There is a reason that the Southeastern Conference has won the last seven Coaches’ Trophies and it is not because some mastermind has come in and changed the way offense is played in the league (although Texas A&M’s Kevin Sumlin is working on that). It is not because high-powered, high-octane passing offenses lead SEC teams to 50-49, thrilling victories each and every week.
No, it is because that, while offense pleases fans and helps to win games, a grinding, hard-hitting defense wins championships.
In 2012, an Alabama defense led by linebacker CJ Mosely helped carry the Tide to a third BCS national title in a four-year span. Mosely chose to forgo the NFL Draft and thus is back for a senior season after piling up 107 tackles. That was good for sixth in the SEC last year.
The league’s leading tackler, Tennessee linebacker AJ Johnson, is going to be a junior. However, what matters is not his class, but rather his brute force. Not only did Johnson compile an astounding 138 tackles, but he also scored six touchdowns offensively as the Vols’ short-yardage Wildcat quarterback.
Another Tennessee standout, Byron Moore, led the conference with five interceptions a season ago. However, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix is expected to step right into the massive shoes left by departed star cornerback Dee Milliner at Alabama and lock down everything within a 30-yard radius of himself.
Unfortunately, Johnson and Moore’s team (Tennessee) stunk up the field in 2012, just like fellow SEC cellar-dweller Kentucky. However, like their rivals in Knoxville, the Wildcats return a star at the linebacker position. Avery Williamson enters his senior season in Lexington having come up just behind Johnson in 2012 with 135 tackles himself. New head coach Mark Stoops spent years turning Florida State’s defense from subpar to an elite group. Williamson could stand to be a major beneficiary of that coaching in 2013.
Three other linebackers made big names for themselves as freshmen, and two are bitter in-state rivals. Mississippi State’s Benardrick McKinney collected an astounding 102 tackles in his first year against the elite of the nation. The 6-foot-5, 235-pound monster is only going to get better. The same should be said for Denzel Nkemdiche. Nkemdiche led Ole Miss with 82 tackles, but for the 5-foot-11, 203-pound ‘backer, it is all about his motor.
Then there is Georgia’s Jordan Jenkins. As a mere frosh, Jenkins finished second on the team with five sacks. The 6-foot-3, 237-pounder has the prototypical size to step into Jarvis Jones’ role as pass-rushing force at the linebacker position. Should he do so, he may wind up as one of, if not the, premier defensive players in the nation’s premier conference.
However, we’re not here to talk about embarrassments or reclamation projects or up-and-comers, but championships. Mosley tasted greatness in 2012, but a couple elite defensive superstars are gunning for his and the Tide’s position at the top of the SEC dogpile.
Superstars such as Florida defensive end Dominique Easley. The versatile Easley, at 6-foot-2 and 280 pounds, plays all over the line of scrimmage, disrupting the timing and blocking of opposing offensive linemen. He finished with 8.5 tackles for a loss in 2012.
Superstars such as the one and only Jadeveon Clowney. Clowney entered South Carolina as the nation’s No. 1-overall recruit, and he may leave the program as the No. 1-overall selection in the 2014 NFL Draft. With uber-talented defensive stars such as Jarvis Jones, Kevin Minter, Alec Ogletree, Sam Montgomery, Kevin Minter and Sharrif Floyd all headed to the league this year, Clowney stands alone as the premier pass rusher in the SEC, and entire country.
Or does he?
Will one of the several tackle-happy linebackers make headlines in 2013? Will a stud such as Easley carry the Gators to even greater heights than a Sugar Bowl berth next season?
We simply do not know, Gamedayr Nation, but you might.