Defensive line play should be one of the first things that comes to mind when SEC football is being discussed. The big boys in the trenches get after it, pressure the quarterback relentlessly and consistently force turnovers.
SEC defensive lines have helped to produce seven straight national titles. There were nine SEC teams last season that had at least 30 sacks and 11 that racked up more than 70 tackles for loss.
The conference's defensive fronts remain among of the best in the country, but how do they stack up against one another?
Note: Rankings are based on a combination of experience and production. A defensive line could be loaded with former 5-star players, but it doesn't mean much if they haven't done anything yet. It's all about what they have done lately.
Projected Starters: Gavin Stansbury, Alonzo Williams, Kirby Ennis and Julien Obioha
Other Key Players: Justin Manning, Isaiah Golden and Tyrell Taylor
Having lost Damontre Moore and Spencer Nealy, who combined for 14.5 sacks last season, to the NFL draft, nobody knows what to expect from Texas A&M's defensive front.
Obioha will be the key to the defensive line this season. He played n 12 games as a freshman and used his long arms to bat down six passes. He will be the primary pass-rusher and will be expected to lead the team in sacks. Ennis needs to do a better job of staying out of trouble and take on a leadership role. He started 11 games as a junior and could become one of the better defensive tackles at 6'4", 310 pounds.
Texas A&M is raw defensively and extremely young. Starting from the bottom is expected until players begin to step up.
Projected Starters: Dee Ford, Gabe Wright, Angelo Blackson and Kenneth Carter
Other Key Players: Nosa Eguae, Jeffrey Whitaker and Craig Sanders
Auburn is another defensive line that must prove itself before moving up the rankings. Last season, the defense was absolutely brutal, finishing 11th in the SEC in sacks (22) and struggling to stop the run. What makes the defense look worse on paper is that top defensive end Corey Lemonier is now in the NFL.
The good news is that Auburn still has Ford, who led the team with six sacks and finished second with eight quarterback hurries. It will be interesting to see how well he performs without Lemonier on the other side, but he has potential to become a star in the SEC. Carter will move from defensive tackle to defensive end, and he has the quickness needed to excel.
Auburn has youth and talent to improve drastically up front, but it must become more consistent.
Projected Starters: Michael Sam, Kony Ealy, Matt Hoch and Lucas Vincent
Other Key Players: Shane Ray, Harold Brantley and Marvin Foster
One of the few things Missouri was able to do right last season was get pressure up front and play relatively well against the run. Although only 21 sacks were produced, the Tigers did finish with 31 quarterback hurries and allowed only 149 rushing yards a game. Remember, this was an undersized defensive line coming from the Big 12.
The Tigers have more questions with Sheldon Richardson now in the NFL. He was the best player on the team and used his size and athleticism to make everybody's job easier. Now, Sam will look to build on his team-leading 4.5 sacks, while Ealy must have a breakout junior year. Vincent must do a better job of staying healthy, and Hoch should improve after starting every game at nose tackle.
Missouri isn't the most talented team defensively, but there are a couple of solid building blocks.
Projected Starters: Marion Walls, Daniel Hood, Daniel McCullers and Jacques Smith
Other Key Players: Maurice Couch, Jordan Williams and Corey Miller
Tennessee had the worst defense in the SEC last season, and it wasn't even close.
But it is hard to bet against experience, and Tennessee has that in spades. The projected starting defensive line are all seniors, and most of the backups are upperclassmen. If the defense is going to improve, it's going to start with these guys.
McCullers is one of the biggest players in college football at 6'8", 351 pounds. He's guaranteed to demand double-teams at defensive tackle. His presence should free up players such as Smith, who had seven tackles for loss in six starts at linebacker. Couch is one of the dark horses at defensive tackle, as he gets off the ball quickly and uses his hands well.
Tennessee could move up a few notches if everything goes well.
Projected Starters: Preston Smith, P.J. Jones, Kaleb Eulls and Denico Autry
Other Key Players: Ryan Brown, Curtis Virges and A.J. Jefferson
Mississippi State's defensive line has no choice but to take a step forward. The secondary took a major hit, losing defensive backs Darius Slay and Johnthan Banks, so finishing the season with only 18 sacks isn't going to get the job done.
The good news is that there is potential up front for those sack numbers to improve.
Smith and Autry return for another season, and they combined for 8.5 sacks and 15 tackles for loss. Jones could have a breakout season after starting two games and finishing with 16 tackles. He has terrific athleticism and explodes off the ball.
Mississippi State's defensive line must improve or it will be a long season.
Projected Starters: Bud Dupree, Za'Darius Smith, Donte Rumph and Mister Cobble
Other Key Players: Mike Douglas, Tristian Johnson and Alvin Davis
Kentucky's defensive line has a chance to turn heads this season. After finishing last season with 26 sacks and 14 quarterback hurries, the Wildcats have a nice combination of experience and talent up front.
Most of the defensive line is made up of upperclassmen, including seniors Rumph and Cobble. Rumph shined his junior season by racking up four sacks and six tackles for loss, and Cobble is beginning to come out of his shell and contribute at a high level. The X-factor up front is Dupree, who is moving from linebacker to defensive end. He led Kentucky with 6.5 sacks and 12.5 tackles for loss.
Kentucky has a lot of question marks entering the season, but defensive line has a chance to be one of its best units.
Projected Starters: Kyle Woestmann, Jared Morse, Vince Taylor and Walker May
Other Key Players: Barron Dixon, Adam Butler and Ladarius Banks
Believe it or not, Vanderbilt finished last season with 31 sacks. That number tied the Commodores with Arkansas and Texas A&M for sixth place in the SEC and was one more than Florida.
