BATON ROUGE, La. – When Alabama's Greg McElroy turns on an NFL game, it reminds him of some of his worst moments as a Southeastern Conference quarterback.
"There's a lot of guys that I see on Sundays that have hit me or tackled me or intercepted me or made things difficult for me," McElroy said.
And McElroy is not exaggerating.
Heading into last weekend, players from the SEC had made more NFL starts since 2000 than players from any major BCS conference. According to STATS LLC, SEC players had combined for 4,729 NFL defensive starts since 2000. The Big Ten was second with 3,540, followed by the ACC, Big 12, Pac-10 and Big East.
SEC alum have also combined for more NFL sacks (1,045.5) and more interceptions (343) the past decade. Big Ten players combined for the second-most NFL sacks (778) during that span, but ranked fourth in interceptions. ACC players had combined for the second-most interceptions with 299.
LSU left tackle Joseph Barksdale says it's the main reason the SEC has won four consecutive national titles.
"You are playing against potential All-Americans every weekend," said Barksdale, whose No. 12 LSU squad has won non-conference games over North Carolina and West Virginia on its way to a 4-0 record.
"North Carolina and West Virginia had very capable defensive linemen. But the SEC teams have great starters and great depth," Barksdale said. "Every week in the SEC, it's like you're coming out of a dogfight."
McElroy, whose father is an executive with the Dallas Cowboys, says people understand the talent in the SEC on defense.
"Those guys are pretty fast and pretty athletic players," he said. "The fact that they start more so than any other conference in the NFL is not surprising to me, having played against them."
This year, LSU is undefeated and climbing the national rankings — relying heavily on its SEC-leading defense. Quarterback Jordan Jefferson hasn't thrown for 100 yards or a single TD in any of his past three games, the Tigers rank second-to-last in the conference in total offense, and yet they keep winning.
"You don't see big-time offenses in the SEC like the Big 12 where Texas Tech would score a million points," said LSU center T-Bob Hebert, son of former NFL quarterback Bobby Hebert. "The SEC has more conservative styles of offense. SEC defensive linemen are close to NFL ready. The defensive linemen are beasts. They are 6-3, 300 pounds. That's solid pounds of muscle."
The second- and third- ranked defensive teams in the SEC are Alabama and Florida, both giving up fewer than 300 yards per game and both unbeaten — at least until they play each other this weekend.
"If you're going to win championships, you've got to be good everywhere, but ultimately it comes down to stopping people," said LSU defensive coordinator John Chavis said. "It doesn't matter how many points you can put on the board. If you can't stop people and get the ball back for the offense, you can't expect to win, particularly at the highest level."
It's hard to argue with Chavis' logic, given that SEC teams that have won the past four national titles all had excellent defenses.
Defending champion Alabama is coached by longtime defensive specialist Nick Saban, who raves about the type of athletes — with their combination of size and speed — that SEC schools can recruit from their own region.
"There's a lot of good players in this league, period," said Saban, who has been both a head and assistant coach in the NFL. "The high school football programs in the Southeast are really good. There's a lot of players that develop. There's a lot of good athletes. There's a lot of speed. ... All those things contribute to the kind of players that they look for at the next level."
Kansas City defensive linemen Tyson Jackson and Glenn Dorsey, and Washington safety LeRon Landry, are examples of players from LSU's 2007 championship team who've found early success in the NFL.
At Tennessee, senior linebacker Nick Reveiz spoke of admiring former Volunteers linebacker Al Wilson, who starred for Denver. Reveiz's former teammate, Jerod Mayo, is a third-year starter for New England.
"You always hear about those great defenses of the SEC," Reveiz said. "There's so much tradition."
Since the BCS began 12 years ago, a team from the SEC has won half of its title games. Chavis coached defense on the Tennessee team that beat Florida State in the first BCS championship game at the end of the 1998 season.
When the Tigers last won a BCS title, they struggled to overcome Tennessee's Chavis-coached defense in the SEC championship game. LSU managed one offensive touchdown, and needed two field goals and an interception for a score to beat the Volunteers 21-14. LSU then scored 38 points against No. 1 Ohio State in the title game.
When 2006 and 2008 Florida teams won national championships, offensive stars like Percy Harvin and Tim Tebow got a lot of attention, but both teams had top defenses. Florida's 2006 squad was the underdog against then-No. 1 Ohio State, but the Gators won in a 41-14 romp, allowing only one offensive touchdown.
Although Auburn's 2004 team never got a shot at the national title when it went 13-0, that team, too, was known for its defense. Gene Chizik, now Auburn's head coach, was the defensive coordinator of that team.
"This league is, top to bottom, filled with really talented defensive players," Chizick said. "The offenses, yes, they get a lot of credit and publicity and those things, but you can't win championships without playing really good defense."
AP Sports Writers John Zenor in Tuscaloosa, Ala., and Beth Rucker in Knoxville, Tenn., contributed to this report.