August 11, 2008

Unit Rankings: Tough enough in the trenches?

» MORE: 2008 SEC Conference Preview

The SEC team with the best defensive line has won the league title in each of the past two seasons - and, not so coincidentally, the national title, too. That fact makes this season a little more intriguing.

LSU again has the best d-line in the conference this season. One problem: The Tigers are woefully inexperienced at quarterback. No. 2 in the defensive line department is Georgia, which has a big-timer at quarterback (Matthew Stafford) and tailback (Knowshon Moreno).

The defensive line that bears the most watching, though, is Florida's. The Gators have one proven commodity on the line: junior end Jermaine Cunningham. They also have a big mess at tackle, where as many eight guys could be vying for playing time.

There's no way the Gators' line will be as strong as LSU's or Georgia's. But if coaches can get even solid play from the tackles, the Gators are good enough everywhere else to win the league. And maybe even the national title.

Here are our SEC unit rankings entering the 2008 season:

OFFENSIVE BACKFIELD
1. GEORGIA
Quarterback Matthew Stafford and tailback Knowshon Moreno form a dynamic 1-2 punch. There's good depth at tailback, and fullback Brannan Southerland is a load.
2. FLORIDA
Quarterback Tim Tebow is the reigning Heisman winner and a special talent. While there is no feature back, Tebow should have more help in the backfield this season.
3. ALABAMA
John Parker Wilson looks to be the third-best quarterback in the league – by default, really – and Terry Grant and Glen Coffee head a solid group of tailbacks.
4. LSU
There is a ton of talent at tailback. Quarterback is another matter. If the Tigers had an experienced quarterback, they'd have a great chance at back-to-back national titles.
5. TENNESSEE
Senior tailback Arian Foster likely becomes the Vols' leading career rusher this season, and there is good depth. Quarterback Jonathan Crompton is untested, though.
6. AUBURN
The Tigers are another team with good depth at tailback, but the starting quarterback job is up for grabs.
7. KENTUCKY
UK is another example of a team with good tailbacks, but a question at quarterback. The Wildcats' question mark at quarterback might be the league's biggest.
8. OLE MISS
New coach Houston Nutt is banking on big seasons from two newcomers – quarterback Jevan Snead, a transfer from Texas, and running back Enrique Davis, a prep school standout. If either struggles, the Rebels' offense will bog down.
9. MISSISSIPPI STATE
TB Anthony Dixon is a load with 1,000-yard potential. Sophomore quarterback Wesley Carroll needs to become a better passer.
10. SOUTH CAROLINA
This is the final chance for tailback Mike Davis to live up to expectations. As for quarterback, well, it's a mess. Redshirt freshman Stephen Garcia – known so far for his off-field shenanigans – is the most talented of the Gamecocks' quarterbacks.
11.VANDERBILT
Quarterback Chris Nickson looked like a rising star in 2006, but he regressed last season. The running backs are nothing special – and they will run behind an all-new line.
12. ARKANSAS
Quarterback Casey Dick has to prove he can pass well enough to stay the starter in new coach Bobby Petrino's offense. For the most part, he has been just a caretaker in his first three seasons. Mighty-mite Michael Smith – all 5 feet 7 of him – gets first shot at the vacant tailback job. A lot is expected of true freshman tailback De'Anthony Curtis.

