Florida State running back Dalvin Cook, center pushes past Florida defensive back Vernon Hargreaves III (1) and defensive back Jalen Tabor (31) for a touchdown during the second half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Nov. 28, 2015, in Gainesvill
Phelan M. Ebenhack
December 02, 2015

The defensive stars will be all over the field, and even on the sidelines , during the Southeastern Conference championship game.

No. 2 Alabama's Jonathan Allen, Reggie Ragland and others will be in the NFL next season. By then, defensive coordinator Kirby Smart could be head coach at his alma mater, Georgia.

The 18th-ranked Gators have NFL-caliber talent on defense, too, entering Saturday's game at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta, starting with cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III and defensive lineman Jonathan Bullard. They have the confidence to go with that elite talent.

''I expect a dominant performance from our defense,'' Florida cornerback Jalen Tabor said. ''We've got talent at every position and we're coached well at every position, so I expect a lot out of our defense this week.

''Just like any other week, we go into Saturday with the best defense in the nation. We truly believe that.''

Alabama shares that belief about its own defense, powered by a loaded front seven. They're the only two defenses ranked in the Top 5 in total defense, scoring defense and sacks.

What's hard to dispute: They're the two best defenses in the SEC, even if Alabama seems to get most of the attention. It could make points hard to come by in the game, and Florida certainly would favor a low-scoring one to support the Gators' sputtering offense.

To make that happen, Bullard and Co. will have to contain Alabama's bulldozing runner Derrick Henry. The Gators have already faced two of the nation's top tailbacks and not fared well.

LSU's Leonard Fournette finished with 180 yards and two touchdowns. Last week, Florida State's Dalvin Cook gained 183 yards with a late surge that included two fourth-quarter touchdowns.

Now comes Henry, who's one rushing touchdown shy of the SEC single-season record of 23 held by ex-Gators quarterback Tim Tebow.

''They're very fast, very physical and very disruptive,'' Henry said of Florida's defense.

Ditto, Alabama.

Both defenses are aggressive and opportunistic. Led by Cyrus Jones and Eddie Jackson, Alabama's secondary has returned four interceptions for touchdowns, while Florida has done it twice. The Gators have forced a league-high 24 turnovers, one more than the Tide.

They're also the SEC's top two teams in sacks.

Several Tide defenders are projected as potential first-round draft picks including Ragland, junior defensive tackle A'Shawn Robinson, defensive tackle Jarran Reed and defensive end Allen.

Stars on both defenses could end up collecting some hardware this month.

Ragland is a finalist for the Butkus Award, Bronco Nagurski Award and Bednarik Award. Robinson is a finalist for the Outland Trophy and Florida's Hargreaves is up for the Jim Thorpe Award.

Florida co-defensive coordinators Geoff Collins and ex-Miami coach Randy Shannon both drew interest for the now-filled UCF head job.

Then there's Smart, whose pairing with coach Nick Saban has led to a string of elite defenses that have been the centerpieces of three national championship teams. He's interviewed for SEC jobs in the past, including Auburn in 2012.

ESPN and the Atlanta Journal Constitution reported late Tuesday night that Smart was Georgia's choice, though university officials haven't confirmed the decision.

Saban gives his longtime assistant top billing for the Tide's defensive success..

''This is Kirby's defense. He's the defensive coordinator,'' he said. ''I try to be a good graduate assistant wherever I can to sort of help him out. It is a system that he grew up in, which is the old system that we played for years and adapted through the years. So he understands it and applies it in the game as well as anyone.''

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AP Sports Writer Mark Long contributed to this report.

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