In just a few weeks, college football will only be a month away. With SEC Media Days going on this week, there will be endless debate about which teams are best suited for success and why that may be. Awards lists are coming out, SIDs are selecting their all-conference teams, and media pundits are making ridiculous predictions just to drum up interest in their respective mediums. As such, RBR has decided to join the fray. Put away the Phil Steele magazines, because it's time for a totally scientific look at the rankings of Alabama's closest foes: the winner-take-all death battle known as the SEC West.
Despite the poor showings last bowl season, the SEC West has decidedly emerged as the best division in college football. There isn't another division around that has the amount of talent, financial investment, and fan support that the Western side of the SEC has. Winning this division has to rank near the top of the college sports achievement list, and for good reason. No other positional group has made more of a difference in the West's (and the SEC's) climb to the top than the defensive line, so there isn't a better place to kick this off.
The Crimson Tide's defensive line will be arguably the best in college football this upcoming season. This shouldn't be a huge surprise, Nick Saban has been bringing in the top talent in college football on a yearly basis, and he placed an emphasis on defensive line talent a few recruiting cycles ago (similar to the recent focus on the secondary). A'Shawn Robinson is the best nose tackle at the college level, as he has the ability to play 2-gap football at an extremely high level. He's a one man run-stuffer, and he has a surprisingly good ability to affect the quarterback as well. Jonathan Allen is another future 1st round draft pick that has an uncanny ability to play both inside and outside on the line. He can line up anywhere, but his ability to play the 3-technique is a great asset to the Tide's line. Jarran Reed is one of the most underrated players in college football as well, as he may be one of the best true run-stuffers in the country. Reed's another guy who will be playing on Sundays. Throw in players like D.J. Pettway, Dalvin Tomlinson, Darren Lake, and Da'Shawn Hand, and you're looking at a ridiculously good defensive front.
2. Ole Miss
The Rebels fell apart pretty badly down the stretch in 2014, but that wasn't the fault of the defensive front. Sure, Arkansas and TCU put up a lot of points, but that was more so because the offense was constantly putting the Rebel defense in terrible positions. A'Shawn Robinson may be the best NT in the country, but Robert Nkemdiche is the best standard defensive tackle in college football. Both will be top ten picks in next year's draft. Nkemdiche is another guy who can play multiple techniques along the line, and his athleticism is extraordinary for a guy his size. At nose tackle, Ole Miss returns two guys with a ton of experience: Isaac Gross and Woodrow Hamilton. Gross has 8.0 TFL last season from the nose, which is not easy to do (Robinson had 6.5, for comparison). Those three guys give Ole Miss a strong trio on the interior.
On the edge, Ole Miss will be lead by the speedy, yet slender (6'3, 220) sophomore Marquis Haynes. As a freshman last season, Haynes did a great job rushing the passer from the weakside end, registering 7.5 sacks on the year. He also created a good amount of havoc, adding 9.0 TFL and 3 forced fumbles. On the strongside, experienced ends Fadol Brown and Channing Ward will split time, as both do a solid job playing the more traditional 5 technique. The Rebels don't have the depth Alabama does, but this is a top 10 defensive line in college football.
Auburn's defensive line was last seen getting mauled by the Wisconsin Badgers in the Outback Bowl, but there are a lot of reasons to think that won't be the case this season. To start, Carl Lawson returns to the line-up after missing all of last season with a knee injury. As a freshman, Lawson picked up 7.5 TFL and 4.0 sacks off the bench. With Will Muschamp using him to man his trademark "Buck" position- a defensive end/linebacker hybrid- Lawson is going to have a huge season this year, especially rushing the passer. Lawson will likely be a 1st round draft pick next spring, but he might not be the only one on Auburn's line that will earn that distinction. DT Montravius Adams has been a real force for the Tigers the last two years. Adams finished with 8.0 TFL and 3.0 sacks from the interior, despite being constantly double-teamed by opposing offenses. With an increased focus being placed on Auburn's edge rushers this season, expect Adams to show off his high motor in getting pressure on the quarterback.
Another reason to expect Auburn to improve this season is the addition of one of the best newcomers in college football, freshman Byron Cowart. While Lawson and Adams will be playing on Sundays in 2016, Cowart will be continuing to develop his legacy as a stud pass rusher in Muschamp's defense. DeVonte Lambert is a solid defensive end as well, and Dontavious Russell looks primed to have a big year on the interior for Auburn. However, the Tigers don't have much behind those five guys, so depth will be a concern, especially at tackle. But the combination of Will Muschamp and the freak athletes that are Lawson, Adams, and Cowart will make this a force to be reckoned with, especially for opposing quarterbacks.
