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UCLA COACH RICK NEUHEISEL POSED A FASCINATING QUESTION DURING A CONVERSATION IN THE summer of 2010. Where, Neuheisel asked, can a coach go to find the best defensive linemen? Neuheisel had spent the off-season trying to replace star tackle Brian Price, so he knew the challenge of finding a mammoth space-eater who could hang with an elite sprinter for the first 10 meters of a race. Neuheisel wondered aloud if there is an area of the country that produces more quick, agile 300-pound tackles and blazing-fast 275-pound ends than anywhere else. Neuheisel had good reason to ask. To a man, coaches say an elite defensive lineman is the toughest prospect to find and also the biggest help to a program. It turns out that one region consistently produces a higher percentage of elite defensive linemen, and anyone who has watched the past five BCS title games should have an idea where to point to on the map.
An SEC team won each of those games, thanks in large part to overwhelming defensive line play from native Southerners such as LSU's Glenn Dorsey, Florida's Carlos Dunlap and Alabama's Marcell Dareus. A dominant defensive lineman can affect a game as much as a great quarterback. If one (or two) offensive linemen can't block a defensive tackle, he'll make every run implode. If an offensive tackle gets buzzed by the same defensive end on every play, the offense will have to neuter or even abandon its passing game.
The SEC dominates on college football's grandest stage because it has the best defensive linemen. In Alabama's BCS title game win against Texas for the 2009 championship, Dareus made the game-altering play when he knocked out Texas quarterback Colt McCoy with a sack on the Horns' first possession. Dareus later returned an interception for a touchdown. Last January, Auburn defensive tackle Nick Fairley may have saved the national title for the Tigers when he blew up a fourth-and-goal run late in the third quarter with Auburn up eight. The Ducks ran a zone-read play with Kenjon Barner, but Fairley lifted Oregon center Jordan Holmes and threw him into Barner, allowing several Tigers to swarm Barner short of the goal line. "I don't know how many guys like Nick are out there," Auburn coach Gene Chizik said the next morning. "We are blessed to have him. They don't come along very often." (Fairley's now with the NFL's Lions.)
According to the data, they come along more often in SEC country. The NFL's Darwinian nature allows us to be reasonably confident that the defensive linemen on rosters now are the best the world has to offer at the moment. (On page 80 of this magazine, effusive Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt goes so far as to say that the world's best athletes "are on the SEC defensive line.") Logging the high school hometowns of all 309 NFL defensive linemen who ended the 2010 season on a roster or on injured reserve is revealing. Despite the fact that the region accounts for only 22.1% of the nation's population, 43% of the NFL's defensive linemen went to high school in these 10 states: Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee.
The South has continued to pump out big, quick, nasty defensive linemen. This season Alabama coaches hope senior noseguard Josh Chapman (Hoover, Ala.) will clog two gaps at a time and allow the Crimson Tide's linebackers to make tackles in the BCS title game. LSU coaches hope freshman defensive tackle Anthony Johnson (New Orleans) will carry on the legacy of Dorsey (Gonzales, La.) and Drake Nevis (Marrero, La.) and return the Tigers to national title contention. South Carolina hopes freshman defensive end Jadeveon Clowney (Rock Hill, S.C.), the sport's most sought-after recruit in the class of 2011, will help the Gamecocks win their first SEC title.
Florida coach Will Muschamp calls the SEC a "line-of-scrimmage league" because the linemen are so much more dominant. Mississippi State's Dan Mullen believes the difference between the SEC and other conferences is the across-the-board quality on the D-line. "When you go around the country, a lot of people have some good D-lines or some good defensive linemen," Mullen says. "Everybody in the SEC has good defensive linemen."
WHY ARE THE NATIVE DEFENSIVE LINEMEN SO GOOD in SEC country? Maybe it has something to do with the fact that the region has some of the nation's highest obesity rates, but the South seems to have more athletic wide-bodies than anywhere else. Former Alabama nosetackle Terrence Cody (2008--09) could dunk a basketball even when he weighed almost 400 pounds. Mississippi State has a 295-pound defensive tackle, Fletcher Cox, who ran on his high school's 4 × 100 relay team. (Cox was 60 pounds lighter in high school, but his speed has hardly decreased.) "When we go around looking for defensive linemen, we look for guys that are athletes," says Mullen. "I'll be honest. It's much easier to teach size. It's a lot easier to teach putting on weight and getting stronger than it is to teach athleticism."
It should come as no surprise that the SEC's highest-ranked teams also have the best defensive lines. LSU and Alabama, the West favorites, have built their reputations on their power in the trenches. In Baton Rouge, 300-pound Michael Brockers will be Mr. Inside while end Sam Montgomery should terrorize quarterbacks from the outside. In Tuscaloosa, Chapman will command double teams while Courtney Upshaw, who plays a hybrid defensive end--linebacker position called Jack, will wreak havoc outside. Meanwhile, East favorite South Carolina hopes Clowney lives up to his hype and provides a nightmarish bookend for Devin Taylor, a 2010 first-team All-SEC selection.
The team that wins the SEC will be the one that controls the line of scrimmage. If the past five years are any indication, that team will go on to play for the national title. And unless the best of the rest of the nation can figure out how to block an SEC defensive line, the crystal football will remain in the SEC.