SEC Football: Power Ranking the Offensive Lines in 2016
Exotic offenses and creative play-callers have infiltrated the SEC over the last half-decade, but one cliche has remained true in the process: The game is won and lost in the trenches.
In order to contend for the SEC title (and perhaps more), the big men up front have to be fast, physical and on the same page in order to create holes for running backs and protect quarterbacks.
Which offensive lines are the best in the SEC heading into 2016?
Our picks based on production and returning talent are in this slideshow.
14. Florida Gators
A big reason why Florida sputtered down the stretch was an offensive line that was young, thrust into action too early due to injuries and incapable of shutting down even mediocre defensive fronts.
The Gators gave up a league-worst 45 sacks last season, including 24 over the last six games of the year. During that stretch, they gave up five to Florida Atlantic—which didn't record any sacks in its two games prior to playing the Gators (Western Kentucky and Middle Tennessee State)—and South Carolina, which finished 99th in the nation in sacks (20), according to CFBStats.com.
Four starters from the bowl game return, including guard Martez Ivey (who can also play tackle), tackle David Sharpe and tackle Fred Johnson. The continuity will certainly help this unit improve, but the second unit struggled mightily in the spring game.
"Are we there yet? No. Are we still a work in progress? Yes." head coach Jim McElwain said, according to Adam Silverstein of OnlyGators.com. "And yet, we’re so much better than what we were, plus, some of the [playmakers] around them [have improved]."
Florida probably won't be in the cellar once the season gets going, but based on how the offensive line played down the stretch, it's hard not to be in "see it before we believe it" mode with this group of Gators.
13. Missouri Tigers
Missouri finished tied for 10th in the SEC in sacks allowed last year with 30, and 11th in tackles for loss allowed with 88, according to CFBStats.com. On top of that, center Evan Boehm and left tackle Connor McGovern—who played the two most important positions on that line—are gone.
Nate Crawford can play guard or tackle, and will likely stick at guard if he's 100 percent following a nagging ankle injury that he played through for the majority of the 2015 campaign.
Can junior Tyler Howell step in at tackle? Can Alec Abeln or Samson Bailey handle the pressure of starting at center?
There are too many questions that remain unanswered up front right now in Columbia.
12. Vanderbilt Commdores
Vanderbilt finished ninth in the SEC in sacks allowed last year with 28, and lost two starters off that unit.
It showed in the spring game, when Commodore quarterbacks and running backs had no room to work thanks to seemingly constant pressure from the fast and physical defensive front.
The good news is that left tackle Andrew Jelks is a budding star and is back after tearing his ACL in August and missing the season, which should shift his replacement—Will Holden—back to the right side. How good will Jelks be post-surgery? How will Holden handle the move?
Those questions are yet to be answered. Judging from the spring game, there's not much depth behind them in case head coach Derek Mason runs into problems.
11. Mississippi State Bulldogs
Former Mississippi State quarterback Dak Prescott had success last year during his senior campaign, but he was on the run for a lot of it.
His offensive line gave up the third-most sacks in the conference (32), and failed to plow the road well for the running back corps led by Brandon Holloway.
Several of those players return, including tackle Justin Senior, center Jamaal Clayborn and guard Devon Desper.
That continuity will help, but with an uncertain quarterback situation and the absence of a star running back, they have to play much better than they did last year if they are going to contend for the SEC West.
10. South Carolina Gamecocks
South Carolina returns just two starters from last year's offensive line, after guards Will Sport and Mike Matulis and tackle Brandon Shell moved on.
Center Alan Knott returns, which is always a big plus for an inexperienced offensive line thanks to his ability to recognize and adjust to where defenses bring pressure from. Senior Mason Zandi is penciled in at the left tackle spot, with junior D.J. Park on the other side, as well as Cory Helms and Zack Bailey.
Knott is the only current starter under 300 pounds, so while this group of Gamecocks lacks significant game experience, they have the size to be successful in offensive coordinator Kurt Roper's hurry-up, power system.
9. Texas A&M Aggies
Texas A&M loses three starters off last year's group that gave up the second-most sacks in the SEC (37) and finished ninth in the SEC in tackles for loss allowed (76), according to CFBStats.com.
The good news is that they also lost offensive line coach Dave Christensen and upgraded with the return of Jim Turner to coach the big men up front.
Avery Gennesy is solid at left tackle, Koda Martin has some experience on the other side and guard Jermaine Eluemunor is a budding star. Erik McCoy will likely replace Mike Matthews at center, and will be tasked with making sure everybody up front is on the same page.
"We don’t have as much experience as we’ve had in the past, but we do have some talented guys who have played," head coach Kevin Sumlin said, according to Brent Zwerneman of the San Antonio Express-News.
Texas A&M is retooling, and could make a leap up this list by season's end.
8. Ole Miss Rebels
Questions along the offensive line have been a fact of head coach Hugh Freeze's life for the last year and a half.
Whether it's the suspension that cost star tackle Laremy Tunsil the first seven games of last season or injuries that decimated his roster last offseason, Freeze has plenty of practice mixing and matching players up front.
He'll have to do it again in 2016, because Tunsil, tackle Fahn Cooper and guard Aaron Morris are all gone off of a unit that finished eighth in the SEC with 72 tackles for loss allowed, according to CFBStats.com.
Jordan Sims, Rod Taylor and Javon Patterson are all talented players who have seen time at guard, and Robert Conyers can play either guard or tackle. Stud prospect Greg Little could step in for Tunsil, but might go through some growing pains.
