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Auburn's Carl Lawson May Be SEC's Most Important Defensive Player

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He made a real difference a year ago.

Shanna Lockwood-USA TODAY Sports

I'm not here to talk about the SEC's best player, but rather its most important. They may not necessarily be the same person, as a good backup will mean the loss of the best player may not be catastrophic. Leonard Fournette is brilliant, but Derrius Guice is an excellent backup and would ameliorate much of the loss of big No. 7.

The most important SEC offensive player is undoubtedly Chad Kelly, as Ole Miss would go from a proven total offense machine to probably a true freshman in Shea Patterson. I know all about Patterson's 5-star pedigree, but that's still going to be an enormous drop-off.

On the defensive side, there's a strong case to be made that the most important player is Auburn defensive end Carl Lawson. He wreaked havoc on Louisville in 2015's opener before getting injured, at which point the Cardinals' offense suddenly looked a lot better. He missed six full games before returning for the Halloween matchup with Ole Miss, at which point he played in the rest of the Tigers' games.

AU was 4-3 with him playing in a game and 3-3 without him, but that doesn't really cover it. To illustrate how important Lawson was to the defense, I went through and looked at how the Tigers' Power 5 opponents did against Auburn versus their season averages against P5 teams.

Here was the effect the Auburn defense with Lawson playing had on opposing offenses' yards per play, points, yards per carry, and passing efficiency:

Team YPP Diff PPG Diff YPC Diff PE Diff
Louisville -0.9 -3 0.5 -41.0
Ole Miss -0.3 -7 -0.6 -10.4
Texas A&M -1.1 -12 0.6 -40.0
Georgia -1.7 -2 -1.6 0.6
Alabama 0.2 -4.3 1.1 -9.2
Average -0.8 -5.7 0.0 -20.0

For example: Louisville went for about a yard less per play than average against P5 opponents, scored three points less than average, ran for half a yard more than average, and had a passing efficiency of 41 less than average. And keep in mind that UL did better once Lawson went down.

Overall, Lawson didn't have much of an effect on run defense, but his presence was felt in other areas. But how does this compare to when he wasn't around?

Team YPP Diff PPG Diff YPC Diff PE Diff
LSU 1.0 14.8 2.6 1.3
Mississippi State -0.7 -12.0 -1.2 -2.9
Kentucky 1.4 8.8 0.0 24.3
Arkansas -0.9 -6.6 -0.5 -31.4
Average 0.2 1.3 0.2 -2.2

Note: for the Arkansas game, I left out overtime because college football's overtime is not representative of regular play. I also removed the overtime numbers from Hogs' three overtime games from the averages against P5 teams.

Suddenly, these teams in aggregate did better than their averages in three of the four categories, and they did much better in the fourth.

When you combine these two sets of averages together, Lawson was worth about 0.9 yards per play, 6.9 points per game, and 17.8 on the opponents' passing efficiency. It's remarkable to me that he was worth about a touchdown per game versus expectations.

Lawson being able to stay on the field or not may be the difference between Gus Malzahn keeping or losing his job.