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Top 10 SEC Defensive Backs of the BCS Era

Eric Berry

The Bowl Championship Series is dead. But even the harshest of BCS detractors must acknowledge that the 16-year run was arguably the best era of college football in the history of the sport.

The era was highlighted by the advent of the BCS Championship Game, conference realignment and mega-dollar contracts for conferences, programs and coaches. But the elite athletes had a huge, if not the biggest, hand in the unprecedented growth of college football over the last two decades.

So Athlon Sports is looking back on the players that made the BCS Era great — conference-by-conference, position-by-position.

Defense is king in the Southeast. But it’s not just great defensive ends and tackles that have made the SEC’s defenses so dominant during the BCS Era. The defensive backs have been among the best in the nation as well. In no other league were there so many All-American defensive backs left out of the top 10 than the SEC.

Note: Must have played at least one season between 1998-13 in the conference.

1. Eric Berry, Tennessee (2007-09)
It didn’t take long for Berry to make his name known as an SEC defender. In 2007, he posted a school record with 222 INT return yards on five picks, led all SEC freshmen with 86 tackles and was named SEC Freshman of the Year. He then returned seven interceptions for 265 yards as a sophomore en route to his first of two unanimous All-American seasons. He also was named the SEC Defensive Player of the Year that year. As a junior, Berry returned to win the Thorpe and Jack Tatum Awards and ended his collegiate career with the the most interception return yards in SEC history. Used on offense and special teams as well, Berry’s superior athletic ability made him the fifth overall pick of the 2010 NFL Draft. For his career, Berry finished with 245 tackles, 17.5 for loss and 14 interceptions.

2. Patrick Peterson, LSU (2008-10)
The supremely gifted Peterson played in every game as a true freshman for the defending BCS champs. One of the most versatile, impactful athletes in the nation, Peterson scored on both defense and special teams throughout his career. He was a dynamic return man who brought a rare explosiveness to the game and led the SEC with 418 punt return yards. As a junior, Peterson won the Thorpe and Bednarik Awards and was named SEC Defensive Player of the Year while being recognized as an All-American for a second time. He was taken fifth overall in the 2011 NFL Draft and finished his career with 135 tackles, seven interceptions, four return touchdowns and 1,356 total return yards.

3. Morris Claiborne, LSU (2009-11)
One of the best pure covermen in the history of the SEC, Claiborne was a lock-down corner for LSU in his two full seasons as the starter. He developed a reputation as a sophomore with five picks and 37 tackles en route to All-SEC honors. After that, no one threw at him. Despite teams staying away from him and a teammate getting more Heisman hype, Claiborne was named the nation’s top defensive back in 2011 as the recipient of the Thorpe Award and was a unanimous All-American. He helped LSU to a perfect 13-0 regular-season mark, an SEC title, was named SEC Defensive Player of the Year as his Tigers earned a berth in the BCS national title game. He was taken sixth overall in the 2012 NFL Draft.

4. Champ Bailey, Georgia (1996-98)
From a versatility standpoint, few have ever been as explosive and dynamic as Champ Bailey. He was a lockdown cornerback, an elite return man and a dangerous wide receiver. His senior season — the only year he played during the BCS Era — Bailey posted 52 tackles and three interceptions on defense and caught 47 passes for 744 yards and five scores on offense. He was a two-time, first-team All-SEC pick and won the Nagurski Trophy in 1998 as the nation’s top defensive player. The consensus All-American finished seventh in the Heisman voting in '98 and he was the seventh overall pick in the 1999 NFL Draft.

5. Mark Barron, Alabama (2008-11)
The superstar safety was a three-time All-SEC pick, two-time All-American and helped the Crimson Tide win two BCS National Championships. (2009, '11). After three straight seasons with at least 68 tackles, Barron finished his career with 235 tackles, 13.0 for loss, 5.0 sacks, 12 interceptions and 34 passes defended. Many coaches called him the best player in the SEC in 2011 on what many consider the best defense of the BCS Era. The hard-hitting Alabama safety was taken with the seventh overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft.

6. Carlos Rogers, Auburn (2001-04)
The Tigers coverman started 10 games as a freshman, earning Freshman All-American honors. He was a mainstay on the outside of Auburn’s defense for four years and it culminated in a historic 2004 campaign. Rogers started 44 games, registered 182 tackles and picked-off seven passes in his career. Rogers was named the Thorpe Award winner, an All-American and helped Auburn to a perfect 13-0 record, SEC and Sugar Bowl championship. He was the ninth overall pick in the 2005 NFL Draft.

7. LaRon Landry, LSU (2003-05)
The LSU safety might be the most physically imposing defensive back of the BCS Era. He started 10 games as a true freshman for Nick Saban and the 2003 BCS National Championship squad. He made 80, 92 and 70 total tackles respectively during his three-year career and was a two-time All-SEC pick. Landry earned consensus All-American honors in 2006 before leaving early for the NFL. The thumper was the sixth pick in the 2007 NFL Draft.

8. Joe Haden, Florida (2007-09)
Haden was the first true freshman cornerback to ever start opening day for the Gators. He helped lead Florida to the BCS National Championship in 2008 and was named National Defensive Player of the Year in '09. He also was a unanimous All-American that year and went seventh overall in the 2010 NFL Draft.

