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2021 SEC Unit Rankings: Offensive Line

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Blocking is winning

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 26 Auburn at LSU
Sigh. Auburn was... sneaky good.
Photo by John Korduner/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Two straight weeks of the big uglies! Last week, we looked at the top defensive lines in the SEC, and this week we flip it around to look at the counterparts on the offensive side of the ball.

Yes, we used quarterback rankings as a dirty trick to get you to read about linemen. Our plan is finally coming together. And look, quarterback play is important, but if you can’t block, you can’t do anything. Everything starts with your ability to block.

Offensive lines are rate more as a group than as a series of individuals. More than any other position group, you really are only as good as your weakest link. Which is why returning career starts (thanks for tracking it Phil Steele!) and simple returning starter matter here more than at any other position. I rate continuity highly on the line.

The other thing we look at is performance, and the offensive line has two jobs: open up holes for the running backs and to protect the quarterback. Pass blocking is easy, we can look at sacks allowed per 100 pass attempts, so we don’t get misled by raw sack totals as a function of how much you pass. For run blocking, we steal from the guys at Football Outsiders, and look at their Adjusted Line Yards, which determines the yards per rush attributable to the line.

1 AUBURN. Something I harp on nearly every year when I do these ratings is this: NO ONE KNOWS ANYTHING ABOUT LINE PLAY. It’s the hardest position group to evaluate, and I find the narratives do not match up well to actual performance. A common refrain in preseason previews so far has been that Auburn needs to improve their line play and… that’s crazy. It is one of the best lines in the SEC already. The Tigers average 2.95 ALY and 5.53 sacks/100 att, both in the top quartile of the conference. Additionally, they return four starters and 89 career starters. They are near the top of literally every metric, and almost everyone is coming back, including star center Nick Brahms.

2 ALABAMA. Bama was the only other line that was significantly better than the league average at both run and pass blocking. Bama’s 2.99 ALY is elite and their 3.37 sacks/100 is two sacks below the league average. Now, that bad news for Bama is they are suffering a ton of attrition, returning only 2 starters and a career 54 starts. That’s scraping the bottom of the nation in the retuning experience, but as is the theme, if anyone gets a pass on unproven players, its Bama.

3 FLORIDA. The Gators don’t return any pre-season All-SEC linemen, but they do return 4 starters and 89 career starts from a unit that did everything well last season. They have a better pass blocking unit (4.23 sacks/100) but the run blocking is still above the league average. At another position, the lack of stars could hurt, but this is offensive line, where becoming a star seems almost arbitrary.

4 OLE MISS. Technically, the Rebels run blocking blew away the SEC, scoring 3.20 ALY. But here’s the thing, I don’t really trust that number, as I think it’s more of a function of Matt Corral being a great running quarterback. They were good pass blockers at 5.67 sacks/100 and they return 64 career starts. But I don’t entirely trust this unit despite the gaudy numbers.

5 GEORGIA. Stellar run blocking at 3.03 ALY coupled with mediocre at best pass blocking with 6.54, below the SEC average. Even worse for Georgia, the Bulldogs were gutted by graduation and return a paltry 38 career starts. Jamaree Salyer is a preseason All-SEC lineman, but it’s about units, not individuals.

6 LSU. First, the positives. LSU returns all five starters (if Dare Rosenthal sticks around) and three of them are on the preseason All-SEC teams. Ed Ingram is a beast, y’all. And as bad as last year went, LSU actually had decent pass blocking at 5.94 sacks/100. The negatives? Jesus, did you see that run blocking? LSU’s 2.65 ALY is below SEC average and the team’s 4.01 yards/rush is downright atrocious. And that’s with some highly touted players hauling the rock. It was a total failure of the line last year and it’s an open question whether that was an aberration or a sign of things to come. This is the most volatile unit on the list, and could end up going either way.

7 TEXAS A&M. They were good last year, but not as good as you were led to believe. The Aggies boasted the best pass blocking in the conference, with an amazing 2.32 sacks/100. On the flip side, the run blocking was right below the SEC average at 2.77 ALY. They would rank a lot higher if anyone was coming back. The Aggies return only one starter and a mere 40 career starts, one of the lowest totals in the nation. They are rebuilding almost from scratch, no matter how good Kenyon Green is.

8 MIZZOU. The poor man’s A&M. Mizzou had above average pass blocking (4.41 sacks/100) coupled with below average run blocking (2.71 ALY). However, what they do have is four starters coming back with 88 career starts. Mike Maietti anchors a solid unit which should see its numbers improve due to experience.

9 KENTUCKY. Darian Kinnard is a star on a mediocre unit and I will never figure out how offensive linemen start getting well-known. The Wildcats didn’t do anything particularly well, nor did they do anything poorly. They were the classic average line, and they return an average number of career starts: 62. The line won’t be a problem, but it won’t be an asset either.

10 TENNESSEE. The run blocking was pretty good, but the pass blocking was atrocious, and at the end of the day, pass blocking probably matters more in the modern game. 10.18 sacks/100 is an astoundingly terrible performance. They do have positives to work on, and they return three starters, but this is not a good unit.

11 VANDERBILT. I value continuity, but what to do with a team that returns 103 career starts, but performance which can be charitably described as suboptimal? Vandy’s 2.48 ALY is awful, though their pass blocking rate is about the league median, so there’s something there. They return a lot of experience, so let’s at least give them the potential for competence.

12 ARKANSAS. The experience problem is even worse for the Hogs. No one returns more career starts (110), but no one boasted a worse line last season. Myron Cunningham gets some preseason accolades, but… wow, this unit was bad. 2.71 ALY isn’t a disaster, but 11.97 sacks/100 most certainly is. That’s like you’re not even trying, y’all.

13 SOUTH CAROLINA. The Gamecocks also stunk last year, and they also return a bunch of starters, bringing back four on the line. The most experienced units in the SEC this year were among the worst last year, so one of the will likely improve a bunch, but not all of them. The Gamecocks’ 2.46 ALY was the second worst in the SEC, so they have room for growth.

14 MISSISSIPPI ST. The Bulldogs had a bad line last year, and they return only 37 career starts. That’s a lethal combo. State had the worst run blocking, at 2.43 ALY, but their pass blocking approached decent. 6.11 sacks/100 is actually pretty good. But they are rebuilding from the studs again, and there are no studs on the roster.