SEC offensive lines are rightly recognized as some of the most physical and talented in college football. The smash-mouth style that is so prevalent around the Southeastern Conference starts with the players up front.
1. Georgia Bulldogs
The only offensive returning all five starters is Georgia, and it’s an outstanding group. Interior lineman Chris Burnette was an All-Conference selection, despite missing two games late in the season. Kenarious Gates and 2012 Freshman All-American John Theus handle duties on the edges, while David Andrews and Dallas Lee join Burnette on the inside for a group that facilitated Toddy Gurley’s 1385-yard rushing season. Quarterback Aaron Murray also thrived behind the protection, throwing 36 touchdown passes.
2. Tennessee Volunteers
A very strong case for the 2012 Vol offensive line being the best in the nation can be made. Tennessee allowed just eight sacks all season, gave South Carolina star defensive end Jadeveon Clowney fits and set the foundation for a 36.2-point per game offense. Dallas Thomas’ departure is notable, but the other four Volunteers return, including Ja’Wuan James. James manned Tiny Richardson’s left tackle post in spring practices while Richardson rehabilitated an injury.
Their transition to new head coach Butch Jones’ offensive philosophy is the only real question mark. The spread requires more speed, so beefy linemen like Richardson are shedding pounds this off-season. How it impacts their performance will determine the fate of the new system.
3. Alabama Crimson Tide
Arguably the most talented, if not the best offensive line in all of college football last season was Alabama’s, featuring first round draft picks D.J. Fluker and Chance Warmack, as well as Rimington Trophy winner Barrett Jones. All three are gone.
Typically, such turnover would be a major question mark. But like he has with linebackers and running backs, Nick Saban has recruited such a cache of talent on the offensive line that the transition should be smooth. Tackle Cyrus Kouandjio was the No. 2 overall recruit in the 2011 signing class, and a starter on last year’s unit. He will serve as this season’s anchor alongside fellow 2011 signee Ryan Kelly.
4. Mississippi State Bulldogs
Guard Gabe Jackson’s decision to return for his senior season was a major victory for Dan Mullen this off-season, as the standout interior lineman helps anchor a Bulldog unit that allowed just 19 sacks in 2012. Jackson is one of four returning starters who paved the way for running back LaDarius Perkins to surpass the 1000-yard mark.
5. Texas A&M Aggies
The potent Aggie offense returns All-SEC tackle Jake Matthews, amongthe conference’s best individual blockers. He makes the move to left tackle to replace one of the nation’s most irreplacable players, No. 2 overall NFL draft pick Luke Joeckel. The departure of Joeckel is this blogger’s top question mark heading into the SEC season. Joeckel was vital to the Aggies’ No. 11 nationally ranked rushing attack.
6. LSU Tigers
New offensive coordinator Cam Cameron brings a philosophy to Death Valley that fits in with LSU tradition. He will run the ball. A lot. And he inherits an offensive line with four returning starters, including La’El Collins. It’s seemingly a recipe for success, but offensive line coach Greg Studrawa needs better production from his unit. The Tigers averaged a surprisingly so-so 173.7 yards per game on 4.3 yards per rush. Both fell well behind pace-setter and LSU rival Alabama, which sets the benchmark for where the Tigers want to be.
7. Vanderbilt Commodores
Three starters return from a Commodore offensive line that set up the rush game for a respectable 166.3 yards per game; most noteworthy is tackle Wesley Johnson, who enters his fourth season starting up front. One question mark is the departure of Ryan Seymour, though head coach James Franklin has recruited linemen well, including 2012 four-star signee Andrew Jelks.
8. South Carolina Gamecocks
The Gamecocks return four starting linemen, but the subtraction is a significant one. Gone is All-SEC center T.J. Johnson, who signed on with the Cincinnati Bengals this week. Johnson was the star of a Gamecock offensive line that had some issues establishing a consistent ground game. Granted, Marcus Lattimore’s knee injury hamstrung South Carolina’s rushing efforts, but the Gamecocks averaged a surprisingly low 138.5 yards per game on just 3.7 per carry.
9. Ole Miss Rebels
The good news for Hugh Freeze’s Rebels: they return four starters from an offensive line that helped put up 31.5 points and 173.9 rushing yards per game. The bad news? Ole Miss’ Bo Wallace was one of the most sacked quarterbacks in the SEC last season, going down 34 times. The Rebel line has a highly touted crop of candidates joining it in summer camp, but can a prospect like five-star Laremy Tunsil work into a prominent role as a true freshman? It’s not an easily answered question.
10. Auburn Tigers
Like Ole Miss, Auburn returns an experienced starting offensive line. Obviously the more starts across a line, the better. However, the Tigers allowed more sacks per game than any other SEC line with 3.1. It’s small wonder then-head coach Gene Chizik was forced to play musical chairs at quarterback — rotating through starters was indirect damage control. AU did have a servicable running game, though, accuring 4.1 yards per carry; a noteworthy total for an offense that had almost zero consistency on the passing game to keep defenses off-balance.
11. Florida Gators
Quarterback Jeff Driskel’s struggles were partially reflective of the Gators’ offensive line’s struggles. The Gators surrendered the most total sacks of any team in the SEC last year with 39. And as good as running back Mike Gillislee proved to be, it may have been in spite of the holes paved for him; Florida’s yard per carry average was below four. With two starters gone from last year’s unit, there is catch-up to be played along with efforts to improve the overall product.
12. Missouri Tigers
A hallmark of Gary Pinkel’s Missouri teams while in the Big 12 was their ability to attack in a variety of ways. In the Tigers’ first SEC season, they struggled to adjust to the differences. It was especially evident on the line. MU rushed for just 138.5 points per game with a paltry 3.67 yards per carry. The former was down from a 244 yard per game average in 2011. Quarterback James Franklin was also sacked 29 times in 2012, 11 more than the previous campaign. This year, Missouri enters the season with just two returning starters in the unit.
13. Kentucky Wildcats
The loss of highly touted NFL draft prospect and All-SEC performer Larry Warford is cause for concern on a Kentucky offensive line that was better than the Wildcats’ 2-10 final record would indicate. UK rushed for 4.1 yards per carry, for example — better than conference counterparts South Carolina and Missouri. A case that UK deserves a better ranking could be made, but Warford leaves such a huge hole.
14. Arkansas Razorbacks
Bret Bielema’s three Rose Bowl-participating Wisconsin Badgers teams won with burly offensive lines, stocked with NFL-caliber talent. He begins his tenure with the Arkansas Razorbacks lacking that foundation. The Hogs return just two starting offensive linemen from a unit that could only set up the running game for 118.7 yards per game — No. 104 in the nation, and dead-last in the SEC.