By GARY B. GRAVES
AP Sports Writer
Seeing top-ranked Alabama firmly among the national leaders defensively isn’t shocking considering its steady influx of top talent and grooming under Nick Saban.
The pleasant surprise is having some of the Crimson Tide’s West Division brethren representing the Southeastern Conference as well.
Healthy, improved defense has sparked a strong start for No. 25 LSU (4-1), which has won four in a row and is 2-0 in SEC play along with ‘Bama. Ninth-ranked Mississippi (5-0, 1-0) and No. 23 Mississippi State (4-1, 1-1) have also made strides and are within reach of the Tide in the West, as is Auburn (3-2, 1-1).
That group is ranked 19th, 28th, 35th and 37th respectively in total defense and are among eight SEC members in the top 40 of several categories. Defending national champion and No. 2 Georgia is 12th, with No. 13 Kentucky 20th and Missouri 39th.
Arkansas coach Sam Pittman said he believes defensive success begins up front and in the back but notes that good linebackers are the key. Though just about every team follows that approach, he was clearly referring to schools he faces regularly in the West.
“When you look at defenses, you’re trying to find weak spots and mostly (and) just nobody has very many of them,” he said. “And I think that you have 11 good players out there with some of the finest coaching in the country. It’s very difficult to score points.”
LSU’s defensive resurgence is worth noting because the Tigers endured so much hardship while going 6-7 last season.
Injuries decimated their defense, including a season-ending injury to end Ali Gaye last October. They finished in the bottom half in total defense (68th) and points allowed (26.6) and parted ways with coach Ed Orgeron less than two seasons after winning their fourth national championship.
First-year LSU coach Brian Kelly arrived from Notre Dame and brought in a slew of new assistants, including defensive coordinator Matt House from the NFL’s Kansas City Chiefs. He was part of two Super Bowls with a win after the 2019 season, but his extensive resume includes stops at Kentucky, Pittsburgh and North Carolina State.
Even with losing Maason Smith to a season-ending knee injury in the opening loss to Florida State, LSU has quickly adopted House’s aggressive approach. The Tigers are tied for 14th nationally with Kentucky in scoring defense (14.8 points per game), allowing 293.8 yards and lead the SEC in turnover margin at plus-5 with 12 takeaways.
Defensive captain B.J. Ojulari forcied a fumble that defensive back Jay Ward (team-high 25 tackles) returned for a TD to help LSU beat Auburn 21-17 last week.
“I don’t think there’s an offense that he hasn’t seen before,” Kelly said of House. “It doesn’t mean he’s an expert at anything, and he wouldn’t even try to tell you that. But he’s got a pretty good system, and our system of defense is such that it is set up to be flexible against all the offenses that we do run across in the SEC.”
Because so much attention has centered on Will Rogers’ success running coach Mike Leach’s high-octane Air Raid offense, it’s easy to overlook Mississippi State’s solid defense. The Bulldogs are allowing 333 yards per game, including just 118 on the ground (41st).
They’re coming off an opportunistic performance against then-No. 17 Texas A&M, forcing four turnovers in a 42-24 home win. It was an all-around effort featuring two interceptions, including Emmanuel Forbes’ exclamation-point 33-yard return for a touchdown, two fumble recoveries, four sacks and Decamerion Richardson’s 50-yard TD return of Forbes’ blocked field goal.
“I’ve been trying to tell people I feel like we’ve got one of the best defenses in the country,” Bulldogs running back Dillon Johnson said. “Those guys go out there and battle their butts off and make big plays.”
Lane Kiffin and Ole Miss, better known for fast-paced offenses, won their biggest game so far largely with huge defensive plays against then-No. 7 Kentucky. The Rebels’ Austin Keys and Jared Ivey each forced a red-zone fumble in the final three minutes for the 22-19 win. Ole Miss also forced a second-quarter safety.
The Rebels rank seventh nationally allowing just 11.8 points per game. It’s the fewest points Ole Miss has allowed through the first five games since 2014.
Kiffin saw the potential last season and wasn’t surprised, other than how quickly it has come together with new arrivals: “I just think that players that just got here in the summer are starting, so that’s very unique, kind of like free agency in an NBA-type team that hopefully continues to improve.”
Saban hopes for the same thing from a defense giving up just 11 points and 236.4 yards per game. Pass defense has shown the most improvement so far, yielding just 149 yards after 218.1 in 2021.
As the Crimson Tide prepare for Saturday night’s showdown against Texas A&M, the question is whether Heisman Trophy winner Bryce Young (injured shoulder) or backup Jalen Milroe starts behind center. Saban just hopes the defense that has provided opportunities and a lofty ranking in many categories keeps up the good work in a division that demands it.
“The entire group has done a pretty good job of not giving up big plays in the passing game,” Saban said. “That’s always a challenge and something we definitely need to continue to do.”
AP Sports Writers Brett Martel and John Zenor contributed to this report.
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