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9. Johnthan Banks, Mississippi State (2009-12)
An excellent all-around football player, Banks was just as good a leader and tackler as he was pure coverman. He was a first-team All-American and Thorpe Award winner for the Bulldogs in his final season when he made 63 tackles and intercepted four passes. He helped lead State to three straight bowl games and finished his career with 221 tackles, 11.5 for loss, four sacks and returned 15 interceptions for 321 yards and three touchdowns. He also returned punts in his final two seasons and was drafted in the second round of the 2013 NFL Draft.

10. Reggie Nelson, Florida (2005-06)
After playing at the junior college level, Nelson stepped right into Gainesville and started 25 games in two years. The hard-hitting safety patrolled center field for the BCS National Champions in 2006 with six interceptions and 51 tackles. He was a consensus All-American and Tatum Trophy winner that year as well. Nelson was taken in the first round of the 2007 NFL Draft.

Just missed the cut:

11. Corey Webster, LSU (2001-04)
Coming to LSU as a wide receiver, Webster moved to defense and blossomed as a star as a three-year starter. He earned All-SEC honors three times and All-American honors twice while leading LSU to the BCS National Championship in 2003. He finished with 115 tackles and 16 interceptions in 29 starts and 50 career games. He was a second-round pick in the 2005 NFL Draft.

12. Lito Sheppard, Florida (1999-2001)
Playing for Steve Spurrier in his final three years in Gainesville, Sheppard was a mainstay for the Gators' secondary. He was a two-time, first-team All-SEC pick and an All-American in 2001. He started 23 of 36 career games with eight interceptions and helped lead Florida to an SEC championship in 2000. He was a first-round pick in the 2002 NFL Draft.

13. Eric Reid, LSU (2010-12)
As physically gifted as any player in any league at any position during the BCS Era, Reid played in all 13 games as a true freshman. He helped LSU to a perfect 13-0 record and SEC title as a sophomore and made the signature interception against Bama in the 9-6 overtime throwdown in Tuscaloosa. Reid finished with 199 tackles in his career and the 49ers traded up into the first round to draft Reid in 2013.

14. Deon Grant, Tennessee (1997-99)
One of the most important defensive players on the 1998 BCS National Champs, Grant was as big a name for the Vols as any of the elite defensive linemen. Grant was a consensus All-American after leading the nation in interceptions with nine in ’99. Grant made huge plays (SEE: Florida in 1998) for three seasons in Knoxville and was a second-round pick in 2000.

15. Thomas Davis, Georgia (2002-04)
Sort of a hybrid outside linebacker and safety at Georgia, Davis was one of the most physically imposing defensive backs in SEC history. He posted 272 career tackles, 18.0 for loss, 10.5 sacks, six forced fumbles, nine fumble recoveries and three interceptions. He was an All-American and two-time All-SEC pick before starring at OLB for the Carolina Panthers in the NFL.

16. Dee Milliner, Alabama (2010-12)
He played in 38 games at Alabama and got 29 starts in just three years. He helped win two BCS National Championships and was a big part of what many believe was the best defense of the BCS Era in 2011. A unanimous All-American his final season, Milliner posted 133 tackles, 9.0 for loss, six interceptions, 40 passed defended in his Crimson Tide career and was taken in the first round of the 2013 NFL Draft by the Jets.

17. Tyrann Mathieu, LSU (2010-11)
The Honey Badger won the Bednarik Award, was an All-American, made impact plays and was a Heisman finalist. However, he also was suspended multiple times, eventually kicked off the team — costing himself two full seasons — and was abused in the 2011 BCS National Championship game by Game MVP AJ McCarron. It makes him one of the most difficult players of the BCS Era to evaluate. He posted 133 tackles, 16.0 for loss, four interceptions and 11 forced fumbles in his two-year career.

18. Craig Steltz, LSU (2004-07)
The hard-hitting safety played center field as well as any safety in league history. He started 20 times, played in 40 games and won a BCS national title as a senior All-American. Steltz finished with 184 tackles and 11 interceptions before getting drafted in the fourth round by the Bears.

19. Keiwan Ratliff, Florida (2000-03)
The dynamic playmaker finished his All-American Gators career with school records for interceptions (9) and was named the SEC Defensive Player of the Year by some outlets. The two-time All-SEC pick was a second-round selection in the 2004 NFL Draft.

20. Jason Allen, Tennessee (2002-05)
Starting at both corner and safety during his career, Allen is one of the more versatile players to come through the SEC. He was an All-American in 2004 when he led the team in tackles with 123 stops during his junior year. Allen would be even higher on this list had his final season not ended early due to his severe hip injury.

Best of the rest:

21. Ko Simpson, South Carolina (2004-06)
22. Fred Smoot, Mississippi State (1997-2000)
23. Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Alabama (2011-13)
24. D.J. Moore, Vanderbilt (2006-08)
25. Johnathan Joseph, South Carolina (2004-05)
26. Javier Arenas, Alabama (2006-09)
27. Greg Blue, Georgia (2002-05)
28. Casey Heyward, Vanderbilt (2008-11)
29. Dre Kirkpatrick, Alabama (2009-11)
30. Captain Munnerlyn, South Carolina (2006-08)