Now that we’ve gotten the glamour boys out of the way, let’s get to the monsters of the interior. Our look at each positional group in the SEC now moves to the defensive lines.
Defensive lines are a pretty tough group to rate statistically, as all defensive stats are interdependent on one another, but we’re going to do our best here. What I look at the most are three standard stats: rushing average allowed, sacks per 100 attempt, and tackles for loss per 100 plays.
This gives us an idea of how well the line contains the run, and how much havoc they create in the passing game. Now, admittedly, not all sacks and TFL come from linemen, so I do look at the individual leaders as well. There were 29 players in the SEC last season with 10 or more TFL. Sixteen of them were linemen. So it at least tilts towards line play, even if only seven of those linemen return.
2018 Defensive Lines
Other than the numbers, what is most interesting is how evenly rated the individual linemen are. Athlon’s preseason magazine goes four teams deep on the All-SEC team, making space for 16 linemen. Thirteen of 14 schools are represented and no one has multiple players on any of the individual teams.
That’s a pretty shocking even distribution of talent, and mainly due to a function that many of the big names are off to the NFL, like the bulk of Bama’s line and every single starter from Mississippi’s State’s great line.
1. Auburn. Remember that intro in which I stated only seven linemen with at least 10 tackles for loss return this season? Yeah, two of them play for Auburn: Nick Coe and Derrick Brown. In a year in which no team comes into the season with an established star advantage, having two returning productive studs is a massive edge.
2. Alabama. Sometimes, you just have to say, “it’s Bama.” The Tide only return one starter, but of course they will be awesome because they are always awesome due to their relentless recruiting edge. Saban has to be somewhat surprised that Quinnen Williams left for the draft. I mean, how often does a sophomore declare early from Tuscaloosa? But even though that wasn’t part of the Process, he has a store of five-stars ready to take his place in the rotation.
3. LSU. The Tigers return three starters by Phil Steele’s count despite losing a starter to the NFL. That’s the sort of depth they had last year, and will again. Tyler Shelvin and Siaki Ika aren’t even starters on the depth chart, and might possibly overthrow the guys in front of them. This is a deep, talented, experienced unit that was a nightmare against the run last year.
4. Florida. The Gators also return three starters in their 3-4 including a legitimate star in Jabari Zuniga. Florida doesn’t have quite the depth LSU does, but their starting unit is probably a tad better. You could easily flip the two, as both units were incredibly productive last year.
5. Texas A&M. The Aggies dominated the tackle-for-loss leaderboard last season, notching an SEC-leading 12.74 per 100 defensive snaps. All four of their starting linemen had 10 TFL or more. It was simply a great unit, though maybe a hair behind Bama and State. The problem? Three of the four are gone, leaving only Justin Madubuike to anchor the unit. That’s a lot of production to lose, and I’m not entirely sure how they plan on replacing it. The next guy on the depth chart last season was Jayden Peevy, and he had just 9 tackles total. Michael Clemons better be a stud, coming back from injury.
6. Mississippi State. Speaking of losing all of the production from a great defensive line, I just don’t have the heart to drop the Bulldogs any lower than this. That unit was simply great last season, but all four starters are gone and, well, that doesn’t usually bode well. It just seems too much for them to drop out of the top half of the conference, but it’s not entirely outside the realm of possibility with so many good units out there.
7. Kentucky. Well, they did generate a metric ton of pressure last season. That is true. The problem is, most of it came from Josh Allen, who has since graduated (he was also a linebacker, but who is counting?). The Cats do return two of three starters, but the question is how productive was the line, really? And how will they perform without a world crusher behind them?
8. Arkansas. On the one hand, their overall numbers are fairly pedestrian. They return two starters on the line. On the other hand, one of those starters is McTelvin Agim. They also return five guys from the two-deep for their four-man front. I feel there’s an SEC bylaw which require Arkansas to at least have a competent defensive line.
9. Georgia. What are the Dawgs doing down here? Well, for starters they only ranked seventh in the SEC in rushing average allowed, and that’s the strength of this unit last year. They ranked second to last in TFL/play and only one spot better in sacks/play. For such a vaunted defense, they simply did not generate pressure in any meaningful way. Now, they have recruited like gangbusters, and they do return two of three starters. The third starter will be freshman All-American Jordan Davis, who needs to go from flashes of greatness to the team’s best lineman. Certainly possible, but there is a mountain to climb.
10. Missouri. Mizzou boasted a rushing average of 3.70, right up there with the SEC leaders, and ahead of both of the West Division Tigers. That’s the good news. However, like Georgia, they generated little pressure behind the line of scrimmage, and now return two of their four returning starters. They lose both tackle starters, so the interior is likely to be a problem, which is exactly where they derived their strength last season.
11. Ole Miss. The Rebels are the last team in the conference to return three of three starters. The problem is that the OM defense wasn’t that great at generating pressure on the quarterback last season, though, to give credit, it was middle of the pack in TFL’s. Maybe the lack of production elsewhere was due to the rest of the defense. However, the run defense was downright horrific. Ole Miss was the only team to allow over five yards per rush, and I’m not sure returning the guys responsible for that number is all that much of a positive. I like experience on the line, so I’ll give the Rebels a bit of a bump here to keep them out of the basement, though they will likely make me regret being so magnanimous.
12. South Carolina. Let’s start off with the fact that Javon Kinlaw is really good. But… the line really wasn’t good at anything last year even with Kinlaw. They were poor against the run and at generating pressure, and I’m not sure where the improvement comes from. The Gamecocks weren’t awful at anything, but they didn’t excel at anything either. This ranking is more of a reflection that there are few truly bad lines in the conference, but it’s hard to climb that ladder.
13. Vanderbilt. Well, speaking of bad lines. Vanderbilt was terrible last year, ranking dead last in both of our pressure categories and grabbing the penultimate spot in the rushing average allowed.
14. Tennessee. The only team in the SEC to not place a player on any of the Athlon preseason All-SEC teams. The problem wasn’t that they were terrible last season, as the Vols were slightly below average at nearly everything. No, the problem is that the Vols return zero starters, so an already questionable unit now needs to start from scratch. That doesn’t bode well.