Anybody ever heard that you win up front in the SEC? Here’s how we rank the offensive lines in the league heading into the 2013 season.
1. Tennessee: The Vols might have lost most of their offensive firepower at the skill positions from a year ago, but they return some serious muscle in the trenches. The tackle tandem of Antonio “Tiny” Richardson and Ja’Wuan James is one of the best in the country. Senior guard Zach Fulton ranks among the best interior linemen in the SEC, and senior center James Stone is on the preseason watch list for the Rimington Award. The Vols enter the 2013 season with 123 combined starts in the offensive line and are as talented as they are experienced.
2. Alabama: Yes, the Crimson Tide lost three players to the NFL draft, but don’t feel sorry for them. Junior Cyrus Kouandjio might be the best left tackle in college football. Senior right guard Anthony Steen is one of the SEC’s more underrated offensive linemen, and sophomore center Ryan Kelly could be the next star center in the league. The battle for the right tackle job will be interesting, and Mario Cristobal is in his first season as the Tide’s offensive line coach. But when’s the last time these guys haven’t been lights out up front?
3. Texas A&M: One of the biggest recruiting scores for the Aggies this offseason was Jake Matthews bypassing the NFL draft and returning for his senior season. He’ll shift from right tackle to left tackle and take over for the departed Luke Joeckel, who was the No. 2 overall pick in the draft. Junior Cedric Ogbuehi will move from guard to right tackle and is receiving some preseason All-SEC mention. Junior Jarvis Harrison returns at left guard, and another member of the Matthews family -- sophomore Mike Matthews -- will take over for Patrick Lewis at center.
4. Georgia: Not only do the Bulldogs return all five starters, but they return their top eight offensive linemen from a year ago. Senior guard Chris Burnette is the anchor of the group, but there’s enough depth that offensive line coach Will Friend could have some options. Right tackle John Theus was a Freshman All-American last season, but was listed No. 2 on the post-spring depth chart behind sophomore Xzavier Ward. Senior Kenarious Gates can play guard or tackle. Junior David Andrews is back at center, and senior Dallas Lee has started each of the past two seasons at guard.
5. South Carolina: Steve Spurrier is hard to please, but this offensive line has a chance to be the best one the Gamecocks have had since he arrived in 2005. One of the keys will be how well redshirt freshman Cody Waldrop fills the shoes of T.J. Johnson at center. Junior left guard A.J. Cann is All-SEC material, and sophomore right tackle Brandon Shell has matured and is poised for a big season. Some of the best news for the Gamecocks was that offensive line coach Shawn Elliott decided to stick around after being wooed by Alabama.
6. LSU: The Tigers were forced to shuffle people around up front last season after tackle Chris Faulk went down with an injury, and the lack of continuity showed in pass protection. They appear to be set going into this season. Junior La’el Collins is moving from guard to left tackle and has star potential. Vadal Alexander returns at right tackle, and senior Josh Williford and sophomore Trai Turner are back at the guard spots. True freshman Ethan Pocic had an impressive spring after enrolling early and will push for playing time at center.
7. Florida: The problem a year ago was pass protection, but the Gators are banking on D.J. Humphries making a big difference at left tackle. The entire left side should be better with the addition of Maryland transfer Max Garcia at guard. Another transfer, Tyler Moore, will step in at right tackle after starting as a true freshman at Nebraska. Senior center Jonotthan Harrison and senior right guard Jon Halapio have combined for 60 career starts. This should be the best offensive line the Gators have put on the field under Will Muschamp.
8. Mississippi State: Four of the Bulldogs’ five starters return. Guard Tobias Smith is also eligible to return after being granted a sixth year of eligibility by the NCAA, but given the state of his aching knees, he’s likely to take on the role of a student coach. Senior guard Gabe Jackson is one of the best interior linemen in the country, and junior Dillon Day is a menacing blocker at center. Justin Malone filled in when Smith was unable to go last season and is the likely starter at right guard. The Bulldogs allowed just 19 sacks in 13 games last season.
9. Ole Miss: Any time an offense puts up the kinds of numbers the Rebels did last season, that means somebody’s doing something right in the offensive line. Four of the five starters are back from a year ago, including 11 lettermen in the offensive line. Junior left guard Aaron Morris was sidelined this spring after undergoing shoulder surgery, but has All-SEC potential. Both starting tackles, Pierce Burton and Emmanuel McCray, are back, although they will be pushed by incoming freshman Laremy Tunsil, who was ranked by ESPN as the No. 1 offensive tackle prospect in the country.
10. Vanderbilt: The Commodores were able to redshirt all of their freshmen on the offensive line last year and head into the 2013 season with the most depth they’ve had up front in some time. There’s no substitute for having a player as versatile as senior Wesley Johnson, who returns at left tackle. Vanderbilt welcomes back six linemen with starting experience, and Andrew Jelks is one of several redshirt freshmen who could step in and play right away.
11. Auburn: The Tigers return four of their five starters from a year ago and several others who played. And while there wasn’t much to like about anything Auburn did on offense last season, this is a group that has a chance to make significant improvement in Gus Malzahn’s hurry-up offense. Center Reese Dismukes is entering his third season as a starter, and sophomore left tackle Greg Robinson is probably the most talented of the bunch.
12. Arkansas: Go back and look at some of Bret Bielema’s rugged offensive lines at Wisconsin. Moreover, new offensive line coach Sam Pittman has a pretty impressive track record of his own. They inherit an Arkansas offensive line in transition. It’s a unit that will be anchored by senior center Travis Swanson, who’s shown up on some preseason All-America teams. Brey Cook and Mitch Smothers have moved inside to guard, and the Hogs like the extra punch they provided in the spring.
13. Missouri: Injuries decimated the Tigers up front a year ago. But with so many different players stepping in and having to play, Missouri should be better equipped to handle any adversity that comes its way this season. It’s always nice to be strong in the middle, and sophomore Evan Boehm will move to center after starting all 12 games at left guard last season as a true freshman. The Tigers need senior left tackle Justin Britt to stay healthy. He tore his ACL last season.
14. Kentucky: The Wildcats want to play at a faster pace under new offensive coordinator Neal Brown, so there will be a natural transition. Replacing All-SEC guard Larry Warford won’t be easy, and there’s very little proven depth. Junior left tackle Darrian Miller will be the anchor of the group, and Zach West and Kevin Mitchell are also back after starting last season. But once the Wildcats get past their first four, they’ll have to lean heavily on redshirt freshmen and true freshmen.