/240lbs, but their production is huge on the field. They both combined last year for 169 tackles, 5 sacks, 11 tackles for loss, 8 passes broken up and an interception by Jenkins for good measure! Both are upperclassmen and both have enormous talent that otherwise would be guaranteed a position as a 1st-Team All Conference player. In the SEC that isn’t necessarily the case with CJ Mosley, Jarvis Jones & Nico Johnson playing those positions. Florida can have one of the best LB units in the nation and still be just 3rd or 4th best in their own conference. I think LB Lerentee McCray is going back to OLB even though DE Ronald Powell is expected to miss time until October with his ACL injury. Florida’s other massive strength should be their secondary where the Gators have never been short on talent & speed. Florida returns all 4 starters from their secondary which includes CBs Marcus Roberson & Jaylen Watkins along with safeties Matt Elam & Josh Evans. All four members have exceptional talent and all are upperclassmen outside of the sophomore Roberson. Elam is the start of the group and should compete for All-SEC honors, but don’t forget about Jeremy Brown who returns from injury to play CB.  Florida’s D-Line is an unquestioned strength, but it isn’t set in stone the way the LBs & DBs are. DEs Ronald Powell & Dominique Easley are both coming off of ACL injuries. Easley tore his at the end of last season so the 6’2/285lbs DE is good to go for 2012, but Powell tore his in the spring game so he won’t be back until October at the earliest. Filling for Powell might be true frosh Dante Fowler who is 6’3/275lbs! True frosh Jonathan Bullard (6’3/265lbs) should see some time too opposite Easley until Powell returns. The DTs are interesting. Returning are starters Omar Hunter & Sharrif Floyd, but JUCO transfer Damien Jacobs (6’3/310lbs) should get plenty of time in the middle. Sophomore Leon Orr and true frosh Dante Phillips might also see their way onto the field. It’s an outstanding mix of players and the real MUST SEE moments will come when Powell returns from injury & we see both him & Fowler both lining up at DE.

Weaknesses: Like Alabama, pass rush might be rough for Florida early on. Powell is out with an ACL injury & Easley is returning from one. The freshman are still freshman until they get some game reps in them. The secondary is a little short on production but remember that most of those guys were first time starters last season and are extremely long on talent. I wouldn’t consider the secondary a weakness simply because there aren’t any household names roaming around the back-7.

Game Plan: I’d use the same game plan as I would for Alabama. Right now with Powell & Easley coming back from injuries and a lot of freshman potentially filling the void, Florida could be susceptible to the passing game. I think the interior defense is too good along with linebacking corps so running against the Gators could be problematic especially with Elam dropping into the box to support the run. The passing defense coudl be a liability though. With questions surrounding the pass rush and a couple of cornerbacks long on talent and short on production, the way to beat Florida is through the air. At least early on. When Powell returns and the frosh get some reps under their belt, there won’t be a weakness to the defense. Better get to Florida early!

GEORGIA BULLDOGS

Strengths: If there is one team in the SEC that might rank right up at the very top with Alabama is Georgia. The Bulldogs have arguably the best LB corps in the country led by 1st Team All American OLB Jarvis Jones. Jones was a BEAST last season recording 13.5 sacks, 70 tackles, 6 tackles for loss and an astounding 49 quarterback hurries! The junior is practically a shoe in for another All-American honor is most likely the best 4-3 OLB in the entire nation! How did USC lose out on this guy? Anchoring the LB corps with Jones are ILBs Mike Gilliard & Alec Ogletree. Both upperclassmen, the ILB duo has 24 starts between them, combined for 117 tackles last season and average 6’3/230lbs. The Bulldogs allowed just 3.2 rushing yards per carry last season with Gilliard & Ogletree having a huge role in that tiny number. The D-Line should also be one of the very best in the nation. Remember that DC Todd Grantham switched UGA to a 3-4 system in 2010 and this will be Georgia’s 3rd year now under a new defensive scheme. All 3 D-Linemen are back from a season ago let by NT John Jenkins who is a MOUNTAIN at 6’3/351lbs! Flanking Jenkins will be DEs Abry Jones (6’3/310lbs) & Cornelius Washington (6’4/270lbs). What really separates Jones & Washington is their ability to get to the QB. They combined for 9 sacks last season and 49 QB hurries! Not to be left out, Georgia’s secondary ranks with the very best in the entire nation. Georgia returns 3 starters from a season ago with all 4 projected starters being seniors! S Baccari Rambo led the team in interceptions last season and was a 1st-Team All American while CBs Branden Smith & Sanders Commings should be in the running for All-SEC honors!

