1. Alabama Crimson Tide
Alabama’s No. 7 ranked passing defense loses first round NFL draft pick Dee Milliner, but returning from a five-interception campaign is Haha Clinton-Dix. Clinton-Dix joins Vinnie Sunseri (two interceptions, 54 tackles/six for loss), Nick Perry (38 tackles) and Deion Belue (two interceptions, 40 tackles/6.5 for loss) for a formidable and experienced foursome.
New addition Jai Miller makes up for what he lacks in game experience in life experience — the walk-on Miller is a 28-year-old, former professional baseball player. He earned high praise from his teammates during spring workouts. He could provide more depth to an already loaded unit.
2. Florida Gators
Florida had the No. 2 overall passing efficiency defense in 2012, and was among the top turnover-forcing units in the nation. Opponents completed just 52 percent of pass attempts for 2503 yards and a scant seven touchdowns, compared to 20 interceptions. But the loss of safeties Matt Elam and Josh Evans does pose challenges. Five-star cornerback prospect Vernon Hargreaves joins a Gator secondary returning outstanding duo Jaylen Watkins and Marcus Roberson. Do-everything Loucheiz Purifoy is also back in the fold. Should sufficient replacements for Elam and Evans develop, this is among the best secondaries in the nation.
3. Vanderbilt Commodores
Vanderbilt returns one of the most experienced secondaries in the conference, including All-SEC selection Andre Hal. Hal, a senior cornerback, made 48 tackles and defended 14 passes in 2012. With Hal as its leader, the Commodore defense finished No. 6 in defensive pass efficiency last season, following just seven scores through the air, a 53.7 percet completion rating and 2493 total yards. Joining Hal is Vanderbilt’s leading tackler, safety Kenny Ladler. Ladler made 90 tackles and picked off two passes a season ago.
A case for the Commodores cracking the top two could be made, though Vanderbilt does lose interceptions leader Trey Wilson.
4. LSU Tigers
John Chavis’ defense loses Eric Reid and Tharold Simon, but returns the two Jalens: Jalen Collins and Jalen Mills each played significant roles in the Tigers’ No. 28 pass defense during 2012. Mills had a terrific debut season with 57 tackles, two interceptions and seven passes defended.
Mills and Collins both sat out the Tigers’ spring game, as well as safety Ronald Martin. Martin made two interceptions and 35 tackles in 2012.
5. South Carolina Gamecocks
Gone from South Carolina’s outstanding secondary of 2012 is safety D.J. Swearinger, but the Gamecocks return three other starters. Included among the returners is Jimmy Legree, South Carolina’s leader in interceptions last season with three. Strong safety Brison Williams also returns off a two-interception, 52-tackle campaign, as well as Victor Hampton (40 tackles, one sack and interception, six passes broken up).
6. Georgia Bulldogs
Losing Bacarri Rambo, Sanders Commings and Alec Ogletree leaves Todd Grantham with three difficult voids to fill Freshman Tray Matthews is working on one of them. Matthews had an outstanding spring season to take the lead for replacing Rambo. Should he claim the first string spot, Matthews joins cornerback and interceptions leader Damian Swann (four picks, five broken-up passes).
7. Ole Miss Rebels
The Rebel secondary is among the conference’s most experienced entering 2013, returning such notable contributors as Cody Prewitt (80 tackles, five for loss, two interceptions), Charles Sawyer (63 tackles, an interception, eight pass break-ups) and Senquez Golson (36 tackles, three interceptions).
Ole Miss also adds a pair of four-star defensive back recruits, Antonio Conner and Nickolas Brassell. They’ll add depth to a unit with room for improvement; the Rebels gave up over 3200 yards passing in 2012 and allowed opponents to complete nearly 63 percent of their pass attempts.
8. Tennessee Volunteers
Safety Byron Moore was among the nation’s leaders in interceptions a season ago with five in 12 games — a bright spot for a defense that gave up 26 touchdowns in the air and a first down fewer than 3400 yards. But with Moore leading an experienced secondary, UT should see improvement under its new regime. Eric Gordon, Justin Coleman and Jaron Toney join Moore. All three were significant contributors in 2012, combining for 142 tackles and 12 defended passes.
9. Mississippi State Bulldogs
Mississippi State defensive coordinator Geoff Collins enters his new gig with the unenviable task of replacing Darius Slay and Johnthan Banks, two of the best cornerbacks in the SEC a season ago. He does return a strong foundationary player in Nickoe Whitley, however. Whitley came back from a rupture Achilles’ tendon that sidelined him in 2011 to record 80 tackles in 2012. He can make plays in the open field, such as this:
Jamerson Love should move into a more prominent role, but Slay and Banks left two very sizable gaps.
10. Texas A&M Aggies
Mark Snyder’s secondary loses key contributors Steven Terrell and Dustin Harris, but returning are Toney Hurd, Jr. (67 tackles, four for loss) and Deshazor Everett (56 tackles, two interceptions). A pair of highly touted prospects also join the secondary: Tavares Garner and Kameron Miles.
11. Arkansas Razorbacks
Arkansas struggled mightily against the pass a season ago, surrendering over 3400 yards and a 4-to-1 touchdown:interception ratio (24-to-6). In fact, the Razorbacks were the worst ranked passing defense in the SEC.
Rohan Gaines is one of two returning starters for what is one of the more veteran SEC secondaries in 2013 despite its overall youth. Gaines and SEC All-Freshman cornerback Tevin Mitchell gained baptism through fire last season, but should prove better for the wear. Will Hines is another young Hog defensive back who gained invaluable field experience last season.
Arkansas should show tremendous improvement in its pass defense, and could be one of the better secondaries by season’s end.
12. Missouri Tigers
Missouri sustained substantial turnover in its secondary this off-season. That doesn’t bode well for a unit that gave up a 65.1 percent completion rate and 19 touchdowns to just seven interceptions. Gone is the only Tiger defensive back with multiple interceptions, Kip Edwards. Also gone are Zavier Gooden and Kenronte Walker. E.J. Gaines returns though, giving the Mizzou secondary a solid base. Gaines forced two fumbles and broke up 11 passes.
13. Auburn Tigers
The Auburn secondary returns four starters from 2012. Jermaine Whitehead was the most active of the returning defensive backs, recording 86 tackles and breaking up five passes. Joining Whitehead is Jonathon Mincy (57 tackles), Chris Davis (46 tackles) and Trent Fisher. Astoundingly, Fisher was the only Tiger defensive back with an interception in 2012. Only USF had as few team interceptions as Auburn with two.
The Tigers’ inability to force turnovers contributed to the No. 99 pass defense efficiency rank it ended the season sporting, which including a nearly 66 percent opponent completion rate.
14. Kentucky Wildcats
Opposing passing offenses worked over the Kentucky secondary in 2012. Quarterbacks completed better than 67 percent of their attempts against UK’s defense. To make matters more difficult, the Wildcats lose Martavius Neloms. Cody Quinn and J.D. Harmon return, but Kentucky could also be without Ashely Lowery.
Obviously, the long-term health of Lowery, injured in a car accident earlier this month, is more important than the impact his playing (or not) has on the 2013 Wildcats. Still, his possible absence has to be factored when assessing Kentucky’s secondary, and the outlook is murky.