RECEIVERS/TIGHT ENDS
1. FLORIDA
The Gators are loaded here even though star tight end Cornelius Ingram will miss the season. Wide receiver Percy Harvin is a game-breaker, wide receiver Louis Murphy has speed galore and there is great depth. And watch for sophomore tight end Aaron Hernandez to emerge as a weapon.
2. LSU
Wide receiver Demetrius Byrd emerged from obscurity to become productive last season, and he should continue his growth and become a full-fledged star this season. Brandon LaFell should be an effective No. 2 guy, and there is good depth at tight end.
3. TENNESSEE
There's not a truly elite receiver in the group, but this unit nevertheless is strong. Wide receiver Lucas Taylor has all-league talent.
4. SOUTH CAROLINA
Kenny McKinley is the standout, and Steve Spurrier has some youngsters ready to become consistent complements to McKinley.
5. GEORGIA
Matthew Stafford has a big-time arm, but he doesn't have a big-time receiver to work with – unless true freshman A.J. Green develops quicker than expected. This is a nice group, but nothing special.
6. AUBURN
These guys have to show they can thrive in the Tigers' new spread offense. A lot more will be expected of guys such as Montez Billings and Rod Smith this season.
7. KENTUCKY
Dicky Lyons Jr. was part of a deep receiving corps last season. Alas, he's the only proven receiver left for the Wildcats. Who will emerge as the No. 2 guy?
8. ALABAMA
The Tide lost their three most talented receivers. Holdovers Nikita Stover and Mike McCoy and a freshman or two – paging Julio Jones – need to step it up.
9. OLE MISS
These guys weren't exactly overused last season, and their importance likely drops a bit this season with new coach Houston Nutt. Still, Mike Wallace is a big-time deep threat who could play for anybody in the league.
10. ARKANSAS
This is the reverse of Ole Miss – Arkansas' receivers actually will play a vital role this season. The problem is there is no established receiver on the roster. But Petrino will turn one of these guys into an all-league candidate.
11. VANDERBILT
Earl Bennett – the SEC's leading career receiver – left early for the NFL. Who will take his spot? Good question. It likely will be George Smith, but he has been banged-up this summer and may miss the start of the season.
12. MISSISSIPPI STATE
This is a wholly uninspiring group. The Bulldogs' passing attack isn't much – and neither are these guys.

OFFENSIVE LINES
1. LSU
This is a big, physical, experienced unit. Four starters return from last season, and three of them – tackle Ciron Black, center Brett Helms and mammoth guard Herman Johnson (6-7/351) – are at least all-league types.
2. FLORIDA
The Gators don't just have a lot of skill-position talent; their line is excellent, as well. Tackles Jason Watkins and Phil Trautwein lead the way, and the sophomore Pouncey twins – center Maurkice and guard Michael – are future all-league guys.
3. TENNESSEE
It's no surprise the Vols have a good line; that seems to be the case every season. Four starters are back, with guard Anthony Parker harboring All-America hopes.
4. ALABAMA
Touted tackle Andre Smith is the best of the bunch for the Tide. This is an experienced group: Bama linemen have combined for 94 career starts.
5.AUBURN
The Tigers threw some freshmen into the fray last season, and they held up well. All five starters are back, and three of them are sophomores. The best lineman, though, probably is senior guard Tyronne Green.
6. GEORGIA
The Bulldogs have two new starters, plus center Chris Davis has moved from guard. Guard Clint Boling has a chance to be something special. This is a young group, and depth could be a problem.
7. OLE MISS
Tackle Michael Oher is tremendous, and guard John Jerry is a load in the middle. Expect this group to be far more physical this season under new line coach Mike Markuson, who came with Nutt from Arkansas.
8. ARKANSAS
These guys will be doing a lot more pass-blocking this season; will they be able to handle it? Center Jonathan Luigs is one of the best in the nation, and guard Mitch Petrus is an all-league type.
9. KENTUCKY
Last year's group was underrated and did a great job protecting quarterback Andre Woodson and opening holes for some good tailbacks. Three starters return this season, headed by tackle Garry Williams. The interior is a slight concern, though.
10. SOUTH CAROLINA
Four starters return from a unit that sometimes struggled to open holes for the running game. Depth looks good, even if there is no real standout.
11. MISSISSIPPI STATE
The loss of standout tackle Michael Brown, who was kicked off the team in the offseason, is a big blow. There will be three new starters, including both tackles.
12. VANDERBILT
Given the plethora of good defensive lines in the SEC, it's not good when you have an all-new starting offensive line. That's the case for the Commodores this season. The biggest loss is tackle Chris Williams, who was a first-round pick in the NFL Draft. Vandy linemen have combined for just three career starts, by far the lowest amount in the NCAA.

