My co-author, Hunter Turner, -- who is presently immersed in his netflix queue in preparation for next week's MSU movie reference -- and I arrived at the below rankings with a highly complicated methodology that involves College Football Stats, the 2013 defensive stats from Bill Connelly, Football Outsiders' advanced metrics, Phil Steele's returning starters data, several highly competitive rounds of
rock, paper, scissors Rochambeau, gallons of illicitly procured moonshine, an almost complete collection of Sailor Moon anime, and loads of snark.
Apparently other people (some of whom we like) are writing ballots as well, so feel free to peruse and mock the contents mercilessly: Not as funny or good looking as us, but still a pretty good ranking, Basketball fans, Old South fetishists, and Steve Taneyhill groupies.
Without further ado, we present for your convenience, entertainment, and education the Rocky Top Talk linebacker rankings for 2014:
This is an insanely talented linebacking unit. But this is also the University of Georgia, an institution known for nothing if not taking insane defensive talent and coddling it into a weak and generally forgettable defense as a whole. What is it about Athens that turns ostensibly tough, scrappy alley cats into Garfield? Does Michael Stipe come back to campus to perform Shiny Happy People before every practice? Does Ryan Seacrest greet all incoming defensive players at the Arches as they arrive on campus? These are options we are simply unable to rule out at this point.
"KNOX COUNTY LEVEL ORANGE ALERT!!!!!! Rocky Top Talk did not rank Alabama's linebackers as being the best in the SEC. All Oak Trees are to be immediately barricaded, and all former SEC starting QBs are placed on house arrest until further notice."
Bama fans craaaaay.
Bama only has two proven returning linebackers in run-stopping thumper Trey DePriest and mediocre pass-rusher Denzel Devall, but here's the thing about recruiting that we keep harping on: while individual player ratings are highly inaccurate, ratings aggregated across an entire recruiting class are pretty darn meaningful. We don't know which of the horde of blue chips on campus will produce, but adult Osh Kosh model Kirby Smart should be able to find two decent starters out of a group that includes Dillon Lee (I can't believe the children of people who watched 90210 are old enough to play college football), Xzavier Dickson (that extra letter bothers me as much as my cousin who named his first child Alexzander-- come on people! Did no one read the chapter on names in Freakonomics?!), Rashaan Evans, and noted flip-flopper Reuben Foster (he was originally supposed to be named Grilled Cheese Foster, but his parents changed at the last minute). For my part, I'm hoping Foster wins the job so that Ronny from Muscle Shoals can throw up in his mouth a little bit remembering last year's Iron Bowl every time he sees Foster's giant Auburn tattoo.
It's All Good, Baby Baby
3. Missouri These Kendall Brothers are the real deal and we're talking some serious Double Dragon Double Trouble. I mean, when you're looking at returning productivity to the tune of 140 tackles, 2 sacks, 11 tackles for loss, 6 pass breakups, another 6 interceptions, and 4 quarterback hurries... and THEN you couple all of that returning productivity with the chemistry of two siblings playing alongside each other... and THEN you add in the trump card of knowing that Gary Pinkel is gonna coach them both up to an SEC level. We just be like whoah, man. Whoah!
3. South Carolina
Over the last three recruiting classes, the Gamecocks have signed 70 players, and 12 of them are academically ineligible (17% or so). Which, great news, everyone: only one of the academic casualties was a linebacker! So while the back end of the defense has some serious questions, South Carolina can put four or five quality linebackers on the field. Ellis Johnson is fairly creative as a defensive coordinator and the HBC is only sort of vaguely aware in the abstract that defense exists (hey, you tell me how much of the strong or weak force you can explain, Captain Science! Maybe after you stop weakly gasping for air like that time Will Muschamp almost choked to death on an Everlasting Gobstopper I left in his top drawer you'll have time to climb down off your high horse), so we could be looking at the first 3-6-2 defense fielded since the early 30s.
4. Ole Miss
Serdarius Bryant and Denzel Nkemdiche return to anchor a stout but thin Rebel linebacker unit. Relying on a converted defensive end and an incoming JUCO recruit to play and provide quality depth is a tricky proposition, but if it all comes together, Oxford could have its best defense since Patrick Willis roamed Vaught-Hemingway. The type of unit that misunderstood genius Ed Orgeron had in mind even before JoJo told us about it.
The Bayou Bengals lose starting weak side linebacker and last year's leading tackler Lamin Barrow, but return rising star Kwon Alexander, who will move from the strong side to replace Barrow. Alexander was overshadowed at times last year, but he is the type of speedy undersized player who former Tennessee defensive coordinator John Chavis has been making stars out of for years. Make all the third-and-Chavis jokes you want, but watching him coach LSU's defense in BCS bowl games while having to suffer through Sal FULMERIZED Sunseri was like breaking up with your loyal girlfriend out of boredom only to see her on television looking like a knockout on Ryan Gosling's arm at the Oscars while you're at home in stained pajamas eating Easy Mac so that you can afford the rent on your crumbling McMansion.
Steady but unspectacular D.J. Welton also returns at middle linebacker after winning the job last year to replace superhero Kevin Minter. The Chief still needs to find a strong side linebacker, but with quality depth (Lamar Louis, Ronnie Fiest), more experience than last year, and a candidate for the All-Name team (Debo Jones), the task shouldn't be too difficult. In fact, it's well documented that a defense automatically becomes better when you add in a guy named Debo. Kinda sorta like putting a cowbell into a song, or, alternatively, removing many many cowbells from a football stadium.
