Every SEC Team's Strongest, Weakest Position Groups Heading into 2014 Season

Brian Leigh@@BLeighDATFeatured ColumnistMay 28, 2014

Every SEC Team's Strongest, Weakest Position Groups Heading into 2014 Season

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    After a high-scoring, uptempo, passing-fueled season that shattered the mold of SEC football, America's best conference should get back to its roots in 2014.

    Perhaps the best class of quarterbacks in league history departed this offseason, and (partially) as a result, many of the projected top teams find their strengths along the offensive and defensive lines and in the offensive backfield.

    That is not the case for everyone, however, and there are certain teams that will fly in the face of that style. Based on where their most talented players return, they will cater to their relative strengths.

    The criteria for this list was rather simple: The strongest groups are the ones with the most talent, and the weakest are the ones with the least. The metrics used include a combination of how many players are returning, which players are returning, last year's performance and which players have been added during the offseason.

    Chime in below to let me know where you disagree.


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    Strongest Position Group: Defensive Line

    You could make an argument for the secondary—despite the loss of four on-and-off starters—but the defensive line has a comfortable amount of depth and very few questions. Dante Fowler should have a huge season at the Buck position, Leon Orr is an experienced tackle, and Jonathan Bullard will do well no matter where he plays (be it at tackle or at end). Rotation pieces such as Darius Cummings, Jay-nard Bostwick, Bryan Cox Jr. and Caleb Brantley give this unit a chance to rotate often and to keep bodies fresh all game.


    Weakest Position Group: Quarterbacks

    I am a Jeff Driskel apologist of sorts; I expect—or at least hope—that he will have a nice season under Kurt Roper in 2014. But coming off a broken leg last season and given his track record of inconsistency, it is hard to bank on such improvement with full conviction. With Skyler Mornhinweg as the projected backup (yuck), there is not enough depth to bank on either. Will Grier is a promising name for the future, but he does not appear ready to compete as a true freshman.


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    Strongest Position Group: Running Backs

    Todd Gurley is the best running back in college football, and Keith Marshall—provided he's healthy—is on the short list of best second options. Behind them, Georgia brings in Nick Chubb and Sony Michel, a pair of blue-chip freshman runners that should both get a chance to see the field. We play in an era where 5-star tailbacks do not redshirt, so don't expect Georgia to save those guys for a later date.


    Weakest Position Group: Defensive Backs

    The secondary was Georgia's biggest weakness last season, and the attrition it has seen this offseason—most of which was not expected—has further raised red flags. Josh Harvey-Clemons was dismissed from the team, and Shaq Wiggins decided to transfer, depriving the Bulldogs of two starters from last year's team. (Interestingly enough, both of those guys ended up at Louisville). Returning starters include cornerback Damian Swann, who took a massive step back last season, and safety Tray Matthews, who might find himself in the dog house after an arrest for theft by deception in March. Sufficient to say, there are questions on the back end.


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    Strongest Position Group: Running Backs

    Nebraska transfer Braylon Heard had to sit out last year, per NCAA transfer rules, but he looked like a potential feature back all spring. "He took as much advantage of a redshirt year as anybody I've seen," said offensive coordinator Neal Brown, according to Sam Khan of ESPN.com—and it showed. Beside him, Kentucky goes four deep with JoJo Kemp, Josh "Not Harvey-" Clemons and Mikel Horton.


    Weakest Position Group: Linebackers

    Kentucky struggled to stop the run last season, finishing 97th in Football Outsiders' rush defense S&P+ ratings. That could be a problem. Even though two starting linebackers return, the one who departs, Avery Williamson, was the best player on the entire team. The defensive line gets a boost with the addition of freshman Matt Elam, which should hopefully short up the A-gap. But it is still unclear how the Wildcats will cope without Williamson up the middle.


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    Strongest Position Group: Defensive Line

    Michael Sam and Kony Ealy are gone from what was the SEC's best defensive line last season. But they weren't the only reason this group was so dominant, and the pieces that return are good enough to keep it that way in 2014. Markus Golden and Shane Ray should seamlessly fill the open spots at end, while Lucas Vincent and Matt Hoch return as seniors up the middle. Mizzou will continue playing defense from the inside out—and will continue doing it well.


    Weakest Position Group: Defensive Backs

    Missouri allowed 264.9 passing yards per game last season, finishing No. 109 in the country in that regard. Much of that number is skewed by schedule and context—i.e., the Tigers' pass defense wasn't actually one of the worst in the country—but it's a scary figure nonetheless for a team that loses three starters in the secondary. E.J. Gaines was an All-SEC talent, and Randy Ponder and Matt White were also steady contributors. This unit must dig deep to find some answers.

