- Chris Low, ESPN Senior Staff Writer
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How important is offensive line play?
Go back and find the last time a team with an average offensive line won the SEC championship. The translation: If you’re going to win a title in this league, you better be good and deep up front offensively.
That said, we take a look today at our offensive line rankings in the SEC for the 2014 season.
1. South Carolina: The Gamecocks are losing some key pieces from last season’s 11-win team, but their offensive line stacks up as the best of the Steve Spurrier era. The left side with senior tackle Corey Robinson and senior guard A.J. Cann is outstanding, and junior Brandon Shell returns at right tackle. All three have NFL potential, while sophomore Cody Waldrop is healthy again and on the preseason Rimington list as the top center in the country.
2. Texas A&M: Talent has flowed through the Texas A&M offensive line the last few seasons, and even with top-10 picks in the NFL draft departing each of the last two years, the Aggies should again be as strong as anybody. Cedric Ogbuehi, moving from right tackle to left tackle, will be the next first-rounder to come out of College Station. It looks like sophomore Germain Ifedi will move from guard to right tackle, and junior center Mike Matthews is the latest gem to come out of that family.
3. LSU: Four starters are back for the Tigers, and they also like their young talent. La’el Collins passed on the NFL draft and returns for his senior season. He’s a franchise left tackle. The left side of the line, period, should be strong with 6-6, 342-pound junior guard Vadal Alexander returning, and sophomore Ethan Pocic is good enough and versatile enough that he could be a factor at a couple of different positions.
4. Auburn: A year ago, Greg Robinson came out of nowhere to be the best offensive lineman in the league and go No. 2 overall in the NFL draft. Avery Young and Shon Coleman are in line to replace Robinson at left tackle, and the other four starters are back. Senior center Reese Dismukes leads a unit that ended last season as the best offensive line in the league and should be right there at the top again in 2014.
5. Missouri: The Tigers are big, experienced and deep. They also have some versatility with a couple of guys who’ve played different positions. Junior Evan Boehm is one of the top centers in the country, and senior Mitch Morse is moving over from right tackle to left tackle to replace Justin Britt. Gary Pinkel’s track record for putting together a strong offensive line speaks for itself.
6. Alabama: For a change, Alabama doesn’t enter the season with one of the top two or three offensive lines in the league, but that doesn’t mean the Crimson Tide won’t get there. Junior Ryan Kelly is All-SEC material at center, and as talented as Cam Robinson is, it’s never ideal to start a true freshman at left tackle. Senior right tackle Austin Shepherd is one of the more underrated players in the league.
7. Mississippi State: The heart and soul of Mississippi State’s line a year ago, mammoth guard Gabe Jackson, is gone, but look for senior center Dillon Day to fill that role in 2014. The Bulldogs also return junior Blaine Clausell at left tackle and senior Ben Beckwith at right guard. One of the keys will be junior Justin Malone staying healthy after missing most of last season with a foot injury. He brings experience, size and talent to the interior of that line.
8. Florida: The Gators should be just fine if they’re able to play most of the season with their starting five. The problem comes if somebody gets hurt, and that’s been a recurring theme. The tackle tandem could be one of the best in the league with junior D.J. Humphries on the left side and fifth-year senior Chaz Green on the right side. Again, though, Green has struggled to stay healthy.
9. Ole Miss: The Rebels have some impressive young talent in their offensive line, including sophomore Laremy Tunsil at left tackle, but they’re precariously thin. Losing right tackle Austin Golson was a blow, and they need returning senior Aaron Morris to stay healthy. He was the Rebels’ best lineman before he got hurt last season. True freshman Rod Taylor also has what it takes physically to come in and play right away.
10. Georgia: Senior center David Andrews is the anchor of the group, but three starters from a year ago are gone. Junior John Theus started eight games at right tackle last season and could move to the left side, but senior Mark Beard started at left tackle in the spring game. Fifth-year senior Kolton Houston is also back and could wind up at right tackle or left guard.
11. Vanderbilt: The deepest position on Vanderbilt’s roster is the offensive line, which has rarely been the case in Nashville. Four-year starter Wesley Johnson will be difficult to replace at left tackle, but talented sophomore Andrew Jelks is poised to move from right to left tackle. The interior of the Commodores’ line is especially stout, led by senior center Joe Townsend.
12. Arkansas: After having no choice but to play a pair of true freshmen last season, the Hogs should see that pay dividends in 2014. Bret Bielema knows what a menacing offensive line looks like, and he has some talented building blocks in sophomore left tackle Dan Skipper and sophomore guard Denver Kirkland. Replacing All-SEC center Travis Swanson will be dicey.
13. Tennessee: The Vols are faced with having to replace all five starters. Fortunately for them, junior Marcus Jackson redshirted last season and provides some experience at guard. They need junior college transfer Dontavius Blair to make an immediate impact at left tackle, and true freshman Coleman Thomas may end up being the starter at right tackle.
14. Kentucky: The Wildcats’ struggles in the offensive line last season were well chronicled. They gave up a league-worst 37 sacks, but return four starters. They’re hopeful that a season together will lead to more continuity. The veteran of the group is senior Darrian Miller at left tackle, and sophomore Jordan Swindle has a nice future at right tackle.