Now we get to the hardest unit to evaluate: the offensive line (which is probably why it’s just me doing the ranking this week). The problem with line play is that its successes and failures are so intertwined with other players. How much of the running game is on the line? Is that sack because of a failed block or because the QB held on to the ball for too long?
Every unit has the problem of overlapping responsibility, but nowhere is it more apparent than offensive line, where there really is no stat that is primarily about them. For years, I’ve cobbled together my own offensive line stats, which are based on the standard deviation from average production in SEC play. There’s a lot of problems with the scheme, but it was at least something to hinge an objective evaluation on.
Now, Football Outsiders is in their fourth year of publishing its line stats for college which are also opponent adjusted. Because both Adjusted Line Yards (run blocking) and Adjusted Sack Rate (pass blocking) are on the same scale with 100 being average, we can combine the two numbers (and dividing by two to keep it on the same 100-point scale) to get a rough overall rating.
I’ll also throw in my own OLNE rankings here as a general check, plus Phil Steele’s career starts returning. So, all told, we can sum up each team’s offensive line play last year plus make a reasonable projection for this year based on its returning production. All in one handy chart!
SEC Line Ratings
- Missouri. Mizzou lacks the star power, but their line was f’n awesome last year. It nearly broke the scale when it came to pass blocking, and the team ranked third in SEC rushing average despite lacking a top tier running back. Oh, and nearly everyone is back.
- Mississippi State. State was another unit that was really good at run blocking and exceptional in pass protect. They have a few more well-regarded players, but likely will miss the preseason All-SEC first team. No one knows a thing about linemen.
- Georgia. The Bulldogs were an elite run blocking team, duking it out with Bama for the SEC lead in rushing average, well ahead of the pack. They also had above average pass blocking, and they return four of five starters.
- Alabama. FO hates Bama’s pass blocking while I had them at slightly below average. We both agreed their run blocking in superlative. Not only does Bama have a high Adjusted Line Yards, its in service of a running game that averaged over 6.2 yards a carry once you remove sacks. The Tide returns 103 starts as well as two of the biggest names in the SEC up front: Ross Pierchsbacher and Jonah Williams.
- Ole Miss. Greg Little is perhaps the most lauded lineman in the conference, and he anchors a unit that is good at everything. They also return 102 career starts. They will need the line to hold up that offense.
- Vanderbilt. A poor man’s Mizzou. Exceptional pass blocking coupled with below average run blocking. Of course, the Commodores run game was truly wretched, but they do return 97 starts.
- Texas A&M. Almost a carbon copy of Vandy only with slightly inferior pass blocking. The Aggies return 96 rather than 97 starts, which I’m sure is a huge deal.
- South Carolina. Slightly above average in both disciplines. About as anonymous as a unit can get.
- Arkansas. Hjalte Froholdt headlines a unit that performs well when attacking the other line, but can’t protect the quarterback, especially on passing downs.
- LSU. Adjusted Line Yards rates LSU’s line as the best at run blocking in the country, a lofty rank for a school that ranked middle of the pack in the SEC in rush average. But we agreed that that LSU’s pass blocking was truly atrocious, and ranked as one of the worst in the nation. But don’t worry, LSU returns just 35 career starts, though it does return three guys who started the bowl game.
- Auburn. Think LSU, only with worse run blocking and slightly better pass blocking. Auburn returns only one starter this season, so if they are hoping for a repeat of last year’s fireworks on the plains, the Tigers need the line to gel immediately.
- Florida. A spectacularly awful unit boasting some of the worst pass blocking in the nation. Martez Ivey is a star despite playing on a lousy unit, and I’ll give them a slight bump for returning 112 career starts, tops in the conference.
- Kentucky. ALY doesn’t give the line credit for a surprisingly decent rushing attack. But the line wasn’t very good last season, and might be taking a step back this season due to personnel losses.
- Tennessee. Wow. The Vols ranked second to last in both pass and run blocking in the advanced metrics, and now they have two freshmen slated at the top of the dept chart. Could get ugly.