Ole Miss' line is a work in progress. But if any coach in America can coach around it, it's Freeze.
7. Georgia Bulldogs
Georgia is set inside along the offensive line, with center Brandon Kublanow and guards Greg Pyke and Dyshon Sims back.
At tackle, though, there are big questions.
Rhode Island graduate transfer Tyler Catalina will likely slide into the left tackle spot and be tasked with protecting the blind side of the Georgia quarterback—likely Jacob Eason. Isaiah Wynn will bookend the other side of the line, and can also slide down to guard if needed.
"We have to do a great job improving in all areas, especially up front on the offensive and defensive lines," head coach Kirby Smart said after the spring game. "We're not as big as we need to be, but we don't play as tough and as physical as we need to."
6. Kentucky Wildcats
Kentucky returns four starters from last year's squad, but lost its best piece—left tackle Jordan Swindle—from a unit that finished tied for 10th in the SEC in sacks allowed (30) and alone in 10th in tackles for loss allowed (84).
Despite that, there's hope in Lexington.
Jon Toth was a third-team All-SEC center last year, according to PhilSteele.com, and having him back along with a massive group of veterans all of whom are over 300 pounds should help the Wildcats control the line of scrimmage.
What's more, junior college transfer tackle Tate Leavitt and 4-star tackle prospect Landon Young could push for playing time in the spot formerly occupied by Swindle.
5. Arkansas Razorbacks
Arkansas lost center Mitch Smothers, guard Sebastian Tretola, tackle Denver Kirkland and offensive line coach Sam Pittman this offseason. But head coach Bret Bielema has made a name for himself by producing offensive lines that are consistently big, physical and elite.
Dan Skipper has had his fair share of ups and downs as a Razorback, and should lock down the right tackle spot after being bounced to that side last year to make room for Kirkland. Frank Ragnow is the other returner, will slide to the center and was solid at right guard last year for a unit that gave up the fewest sacks (14) in the SEC.
Hjalte Froholdt moved over from the defensive line and could contend for Tretola's spot. Colton Jackson will take a crack at left tackle, but can switch with Skipper if the redshirt freshman struggles.
This group has the potential to be great, but will have to adjust to some new faces.
4. Alabama Crimson Tide
Alabama won the Joe Moore Award last year—which is given to the nation's best offensive line—despite giving up the most tackles for loss in the SEC (101) and fifth-most per game (6.73), according to CFBStats.com.
The unit that looked like it was on skates early in the College Football Playoff National Championship lost its most important piece—center Ryan Kelly, as well as right tackle Dominick Jackson.
Ross Pierschbacher will likely move to center, which will give head coach Nick Saban some stability up front after Pierschbacher started at guard a year ago. At right tackle, Korren Kirven or Jonah Williams will likely earn first-team reps, with the other serving as the primary backup on both sides of the line.
The good news is that Cam Robinson is back at left tackle, so the eventual winner of the Crimson Tide quarterback battle won't have to worry much about his blind side.
3. Auburn Tigers
Auburn has questions at quarterback and wide receiver, but despite a couple of losses up front, the offensive line should be just fine.
Alex Kozan and Braden Smith return at the guard spots, which are vital pieces of the Tigers' puzzle in the multidimensional running game. Koazan and Smith are fast, physical and have proven that they have the ability to pull and get downfield in the running game.
Austin Golson is a potential star at tackle after moving over from center, and senior Xavier Dampeer will slide in to Golson's old slot. The only real question for Auburn is at right tackle, where Robert Leff and Texas transfer Darius James are vying for the role.
"We want tackles. We want guys who can play both spots," offensive line coach Herb Hand said earlier this month. "Then you have 'swing players'—guys who can play tackle or guard. We have a lot of 'swing players' on our roster right now."
"We also have 'inside-combo players,' who are guys [that] can play both center and guard. Dampeer is a perfect example. Kaleb Kim can develop into an inside-combo guy, although he's focused on center right now. You want guys who have versatility."
Hand has plenty of options, and the talent and versatility of this group should make it one of the best in the SEC.
2. Tennessee Volunteers
The offensive line was a liability for head coach Butch Jones during his first two seasons on Rocky Top, but last year things changed.
A relatively young unit came of age in spite of some nagging injuries, and a small village of talented and experienced offensive linemen return in 2016.
Guards Jashon Robertson and Dylan Wiesman are back, along with center Coleman Thomas and right tackle Brett Kendrick. What's more, several reserves like tackle Chance Hall and guard Jack Jones provide Jones with depth and options.
The one big question is at left tackle, where former hot-shot prospect Drew Richmond is the favorite to protect quarterback Joshua Dobbs' blind side after redshirting last season, according to Bleacher Report's Brad Shepard.
They were good a year ago, and progressing to "great" this year shouldn't be too difficult.
1. LSU Tigers
LSU lost both tackles from last year's group that allowed just 17 sacks, but returns star center Ethan Pocic, guard William Clapp and versatile guard/tackle options Maea Teuhema and Toby Weathersby.
Teuhema will likely follow the path of former tackle Vadal Alexander, and move over to the left tackle spot from guard with K.J. Malone backing him up. Weathersby will lock down the right tackle spot, with Josh Boutte and Garrett Brumfield vying for time at left guard.
LSU has proven time and time again that it can plug and play offensive linemen and be just fine.
This year should be no different considering the talent and versatility on the roster.
Barrett Sallee is the lead SEC college football writer and national college football video analyst for Bleacher Report, as well as a host on Bleacher Report Radio on SiriusXM 83. Follow Barrett on Twitter @BarrettSallee.