A great offense will win any team a few games. A gunslinger under center can easily have the game of his life on any given Saturday and outduel an entire team to pick up a win for his program.
However, at some point, that quarterback will be forced out of his comfort zone. At some point, that signal caller will miss his marks, miss his receivers, and he will throw interceptions.
At some point, a defensive unit will step to the forefront and prove, yet again, that while offense wins games, it is defense that wins championships.
Rarely has that basic tenet of every football coach held more true than in the last seven years. The SEC has dominated the national landscape, not with wide open, spread-out offensive formations with a zillion different routes to run and wrinkles in the blocking scheme. Rather, the conference has raised the crystal ball seven straight times on the strength of practically NFL-ready defensive fronts and the most athletic defensive backfield players in the nation.
In 2012, Alabama won the BCS National title for the third time in a four-year span. Even after losing guys such as Dont’a Hightower to the NFL, the Tide still finished first in the nation with a stout 10.9 points per game against average. Even worse for the rest of the nation, coach Nick Saban returns leader CJ Mosley. The linebacker finished with 107 tackles and should be dying to leave Tuscaloosa a legend following his senior season.
The same could be said, however, for Florida Gators defensive ends Dominique Easley and Ronald Powell. Powell missed all of 2012 with a torn ACL and neither of them have won much of anything in their time in The Swamp — and they’d be the first to tell you that. The Gators defense finished fifth in the country and second in the SEC in 2012, but lost to Georgia and then again to Louisville in the Sugar Bowl. With returners all over the field, it will once again be tough to score on Florida in 2013.
Of all teams, Vanderbilt flexed its defensive muscle in 2012, finishing fifth in the SEC in total defense. Even better news for coach James Franklin is the fact that his top five leading sack producers are all returning for another bruising, battling year.
AJ Johnson of Tennessee led the entire conference with a whopping 138 tackles, but the Vols finished dead last in the SEC in total D in 2012. They return several underclassmen and should be improved, just like Kentucky. The Wildcats’ Avery Williamson tallied 135 tackles, and he and nearly all of his starting mates will be back for more in 2013.
Williamson and Co. will be led by defensive whiz Mark Stoops, taking over the head coaching duties after leading Florida State’s defense to elite status.
LSU and Georgia finished third and sixth, respectively, in total defense in 2012, but both have been hit extremely hard by attrition. The first and second rounds of the upcoming 2013 NFL Draft are going to be littered with defensive guys from both Baton Rouge and Athens.
Texas A&M was supposed to have struggled in the Aggies’ first season in the SEC, but defensive end Damontre Moore bullied the league’s offensive linemen to the tune of 12.5 sacks. He is gone, and finding a replacement will be key in improving a defensive unit that ranked ninth in the SEC in 2012. Fellow newcomer Mizzou has the same problem, losing defensive tackle and resident loud mouth/BAMF Sheldon Richardson a year early to the draft as well.
If coach Hugh Freeze can join leading tackler, linebacker Denzel Nkemdiche with his younger brother, superstar recruit Robert, the Rebels will be a force.
However, no one man is as big of a force as the one and only Jadeveon Clowney of South Carolina. Like Robert Nkemdiche, Clowney stepped on campus as the nation’s top recruit, and only a couple years later he has broken several records and has his sights set on the Heisman Trophy.
But, whether or not Clowney makes his Gamecocks defensive unit the very best in the SEC remains to be seen. We do not know whether Alabama will once again top nearly every defensive category out there, or if a hungry Florida or Vandy team will carry their programs to such great heights and potentially a crystal ball.
But, you might.
You might have a hunch, an inkling, an iota of a hint of a thought, as to which team’s defense is going to be the best in the SEC.
Now is the time to have that thought, that opinion, heard.
We’re just going to come right out and ask it …