A lot of the key contributors return, including Woestmann, who finished second on the team with five sacks as a sophomore. May is the leader of the defense and has one of the quicker first steps in the conference. He should have no problem building on the seven sacks he has in his career. Morse is also a load to deal with in the middle at 6'2", 304 pounds.
Vanderbilt may not have the most talented players, but they get the job done and are ready to compete with some of the best lines in this conference.
Projected Starters: Garrison Smith, Sterling Bailey and Mike Thornton
Other Key Players: John Atkins, Ray Drew and Chris Mayes
Georgia has a lot of new faces on the defensive line. Along with losing players such as Jarvis Jones and Alec Ogletree, the Bulldogs also lost defensive tackle John Jenkins.
Now, a bunch of inexperienced players will be counted on to grow up quickly.
Smith is now the leader of the defensive line, as he enters his senior season. He started eight games last year and picked up eight quarterback hurries. The rest of the line is full of baby-faced players. Thornton, Mayes and Drew haven't done enough to expect anything spectacular right away.
This group has talent, but it could take a while before the line begins firing on all cylinders.
Projected Starters: Jeoffrey Pagan, Ed Stinson and Brandon Ivory
Other Key Players: Brandon Lake, LaMichael Fanning and Dalvin Thomlinson
What in the world? Alabama isn't near the top?
Calm down, folks.
This is actually a solid starting point for Alabama's defensive line, as the coaching staff is still searching for elite players to step up. Losing Jesse Williams, Damion Square and Quinton Dial doesn't help. Ivory has big shoes to fill at nose guard, and Pagan still has the potential to blossom into a difference-maker. The most proven player up front is Stinson, who finished last season with three sacks and 8.5 tackles for loss.
Of course, there is talent. However, a lot of these guys still have to prove themselves.
Projected Starters: C.J. Johnson, Issac Gross, Carlton Martin and E.J. Epperson
Other Key Players: Cameron Whigham, Channing Ward and Robert Nkemdiche
Mississippi is about a lot more than hype and putting together ridiculous recruiting classes. With a young and feisty defense, the Rebels finished second in the SEC last season with an impressive 38 sacks.
A lot of those players have returned.
Johnson led the way with 6.5 sacks and should be ready for the season opener after recovering from a broken leg. Gross saw a lot of playing time as a freshman and should settle in well as a full-time starter at nose tackle. There are also going to be a lot of eyes on Nkemdiche, who was the top recruit of the 2013 recruiting class, according to 247Sports.
This defensive line is young and athletic and will continue to draw attention throughout the year.
Projected Starters: Chris Smith, Robert Thomas, Bryan Jones and Trey Flowers Jr.
Other Key Players: JaMichael Winston, DeMarcus Hodge and Brandon Lewis
Arkansas had a solid defensive line last season, but it wasn't noticed due to the consternation caused by its 4-8 record. With a lot of key players returning, more folks will recognize the talent up front this season.
Smith is one of the better defensive ends in the SEC, as he racked up 9.5 sacks and 12 quarterback hurries. Flowers has also proved to be a productive defensive end, finishing his sophomore season with six sacks and 13 tackles for loss. It's safe to say that Arkansas has one of the nation's best defensive-end tandems.
There is also experience inside, as Jones has started 29 games in his three-year career.
Arkansas may have a lot of concerns, but defensive line isn't one of them.
Projected Starters: Ego Ferguson, Anthony Johnson, Jermauria Rasco and Danielle Hunter
Other Key Players: Jordan Allen, Tashawn Bower and Quentin Thomas
With Sam Montgomery and Barkevious Mingo in the NFL, some would assume that LSU's defensive line isn't as dominant. But who are you kidding? This is LSU, a program that is usually three-deep up front and rotates one great defensive lineman for another.
Johnson has the skill set to become a first-round NFL draft pick. He has freakish athleticism and carries all 310 pounds well when on the move. Rasco is an elite pass-rusher and could quickly make LSU fans forget about all of the defensive talent it lost. Another player who will thrive is Ferguson, who is strong at the point of attack and can explode off the ball.
LSU is a conveyor belt of talent defensively. Even with many players gone, the defensive line production won't change much.
Projected Starters: Jonathan Bullard, Damien Jacobs, Dominique Easley and Dante Fowler Jr.
Other Key Players: Ronald Powell, Leon Orr and Bryan Cox Jr.
Florida is another team that lost a lot of defensive talent to the NFL draft, but the defensive line shouldn't miss a beat.
Easley should have his best season yet by switching from defensive end to defensive tackle. His more natural position will allow him to take advantage of slower offensive linemen with his incredible quickness and relentless motor. A name that everybody should be familiar with is Bullard, who is entering only his sophomore season but has a unique combination of speed and power.
Powell is the X-factor to this defensive line's success, as he's coming off two ACL injuries. If he can stay healthy and give Florida solid snaps, this line could easily be better than last year's.
This defensive line gives Florida a chance to compete for a spot in the SEC Championship Game.
Projected Starters: Chaz Sutton, Jadeveon Clowney, J.T. Surratt and Kelcy Quarles
Other Key Players: Gerald Dixon, Gerald Dixon Jr. and Mason Harris
South Carolina led the SEC with 43 sacks and could very well top those numbers this season.
Clowney needs no introduction. He's one of the best defensive ends in college football history and makes a valid case to be the first pick in next year's NFL draft.
But this line is more than the freak of nature.
Quarles is an above-average pass-rusher at defensive tackle, and Sutton has improved each year in his career, finishing last season with five sacks.
The Gamecocks have the best defensive lineman in the country and a solid supporting cast. They can't ask for much more than the line that will look to lead them to an SEC title.