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Six players who could make their teams SEC champions
The difference between the SEC and other conferences, at least on the field, is often the play on the offensive and defensive lines. Recent national championship programs at Alabama, Auburn, LSU and Florida all had standout line play.
Then perhaps it’s no surprise that of the six players we’ve tabbed as pivotal to a conference or division title, five play offensive and defensive line. Three are pass rushers, one is a nose guard and one is an offensive tackle. Teams like Alabama, Georgia and LSU seem to be stocked in linemen every year, but there’s always an element of mystery when the new names take the field.
Some of our picks for pivotal players are obvious, such as Alabama’s offensive line, other are not — why does South Carolina need another defensive end? — but we feel all six are critical for a trip to Atlanta.
Our criteria for pivotal players:
1. He plays for a conference or division contender.
2. He is an unproven commodity in some way.
3. He plays at a position his team needs to perform in order to win a division or conference title.
We’ve looked at pivotal players for contenders in the ACC, the American, the Big 12 and Pac-12. Now we turn our eye to the SEC.
Julien Obioha, DE, Texas A&M
The Aggies must replace offensive tackle Luke Joeckel, the No. 2 pick in the NFL draft, and receiving mainstay Ryan Swope. But another major loss will be on the defensive side of the ball in Damontre Moore. Obioha started throughout the regular season opposite Moore before a back injury knocked him out of the bowl game. He isn’t the only question on A&M’s defensive front, but the Aggies need much more than his 1.5 tackles for a loss from last season. The 6-4, 255-pound sophomore from New Orleans will be put on the spot on Sept. 14 against the green Alabama offensive line.
Jermauria Rasco, DE, LSU
Rasco is the latest in an endless pool of elite defensive linemen in Baton Rouge. Names like Barkevious Mingo and Sam Montgomery are already getting thrown around in comparison to the junior from Shreveport. Three LSU defensive ends were drafted in the first five rounds last season, but Rasco is one of the reasons the SEC expects LSU to continue to field one of the league’s best defenses.
Demarcus Robinson, WR, Florida
Mike Gillislee is a major loss, but Matt Jones and others should give the Gators a productive ground game. Instead, we’ll focus on receiver. The Gators have had a drought at the position in recent seasons, failing to produce an all-league wideout in the last four years. Robinson, a freshman, is a sign of hope after an impressive spring practice. The Gators need someone to break out at receiver, and Robinson is the best candidate to come around so far.
Austin Shepherd, OT, Alabama
Ryan Kelly (center) and Arie Kouandjio (left guard) have all but locked down vacant positions on the Tide’s offensive line, leaving right tackle as the most hotly contested position. Shepherd is a veteran backup, but he’s being pushed by junior college transfer Leon Brown.
Chaz Sutton, DE, South Carolina
South Carolina has bigger questions in the back end of its defense, but Jadeveon Clowney’s linemate may be the most important position on the field. Sutton replaces Devin Taylor, who had 18.5 career sacks. Sutton had three sacks last season, but if he can’t keep opponents honest, they’ll do everything they can to neutralize Clowney. Sutton, who had three sacks last season, may be the key if Clowney is going to flourish in 2013.
Mike Thornton, NT, Georgia
Georgia’s season could take a major swing based on the first two games against Clemson and South Carolina. In the Tigers and Gamecocks, Georgia faces two offensive lines that return every starter except their center. That puts the focus on the Bulldogs’ nose guard situation with John Jenkins. The Bulldogs expect a rotation at the position, but Thornton is the leading candidate despite being smaller than the other nose tackles on the roster (6-1, 302).