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Texas A&M Football

Top to bottom: Ranking the 2020 Southeastern Conference secondaries

June 16, 2020
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To some, it might come as a surprise that in 2019 two of the nation’s top three passing offenses were in the Southeastern Conference.

In fact, three SEC teams — LSU, Alabama and Florida — were ranked among the nation’s top 25. That marked the fourth time in the last six football seasons that the nation’s top 25 passing rankings included three SEC teams.

Quite often, SEC teams finished just outside the top 25.

As the passing game becomes more prominent in the Southeastern Conference, strong secondary play becomes more vital.

That’s also not new to the SEC.

Indeed, in every season since Texas A&M joined the conference in 2012, at least four SEC teams — and as many as six in 2017 — were among the nation’s top 25 in pass defense.

Consequently, nine SEC defensive backs have been selected in the first round in the last five NFL drafts. Many more were second and third-round picks.

Strong secondary play is as much a part of SEC football as huge stadiums, live mascots and high-profile coaches.

With that in mind, here’s a projected ranking for the SEC secondaries in 2020.

Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports
Kirby Smart's Bulldogs ranked fifth in the SEC against the pass in 2019.

1. Georgia: Departed All-American safety J.R. Reed will be missed, but four starters return to a defense that in 2019 ranked fifth in the SEC against the pass. Safety Richard LeCounte tied for the conference’s second-highest interception total. Cornerback Eric Stokes was credited with nine passes defended. Sophomore Lewis Cline fared well when starting the last two games in place of Reed.

2. LSU: The secondary at DBU, as LSU likes to be called, figures to be typically outstanding despite losing NFL second-round draft picks Grant Delpit and Kristian Fulton. Sophomore cornerback Derek Stingley led the SEC in interceptions and passes defended last season, and he may be the best in the country. Senior safety Jacoby Stevens is a proven starter. There’s plenty of other talented DBs waiting their chance to step up. Five-star rated incoming freshman cornerback Elias Ricks‍ is among them.

3. Alabama: Junior Patrick Surtain is the only returning starter on the back end, but that rarely matters at Alabama. The Tide was third in the SEC in pass defense a year ago. Still, adequate replacements are needed for NFL second-round picks Trevon Diggs and Xavier McKinney. Junior college transfer Ronald Williams and junior Josh Jobe will challenge for a corner spot opposite Surtain. There is no shortage of highly regarded safety prospects, including incoming four-star rated freshman Brian Branch. 

4. Florida: Departed cornerback C.J. Henderson, a first-round draft choice, will be missed. However, Marco Wilson is a returning starter and sophomore Kaiir Elam played a lot as a true freshman. The Gators should be fine on the corners. Safeties are solid, too. Shawn Davis was a full-time starter in 2019, and Brad Stewart had multiple starts. Florida’s pass defense projects to at least be as good as last year’s unit that allowed just 14 touchdown passes.

Dale Zanine/USA Today Sports
Last year, the Wildcats were the best at defending the pass against SEC teams, and return three starters in the secondary. 

5. Tennessee: All-SEC safety Nigel Warrior is now in the NFL, but three starters are back for the Volunteers. Corner Bryce Thompson and nickel back Shawn Shamburger were full-time starters in 2019. Cornerback Alontae Taylor and safeties Jaylen McCollough and Theo Jackson both had four starts.

6. Kentucky: At first glance, the Wildcats may appear grossly underrated. Last season, Kentucky led the SEC in pass defense and allowed only nine touchdown passes — the fewest in the conference. Further, free safety Yusuf Corker heads a list of three full-time returning starters in the third level. The apprehension comes from who the Wildcats faced in 2019. Ten of Kentucky’s 12 FBS opponents were ranked between 65th and 115th in passing offense. Four were 103rd or worse.

7. Texas A&M: The Aggies could significantly improve a pass defense that allowed 29 pass plays of 20 yards or more in 2019. Sophomore Demani Richardson is an All-SEC contender at safety. Cornerback Elijah Blades is expected to be recovered from a shoulder injury that hampered him last season. However, the Aggies struggled at cornerback, and safety Leon O’Neal showed a tendency to break assignments. Two strong recruiting classes have upgraded the talent. Still, the Aggies are largely counting on unproven players to bolster the secondary.

8. Missouri: Cornerback Jarvis Ware and safeties Tyree Gillespie and Joshua Bledsoe return in a secondary that was second in the SEC in pass defense. There is still something to prove, though. Last season, Mizzou faced just one Power 5 quarterback who was ranked among the nation’s top 50 passers (No. 33 Kyle Trask of Florida).

9. South Carolina: All-SEC DB Israel Mukamu is projected by some as a future first-round draft choice. He and Jaycee Horn are returning starters on the corners. Safeties R.J. Roderick and Jammie Robinson are also returning starters, so the Gamecocks are heavy on experience. However, they allowed 23 touchdown passes in ’19. Twelve of those were given up to Tua Tagavailoa, Trevor Lawrence and Kyle Trask.

Lia Musgrave, TexAgs
Guz Malzahn must find a way to replace lost production from draft picks Noah Igbinohgene and Daniel Thomas. 

10. Auburn: Christian Tutt, who played the ‘star’ role into secondary, is the Tigers’ only returning starter. Replacements must be found for cornerback Noah Igbinohgene, a first-round pick, and safety Daniel Thomas, a fifth-round selection. Corner Roger McCreary and safety Smoke Monday are 2019 backups that project as strong contenders for starting roles. The Tigers may also be counting on junior college transfer Marco Domio to take over a corner spot.

11. Arkansas: Three starters return, though seventh-round NFL draft pick Kamren Curl was the best in the secondary last season. Replacing his productivity won’t be easy.

12. Mississippi State: Heavy-hitting safety C.J. Morgan is the only returning starter. Gone to the NFL are third-round pick Cameron Dantzler and seventh-round pick Brian Cole. Even with them in the lineup, the Bulldogs allowed almost 250 passing yards per game in 2019. Major impacts are needed from safety Marcus Murphy and junior college transfer cornerback Fred Peters.

13. Vanderbilt: Grad student LaDarius Wiley posted a team-leading 88 tackles at safety last season. Cornerback Joejuan Williams was credited with 10 passes defended. That’s the good news. The bad news? The Commodores allowed 23 touchdowns and managed only six interceptions last season. As is typically the case at Vandy, there is very little proven depth in Nashville.

14. Ole Miss: Seven Ole Miss opponents exceeded 300 passing yards last season. Southeastern Louisiana was among them. Two starters must be replaced. Perhaps there will be addition by subtraction.

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Top to bottom: Ranking the 2020 Southeastern Conference secondaries

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