1. LSU cornerback Tyrann Mathieu- There's no better defensive playmaker in college football. Mathieu won the SEC Defensive Player of the Year and the Bednarik Award, given to the best defensive player in college football, during the 2011 season. He was also a final for the Heisman Trophy and the Walter Camp National Player of the Year.He's only 5-9, 175 pounds, and both of those numbers might be generous. Mathieu is instinctual and excels at creating turnovers. He forced six fumbles last season while recovering five. Mathieu had two interceptions last year and nine pass breakups. He also threw in 7.5 tackles for a loss and two punt returns for touchdowns.
Mathieu may not be a name that draws the elite interest from NFL teams, but he's the one that offensive coaches' eyes immediately turn to when they flip on the film of the LSU defense.
2. Georgia outside linebacker Jarvis Jones- Florida got a close look at Jones last season in Jacksonville, when he recorded four sacks and a forced fumble. Jones lived in the Florida backfield and got multiple shots on an already injured senior quarterback John Brantley.Jones was named a First Team All-American by seven publications and was First Team All-SEC while also being named a finalist for the Butkus Award. He secured the CFPA Elite Linebacker Trophy. Jones made 70 tackles while starting all 14 games, including 19.5 tackles for a loss and 13.5 sacks with two forced fumbles.
He changes the game with his pass rush ability. Leaving one offensive lineman to block him frequently ended up with the quarterback on his back at the end of the play. The size and athleticism of Jones has turned him into what's expected to be an early selection in the 2013 NFL Draft.
3. LSU Defensive Ends- Mathieu's success in the defensive backfield was aided by the success of Sam Montgomery and Barkevious Mingo off the edge. They totaled 17 sacks and 28.5 tackles for a loss during the 2011 season and both return from last year's team that played for the national championship. Mingo added 11 quarterback hurries on his own.The two have both caught the eye of NFL scouts. Multiple mock drafts have the two going early in the 2013 NFL Draft.
As they did last year, the defensive linemen at LSU benefit from strong secondary play. Even with the loss of first round pick Morris Claiborne, the Tigers return depth in the secondary that is the envy of most teams in the country.
4. South Carolina defensive ends- The LSU and South Carolina duos at defensive end are the envy of every other team in the SEC. The Gamecocks feature Devin Taylor and Jadeveon Clowney flying off the edges at opposing quarterbacks, after the two totaled 14 sacks last year.Taylor dominates with his speed. He has long strides and can get up the field in a hurry. Taylor had six sacks and 8.5 tackles for a loss while adding an interception, two pass breakups and six quarterback hurries.
Clowney is expected to have a breakout year in 2012. As a freshman, he had eight sacks and 12 tackles for a loss after coming to Columbia as a five-star and the top player in the country. He added six quarterback hurries and forced a team-high five fumbles.
5. LSU safety Eric Reid- As a sophomore, Reid and Mathieu led the Tigers in tackles. Reid chipped in with two tackles for a loss, two interceptions, three pass breakups and two forced fumbles.Reid had the highlight play of the 2011 regular season for LSU. In the third quarter against Alabama, Reid leaped in the air and ripped the ball away from Alabama tight end Michael Williams for the interception. He's aggressive and isn't afraid to make a play on the ball or deliver a big hit at the line of scrimmage.
6. Florida State defensive end Brandon Jenkins- It was a tough decision over the offseason for Jenkins, but he elected to return to the Seminoles for his senior season. Jenkins totaled eight sacks, 41 tackles and 12 tackles for a loss during the 2011 season. He also added five quarterback hurries.Jenkins teams with Bjoern Wener on the other end of the defensive line to add yet another tough duo of defensive ends on the Florida schedule this season. Jenkins is the leader of an experienced, deep Florida State defensive line.