DEFENSIVE LINES
1. LSU
Championship teams are built up front, which is good news for LSU. The Tigers have the best lines in the SEC on both sides of the ball. How good are these guys? First-round pick Glenn Dorsey is gone and this unit as a whole might be better than last season.
2. GEORGIA
The Bulldogs are especially strong up the gut with Geno Atkins and Jeff Owens. They're both from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and given the problems on the defensive line for Florida, Florida State and Miami, you have to wonder how this duo got out of state. But there is no established pass-rushing end.
3. AUBURN
Tackle Sen'Derrick Marks moves inside from end, and he has all-league talent. End Antonio Coleman is the next great Auburn pass rusher. The depth looks good, too.
4. ARKANSAS
Tackles Ernest Mitchell and Malcolm Sheppard are stout in the middle, and end Adrian Davis is an underrated pass rusher.
5. ALABAMA
The Tide will miss end Wallace Gilberry, but this still should be a solid group - especially if some newcomers come through to provide depth.
6. FLORIDA
End Jermaine Cunningham is a proven commodity, but he's the only one. Big things are expected from sophomore end Carlos Dunlap. Actually, the end spots look OK. It's at tackle where the Gators have questions.
7. TENNESSEE
The Vols were soft at time against the run last season, and tackle Demonte Bolden must play with more consistency. Coaches think end Robert Ayers can be a big-time pass rusher. But he's a senior and this is his last chance.
8. OLE MISS
End Greg Hardy is superb. The rest of these guys? Nothing special, though tackle Peria Jerry has had his moments.
9. SOUTH CAROLINA
To put it succinctly, this group was rancid down the stretch last season. Injuries were one reason for the lackluster play. The Gamecocks need tackles Ladi Ajiboye and Marque Hall to toughen up in the middle.
10. MISSISSIPPI STATE
This is the Bulldogs' weak link on defense. There are two new starting ends. Tackle Jesse Bowman is the guy to watch on the inside.
11. KENTUCKY
End Jeremy Jarmon is a good pass rusher, but as a whole, this group is nothing special. The Wildcats have to get better play in the interior.
12. VANDERBILT
The Commodores will have three new starters. That's not good, folks. End Steven Stone has some talent, though.

LINEBACKERS
1. GEORGIA
Rennie Curran and Dannell Ellerbe give the Bulldogs two of the league's top-10 linebackers. Curran can fly, and Ellerbee brings the lumber. Akeem Dent rounds out the starting trio.
2. SOUTH CAROLINA
The best news for the Gamecocks is that Jasper Brinkley is healthy again. He is a destructive force in the middle, and South Carolina suffered when he was lost to injury last season. Eric Norwood has moved from end to linebacker, and if he can maintain his big-play capability, the Gamecocks will have the best linebacking unit in the league. The other starter is steady Rodney Paulk.
3. FLORIDA
Brandon Spikes has a chance to be an All-American, and coaches need him to be a leader on the field and on the stat sheet. Dustin Doe and A.J. Jones are the other incumbent starters, but depth is such that Jones may lose his job. The one trait all UF's linebackers share is that they can run.
4. AUBURN
If Tray Blackmon can stay out of trouble, Auburn will have one of the best linebackers in the SEC patrolling the field. This is a speedy group with good depth.
5. MISSISSIPPI STATE
Jamar Chaney is one of the best linebackers you've never heard about, and he heads a strong unit. Dominic Douglas is a good one on the outside.
6. LSU
Darry Beckwith is the lone returning starter for the Tigers. This will be a productive unit if for no other reason than opposing offensive lines have to worry so much about LSU's defensive line that the linebackers will be running free.
7. KENTUCKY
Braxton Kelley might be UK's best defensive player. Usually, calling someone UK's best defensive player is damning someone with faint praise, but this guy can play. It's time for junior Micah Johnson to live up to the high school hype.
8. TENNESSEE
The Vols took a hit when Jerod Mayo left a year early for the NFL. Rico McCoy is the guy to watch this season. There is no other established linebacker on the roster, though there is some talent at the position.
9. ALABAMA
Rolando McClain is a big-time run-stuffer. The rest of the unit is a mystery, though. This is the Tide's weakest unit, though you have to figure Nick Saban will figure out something to mask the deficiencies.
10. OLE MISS
All three starters are back, but so what? These guys were bad last season.
11. VANDERBILT
Vandy lost its two best linebackers. Brandon Bryant needs to prove he can be a leader. Vandy defensive coordinator Bruce Fowler does a good job making sure his linebackers get the opportunity to make plays.
12. ARKANSAS
Just one starter is back, and depth is a huge issue.