Weaknesses: There isn’t a single weakness. Jenkins, Jones & Rambo should all be 1st Team All-Americans this season. Given that Alabama has at least a small question at their ability to get production from their new OLBs, you would have to consider this Georgia defense to be the best in the SEC and thus the very best in the entire country!

Game Plan: Pray for injuries. Georgia ranked 23rd in the nation last season in scoring defense, allowing 20.6ppg. They ranked 5th in total defense, allowing 277.2 yards per game. The scoring defense is going to be much better because I’m not entirely sure how you score on Georgia, but the only place to go on total defense is to be the very best team in the country. I think we’ll see that Florida State might have something to say about having the best defense in the nation, and I’m sure we haven’t heard the last from LSU or Alabama, but right now it would seem UGA will field the finest collegiate defense we’ll see in 2012.

KENTUCKY WILDCATS

Strengths: That whole bit about being a “bad” SEC defense being a relative term doesn’t apply to the Wildcats. Their defense is terrible. Safety Martavius Neloms is the one standout player Kentucky has. At 6’1/190lbs, Neloms recorded 71 tackles last season which ranked 3rd on the team. Kentucky has some interesting defensive ends. Collins Ukwu is 6’5/260lbs while Alvin Dupree is a converted TE who is 6’4/250lbs. That is some pretty nice size on the edge although neither has shown to be much of a pass rusher. Beyond these three guys, Kentucky is pretty thin, but keep an eye on that pass rush as it could be intriguing if the guys on the edge play to their size.

Weaknesses: The linebackers are absolutely brutal. That will happen after losing guys like Danny Trevathan & Winston Guy. Both guys were NFL draft picks and both combined for 263 tackles a year ago! Trevathan led the team in sacks with 3 although that isn’t saying much seeing that UK had only 20 sacks all season! All 3 projected starting LBs are new in Avery Wiliamsom (6’1/245lbs), Malcolm McDuffen (6’3/216lbs) & Miles Simpson (6’2/223lbs). Not a one of this trio is exceptionally talented although Simpson is probably more athletically gifted than the other two. Kentucky also welcomes in 2 new cornerbacks in rFR Marcus Caffey & senior Cartier Rice. Free safety Mikie Benton is a bit undersized at 5’11/195lbs and the back-7 is just a huge weakness for the Wildcats outside of Neloms. Up front UK is interesting as I said with their DEs and they do have their starting DTs returning in Mister Cobble (6’1/331lbs) & Donte Rumph (6’3/315lbs). Both are just OK players and nothing to write home about. HC Joker Phillips brought in a ton of defensive recruits in the 2012 class so I’m sure Kentucky is basically on the brink of completely overhauling the defense, which probably isn’t a bad idea. What is a bad idea is for Phillips to undertake such a huge proposition after turning in back-to-back losing seasons in his first two years in Lexington. Things aren’t going to get better for Joker for the next two years it would seem and how long can an SEC school be expected to get run over at every turn?

Game Plan: Take your pick. The back-7 is atrocious so teams should have a field day passing, but teams shouldn’t have any problems running on Kentucky either after UK lost their top 2 leading tacklers who also happened to have been linebackers. If Kentucky has a strength it might be Ukwu & Dupree on the edge, but if they get up the field fast, it takes them out of the play which will hurt if teams try to run against them. Because of that and the huge losses at LB, I’d say the best way to attack UK is on the ground, but an aerial assault will work just as well unless Ukwu & Dupree turn into Justin Tuck & Demarcus Ware overnight. Kentucky actually represents what an SEC defense is NOT supposed to look like!

