Thomas And Lapoint Preview The SEC: Top Defenses, DPOY Picks

To finish up our SEC season preview, lead writer Aidan Thomas and SEC analyst Nathaniel Lapoint take a look at the defensive side of the ball. Which teams will bring the most fearsome defenses into 2020, and which players will spend all season terrorizing opposing offenses? Let’s take a look at the picks. Also check out the top offenses as well as the power rankings and predictions portion of our SEC preview. 

Top Defenses

Aidan Thomas

  1. Georgia
  2. LSU
  3. Alabama

Nathaniel Lapoint

  1. Georgia
  2. Auburn
  3. Kentucky

There’s a fair amount of disagreement in our rankings of the top defenses. We both have Georgia atop the rankings, but beyond that, there are no similarities. I’m riding Derek Stingley’s talent as a major factor in this decision, taking LSU as the second best defense in the conference, as Georgia’s always-strong defense is a clear choice for #1. Alabama is a bit of a riskier pick, having lost a majority of their game-changing talent, with three of their four players who recorded multiple interceptions in 2020 off to the NFL, as well as their top two leaders in sacks. However, the Tide always have a strong line and seemingly just reload defensively every season, so I put Alabama third. 

In Lapoint’s list, he goes with Georgia at #1, which is certainly a safe pick given their history, returning production, and star power in Richard LeCounte, Monty Rice, and others. After that, he goes with a bit of a darkhorse in the Auburn defense. Many consider Auburn a top-5 unit, although I’m not even that high on the Tigers, but Lapoint is elevating Gus Malzahn’s unit to the second slot of his rankings, after Auburn made defensive coordinator Kevin Steele the highest paid assistant coach with 2.5 million dollars per year. And, sliding in third, Lapoint goes with his trusty Wildcats. He’s remained high on Kentucky throughout the preview process, and he doesn’t waver in going with a Kentucky defense that has been projected anywhere from a top-three unit in the SEC to not even a top-5 defense. Kentucky is really a complete unknown this year, but Lapoint goes with the SEC East squad as his third-best defense in the conference. 

Top Defensive Players

Defensive Player Of The Year

Thomas: Derek Stingley, CB, LSU

Lapoint: Dylan Moss, LB, Alabama 

Aidan ThomasNathaniel Lapoint
Derek Stingley, CB, LSUDylan Moses, LB, Alabama
Richard LeCounte, S, GeorgiaDerek Stingley, CB, LSU
Shane Lee, LB, AlabamaRichard LeCounte, S, Georgia
Israel Mukuamu, CB, South CarolinaNick Bolton, LB, Missouri
Dylan Moses, LB, AlabamaMonty Rice, LB, Georgia

The top three players in our defensive rankings are almost the exact same – with both of us being high on LSU cornerback Derek Stingley and Georgia safety Richard LeCounte. We also each rank an Alabama linebacker in our top three – I went with rising sophomore Shane Lee while Lapoint opted for Dylan Moses, who missed his junior season due to injury. Moses was Lapoint’s pick for SEC defensive Player of the Year, whereas Stingley topped my rankings. If Moses returns to his pre-injury form, then he does become an instant contender for the DPOY award, as he recorded 86 tackles – 10 for loss – and 3.5 sacks two years ago.

After those top three, I opted for more secondary talent, going with Israel Mukuamu from South Carolina before rounding my list out with Moses. I neglected to add a popular pick in Nick Bolton of Missouri, who notched 107 tackles and broke up 8 passes while serving as the rock of a quietly impressive Missouri defense. Lapoint slots Bolton fourth, and polishes off his rankings with Monty Rice, the Georgia linebacker who recorded 89 tackles and 14 QB pressures in 2019.

Heisman Watchlist Feature: Derek Stingley, CB, LSU

The Heisman Trophy has been won by a quarterback in four consecutive seasons, and in nine of the past ten. A quarterback or running back has taken home the hardware every year since 1997, when Charles Woodson, a cornerback and punt returner for Michigan brought the trophy to Ann Arbor. So although including a defensive player on our Heisman watchlist may seem like a long shot, if there’s a star on the other side of the ball to break the defensive drought, it might be LSU sophomore Derek Stingley. Stingley is probably the best athlete on LSU, and there’s even been talk about him being utilized as a two-way player in 2021. But as of now, Stingley resides as the most dangerous returner on LSU’s championship defense, and likely the Tigers’ best chance of keeping the Heisman Trophy in the Bayou. 

Having graduated Patrick Queen and Grant Delpit, LSU head coach Ed Orgeron is well aware that Stingely is the best piece on his 2020 defense, and without all-world Joe Burrow under center, he will need the Baton Rouge product to step up while Myles Brennan adjusts to the brutal life of a SEC quarterback. Orgeron is prepared to utilize Stingley in multiple roles, mixing him into some blitz packages as well as his traditional man-coverage role in LSU’s secondary. The ability to be a jack-of-all-trades defender increases Stingley’s Heisman potential, as edge rushers and linebackers more visibly impact games on every play, and thus they get more Heisman votes. Ohio State edge rusher Chase Young and Georgia linebacker Roquan Smith were the only two defensive players to finish in the top ten of Heisman voting in the previous three seasons. Stingley’s versatile skill-set draws natural comparisons to Notre Dame’s Manti Te’o in 2012, who finished second in Heisman voting, second only to the legendary season of Johnny Manziel. The Irish star finished that year with 113 tackles, 7 interceptions, and 1.5 sacks. Stingley finished last year with six picks and 38 tackles. As the best playmaker for the Tigers in 2020, he should get a chance to boost those numbers significantly. 

Last season, Stingley faced 94 targets, the second most by a cornerback in the nation, but he allowed just a 38.3% catch rate, a top-5 mark in college football. He played his best football towards the end of the season, intercepting Jake Fromm twice in the SEC title game, and recording four tackles and a fumble recovery in the Playoff. Playing in the SEC, Stingley will have some natural chances for Heisman moments – and if he can be the driving force in leading the Tigers back to SEC supremacy, expect him to be up in the Heisman conversation. 

Top Heisman Moment Opportunity
November 21, at Auburn
Finding a Heisman moment is a difficult balance between finding a big game on the schedule and one that brings chances for the candidate to put up big numbers. I think this contest at Auburn is a great chance, as it matches LSU against possibly the best SEC quarterback in Bo Nix, and with Auburn’s balanced offense playing at Jordan-Hare Stadium, Stingley will have a chance to be at his versatile best and stop the Tigers in a critical late season SEC West contest.

Game most likely to trip him up
September 26, vs. Ole Miss
Last year, Ole Miss quarterback John Rhys Plumlee led the Rebels to 37 points against LSU defense. It wasn’t enough to take down Joe Burrow, but it was an extremely impressive performance from the freshman. Ole Miss is not a good team, but Plumlee leads a productive offense for the Rebels, and they could pose some serious issues early in the season for LSU’s defense. It’s a high-risk, low-reward game for Stingley, as a strong performance against a below-average SEC team does little to boost his Heisman chances, but if he struggles against the dynamic Plumlee, it will destroy his limited chances of breaking the stranglehold quarterbacks have on the Heisman Trophy.