SECONDARIES
1. GEORGIA
Three starters are back, headed by cornerback Asher Allen. The player with the most potential, though, is the new guy, sophomore free safety Reshad Jones. Depth is good.
2. MISSISSIPPI STATE
Free safety Derek Pegues is a big-time talent, and he heads a unit with four returning starters. Three are seniors and the other is a junior, so these guys have experience. There is solid depth.
3. SOUTH CAROLINA
Cornerback Captain Munnerlyn and hard-hitting strong safety Emanuel Cook are all-conference types. The secondary was solid for the most part last season, and that should carry over to this season.
4. TENNESSEE
The safety duo – strong safety Eric Berry and free safety Demetrice Morley – has a chance to be the best in the SEC. Berry is a mega-talent, while Morley is back after sitting out last season because of academics. Four cornerbacks are vying for the two starting jobs, and there's not much separating them. But none truly is a standout.
5. AUBURN
The loss of cornerback Aairon Savage for the season with an injury is big. Cornerback Jerraud Powers and strong safety Zac Etheridge have all-league talent, but there are questions elsewhere.
6. LSU
The Tigers will have three new starters, including both cornerbacks. There is talent, to be sure, but it's relatively untested talent. A lot is expected of sophomore strong safety Chad Jones.
7. VANDERBILT
Cornerback D.J. Moore is a star, and he's the best player on a unit that returns all four starters. Heck, he's easily the best player on the team. Strong safety Reshard Langford is a big hitter and also solid in coverage. Given Moore's talent, cornerback Myron Lewis can expect to see a lot of balls thrown his way.
8. ALABAMA
Free safety Rashad Johnson is a standout, and coaches expect sophomore cornerback Kareem Jackson to continue his maturation to all-star status. The other spots will have new starters.
9. FLORIDA
Three starters are back, but UF's secondary was strafed often last season. Sophomore corner Joe Haden is an all-star in the making. The strong safety spot could be a season-long problem. The projected starter is 5-9 sophomore Ahmad Black, who rarely saw the field last season at cornerback. True freshman safety Will Hill is expected to see a lot of time.
10. ARKANSAS
Cornerback Jerell Norton is a good one. He's a potential big-play guy with good instincts. The rest of the unit is questionable.
11. OLE MISS
Strong safety Jamarca Sanford is a good tackler. But these guys have a lot to prove after getting torched almost weekly last season.
12. KENTUCKY
Junior cornerback Trevard Lindley is a good one, but he doesn't have much help. The academic loss of corner Paul Warford is big.

SPECIAL TEAMS
1. ALABAMA
Does it surprise anyone that Saban places a big emphasis on special teams? Kicker Leigh Tiffin, punter P.J. Fitzgerald and return man Javier Arenas are back this season.
2. FLORIDA
Return man Brandon James might be the best in the nation, and punter Chas Henry is underrated. His high kicks led to UF giving up just 22 total punt-return yards last season. The Gators also are good for two or three blocks per season. The big question: Can true freshman Caleb Sturgis handle the kicking duties?
3. TENNESSEE
The Vols have solid return men, and kicker Daniel Lincoln did a solid job as a freshman. Punter Britton Colquitt can't stay out of the doghouse and has been suspended for the first half of the season.
4. SOUTH CAROLINA
Punter/kicker Ryan Succop does double-duty and does just fine with both. The return units are good, but the coverage units need some work.
5. AUBURN
Kicker Wes Byrum and punter Ryan Shoemaker performed well as freshmen last season, though Byrum was just 3-for-8 from beyond 40 yards. The return units should be better.
6. LSU
Kicker Colt David is back, and he has a great chance to be the all-league kicker - assuming he again makes 26 or so field goals. Trindon Holliday is a big-time weapon on kick returns, but the Tigers are looking for a new punter and need a better punt returner.
7. GEORGIA
Punter Brian Mimbs is solid, but the Bulldogs are searching for a new kicker and a new punt returner.
8. OLE MISS
The Rebels did a great job covering kickoffs last season. The rest of the special teams? Ehh.
9. KENTUCKY
Kicker Lones Seiber has a strong leg, but lacks consistency. Punter Tim Masthay is OK. The Wildcats are looking for two new return men and need to improve their coverage units.
10. ARKANSAS
The Hogs will miss Felix Jones' talents as a kick returner. Kicker Alex Tejada is solid.
11. MISSISSIPPI STATE
Kicker Adam Carlson is OK, but doesn't have much range. The Bulldogs need to improve their kick-return and kick-coverage units.
12. VANDERBILT
Vandy was in the lower fourth of the league in four key special teams categories last season, though Moore is a good kick returner. Kicker Bryant Hahnfeldt attempted 20 field goals, but just three attempts were longer than 40 yards.