South Carolina

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    Strongest Position Group: Offensive Line

    The offensive line should once again be the ballast of this offense. A.J. Cann is one of the best interior blockers in the country, three other starters return around him, and reserve Clayton Stadnik got enough playing time in 2013 to be counted on as the new fifth component. According to Bleacher Report's Charles Bennett, this could be the best offensive line Steve Spurrier has coached at South Carolina.


    Weakest Position Group: Defensive Backs

    South Carolina loses a lot of talent along the defensive line, so this is a close call. But the Gamecocks' lack of proven cornerback talent is jarring. Converted tailback Jamari Smith would probably start on the outside if the season began today, and although a talented group of freshmen is set to arrive this summer, how can players so young be trusted without enrolling for spring camp? Few (if any) projected top-15 teams are relying so much on true freshmen.


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    Strongest Position Group: Wide Receivers

    If Josh Malone is the player he appeared to be this spring, he and Marquez North will team up to form one of the most dangerous pass-catching duos in America. Malone had six catches for 181 yards and three touchdowns in the spring game, and North was one of the SEC's breakout stars as a freshman in 2013. Throw JUCO transfer Von Pearson into the mix, and you've got three guys Tennessee can feel confident about in the vertical passing game. Plus, according to Patrick Brown of the Times Free Pressslot specialist Pig Howard—who missed the spring because of "personal issues"—is expected to rejoin the team for summer workouts. This unit is scary.


    Weakest Position Group: Defensive Line

    Tennessee's defense was a mess all spring (particularly in the spring game), and no unit struggled more than the defensive line. "Well, it's everywhere," said head coach Butch Jones when asked where the defense needed improvement, according to Bleacher Report's Brad Shepard. "But it starts up front on the defensive line. That's no secret." The Vols return zero starters from last year's front four, per Phil Steele, and will be counting on a number of summer-enrollee freshmen to make an impact in year one. That is a risky formula.


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    Strongest Position Group: Offensive Line

    Vanderbilt was not a powerhouse along the offensive line last season, finishing 101st in adjusted line yards (run blocking) and 94th in adjusted sack rate (pass blocking) at Football Study Hall. However, this is the only unit where the Commodores return some semblance of continuity. The one starter who left happened to be their best—left tackle Wesley Johnson—but center Joe Townsend and right tackle Andrew Jenks are high-upside blockers with experience. This group will be counted on to improve in 2014.


    Weakest Position Group: Defensive Backs

    The secondary was a strength—if not the strength—for Vanderbilt in 2013, when a unit led by a pair of All-SEC players (safety Kenny Ladler and cornerback Andre Hal) helped foster a stifling pass defense. But now those two are gone, and so are fellow starters Steven Clark and Javon Marshall. New head coach Derek Mason is a defensive magician, but his specialty lies more in the front seven than the secondary. And after former head coach James Franklin pillaged the recruiting class, there is not as much incoming depth as Vandy had hoped to have.


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    Strongest Position Group: Running Backs

    In T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry, Alabama has two players who could rightfully win the Heisman Trophy. Yeldon has proved his skills for two seasons now, and while some might call Henry a "one-game wonder" after his dominant Sugar Bowl performance, the rising sophomore is also the leading rusher in high school football history. (And that takes more than one game.) Behind them, third-string back Kenyan Drake averaged 7.54 yards per carry and scored eight touchdowns in 2013. This is an embarrassment of depth.


    Weakest Position Group: Defensive Backs

    Alabama's secondary was a relative weakness in 2013. Compared to how good its defense's other units were, it was the part teams chose to attack. But the defensive backfield could be an actual weakness this upcoming season, despite the presence of potential All-American safety Landon Collins. Eddie Jackson's spring ACL tear leaves a massive hole at cornerback, and even though 5-star freshmen Tony Brown and Marlon Humphrey are talented enough—physically—to fill that role, neither has played a live snap of college football. Can either (or both) be trusted as a starter this early?


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    Strongest Position Group: Running Backs

    Alex Collins lived up to the hype as a true freshman, cracking the 1,000-yard mark in his first season with the Razorbacks. He's spent some time in Bret Bielema's dog house this offseason, but Arkansas' second-year head coach knows how important this season is for his job security and can't afford to keep Collins off the field. Jonathan Williams—running back 1b. on the depth chart—is an overlooked commodity and one of the sneaky-best runners in the conference. Just like Bielema's most famous Wisconsin teams, this Arkansas rushing attack can beat you with multiple guys.


    Weakest Position Group: Wide Receivers

    The spring was a positive step for Arkansas' passing game, which saw a number of receivers emerge as potential contributors. But let us not kid ourselves: This unit is still pretty barren. Outside of tight end Hunter Henry, no returning Razorback had more than 350 receiving yards last season, and Eric Hawkins is the only receiver besides Keon Hatcher who had more than 30. Senior Demetrius Williams, who is coming back from a torn ACL in 2013, is being counted on to shoulder a big load in this offense, as is JUCO transfer Cody Hollister.


