- Travis Haney, ESPN Staff Writer
HOOVER, Ala. -- As it often happens these days, a recent conversation in a coach's office -- one far, far from the SEC -- eventually turned to the SEC. That's the typical situation when a conference goes on an unprecedented six-titles-in-a-row win streak.
In discussing the differences in their respective leagues, searching for reasons -- hidden and glaring -- why the SEC has been so recently dominant, coaches often circle back to the same, large subject: defensive linemen.
"Even the bad teams [in the SEC] have good defensive linemen," the coach said, leaning back in his chair. "It changes the way you have to play offense. Almost every team there has a lineman you might not be able to block. You have to figure out how you're going to pass protect or run block that guy. I think that's the main difference."
Not to pick on Kentucky Wildcats coach Joker Phillips, but, well, not much is expected of his team in 2012. Phillips is clawing to keep his job. They are one of the league's "bad" teams. And? "The strength of our team is the defensive line, those guys up front," Phillips volunteered Wednesday when talking about his team to a trio of ESPN.com reporters.
Will Muschamp played at Georgia and was a young coordinator at LSU and Auburn. He then went to Texas, to run its defense, from 2008-10 before being hired last year as Florida's head coach.
Those years away from the conference provided a great appreciation and respect for the number of athletic freaks the SEC employs on its defensive fronts.
"It's every week," Muschamp said. "Top to bottom, that's the difference in our league."
So how does it keep happening? Why do menacing pass-rushers and nearly-impossible-to-block tackles continue to end up on SEC campuses?
Take it from Arkansas Razorbacks quarterback Tyler Wilson, who might have set the unofficial record last season for number of times knocked on his rear. He's still in college, and he recognizes it is often driven by location.
"They live here," Wilson said from a hotel ballroom in a state that calls itself "The Heart of Dixie." "The core group is from the South. They don't grow them everywhere like they do around here. It's a hotbed. The bed is most definitely hot here."
Take last year as an example. The SEC had four teams ranked in the top five in the country in total defense -- Alabama (1), LSU (2), South Carolina (3) and Georgia (5). You'd better believe the lines were largely to thank for that. Even if they were not defending the pass and even if they were not stat grabbers on the tackle sheet, the defensive linemen were often disrupting timing. And it's no surprise where most of them came from.
• At South Carolina, even as small as that state is geographically, three of the four projected starters in 2012 are in-state products and the other is a Georgia junior college transfer.
• LSU thieved All-America end Sam Montgomery from the Palmetto State, but the Tigers' other three starters are from Louisiana.
• At Georgia, its ends in the 3-4 are Georgia natives and the nose is from a Mississippi junior college.
• Alabama is the outlier, using a Texan, an Arizona JUCO transfer and a Miami-area native as its starters in the 3-4. But, rest assured, Nick Saban has done plenty of damage with Southern-born linemen. Terrence Cody is a Florida native, Brandon Deaderick hails from Kentucky, and Marcell Dareus, Josh Chapman and Courtney Upshaw are all from Alabama -- all of those players from recent Crimson Tide teams were selected in the NFL draft.
These are just the starters, of course. Several SEC coaches acknowledged this week that having two full lines is ideal, if at all possible. That's why, outside of the geography, superior depth could be the biggest factor that differentiates SEC D-lines from the rest of the nation's.
Programs throughout the country can produce elite defensive linemen -- in last year's NFL draft, for example, only five of the 22 D-linemen taken in the first three rounds hailed from the SEC (in the 2011 draft's first three rounds, it was four of 25). But when Alabama loses a stud like Cody, for example, a talent like Dareus is there to take his place.
Jadeveon Clowney, the Gamecocks' former No. 1 overall recruit who is poised for a breakout season in 2012, was often coming off the sideline a year ago, difficult as that is to believe given his eight sacks as a freshman.
D-linemen are in such demand, and they're so difficult to come by, that coaches are unafraid to stockpile. Muschamp said he was recently recruiting an end prospect who noticed the Gators already had several players at his position. Muschamp laughed.
"No, we still need you to come," he told the recruit. "It's not like we could ever have too many rushers."
At Arkansas, on the other side of the ball from the efficient Wilson, a porous defensive interior has perhaps been the difference in the Razorbacks staying a step behind Alabama and LSU. The Hogs allowed 203.2 rushing yards a game against the SEC and Texas A&M in 2011 (nine games).
After the defense held run-minded Kansas State to 87 yards on the ground in the Cotton Bowl, new Hogs coach John L. Smith sees improvement ahead.
"I hate to say this," Smith said Wednesday, "but we're getting to look like a legit SEC front."
The rest of the country is in the same territory, trying to catch up as best it can. At A&M, first-year coach Kevin Sumlin recognizes recruiting and signing D-linemen has to become a priority to compete in his new division. He said, too, that he'll have to shake more trees on the JUCO level to find line prospects. "That's where a lot of them seem to come from, from what we've noticed," he said.
A&M's old rival, Texas, figured out a unique mode of counterattack: hire one of the architects of the SEC's defensive lines. Mack Brown and UT threw a bunch of cash at Alabama's Bo Davis after the Longhorns' woeful 5-7 season in 2010.
Davis, known in the coaching profession as a dynamite recruiter, already created a pipeline of sorts. Brandon Moore began his career at Alabama, was forced to go to a Mississippi junior college -- and now he's in Austin, after his second time being recruited by Davis. Moore's teammates have marveled at the 6-foot-5, 335-pound behemoth's athleticism. He should be a force as a run-stopper, a rarity in the Big 12.
"I look at the SEC and I recognize that's how they've won," Texas coach Brown said. "They're playing good, tough, physical football. That's why I hired three coaches from the SEC."