LSU TIGERS

Strengths: LSU’s D-Line might be the best in the nation headlined by 1st-Team All American DE Sam Montgomery (6’4/250lbs). Montgomery is practically a shoe in to be 1st-Team All American for the 2nd straight year which is an automatic ticket to being a 1st Round NFL Draft pick in the 2013 draft although Montgomery would actually have another year of eligibility left! With how dominant Montgomery is, it’s easy to forget about DE Barkevious Mingo. The 6’5/240lbs junior should be in the hunt for All-American status himself and gives LSU two pass rushers who can take over games completely. Anthony Johnson & Bennie Logan will be the DTs and all 4 D-Linemen will be in the running for 1st-Team All SEC. DT Michael Brockers will be missed, but the talent is so embarrassing along the line, LSU should be able to dominate like last season even with a players like Brockers moving on to the NFL. LSU’s secondary should also be a significant strength. Losing Tyrann Mathieu is a blow, but Mathiew is a better roving player who is able to ball hawk in ways other people can’t. Being able to freelance is where Mathieu is used best. The 5’8/175lbs CB wasn’t a great cover guy and thus LSU won’t miss him nearly as much as the hype machine will. CB Tharold Simon was a much better pure cover corner and will now have all eyes on him. Getting safety Eric Reid back is also a plus as I believe him to have as much ball hawking skills as Mathieu and is in a much bigger package at 6’2/210lbs. Safety Craig Loston will have a tough time replacing Brandon Taylor and losing Morris Claiborne isn’t easy either, but LSU should be more than fine with what they decide to replace Mathieu with.

Weaknesses: The one weakness for LSU could be their LBs. They lose two starters in Ryan Baker & Stefoin Francois with only MLB Kevin Minter returning. Minter (6’2/242lbs) is a decent enough MLB for the Tigers moving forward, but this is an area where HC Les Miles needs to build up a bit. The 2012 Class has 6 linebackers headlined by Kwon Alexander (6’2/220lbs), Ronnie Feist (6’2/225lbs), Lorenzo Phillips (6’2/200lbs) & Lamar Louis (6’0/220lbs). Junios Lamin Barrow & Tahj Jones look to be the starting LBs alongside Minter to open up the season, but don’t be surprised to see the true freshman getting quite a bit of run time for the Tigers as the season progresses. Within a year or two the Bayou Bengals should transform their linebacking unit into one of the very best in the nation given the influx of talent. As of now it’s somewhat of a weakness.

Game Plan: Given the weaknesses of the defense, the best bet for offenses to attack LSU might be to run right at them. LSU’s greatest strengths are going to be their ability to get to the passer and their ball-hawking ability once the ball is in the air. The way to limit those strengths is for the ball to never leave a player’s hands, and for the offense to keep running the football. This is obviously easier said than done, but the linebackers aren’t all that great and maybe there will be some drop off along the interior defensive line without Michael Brockers clogging things up. Loston & Reid can always slide down to support the run game, but that’s better than Reid freelancing on his own. Remember that last season LSU was +20 in TO margin. Teams should try to avoid allowing LSU the opportunity to make plays on the football. It’s a bad recipe. If LSU figures out their LB issues then this looks a lot like Alabama except in a 4-3 package. There won’t be much scoring.

MISSISSIPPI REBELS

Strengths: Ole Miss should be strongest at LB. They return all three starters led by junior MLB Mike Marry. The 6’2/250lbs QB of the defense led the Rebels in tackles last season with 81 and managed to earn a spot on the 3rd-Team All SEC defense! Not too shabby when you consider the depth of linebackers in the SEC. Flanking Marry will be sophomore Serderius Bryant (5’10/225lbs) and Aaron Garbutt (6’2/200lbs). Braynt & Garbutt combined for 112 tackles last season with Garbutt showing an ability to get to the QB. All three LBs are pretty talented guys and despite Bryant being a bit undersized, he made the All SEC Freshman team last season and might be the biggest talent Ole Miss has at the position. Marry should again contend for All-SEC honors and I wouldn’t be surprised to see Bryant or Garbutt get into the conversation either. Another strength for Ole Miss is their safeties. Both Cody Prewitt & Charles Sawyer return as starters. Sawyer was 2nd on the team in tackles last season with 70 while Prewitt worked his way into the starting lineup as a true freshman last season. Even at 5’11/175lbs, Sawyer has shown some incredible ball hawking skills free lancing in the secondary. He came up with 4 picks last year and will be in the hunt for all conference.