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    Strongest Position Group: Offensive Line

    Yesterday, I wrote that Nick Marshall and Jeremy Johnson give Auburn the best quarterback depth chart in America. But it's not even the Tigers' strongest unit! With only Greg Robinson departing and Shon Coleman looking ready to take his place, this offensive line could be just as good as it was in 2013, when it finished second in the country in adjusted line yards (via Football Study Hall). The pass blocking could stand to improve, but that is the kind of thing that should come with experience and with a more refined passing attack.


    Weakest Position Group: Defensive Backs

    Auburn's secondary should be better in 2014—and it will need to be after finishing 102nd in passing yards allowed per game last season—but it is still the weakest unit on the team. With Josh Holsey returning from a knee injury and the introduction of JUCO transfer Derrick Moncrief, there is reason for Tigers fans to feel optimistic. But they shouldn't hold their breath until they see it in real life, especially after losing lead corner/Iron Bowl hero Chris Davis. 


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    Strongest Position Group: Offensive Line

    Left tackle La'el Collins forewent the NFL draft to return for his senior season, ensuring that this LSU offensive line would continue to be a strength. He and left guard Vadal Alexander form one of the best run-blocking duos in the country, and the left side should become an instant favorite for freshman running back Leonard Fournette, the No. 1 overall recruit on the 247Sports Composite. In total, four starters return from last season, and sophomore Ethan Pocic (if called upon) seems capable of filling the departed slot.


    Weakest Position Group: Quarterback

    LSU rarely has positions of "weakness," so this, of course, is relative. But even though true freshman Brandon Harris had a fantastic spring camp, he is still a true freshman. If he starts next season, there will be a number of hiccups and speed bumps along the way. If he doesn't start, that ostensibly means Anthony Jennings will get the nod under center—and given what he's shown against Iowa in the Outback Bowl and in the LSU spring game, that doesn't exactly inspire confidence.


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    Strongest Position Group: Defensive Backs

    Ole Miss returns all four starters in the secondary—five if you include nickelback/hybrid linebacker Tony Conner, who enjoyed a fine freshman season in 2013. The leader of the unit is safety Cody Prewitt, a masher with a penchant for big plays and one of just two returning players in the country (along with Clemson defensive end Vic Beasley) who made the AP All-America first-team defense. This unit was good-not-great last season but should be great-not-good with an extra year of experience and cohesion in 2014.


    Weakest Position Group: Linebackers

    This was very difficult to pick. Ole Miss is one of the most balanced teams in the country—very little separates its strongest unit from its weakest; its position groups have a microscopic range—but there is one question at linebacker that continues to hang over next season. Denzel Nkemdiche has been cleared to work out with the team, per Hugh Kellenberger of The Clarion-Ledgerbut his status remains unresolved after some legal issues this offseason. Between that and the loss of Mike Marry up the middle, this sticks out as the only group on the team with some question marks.

Mississippi State

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    Strongest Position Group: Quarterbacks

    Tyler Russell made way for Dak Prescott last season, and the Bulldogs were immediately better off because of it. Now Prescott is being mentioned as a trendy Heisman candidate and one of the best dual-threat quarterbacks in the country—and rightfully so. Behind him, Damian Williams proved to be a capable backup during spring drills, throwing for 347 yards and four touchdowns in the spring game. And don't sleep on freshman Nick Fitzgerald.


    Weakest Position Group: Running Backs

    Like their in-state rival in Oxford, the Bulldogs are surprisingly balanced at every unit. The offensive line has a couple of questions up the middle but should remain solid next year, leaving the tailbacks as the biggest question on the team. LaDarius Perkins never got enough love for his importance to the MSU program, and even though Josh Robinson and Ashton Shumpert got experience and looked good at times in 2013, it's unclear how well this rushing attack will perform. That this is MSU's biggest weakness, however, should be taken as a compliment in Starkville.

Texas A&M

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    Strongest Position Group: Offensive Line

    Texas A&M lost a top-six pick to the NFL draft at left tackle, but it might be even better next season. Just as Jake Matthews was up to the task of sliding across the line and replacing Luke Joeckel, Cedric Ogbuehi is capable of sliding across the line and replacing Matthews. Beyond Ogbuehi, the Aggies return the other three starters from last year's unit, chief among them massive guard Jarvis Harrison. This unit remains the paragon of blocking in college football.


    Weakest Position Group: Defensive Backs

    Really, this could have been the entire defense. It is hard to overstate how bad Texas A&M was on that side of the ball last season—so much so that is frittered away a great final season from Johnny Manziel. The secondary was especially bad, and even though Toney Hurd is the only major contributor who graduated, why should we expect such porous players to improve? Just because Terry Joseph has been hired (via Nebraska) to coach the secondary? I'll believe it when I see it.