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.
Tyrann Mathieu, Courtney Upshaw and Melvin Ingram have entered 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 Tuscaloosa.
“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 whom 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 when the Crimson Tide visited the Gators.
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 loss.
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 (block) 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 touchdown.
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 nonconference 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, a cornerback, 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.”
AP sportswriters John Zenor, Teresa Walker, Brett Martel and Pete Iacobelli
contributed to this report.