For me, experience is a big key, especially unit experience because offensive line, as much as any position on the field, is about teamwork and chemistry. Likewise, there’s the individual talents — you don’t see many good lines that don’t have a few standouts like that — and balance. Some road-grading lines can’t pass-protect, and some that keep quarterbacks upright can’t push anybody around (as a general rule a line like that probably looks good because the QB is getting the ball out, more so than what they’re doing).
But the hole in “returning starts” is that when you have a group like LSU, that played multiple true freshmen, it’s not going to tell you much even though they may be in for a spike in quality. So it all matters.
- Missouri. Five starters back, with a productive running game to go with Drew Locke’s air show.
- Georgia. This was probably the best unit in the SEC last year, in terms of pushing around the league’s top two fronts (Auburn and Bama) and they return four starters.
- Alabama. To me, Jonah Williams kind of hides some of the other players a bit, and that showed up in pass-protection. Thing is, that only shows up against 3-4 fronts a year. The teams at the top here are pretty academic, you just have to pick your preferred order.
- South Carolina. Here’s where I’m projecting a little. Three starters back, but the newbies are guys with time in the system so you expect them to step in with minimal issues. This offense in general could be poised for a nice little breakout in 2018.
- LSU. And here’s my other big projection. The tackles saw time as true freshmen, ditto one guard. You have a returning senior, plus a top JUCO transfer that turned all kinds of heads in the spring. I expect this group to take a nice step forward in 2018 and become one of the best units in the country in the near future.
- Mississippi State. Four starters back, but here’s where I think they miss Martinas Rankin. They could really push people around behind him, but I want to see how they do that along the rest of the front. And that’s before we get into the scheme transition.
- Vanderbilt. Like Poseur said, they pass-block very well, and with five starters back, I think it’s fair to expect the run blocking to improve a little.
- Ole Miss. Greg Little is a nice talent, but I’m not as sold on the rest. They were feast or famine in 2017, giving up six tackles-for-loss per conference game. I’m not sold they can really hold up against the better defensive fronts in the league.
- Texas A&M. Same deal as Ole Miss — high highs, low lows. Four starters back is a good thing, but they’re going to be going through a big transition from the Sumlin to Jimbo Fisher. The Aggies have been soft on the line of scrimmage for a long time and I don’t see that changing overnight.
- Auburn. Bunch of newbies, albeit veteran newbies — but Auburn has really struggled to pass protect, and something that nobody wants to talk about is that they really weren’t all that great at run blocking without Kerryon Johnson in the lineup.
- Arkansas. Hjalte Froholdt is a heck of a player but...well...this group wasn’t all that great last year, So four starters back is a good thing, but how will they mesh with a new staff and a very different scheme?
- Florida. Same deal as Arkansas — returning starters, but not many good ones.
- Kentucky. They block really well for Benny Snell, but not for anybody else.
- Tennessee. I really hate implying that a stud recruit wasted his college years somewhere, but when you look at Trey Smith and the rest of this unit...
If there has been one constant in these rankings over the years, is that I’m consistently the one the harshest on LSU’s offensive line and everyone else insists that no, THIS is the year the line finally lives up to its reputation. I’m sorry, but track record matters and LSU has got to show me before I start ranking them in the top half of the conference. This is a line that gets consistent preseason praise and then routinely underperforms. It has been LSU’s biggest weakness for nearing a decade. There is a real opportunity for growth, Billy’s right there. The team played mix and match all year, so now it has three returning starters who were all first time starters... so career starts will underrate the squad. But I’m still waiting on an LSU offensive line to impress me before I join the hype train.
Our other big departure is State, and I’m impressed by the track record of state to churn out big, mean guys who can open up holes in the running lane. It’s what they do in Starkvegas since the dawn of time.
I do disagree about the value of that one guy. Consistently, the most highly rated offensive linemen who go on to careers in the NFL has almost no bearing on the overall quality of your line. A line isn’t as strong as its most powerful part, it is only as strong as its weakest member, as that’s where people will attack. It doesn’t matter that Martez Ivey will be a high draft pick so long as everyone around him stinks. Billy concedes this when it comes to Greg Little at Ole Miss (and Florida). Probably the two most hyped linemen in the conference, and deservedly so, and neither can carry the team by themselves to the top tier. Line play is nearly immune to celebrity.
4 Mississippi St.
5 South Carolina
6 Ole Miss
9 Texas A&M