We turn this week to the defensive line, which is one of the harder units to rank, mainly because any statistical measure gets mixed in with another unit. However, the two things I really looked at were rushing average and tackles for a loss (as well as the obvious: returning starters). I want a line that can get pressure without getting gashed on the ground. It's not perfect, and I'm not married to any particular formula, but it did give me a good guideline on quality.
1 Alabama: The Tide's defensive line should be illegal. They have one of the best run defenses in the country, and they bring back tons of starting experience and a legit superstar in A'Shawn Robinson. This unit is legit great.
2 Ole Miss: Give them credit, they brought in big-name recruits and they panned out. Robert Nkemdiche is a star, they have a decent rotation on the inside, and have some impressive speed rushers on the outside. It's a terrific run defense that can also apply pressure on the QB.
3 Florida: They lose Fowler, but this unit is still elite. For all of the Gators problems on the other line, the D-line is in great shape, and one of the few run defenses as effective as Bama (3.17 YPC). Might slip a tad, but this is still a great group.
4 Tennessee: Curt Maggitt and Derek Barnett are a spectacular duo, combining for 21 sacks last year. They also return every starter on top of a talented recruiting class. Ready to step up to the elite.
5 Arkansas: The Hogs quietly had one of the best lines on the conference. They lose Trey Flowers, but honestly, the strength of the line is not getting pressure, but being the immovable object against the run.
6 Auburn: Carl Lawson returns! Eventually, Auburn needs to turn their talent into production, but I like their mix of returning talent and new blood. Lawson is the cherry on top.
7 LSU: Plenty of depth on the line, but it lacks an elite pass-rusher. LSU is replacing both ends who, frankly, weren't all that productive, though I think that was more system than talent. The ends have been playing contain for half a decade, let's see what happens when they are let loose.
8 Mizzou: They always have a good line, but I think graduation finally catches up to them. They get some benefit of the doubt, but that cupboard looks bare.
9 Georgia: Speaking of bare cupboards. No one returns less starts on the line than the Dawgs with 5. That's right. Five. They have good depth, but they need some kids to step up right now.
10 Mississippi St: Another quality line absolutely gutted by graduation. State loses all but one starter in this unit, a theme for the Bulldogs this season. They used a pretty deep rotation last season, so it's not like the guys they have haven't seen the field, but this was a middle of the pack unit anyway, ranking near league average in stopping the run and in TFL's.
11 South Carolina: The Gamecocks allowed 5.37 YPC last season and only 4 TFL/game. Both of those numbers were the worst in the SEC. Spurrier loaded up on JUCO's for an immediate fix which is a pretty good idea. They return three starters, who might now find themselves fighting for playing time.
12 Texas A&M: Hiring a coach doesn't magically make your D-line any good. As bad as USC was, A&M was nipping at their heels, allowing over 5 yards per rush attempt. Myles Garret single-handedly created a decent pass rush, which still ranked in the bottom half of the SEC (tied with LSU in TFL's).
13 Kentucky: They have recruited some big names like Matt Elam and Denzel Ware. Well, it's time to throw them out there and pray they can keep up. They are going to miss their studs from last season.
14 Vanderbilt: They return one starter from a unit that ranked near the bottom of the SEC in every category. The future looks dim.
There's not very many complete units here. A lot of teams have one stud surrounded by some unproven newbies, or one specific area flanked by some unknowns. It's also worth noting that the western division dominates the top half here.
1 Alabama: A'Shawn Robinson and Jarran Reed do their jobs incredibly well in this scheme. But the biggest strength Bama has here is numbers. They just trot out body after body and they stay fresh. You really saw it last year against LSU. The moment came when the run game should have broken open, but the Tide held.
2 Ole Miss:The Rebels go here for having two proven guys back and some intriguing young talent, but I have to admit, I think they're a bit overrated given that teams like LSU and Arkansas were able to really wear them out against the run. Still, Robert Nkemdiche is a big-time talent, even if the production doesn't match it, Marquis Haynes is a guy that can get into the backfield, and Breeland Speaks should break out.
3 Tennessee: Derek Barnett has an argument for the league's best defensive lineman, and he's flanked by two returning starters.
4 Georgia: Jordan Jenkins is a fantastic two-way end, and Lorenzo Carter will play with his hand in the dirt some as well and should be a great pass-rusher this year. Surrounded by a lot of bulk in the middle.
5 LSU: I fully expect Christian LaCouture and Davon Godchaux to rank with previous Tiger twosomes like Logan & Brockers and Williams & Wroten this season. The big question is at defensive end where there's some intriguing talents, but no proven producers. But LSU also has the no-doubt, bar-none best defensive line coach in the country turning these boys loose now with Ed Orgeron on board.
6 Auburn: Montravius Adams is very good, and Carl Lawson certainly has talent, if it's a little more unproven than most think.
7 Texas A&M: Honestly, this unit is only this high because of Myles Garrett. But he's the kind of talent that will make everybody around him look much better.
8 Arkansas: Two starters back from a solid unit, and a big body that has some high expectations in Bijhon Jackson.
9 Kentucky: Kind of a dark horse here, but I really like the Wildcats up the middle with nose tackles Melvin Lewis and massive Matt Elam.
10 Florida: It's so weird to see the Gators this low, but the best guys returning are going to have to work without Dante Fowler Jr. around. And the pass-rush seems like it will be counting on true freshman Cece Jefferson, and that's never a good look.
11 Mississippi State: He didn't explode like I thought he would last year, but I still think Chris Jones has the talent to be the best overall lineman in the league. And there's a veteran group around him here, so they shouldn't step back too much without Kaleb Eulls and Preston Smith.
12 Missouri: Losing Harold Brantley to that car wreck was huge. They get some benefit of the doubt here for what they've done recently, but there's nobody back with any skins on the wall right now.
13 South Carolina: They return three starters, but this unit badly underachieved last year.
14 Vanderbilt: Oww.
We're missing Paul this week, so we just get the two rankings this week, but there's enough disagreement here, we don't need our resident dissenter.
There's general consensus between the two of us on how to rank the top and the bottom of the conference, but we completely disagree on the middle class. It's interesting to me how we disagree, not just that we have completely different reads. Billy seems to place more weight on top end talent. He punishes Florida for losing Fowler, gives A&M a boost for Garrett, raves about Georgia's top end, and denigrates Arkansas' top talent. On the flip side, I don't place as much weight on stars, and look more at how the unit has performed as a whole, and give much more weight to depth. So Florida's production matters more to me, as well as A&M's lack of it, even with a star rush end.
I don't think either one of us is right, per se. What it does demonstrate is that there is no one correct way to evaluate a team. I think both of our methods are equally valid, it just shows more about what we personally value. It's like an argument between two historians over the Great Man versus systemic pressure. Or maybe it's because I like The Wire more.
Anyway, the net result is the same, no matter how you evaluate: Bama is the best, Vandy is the worst, and everyone else falls in between those two poles. Seems to be a bit of a trend.
2 Ole Miss
9 Texas A&M
11 Mississippi St
13 South Carolina