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A.J. Cann leads a solid South Carolina line.
The SEC is home to four of Athlon Sports’ national top-five offensive lines for 2014. The top spot belongs to Florida State, but Auburn, Texas A&M, LSU and South Carolina rank among the best offensive lines in the nation.
As cliché as it sounds, elite offensive line play is common in the SEC and critical to a national championship. Auburn’s featured one of the best groups in the nation last year and guided the Tigers to an appearance in the BCS Championship.
Six offensive linemen on Athlon Sports’ 2014 All-America team hail from the SEC, including guard A.J. Cann and tackle Cedric Ogbuehi.
Line play should be a strength in the SEC this year, especially if groups like Ole Miss, Missouri and Mississippi State replace some key losses from 2013. And the conference’s overall depth extends to teams like Arkansas and Vanderbilt, as both teams should be better in the trenches in 2014.
To help prepare for the 2014 season, we will take a look at the 14 teams in the SEC and rank the offensive lines for the upcoming year. An important note: This is not a preseason ranking of accomplishments so far. This is a projection of what will happen in 2014.
Ranking the SEC’s Offensive Lines for 2014
(Note: This is a projection of how these lines will perform in 2014 – not a preseason ranking of where they stand.)
First-round pick Greg Robinson is a huge loss at left tackle, but the Tigers return four starters from a unit that paved the way for rushers to average 5.9 yards per carry in SEC play last season. Center Reese Dismukes is an Athlon Sports second-team All-American for 2014, while sophomore guard Alex Kozan is one of the SEC’s rising stars. According to Football Study Hall’s Bill Connelly, Auburn’s line ranked No. 3 nationally in 2013 in stuff rate and No. 2 in adjusted line yards.
2. Texas A&M
Another year, another first-round tackle departs. But just like 2013, there’s little concern in College Station about the offensive line. With Jake Matthews taking snaps for the Atlanta Falcons, the Aggies will turn to senior Cedric Ogbuehi to anchor the left tackle position. Ogbuehi is expected to be one of the top linemen selected in the 2015 NFL Draft. Three other starters return, including senior Jarvis Harrison at guard and right tackle Germain Ifedi. Center Mike Matthews should be in the mix for All-SEC honors after starting all 13 games in 2013.
Considering the inexperience at quarterback, expect to see coach Les Miles and coordinator Cam Cameron lean on the ground game and offensive line in 2014. This group is plenty capable and should rank among the best in the nation. Four starters are back from a unit that helped LSU rushers average 4.5 yards per touch in SEC play last season. Left tackle La’el Collins is an Athlon Sports third-team All-American for 2014, guard Vadal Alexander is projected to earn third-team All-SEC honors, while right tackle Jerald Hawkins returns after starting all 13 games as a redshirt freshman. Hoko Fanaika is expected to replace Trai Turner at right guard. Improving the pass protection is a priority after allowing a sack every 11 pass attempts in SEC play last year.
This unit has made considerable progress for coach Steve Spurrier in recent years. The Gamecocks are expected to take another step forward up front in 2014, as four starters return from a unit that helped running back Mike Davis rush for 1,183 yards and 11 touchdowns in 2013. A.J. Cann is one of the top guards in the nation, and tackle Corey Robinson is projected to earn third-team All-SEC honors. The return of guard Mike Matulis should help to stabilize the right side of the line.
The Crimson Tide enter 2014 with just two returning starters in the trenches, but there’s no doubt this unit will emerge as a strength. Center Ryan Kelly is the anchor after starting nine games in 2013, while right tackle Austin Shepherd is expected to be in the mix for all-conference honors. The other three spots on the line are up for grabs, but there’s no shortage of talent. Freshman Cam Robinson – the No. 4 incoming freshman in the 247Sports Composite – could start at left tackle. Alabama’s line allowed the fewest sacks in SEC play last year (four), while paving the way for rushers to average 6.4 yards per carry.
6. Ole Miss
Health will be critical to Ole Miss’ offensive line this season, as there’s little in the way of proven depth. However, if the starting five stays healthy, the Rebels should have one of the top groups in the SEC. Left tackle Laremy Tunsil started nine games as a true freshman last year and earned second-team All-SEC honors. Expect Tunsil to only get better as a sophomore. Guard Aaron Morris was lost for the season due to a knee injury in the opener against Vanderbilt, but he should return at full strength for 2014. When healthy, Morris is an All-SEC performer. Junior Justin Bell is expected to start at right guard and could slide to center if Ben Still struggles. Coach Hugh Freeze needs incoming recruits Fahn Cooper (JC) and Rod Taylor (freshman) to provide depth.