Weaknesses: D-Line is going to be a big weakness for the Rebels. The interior D-Line is massively undersized with Uriah Grant (6’0/287lbs) & Bryon Bennett (6’2/294lbs) as the projected starting DTs. DE CJ Johnson is a returning starter but he’s only 6’1/231lbs. He’d be a small LB at a place like Alabama! Possibly even a safety for Nick Saban’s crew! In Oxford he’s an edge DE in a 4-3 scheme! The other DE is Gerald Rivers who has great size at 6’5/250lbs, but not much production during his tenure as a Rebel. True frosh DE Channing Ward is 6’4/250lbs and has an incredible amount of talent. Ole Miss might look to get him into games a lot sooner rather than later given the deficiencies up front. Ole Miss won’t be too successful this season if their D-Line is getting blown off the ball on every snap. Although the safeties in the secondary look great, the corners have a few questions. CB Wes Pendleton is the lone returning starter, but he wasn’t fantastic last season. The other projected starting CB is sophomore Senquez Golson who at 5’8/170lbs is awfully small to be a CB and pretty inexperienced. HC Hugh Freeze brought in a couple of corners in true frosh Trae Elston and JC transfer Dehendret Collins so both might get to see time this year. CB Nickolas Brassell could also play a huge role in the secondary. Arguably the most talented guy on the entire tream, Brassell is also expected to be a starting WR!

Game Plan: Ole Miss has significant size issues along the D-Line and not much of a pass rush coming from undersized DEs. They also have questions at cornerback so the obvious play is to pass on the Rebels has much as humanly possible! Ole Miss is going to be fairly good at LB and in a 4-3 scheme, the LBs have quite a bit of responsibility stopping the run. They’ll need help from the DTs, which might not come, so the pressure on the LBs to stop the run will be great in Oxford this season. The Rebels aren’t the most talented defense in the conference, although they are significantly better than Kentucky. A good offense is going to score on Ole Miss a variety of ways, but the best way to attack Colonel Reb is through the air. If the passing game hammers away at the secondary then that will loosen up the running lanes and then you can simply hammer the Rebels into submission.

MISSISSIPPI ST. BULLDOGS

Strengths: I simply can’t wait to see Mississippi St.’s D-Line in action. The defensive ends are just physical specimens. HC Dan Mullen went out and got the best JUCO player in the nation last season in Denico Autry. The 6’5/260lbs pass rusher recorded 81 tackles & 11 sacks at the JC level last season. He immediately steps in as a junior and starts from the opening kickoff! Opposite Autry is Kaleb Eulls who at 6’4/280lbs is a BEAST on the other side. Just a freshman last season, Eulls ended up being a starting DE. Eulls was more of an edge setter last season in the mold of a 3-4 DE, but with so much attention being thrown Autry’s way, expect Eulls to get some shots in on the QB as well. DTs Josh Boyd (6’3/300lbs) & Quay Evans (6’3/300lbs) have good size & bulk for being 4-3 DTs! They both also show a knack for getting pressure on the QB and recording some sacks. Despite being a true frosh and enrolling early, Evans was the star of the Mississippi State spring game. The linebacker position will also be a significant strength for Mississippi State. Cameron Lawrence (6’3/230lbs) led this team in tackles last season with 123 and was a 3rd-Team All SEC defender. Deontae Skinner (6’2/250lbs) also returns as a starter and put in 69 tackles of his own along with 9 tackles for loss which trailed on Fletcher Cox for the team lead! It’s almost impossible to compete for All SEC honors at LB, but Lawrence will do so. Mississippi State’s secondary should also be a strength. The Bulldogs return both starters at CB in Johnthan Banks & Corey Broomfield. Both are seniors with plenty of experience with Banks being a 2nd-Team All SEC CB last year, and is a good bet to be a 1st-Team All American this season which almost certainly means a 1st-Round NFL draft pick in 2013! Safety Nickoe Whitley returns as a starter and was a freshman All-American back in 2010. Dee Arrington joins Whitley as the other safety and he has plenty of talent to burn. MSU has 6 players on defense capable of being all conference along with one of them being an All-American!

Weaknesses: It’s weird to think a team can lose the caliber of player of DT Fletcher Cox and actually get better, but MSU should accomplish that very feat. There simply isn’t a weakness on this defense and if Autry & Eulls show up and play well then it’s going to be exceptionally difficult to score on the Bulldogs. I’m not sure I’d say the defense is as good as Alabama’s or LSU’s or Georgia’s, or Florida’s, but having the 5th best defense in the SEC is like having a top-15 defense! Remember that last season Mississippi State allowed 19.7ppg which was good enough to rank 16th in the nation in scoring defense! Their 350.6 yards allowed made MSU rank 35th in total defense. They are much better this season and Mullen could be in for a 10-2 season if the Bulldogs can take care of business in Starkville!