Don't Let Em Hold You Down; Reach For The Stars
Will Muschamp is a bit of a dummy (and of course the worst coach in college football), but even dummies can be useful sometimes. Don't believe me? I'd like to see you try and set up an artistic window display at Harrod's or govern Alaska without one! In any case, Muschamp's one talent (besides providing an endless selection of gif-worthy faces and non sequiturs) is churning out talented linebacker corps. From the Plains to the Swamp, and even in the Forty Acres in between, Muschamp has recruited, trained, and managed one nasty unit after another. The old aphorism about everything looking like a nail to a hammer applies here: you wouldn't want him to manage a top twenty football program or try to walk and chew gum at the same time, but you do want him coaching your linebackers. FYI, he'll be available to coach at your school in 2015, so send your employment offers to Gainesville c/o Jeremy Foley. If you offer him a contract laden with Nickelback-related incentives, you may have a deal.
7. Mississippi State
Benardrick McKinney (who I really want to call Benardrick McKendrick for some reason and definitely not because I watched Pitch Perfect last night) is a really talented football player who doesn't get the recognition he deserves. I mean, did you know that when tested, he had the highest Midichlorian count ever recorded? After winning a pod race against then-Memphis head coach Larry Porter, Dan Mullen secured McKinney's freedom and apprenticed him to Mississippi State linebacker coach Geoff Collins. Will McKinney be able to channel his talents and become the Chosen Linebacker (while saving the Queen of a backwater), or will he fall prey to anger and frustration and be lured to the dark side (aka Shreveport)?
Linebacker has been the most difficult of the units to rank so far. Even now, I'm wondering if we should have Auburn higher. The only guy they're losing is Jake Holland (who exactly zero people have accused of being the nail that held The Barn together), and they return all other major contributors from last year, plus a healthy Justin Garrett and highly-touted freshman Tre Williams. There's no question this unit will be improved from last year. It turns out that sometimes doing these rankings is difficult.
This conference has more stud linebackers than Kristi Malzahn has embarrassing television appearances. There is no shortage of linebacker talent in this league.
Senior middle linebacker A.J. Johnson is a player who is fantastic when allowed to simply do his own job instead of trying to compensate for the deficiencies of the players to his left and right. While Tennessee lost senior starters at both outside linebacker positions, the Vols badly needed an injection of talent and speed at the position to allow A.J. to do his job in the middle. Fan favorite and special teams terror Jalen Reeves-Maybin will hold down one outside linebacker position and brings tremendous speed and coverage ability as a former high school safety. No one is entirely sure what the other linebacker position will look like with Curt Maggitt's spring move to defensive end, but it's likely he will play at the position at least part-time in a hybrid linebacker/lineman role. Incoming players from Tennessee's highly touted 2014 class will provide depth with freshmen Dillon Bates, Gavin Bryant, and newly qualified JUCO transfer Chris Weatherd jockeying for playing time.
Overall, this is a unit which will be an asset and not a liability for the first time in three seasons. If we knew exactly where everyone would play and could be assured that the starters would be injury-free, we'd rank them higher.
Wonder Why Christmas Missed Us
Darius Claiborne is pretty good at football, but less good at avoiding arrest. Sumlin has recruited well enough that his dismissal may not matter, but as Butch Davis and Dennis Erickson can tell you, looking the other way while your student athletes misbehave will eventually catch up with you after a very very long and profitable career. Maybe. Which is why they always give a tip of the cap to guys like Mike Shula who tried to do it the right way. That's a tip of the cap in addition to the regular tip, because it's not easy to make ends meet as a former Crimson Tide football coach, busing tables during the day shift at an Alabama Zaxby's.
Yes, the 'Dores get back their two leading tacklers from this spot in Darreon Herring and Jake Sealand. Yes, moving defensive linemen Kyle Woestmann and Caleb Azubike to linebacker adds some girth and dynamics to the unit. Yes, we understand that this will be one of Vandy's most talented units. However, we are going to go ahead and bring a lovely dish well-seasoned with skepticism to any and all dinner parties celebrating a switch to the 3-4 defense. We can tell you from experience that sometimes that doesn't work out so well in the first year. But let's not talk about that anymore, or ever again.
Braylon Mitchell, who was the best linebacker the Hogs had in Bert's Year Zero campaign, returns for his Senior season and should be productive. He'll be joined by Brooks Ellis, who was productive in '13, and Martrell Spaight, who was less productive, but who Phil Steele tells me caused three concussions last season. And herein lies the problem for Arkansas this year: when Phil Steele adds in a parenthetical noting that a returning linebacker caused three concussions, that tells me that ole Phil -- yes, he of the "jam-packed" preview mag lore -- didn't have a whole lot else to write about. Next.
It turns out that Kendall Brothers is actually just one guy. Our mistake. Though, to be fair, when you factor in Gary Pinkel's ability to coach him up, he should probably be considered at least like 1.05 guys. Or 1.3 guys. Or somewhere in between the two.
The Opposite Of A Winner
Did you know the Wildcats had a linebacker taken in the NFL draft this offseason? Me either! So now they don't have that guy which I had never heard of who was apparently pretty good, and yet they're ostensibly a member of the Southeastern Conference. Stated differently: