One group of big uglies down, now we turn to their counterparts on offense. Again, I will take the average of our ballots and make that the official ATVS vote, as the blog only gets one vote, despite our disagreements within.
Two things jump out at me about the 2014 offensive lines. One: there's a lot of guys coming back. Six teams return four starters to their offensive line. Two: if you don't have Auburn as your #1 team, you're drunk.
1 AUBURN - Last year's leaders in rushing average and near the top of the league in sacks allowed, Auburn returns four starters and eight guys from their two deep. An absolute no-brainer for the top of my ballot.
2 ARKANSAS - They allowed 8 sacks last year and despite a talent-challenged backfield, the Hogs actually ranked fourth in the SEC in yards per carry. That's with two freshmen starting. Things look even brighter this year.
3 LSU - This should be the best offensive line in Miles' tenure, but we've said that before.
4 TEXAS A&M - Loses another top 5 pick offensive tackle and somehow might improve as a unit. Four starters return to an effective unit.
5 ALABAMA - This has consistently been one of the very best lines in the country, and this year should be no different, though I am nervous about a freshman, even one as highly touted as Cam Robinson, starting at left tackle for a green quarterback.
6 SOUTH CAROLINA - Getting tons of hype, but I don't see it. Middle of the pack last year in both sacks and yards per rush, they should repeat that performance. Solid unit, but I don't think it is superlative.
7 MISSISSIPPI STATE - Built some depth last year through some injury struggles, and is a middle of the pack unit in both run and pass blocking.
8 FLORIDA - Had a rotating cast of characters last year leading to spectacularly awful numbers, particularly 3.63 yd/carries, but there's too much talent here to not bounce back.
9 GEORGIA - They lose three starters from a line that was fairly average. However, they might see some bounce back in their numbers due to a healthy backfield, which was beyond their control.
10 OLE MISS - One of the lesser units in the SEC returns two starters. Maybe that's a good thing.
11 MIZZOU - Great run stats, terrible sack stats. It's tough to get a read on Mizzou's unit.
12 TENNESSEE - The Vols have quietly had one of the best lines in the SEC for two seasons, but now they return zero starters and must virtually start from scratch.
13 KENTUCKY - A terrible unit that allowed an astounding 37 sacks season returns four starters. Expect more of the same.
14 VANDY - A terrible unit that nosed out Florida at the finish for worst rushing average returns four starters. Expect more of the same.
Poseur is right, there's a ton of experience coming back on the OL in the SEC. There should be multiple units that are very strong, if not some national award winners. For me, Alabama and Auburn are probably a cut above the rest, but interestingly, both are tasked with replacing stud LTs. In that case, I'm gonna rely on Bill Connelly's OL rankings from last year. Obviously the complexion of the OL won't be entirely the same, but with so many units returning multiple starters, I think it at least gives us an idea of some quality here. It's pretty rare that one average or even subpar player drives down an entire OL.
I can't find myself voting for anyone but Auburn at the top. Sure, they lose the monster that was Greg Robinson, but amazing OL play is a hallmark of Malzahn's offense. I won't dare suggest it's as simple as plug and play, but the loss of Robinson isn't going to send this unit tumbling terribly backward. Based on Connelly's work, they were the 2nd best line in the nation last year. They may fall backward, but not into a pit. What most stands out is that they were exceptional in all facets. They ranked in the top 6 of every category but one of Connelly's, and 18 in that. For comparison's sake, 18 was the highest LSU rated in any single category.
Alabama is your number two, considering they were one of the five best lines in the country last season and lose only their LT, who played poorly down the stretch and a RG you've never heard of. Rookie QB throws some doubt, but the same could be said of any in the next tier. A&M rated exceptionally high as well, but how much of that is Matthews/Manziel? Again, I think Sumlin's system will help support their OL play, but I see them taking a few steps backward this year. They were also a poor power running team, and I don't see that improving.
That leaves Mizzou, Arkansas, LSU and South Carolina as tier two. I think I like Mizzou most, despite losing their LT, because Mauk may be able to give them a little Manziel-lite ability. The others will either be ushering in a new QB or rolling out a bad one. Mauk has at least played more than a game for Mizzou, and played well.
After those top 7, the bottom 7 are a mush of potential to outright poor play. I'm ranking Tennessee last, primarily because they replace everyone and only project to have one four-star recruit on their line. I'm also slightly bullish on UF, because they have talent and now have an OC who knows what to do with it.
3) Texas A&M
7) South Carolina
8) Ole Miss
9) Mississippi State
Auburn's a unanimous No. 1. I question the loss of Greg Robinson, only because so many of Tre Mason's great runs came behind him last season, but when you bring back four starters that paved for 400 rushing yards a game without much of an air attack, you've earned that spot.
And I'm with Poseur with Arkansas at No. 2. They blocked for a pretty solid running game with one of the conference's worst passing attacks, and even with only three of last year's starters back, the new guys include guys that have started in previous years.
3. LSU -- Four starters back, plus another three key backups. New coach is a bit of a wildcard, but I think La'El Collins and Jerald Hawkins are the league's best returning bookend tackles.
After this, I think Alabama, South Carolina and Texas A&M are kind of in a scrum. The Aggies have four starters back, but I question their ability to push good defenses around. South Carolina has three back, plus some experienced backups, but Poseur's right -- their metrics weren't as impressive in conference play. I think Alabama's getting a lot of benefit of the doubt off of their reputation and recruiting, but it's a red flag to me that they brought in JUCO help, and that Cam Robinson was able to come in so quickly and take a starting job. Yeah, Robinson is a great talent, but its not like he's jumping a bunch of three stars. Alabama's been recruiting big-time talent there for years, but it doesn't seem like they're that happy with their depth.
7. Mississippi State -- Four seniors. State may quietly have a very nice offense.
8. Florida -- I worry a little bit about the shift from a power scheme to more of a spread one, but there's talent and experience there.
9. Georgia -- Todd Gurley's going to make them look better than this.
10. Ole Miss -- Ole Miss is going to be a chic dark horse pick in the West, but they're going to have to find an offensive line and depth is very thin there.
11. Mizzou -- I like that the tackles and center are back, but I'm just not sure what to think of it overall until I see the offense without James Franklin.
12. Tennessee -- Biggest question mark on a team that's loaded with them.
13. Kentucky -- Had a bad set of matching threes last year -- sacks allowed per game and yards per carry average.
14. Vanderbilt -- Agree with Poseur's assessment. They're all back, but again, what's that mean if they're not good?
Auburn is far and away our top choice, followed by a tightly packed group ranked 2-5. There's also some pretty clear consensus on the worst three lines in the conference, though some dispute on the order. Really, the only true dispute in our rankings is Paul's ranking of Mizzou, and to a lesser extent, LSU and Alabama. The combined ballot:
3 Texas A&M
6 South Carolina
7 Mississippi St.
10 Ole Miss