Game Plan: Although not quite as talented as the top-4 defenses in the SEC, Mississippi St. most resembles Georgia in that there isn’t a weakness on the team. I love the size of this defense. The DEs average 6’5/265lbs. The DTs average 6’3/300lbs! The LBs are all around 6’2/230lbs. The CBs average 6’0 and the safeties average 6’1! The best you can hope for against the Bulldogs is to match strength for strength & hope your offense wins. The D-Line is a little inexperienced as far as new talent is concerned, but I’m very bullish on the big uglies up front. This should be one of the most exciting defenses to watch in college football this season and if the offense can keep up, MSU might have a coming out party in 2012!

MISSOURI TIGERS

Strengths: I’m always a sucker for talent so the biggest strength for the Tigers this season is their D-Line. It’s a grossly inexperienced front-4, but it has the promise to be very very good. DE Kony Ealy has great size at 6’5/260lbs. He’s got a lot of talent & was just a freshman last season. Opposite Ealy is DE Brad Madison who also has good size at 6’4/260lbs and was a 2nd-Team All Big XII player in 2010. NT Sheldon Richardson was an honorable mention Big XII player last year & has great size for the interior at 6’4/300lbs. Lucas Vincent is tother DT who at 6’2/295lbs is a great compliment to Richardson & is just a sophomore. Missouri also has some decent depth with DT Matt Hoch at 6’5/290lbs, DE Clayton Echard (6’5/245lbs), DE Shane Ray (6’3/250lbs) and DT Evan Winston at 6’3/280lbs. Missouri’s LB corps should also be good. LBs Zaviar Gooden & Andrew Wilson are returning starters who combined for 178 tackles last season. Gooden should compete for All SEC honors. MLB Will Ebner isn’t a returning starter but he is a senior. Missouri’s secondary is also going to be pretty good. CBs Kip Edwards & EJ Gaines are both returning starters with Gaines being a 2nd Team All Big XII CB last season. He’ll compete for all-SEC honors this season. Safety Kenronte Walker is also a returning starter while Braylon Edwards is just a sophomore projected to start at safety and was an honorable mention All-Big XII player last season.

Weaknesses: DE Kony Ealy & DT Sheldon Richardson are both extremely talented, but outside of those two, Missouri doesn’t have a ton of talent on defense from a natural talent perspective. That might not have been a huge problem in the Big XII, but it will certainly be an issue in the SEC. Missouri should have a good enough defense to compete in the SEC and HC Gary Pinkel knows what he’s doing. There is going to be plenty of kids in Missouri’s recruiting base that will want to play for an SEC school. Right now the problem is having ELITE level talent at every position on the field. Missouri is still quite a ways from being there.

Game Plan: There is no real significant weakness to Missouri’s defense which makes it akin to both Georgia & Mississippi State. The issue is simply talent. An opposing offense is simply going to have to go man to man against Missouri’s defense and simply beat them. Missouri’s problem this season is simply getting used to a huge upgrade in talent faced by facing SEC offenses! We’ll see how they do and it should be a very interesting year in Columbia.

SOUTH CAROLINA GAMECOCKS

Strengths: Get your popcorn ready! The Gamecocks arguably have the best pair of DEs in the nation in Devin Taylor (6’8/270lbs) & Jadeveon Clowney (6’6/260lbs)! The size is INCREDIBLE! Taylor is a beast. He was a 1st-Team All SEC DE in 2010 and followed that up with an honorable mention placing last season. Clowney was a 2nd-Team All SEC player last year as a freshman and is contention to be a 1st-Team All-American as a sophomore! Both are competing for 1st team All-SEC honors this season. DT Kelcy Quarles is just a sophomore but was freshman All-American last season & is extremely talented at 6’4/290lbs!  SC’s LB unit should also be solid with returning starters Shaq Wilson (5’11/225lbs) & DeVonte Holloman (6’2/241lbs). They combined for 103 tackles last season & Hollomon could very well be a 1st-Team All SEC LB which is no easy task with guys like Nico Johnson, CJ Mosley & Jarvis Jones hanging around! new starter Damario Jeffery is 6’4/233lbs an is extremely talented. SC has extremely talented D-Line & LB players! They should have one of the best front-7s in all of college football.

