All the coaches said it, some delivering the same words with similar inflections as if they were auditioning for the lead role in a Broadway play.
Throughout SEC Media Days, coaches said things about their teams and their players and their philosophies, but the line everyone used was, “This is a line-of-scrimmage league.”
It came out so frequently that attendees began waiting to see if there would be any variation. Surely someone would say “I think the line of scrimmage is where games are won or lost,” or “We think we are strong in the most important area: up front.” But they all said, “line-of-scrimmage league,” as if reading from a script.
It was a branding message that was wholly unnecessary.
Anyone who follows college football knows that no conference approaches the SEC in terms of the size, strength and speed of the linemen. Oh, sure, one or two Big Ten, Big 12 or Pac 12 teams will field a tackle or two that compare favorably with those in the SEC, but up and down the rosters, no other league comes close.
Here are the rankings of the top ten offensive lines in the “line-of-scrimmage league.”
No. 1 – Tennessee
Not only do the Volunteers have the second-most experienced offensive line in college football (behind Texas) they have arguably the best offensive tackle in the country in 6-foot-6, 325-pound Antonio Richardson, the tackle no less an expert than Jadeveon Clowney claims to be the toughest blocker in the SEC.
As if Richardson’s enormous presence and fleet footwork were not enough, Coach Butch Jones has Ja’Wuan James, a 6-6, 318-pound senior from Suwanee, Ga. who is considered one of the top O-line draft prospects by most NFL scouts.
There are no weaknesses up front for Tennessee. Center James Stone is on the preseason watch list for the Rimington Award and senior guard Zach Fulton (6-5, 324 pounds) is ranked near the top at his position on most 2014 draft boards.
No. 2 – Alabama
How do you follow up one of the greatest offensive lines in college football history? If you’re Nick Saban and Alabama, you simply fill the open spots with the wealth of talented players who have been patiently waiting their turn.
Returning left tackle Cyrus Kouandjio and right guard Anthony Steen will anchor another strong and fast group that includes sophomore center Ryan Kelly, a member of the All-SEC Freshman Team last year who will be taking Barrett Jones’ spot.
Austin Shepherd and Leon Brown continue to battle for the starting right tackle spot and three players, Arie Kouandjio, Kellen Williams and Chad Lindsay, will fight it out in summer camp for the starting left guard position.
Any of those players fighting to play at Alabama would be superstars on almost any other team, so Tide fans needn’t worry. This year’s offensive line will be almost as good as the one that led you to a national championship a season ago.
No. 3 – Georgia
Led by senior guards Chris Burnette and Dallas Lee, the Dawgs return five starters and three backups from the squad that was considered one of the best in the nation a year ago. Senior Kenarious Gates is one of the quickest 325-pound men in the game and one of the most versatile weapons in line coach Will Friend’s arsenal. Junior David Andrews remains a sturdy presence at center while two sophomores, Xzavier Ward and John Theus, will battle through camp for the starting right tackle spot.
Theus was a Freshman All-American last year, but he lost the depth-chart battle to Ward during the spring, which speaks well of the Dawgs’ depth. No matter who Friend taps to start, the O-line should be one of the strongest parts of the Georgia attack in 2013.
No. 4 – Texas A&M
Losing left tackle Luke Joeckel (the No. 2 overall pick in the 2013 NFL draft) would have been a devastating blow for the Aggies had Jake Matthews, son of legendary NFL lineman Bruce Matthews, not chosen to forego the draft and return for his senior season. Matthews (6-5, 305 pounds) will likely move from right to left tackle while junior guard Cedric Ogbuehi is expected to shift to Matthew’s old right tackle spot.
Another of Bruce Matthews’ sons, Mike, a sophomore, will move from right guard to center while junior Jarvis Harrison is expected to stay put at left guard.
No. 5 – LSU
Sometimes good and sometimes awful in 2012, the Tigers’ offensive line should be much improved this season with the return of some veterans. Junior La’el Collins is expected to move to left tackle from the guard spot he played last year. That should improve pass protection, which was one of the more glaring weak spots for Les Miles’ squad.
The other tackle position will remain in the capable hands of Vadal Alexander while sophomore Trai Turner will move into Collins’ old guard spot.
The big unanswered question remains the center position. Freshman Ethan Pocichad enrolled early and played well in the spring, but there is a big difference between a scrimmage game in April and traveling to Tuscaloosa to play Alabama.
Still, Miles has to be pleased with where his O-line stands heading into summer camp.
No. 6 – South Carolina
As mercurial as Coach Steve Spurrier can be when it comes to his offense, the Ol’ Ball Coach has to be grinning when he thinks about his O-line. With four returning starters, including junior guard A.J. Cann and last year’s Freshman All-American right tackle Brandon Shell, the Gamecocks should be as solid up front as any South Carolina squad in years.
The key will be the center position which is expected to be filled by redshirt freshman Cody Waldrop. His development in camp will say a lot about how ready the Gamecocks are to contend for another SEC East title.
No. 7 – Mississippi State
Bulldogs’ center Dillon Day has been named to the Rimington Award watch list, which is no surprise given how aggressively the 6-4, 300-pound junior plays. Beside him will be senior left guard Gabe Jackson, considered perhaps the best in the nation at his position and projected to be a first-round draft pick in 2014.
Justine Malone will return at right guard with veterans Tackles Charles Siddoway and Blaine Clausell shoring up the edges for quarterback Tyler Russell.
None of that experience makes Mississippi State’s schedule any easier, but at least the offensive line will know what to expect when they line up against Oklahoma State on August 31.
No. 8 – Ole Miss
Four of the starters who shocked the SEC with their performance a year ago return for the Rebels. Both tackles (Pierce Burton and Emmanuel McCray) are back, but they will be fighting for playing time with two of the best recruits in the country, incoming freshmen Larry Tunsil and Austin Golson.
Left guard Aaron Morris was out in the spring with shoulder surgery but is expected to be full strength by opening kickoff.
It is no wonder that Coach Hugh Freeze is more optimistic than ever about his offense.
No. 9 – Florida
A couple of transfers will certainly help the Gators this fall. Max Garcia, who arrived in Gainesville after playing at Maryland, should shore up the left guard spot next to a much-improved D.J. Humphries at left tackle.
On the other side of the ball, Nebraska transfer Tyler Moore should provide a lot better pass protection at right tackle than the Gators had a year ago while senior center Jonotthan Harrison should continue to open holes for Coach Will Muschamp’s ground-control attack.
No. 10 – Vanderbilt
Offensive tackle Wesley Johnson is listed at 6-5 and a svelte 295 pounds, but he is already on the watch list for the 2013 Outland Trophy. Not only is he one of the most proficient blockers in the league, he is a redshirt senior who has never had a holding penalty in his entire career, and did not allow a single sack of Jordan Rodgers last year.
Surrounded by five other returning linemen with some starting experience, Johnson could lead the Commodores to one of their most impressive offensive seasons in school history.