The Razorbacks had one of the most underrated defensive lines in the country last season; they were really good. The question is whether or not they can continue to play at that level after losing their best end and tackle in Trey Flowers (15.5 TFL, 6.0 sacks) and Darius Philon (11.5 TFL, 4.5 sacks) to the NFL. However, what the Hogs lack in play-makers, they more than make up for in depth. Unlike Auburn, who will wreak havoc with a few stud athletes, the Razorbacks will play really solid defense up front with a team-wide wall of solid players. Bret Bielema's group is the only other group outside of Tuscaloosa that can legitimately go two-deep at each defensive tackle position without much drop-off. Bijhon Jackson and Taiwan Johnson lead the way inside. Johnson had 8.0 TFL and 4.5 sacks himself last season, and Jackson has tremendous upside as an interior defender, especially as a run-stuffer. JUCO transfer Jeremiah Ledbetter should be one of the better newcomers this season, and combining him with three year letterman Demarcus Hodge off the bench will give Arkansas a deep defensive tackle group.
JaMichael Winston and Deatrich Wise Jr. are both solid players on the edge, and Wise in particular has the potential to breakout this season. He only had 5.0 tackles in limited playing time last season, but 3.0 of them were TFL, and he also had 2.0 sacks. The Hogs will need someone like Anthony Brown or Tevin Beanum to step up off the bench on the outside though.
It seems sacrilegious to place the LSU Tigers anywhere other than the top couple of spots, but here we are. Truthfully, there is no better reason for LSU's recent fade in the SEC than the lessened production along the defensive line. Les Miles' program used to be littered with All-American talents, from Glenn Dorsey to Michael Brockers to Barkevious Mingo. LSU has been an NFL factory along the defensive front for over a decade; it was only a matter of time before that attrition finally caught up to the Bayou Bengals.
On the inside, LSU returns both starters at tackle in Christian Lacouture and Davon Godchaux. Both players are strong, experienced players who provide the foundation for the LSU run defense at the 1-tech and 3-tech. But LSU lacks the depth in the interior that used to be a staple of Les Miles' program. The ends are where LSU will really be hurting this season though. Gone are Danielle Hunter and Jermauria Rasco, who were responsible for a combined 20.5 TFL and 5.5 sacks last season. LSU was surprisingly poor at rushing the passer last season, and losing their best two at the job won't help.Tashawn Bower and Lewis Neal look to be the two guys that will get the starting nod, but there is a lot of uncertainty and lack of production from the group of ends on the LSU roster. Bower has the make-up of a typical stud LSU defensive end, able to both set the edge in run defense and get after the quarterback in the passing game, but he has yet to turn that into real production. He could be LSU's biggest difference-maker outside of whoever ends up being the quarterback.
6. Mississippi State
Dan Mullen has always gotten good production from his big guys up front, but the amount of experience and talent he lost from last season's team may just be too much. Preston Brown, Kaleb Eulls, and P.J. Jones have all moved on, and that is a heck of a lot of production to have to make up for. State's cupboard isn't completely bare though, as the Bulldogs do have three other guys who made significant impacts last season as well. At tackle, the former 5-star Chris Jones looks to reach his full potential this season. He's made big time contributions here and there, but he needs to work on playing at a high level more consistently. If he does, the Bulldogs will be extremely grateful for it, because the rest of the interior is full of inexperience and question marks.
On the edge, Ryan Brown and A.J. Jefferson give Mississippi State two good players who they can rely on. The two combined for 14.0 TFL and 6.0 sacks last season. Their experience and leadership will be key for Mississippi State up front, as the Bulldogs lost a lot of older guys that really created the identity of the gritty front seven last season. Look for guys like Nelson Adams, Will Coleman, and Torrey Dale to try and provide some depth along the line.
7. Texas A&M
All conversations with the A&M defensive line must begin with Myles Garrett, the stud pass rushing defensive end for the Aggies. Garrett set the SEC single season record for sacks by a freshman last season, and he looks to improve on that number in John Chavis' scheme. However, as good of a pass rusher as Garrett is, he lacks a bit in run defense, which seems to be a consistent theme with Texas A&M. The Aggies have been soft against the run every year since they lost a large group of hardened vets from the 2012 defense. Chavis is a great coordinator, no doubt, but he isn't a miracle worker.
Alonzo Williams, Zaycoven Henderson, and Hardreck Walker have plenty of experience along the interior of the defensive line, but that may not be a good thing. Williams did have 5.5 TFL and 4.5 sacks last season, and he will be counted on to lead this group into the Chavis era in College Station. Fortunately for Aggie fans, Daylon Mack, a superstar DT prospect, will make his impact felt immediately up front. By that same token though, relying on a true freshman to step up and possibly be a day-one starter on the interior of the defensive line doesn't usually bode well in the SEC.
Working back towards the edge though, A&M may finally get the kind of production they've been hoping to get from veterans Daeshon Hall and Julian Obioha under the guidance of Chavis. The two combined for 11.0 TFL and 5.5 sacks in 2014, and have the kind of long, athletic bodies that Chavis loves to utilize. If Garrett improves on his consistency in the run game, and Hall and Obioha can play up to their potential, A&M could have a really good trio of ends. But the tackle position still doesn't look good, and the run defense was one of the worst in college football last season, so they will have to prove themselves to move up.