Weaknesses: South Carolina’s secondary is a major weakness this year after losing guys like CB Stephon Gilmore, CB Marty Markett & CB CC Whitlock. SC also loses DeVonte Holloman who played safety last season. The only returning starter in the secondary is safety DJ Swearinger who was 2nd on the team in tackles last year with 80. New CBs Victor Hampton & Akeem Auguste are projected as starters and are talented guys, but fairly inexperienced. Another weakness for SC is simply moving forward with the losses they had last season. DT Travian Robertson, DE Melvin Ingram, LB Antonio Allen & CB Stephon Gilmore were all NFL draft picks with Ingram & Gilmore going in the first round! That’s a lot of talent to replace.

Game Plan: Obviously you want to attack SC through the air given their weakness in the secondary. This is actually a double edged sword as the secondary gets quite a bit of help from the D-Line & their ability to get pressure on the QB. SC is going to have an incredible rush defense so what offenses really need to do is try to keep Clowney & Taylor in check long enough so the QB can punish the secondary. If SC can fix their problems in the secondary sooner rather than later, they’ll have one of the best defenses in the nation. A common theme in the SEC!

TENNESSEE VOLUNTEERS

Strengths: Tennessee’s biggest strength is going to be their back-7 which returns all 7 starters! Tennessee is never going to lack for talent and their LB corps is a perfect example of this. Sophomores Curt Maggitt (6’3/230lbs) & AJ Johnson (6’3/245lbs) were freshman All-Americans last season and return with 20 starts between them. Johnson was 2nd on the team in tackles last season. LBs Jacques Smith & Herman Lathers are the other starters and are both upperclassmen. All four players are very talented by Johnson should be the one that competes for all conference honors. The secondary also comes back intact led by CB Prentiss Waggner & FS Brian Randolph. Randolph is another sophomore who was a freshman All-American, giving UT 3 of them!  CB Justin Coleman & SS Brent Brewer are the other returning starters. Waggner will compete for all conference honors. UT has an excellent back-7 and it is an obvious strength.

Weaknesses: Tennessee’s biggest weakness is probably their D-Line. They return only one starter in NT Maurice Couch. UT also welcomes in a new DC in Sal Sunseri who is replacing Justin Wilcox who left to be the DC at Washington. The big change here is UT switching to a 3-4 defense. HC Derek Dooley is trying to adjust to the 3-4 on the fly. Keep an eye on JC transfer Daniel McCullers who is 6’6/380lbs!! That’s ridiculous!

Game Plan: It’s really interesting to see Tennessee move to the 3-4 because they have real strengths at linebacker & defensive backs. With more talent at linebacker it makes more sense to get more LBs on the field. I don’t know if this is the mindset of Sunseri as he takes over the defense. If you were going to attack the UT defense this season I think you’d be better off running against them. UT has new starters at DE and the back-7 is going to be pretty strong. You’ll have to deal with the ILBs who are pretty good, but it’s possible the Vols will have problems setting the edge with the 3-4DEs. If this is the case then offenses should run. If that doesn’t work then UT should have a pretty stout defense.

TEXAS A&M AGGIES

Strengths: Texas A&M’s biggest strength will be their linebackers. All 3 starters return led by WLB Sean Porter (6’2/230lbs) & MLB Jonathan Stewart (6’4/237lbs). Porter is a great pass rusher and led the team in sacks last season with 9.5 and second on the team in tackles for loss with 7.5 which earned him 1st-Team All Big XII honors. Stewart led the Aggies in tackles last season with 98 and was honorable mention All-Big XII selection. Joining this duo is senior Steven Jenkins (6’2/220lbs) giving A&M 3 seniors and 3 returning starters. A&M should also have significant strength at the DE position in their 4-3 scheme. Des Spencer Nealy (6’5/277lbs) & Damontre Moore (6’4/245lbs) are returning starters who had an impact last season. Moore was a freshman All-American and an honorable mention Big XII player last season. He led A&M with 9.5 tackles for loss and was second to Porter in sacks. Nealy is a beast on the other side at 6’5 and nearly 280lbs! Nealy did a good job setting the edge last season as the Aggies posted one of the best rushing defensive teams in the nation, ranking 12th last year nationally. Expect A&M to be strong against the run again in 2012. Porter & Moore should be competing for All-SEC honors this season which gives A&M a couple of solid cornerstone players on defense. Porter even has All-Americna potential!

