Where have you gone, Tim Tebow, Cam Newton and Ryan Mallett?
The Southeastern Conference still has plenty of star power this
season. But instead of quarterbacks generating the buzz, it's a
collection of defensive standouts whose impact has already been
felt across the country.
Names like Tyrann Mathieu, Courtney Upshaw and Melvin Ingram
have already into the Heisman Trophy discussion over the past few
weeks. They figure to have staying power, especially since No. 1
LSU with Mathieu and No. 2 Alabama behind Upshaw, Dont'a Hightower
and a host of other talented players continue to march through the
competition on their way to a widely anticipated Nov. 5 clash in
"It's no secret that some of the best defenses in the nation
are in the SEC," Alabama offensive lineman Barrett Jones said.
"It doesn't surprise me to see the defenses in our conference make
plays because they have big-time players."
Jones could be considered an expert on SEC defenses, given who
he faces every day in practice. The Crimson Tide lead the nation in
scoring defense, allowing only 8.4 points per game, and they've
done so in suffocating fashion even against ranked opponents the
last two weeks.
Against the SEC's top scoring offense in Arkansas two weeks ago,
Alabama knocked Razorbacks quarterback Tyler Wilson down over and
over, shut down the underneath passing game with blazing speed and
held the Hogs to just 17 rushing yards on 19 attempts. It was no
fluke: Last week against Florida, the Tide held what was then the
league's top rushing attack to 29 yards on 15 carries.
For the season, Alabama leads the country in allowing only 39.6
yards rushing per game - 1.5 yards per attempt - and it has done
this after losing defensive end Marcell Dareus to the NFL and
didn't even have starting linebacker C.J. Mosley against the
Hightower leads this year's defense that features nine returning
starters from last year with 29 tackles, while Upshaw is tied with
South Carolina's Ingram for the league lead with 7.5 tackles for a
Alabama practices get spiced up when the 6-foot-2, 265-pound
Upshaw uses his speed to close on Trent Richardson, the bruising
225-pound back who is in the Heisman discussion, too.
"He's one of the strongest and biggest guys you'll ever find on
a football field, and he's pretty fast, too," Richardson said.
"When I look at him and know he's blitzing, I'm like, `Maaaaannn!'
You can't cut in practice, so I've got to go toe-to-toe with him.
We're about the same in strength, but that body he's got is
something else. It's not pretty."
The Tide leads the country in scoring defense, and other SEC
teams include LSU (9th), Florida (13th) and Vanderbilt (15th),
which leads the nation in interceptions with 14.
SEC defenses have contributed to the scoring, too, with 18
touchdowns so far this season. South Carolina has the most with
four, while the Commodores have three and Alabama, Auburn, LSU and
Mississippi State two each. Nine SEC teams have scored a defensive
Ingram doesn't have a defensive score for the Gamecocks, but he
did score a 68-yard fake punt against Georgia. The senior has won
the SEC defensive player of the week award twice this season after
leading South Carolina with nine sacks last year, and he earned
plenty of preseason praise from Gamecocks coach Steve Spurrier for
his offseason work.
"In fact, our special teams coach, John Butler, was always
coming and talking about, `Man, this guy's amazing,"' Spurrier
said. "We can't block him on the offensive line in pass rush and
he can catch passes."
More than anyone else, it's the SEC quarterbacks who have paid
the price. The league's signal-callers have by far the worst
average passer rating (108.2) of any Division I conference.
Arkansas leads the league and is seventh nationally with 351.8
passing yards per game and Tennessee is 11th nationally with 336.5.
After that, no SEC team ranks in the top 50.
Overall, passing offense is down this season to 207.1 yards per
game from 225 a year ago. How much of that is due to quarterback
turnover - with Newton and Mallett now in the NFL, for example -
and how much is due to defensive pressure isn't clear. But SEC
defenses have been good no matter who they're playing.
In LSU's non-conference wins, the Tigers slowed Oregon's
fast-paced attack with unrelenting pressure and forced four
turnovers. They forced four more in a win at West Virginia,,
including an interception and forced fumble by Mathieu.
Just a sophomore, Mathieu set the LSU career record for forced
fumbles (9) when he forced two more against Kentucky last week.
Twice this season, he's converted strips into scores - one on punt
coverage and another on a sack.
He was very close last season to former LSU standout Patrick
Peterson, who would always tell Mathieu, "Don't try to be the next
me, be better than me."
Mathieu has done just that so far this season, and count LSU
coach Les Miles in on the defensive-player-for-Heisman talk. No
defensive player has won the award since Charles Woodson in 1997,
but Miles doesn't see any reason why it couldn't happen again -
especially with how SEC defenses have looked this season.
"There are a number of guys with the ability to receive
national awards, and I think Tyrann Mathieu is one of those guys,"
Miles said. "I think a defensive back that has the skills and
abilities that he has should be considered for a national award, if
not the Heisman."