It all starts up front. So if you’re looking ahead to project which teams will have the best defenses in the SEC next season, look no further than the defensive line. Because if they’re on, the linebackers and secondary will be better off for it.
It’s early, granted, and things could change drastically between now and the start of the season, but in the meantime here are our pre-spring rankings at the position:
1. Alabama: The knock on Nick Saban’s defense has long been that its linemen don't get to the quarterback enough, but last season that changed as they had 10 more sacks than the year before. Though they may lack a true star, the line is strong across the board with future NFL tackles A’Shawn Robinson and Jarran Reed in the middle, along with talented edge-rushers in Jonathan Allen, Da’Shawn Hand and Dalvin Tomlinson.
2. Ole Miss: You could really have the Rebs as co-No. 1, but the issue of depth separated these two units. Nonetheless, coach Hugh Freeze has an embarrassment of riches at the position with future first-round draft pick Robert Nkemdiche as the centerpiece. Mix in ends C.J. Johnson and Marquis Haynes, and you’re looking at a defense that could live in opponents’ backfields.
3. Tennessee: In Derek Barnett and Curt Maggitt, you’re looking at two of the league’s top five pass-rushers last season. So it’s safe to say that the Vols are pretty well set up front. If the 2015 signing class pays off and Kahlil McKenzie and Shy Tuttle make an impact, even better for coach Butch Jones.
4. Florida: Losing Dante Fowler Jr. hurts, but getting Jon Bullard to return to school eased that pain, somewhat. Caleb Brantley, Bryan Cox Jr., Joey Ivie and Alex McCalister are all back as well. If CeCe Jefferson can make an impact as a true freshman and Thomas Holley is indeed 100 percent after redshirting last season, they could push the line over the top.
5. Auburn: The Tigers’ D-line struggled last season, but it wasn’t helped any by the season-long absence of Carl Lawson. Now that Lawson is back and Will Muschamp is leading the defense, things are poised to change. With Montravius Adams anchoring the line at tackle, DaVonte Lambert opposite Lawson at end and No. 1 prospect Byron Cowart entering into the fold, the pieces are there to make a significant improvement.
6. Missouri: Markus Golden and Shane Ray are gone, but after so many years producing top D-line prospects, coach Gary Pinkel and his staff get the benefit of the doubt. Plus, they return a nice nucleus in tackles Harold Brantley and Josh Augusta. Charles Harris is poised to come into his own at end and it’s only a matter of time until five-star freshman Terry Beckner Jr. starts making plays.
7. Mississippi State: Three starters are gone (P.J. Jones, Kaleb Eulls, Preston Smith), but experience isn’t a huge concern for Mississippi State because of the way it rotated in so many players at the position last year. New coordinator Manny Diaz will have to develop some talent this offseason, to be sure, but he’ll have the luxury of building around Chris Jones, who is one of the league’s most talented linemen, as well as Ryan Brown and A.J. Jefferson.
8. Georgia: The Bulldogs’ linebackers get most of the love, and rightfully so when you’re talking about Lorenzo Carter, Leonard Floyd and Jordan Jenkins. But the linemen shouldn’t be neglected considering the mix of experience and depth at the position. Seniors Sterling Bailey and Chris Mayes will provide stability, with five-star freshman Trent Thompson potentially working his way into the rotation early.
9. LSU: Ed Orgeron will have his hands full with this group, but what it lacks in depth it has in potential. Christian LaCouture and Davon Godchaux are back at tackle, but with Jermauria Rasco and Danielle Hunter gone, that leaves seldom-used Tashawn Bower, Deondre Clark and Sione Teuhema as the lone incumbents at defensive end.
10. Texas A&M: With John Chavis now leading the Aggie defense, it’s time to see what all that talent is really made of. Sack master Myles Garrett should only get better with experience and incoming five-star freshman Daylon Mack could provide a disruptive force in the middle of the line.
11. Arkansas: With guys like Taiwan Johnson and JaMichael Winston, the talent is there to rebuild on the line. But with Trey Flowers and Darius Philon off to the NFL, there are more questions than answers entering spring practice.
12. South Carolina: The Gamecocks’ D-line was a huge letdown last season with the fewest sacks in the SEC, and there’s not a lot returning to campus that says that will change anytime soon. So, coach Steve Spurrier is betting heavily on some new blood in the form of new co-defensive coordinator Jon Hoke and a handful of mature recruits. The headliner is defensive tackle Dexter Wideman, who spent last year at a military academy getting his grades in order, and ESPN’s No. 2 and No. 3 juco defensive ends, Marquavius Lewis and Dante Sawyer.
13. Kentucky: The Bud Dupree-Za’Darius Smith era is officially over, and now we get to see what Mark Stoops and his staff accomplished on the recruiting trail these past few years. Coveted tackle Matt Elam is now a sophomore, as is four-star end Denzel Ware. If they live up to their high billing and veterans like Jason Hatcher and Jabari Johnson step up, the Wildcats will be in good shape.
14. Vanderbilt: Outside of nose guard Vince Taylor, the Commodores don’t lose much from last year’s defensive line. But outside of Caleb Azubike and Adam Butler, there’s not a lot of production coming back.