Weaknesses: A&M’s biggest weakness will be their secondary which has only one returning starter in SS Steven Campbell (6’0/201lbs). The Aggies are going to have to replace some very good starters in CB Terrence Frederick & FS Trent Hunter who were both NFL Draft picks. They also lose their other starting CB in Lionel Smith. Senior Dustin Harris (6’0/175lbs) & sophomore Deshazor Everett (6’0/176lbs) are projected to be the starting CBs and they’ll really have to improve as A&M’s passing defense wasn’t incredible last season. FS Howard Matthews is another sophomore who will be stepping in to fill Hunter’ shoes. No matter which way you slice it, Texas A&M has gotten very young & very inexperienced in their secondary for 2012. A&M’s other weakness could be their interior defensive line. New starters NT Kirby Ennis (6’4/286lbs) & DT Jonathan Mathis (6’2/293lbs) are both upperclassmen, but both are a bit undersized without much experience. HC Kevin Sumlin has brought in quite a few D-line prospects in his first year in College Station, but most of them are DE prospects.

Game Plan: Texas A&M’s obvious weakness is their passing defense. The secondary wasn’t fantastic last season as A&M ranked 109th in the nation in passing defense! This year they lose practically all of their good secondary players and replace them with new & inexperienced ones. To a certain degree you can argue that the Aggies are getting rid of players who are worse than the ones coming in and the secondary play could actually be better. On the other hand it could mean Texas A&M could be in for a lot worse season defending the pass. If I’m an opposing offense, I’m going to throw the ball all day long on Texas A&M until they show me they can defend. If not, the aerial assaults they’ll see should remind HC Sumlin of the offenses he coached at Houston!

VANDERBILT COMMODORES

Strengths: Vanderbilt had a breakthrough year last season on defense allowing just 21.6ppg which ranked 29th in the nation! Not too shabby for a team long considered the doormat of the SEC. I’m not sure the Commodores can replicate that feat, but it won’t be for lack of trying. Vanderbilt doesn’t have a single unit that would be considered a strength, but their overall experience should be considered their one strength. All 11 starters for Vandy are upperclassmen with 7 of them being returning starters. Vanderbilt also has some interesting players on defense. DE Walker May is 6’5/245lbs and was on the All-SEC freshman team a couple of years ago. DT Rob Lohr (6’2/290lbs) does a pretty good job of getting to the QB for being an interior D-lineman. LBs Chase Garnham (6’3/230lbs) & Archibald Barnes (6’4/232lbs) have pretty good size in the middle. CB Trey Wilson is also a pretty good corner to have.

Weaknesses: Vandy’s biggest weakness obviously is overall talent. It’s one thing to suck as Indiana in the Big 10 or Kansas to suck in the Big XII. Completely sucking in the SEC is a different matter, and what’s really amazing is that Vanderbilt really isn’t all that bad, but when you play teams like Alabama, Georgia, Florida, Tennessee, South Carolina & Auburn all year long, you wind up with losing records even though you probably would be a bowl team in other conferences. Overall the Commodores are weak when it comes to overall talent, but HC James Franklin had the boys playing very good football in his first season and it’s obvious the players love playing for him. While Vanderbilt’s biggest weakness might be a lack of talent, you can be sure that Franklin is going to get the most out of that talent no matter who he throws out there.

Game Plan: Attacking Vanderbilt’s defense is simply one of overwhelming them man to man. There isn’t one particular area to attack because they have capable players at every position. The problem is that the talent simply isn’t there so they sort of all into the same category right now as Kentucky or Mississippi in that currently the defense can be overwhelmed by talented offenses. From an offensive perspective you simply run your game plan against the Commodores and expect them to fold up. If they don’t then you have to figure out a way to attack them, but for the most part this is all about overwhelming Vanderbilt’s defense with superior talent.

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August 28, 2012 - Posted by | Alabama, Arkansas, Auburn, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, LSU, Mississippi, Mississippi St., Missouri, SEC, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas AM, Vanderbilt

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