COACHING
1. FLORIDA
Urban Meyer's spread offense works in the SEC, and he and his staff do superb work on the recruiting trail. Charlie Strong is a proven defensive coordinator, Dan Mullen is an up-and-comer at offensive coordinator, and two newcomers – Dan McCarney on the defensive line and Vance Bedford with the cornerbacks – bring good résumés. Safeties coach Chuck Heater is underrated.
2. GEORGIA
Mark Richt relaxed a bit last season, and the decision paid off. Also paying off was a decision to let offensive coordinator Mike Bobo call the plays. Defensive coordinator Willie Martinez is a good one, and defensive line coach Rodney Garner is an excellent recruiter.
3. LSU
Les Miles doesn't always fit the profile for a title-winning coach, but the Tigers haven't missed a beat since he took over the program. Offensive coordinator Gary Crowton has a superb track record, and defensive line coach Earl Lane is top-notch. But how will Doug Mallory and Bradley Dale Peveto do as co-defensive coordinators?
4. ALABAMA
There's a reason Saban makes all that money – he knows what he is doing. Linebacker coach Kevin Steele is one of the best at that position. New offensive coordinator Jim McElwain, who arrives from Fresno State, will be under the microscope.
5. AUBURN
Despite all his success, Tommy Tuberville remains underrated nationally. Running back coach Eddie Gran always does a good job. The Tigers have two new coordinators – Tony Franklin on offense (from Troy) and Paul Rhoads on defense (from Pitt).
6. SOUTH CAROLINA
Steve Spurrier may not be having quite the success he thought he'd have, but he still has made this a nationally relevant program. New defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson is excellent. It'll be interesting to see if Steve Spurrier Jr. really gets to call the plays, as his dad says he will.
7. TENNESSEE
Phillip Fulmer keeps plugging along and received a contract extension in the offseason. Defensive coordinator John Chavis is respected and well-regarded. The new offensive coordinator is Dave Clawson, who had been coach at Division I-AA Richmond. Clawson is one of four new assistants on the offensive side of the ball.
8. MISSISSIPPI STATE
Sylvester Croom has done a masterful job of getting the Bulldogs back on the beam. Offensive coordinator Woody McCorvey is a good teacher; you just wonder what he could do with more talent. The Bulldogs will miss Ellis Johnson.
9. KENTUCKY
Rich Brooks was on the hot seat before the 2006 season, but he has taken the Wildcats to bowls in each of the past two seasons - so his seat has noticeably cooled. Offensive coordinator Joker Phillips has his work cut out for him this season.
10. OLE MISS
Houston Nutt is a huge upgrade over Ed Orgeron, who was miscast in the SEC as a first-time head coach. Mike Markuson is a good offensive line coach and will make star tackle Michael Oher better. Defensive coordinator Tyrone Nix won't have as much to work with in Oxford as he did at South Carolina.
11. ARKANSAS
Bobby Petrino's pass-first offense is going to take a while to take hold. Veteran assistant Willy Robinson doesn't have much to work with in the back seven in his role as defensive coordinator.
12. VANDERBILT
Bobby Johnson has changed the culture at Vanderbilt, but he still hasn't taken the Commodores to a bowl. He's the only coach in the SEC who hasn't appeared in a bowl game at least once in the past two seasons. Defensive coordinator Bruce Fowler does a lot with a little. When Fowler has a special player – as he does this season with CB D.J. Moore – he makes sure those players are put in a position to make plays.

» MORE: 2008 SEC Conference Preview

Mike Huguenin is the college sports editor for Rivals.com. He can be heard on Rivals Radio every Wednesday at 8:30 a.m. ET and can be reached at mhuguenin@rivals.com.



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