What a difference a year makes. After injuries took its toll on Missouri’s offensive line in 2012, the Tigers had better luck in the health department and performed as one of the better groups in the SEC. Left tackle Justin Britt and guard Max Copeland are huge losses, but three starters are back for coach Gary Pinkel. Center Evan Boehm has started all 26 games in his career and is expected to be one of the top centers in the league this year. Mitch Morse and Conner McGovern are proven options at the tackle spots, with Anthony Gatti and Mitch L. Hall leading the way at guard. The Tigers averaged 5.5 yards per carry in SEC play and allowed a sack every 16.6 pass attempts in 2013.
The No. 7-9 spots in this ranking are very close, so we could easily switch Georgia, Missouri and Mississippi State around in a different order. The Bulldogs need more help from their line, especially with a new quarterback (Hutson Mason) taking over. Center David Andrews is one of the best in the SEC, and junior John Theus is ready for a breakout year at left tackle. The other three spots are up for grabs this fall, but there are experienced options (Mark Beard and Kolton Houston) vying for spots on the line. The Bulldogs ranked No. 4 in Football Study Hall’s power success rate last season.
Coach Dan Mullen has some work to do upfront this fall, but the Bulldogs should be solid in the trenches. Guard Gabe Jackson (first-team All-SEC in 2013) is a huge loss, and Justin Malone, Jamaal Clayborn and Ben Beckwith are likely vying for the right to replace Jackson, as well as start on the other side. Malone missed nearly all of last season due to injury, and his health is crucial to this unit performing at a high level post-Jackson. Seniors Blaine Clausell and Dillon Day are back as Mississippi State’s top linemen and both should push for all-conference honors.
Line coach Sam Pittman is one of the best in the nation, and the Razorbacks have some promising young talent on the way. There’s a good bit of potential with this group, especially if tackle Dan Skipper and guard Denver Kirkland build off promising freshman campaigns. Senior Brey Cook is expected to start at right tackle and could push for all-conference honors. UNLV transfer Cameron Jefferson joins the competition for time at left guard, while Mitch Smothers and Luke Charpentier will battle to replace Travis Swanson at center.
Wesley Johnson will be tough to replace, but the Commodores return four starters from a group that has made significant strides over the last few seasons. Sophomore Andrew Jelks is expected to replace Johnson at left tackle, while Spencer Pulley and Jake Bernstein anchor the guard spots. Senior Joe Townsend is back at center after starting all 13 games in the middle last season. Vanderbilt has room to improve on the stat sheet, allowing 3.6 sacks per game and averaging only 3.1 yards per carry in SEC play.
In addition to Jeff Driskel’s injury and inconsistency at wide receiver, the struggles of the offensive line factored prominently into Florida’s 4-8 record in 2013. The Gators ranked No. 102 in adjusted line yards and averaged only 3.4 yards per carry in SEC games. This unit also allowed 22 sacks in conference play. Even with just one returning starter, there’s hope for improvement in 2014. Left tackle D.J. Humphries was a key pickup on the recruiting trail in 2012 and missed most of last season due to a knee injury. With Humphries and right tackle Chaz Green back to full strength, Max Garcia is expected to slide to center. This unit is also under the direction of a new coach in former Kentucky and USC assistant Mike Summers.
Butch Jones has some work to do this fall. All five starters from Tennessee’s offensive line are gone, leaving little in the way of proven options. Guard Marcus Jackson redshirted last season after playing in 24 games from 2011-12, and the Florida native is expected to be one of the leaders for this unit in 2014. Junior college transfer Dontavius Blair was a key pickup on the recruiting trail and is penciled in at left tackle. With a tough schedule, this unit will have little time to jell.
The Wildcats rank last on this list, but there’s plenty of optimism. Four starters are back, and guard Zach West (21 career starts) is a candidate for all-conference honors. Senior Darrian Miller and junior Jordan Swindle should form a solid duo at tackle. Kentucky tied Vanderbilt for the most sacks allowed in SEC play last year (29), and its rushers averaged only 3.2 yards per carry.