They say it all starts with the guys up front.
So with that, here’s the way we see the offensive lines stacking up in the SEC this season:
1. Florida: The Gators return four seniors on the offensive line who’ve played a lot of football, and three of them were full-time starters a year ago. Mike Pouncey might be the best offensive lineman in the league and is sliding over from guard to center to take over for his twin brother, Maurkice. Not only are the Gators good up front, but they’re also huge. Four of their starters will be 315-plus.
2. Alabama: The loss of All-America left guard Mike Johnson will hurt, but sophomore Barrett Jones is a budding star at right guard. William Vlachos is one of the best centers in the league. James Carpenter more than held his own a year ago at left tackle after transferring in from junior college, and massive D.J. Fluker (6-6, 340) looks like he’ll be the right tackle. On top of it all, Alabama has one of the best line coaches in the business in Joe Pendry.
3. Georgia: If everybody stays healthy, it’s going to be hard to beat the Bulldogs’ depth and experience. The key is staying healthy. Trinton Sturdivant has missed each of the last two seasons with knee injuries, but was Georgia’s starting left tackle as a true freshman in 2007. Offensive line coach Stacy Searels will have some options. Several of the guys returning can play multiple positions. Senior tackle Clint Boling and junior guard Cordy Glenn are both All-SEC caliber players.
4. Auburn: The Tigers have all but one starter returning from an offensive line that paved the way for a 2,612-yard passer, 1,362-yard rusher and 997-yard receiver last season. All four of the returning starters are seniors, too. Lee Ziemba could make a strong case as one of the best left tackles in the league, and Ryan Pugh is right there at the top of the list in terms of centers. The Tigers still have to settle on a right tackle and establish some depth behind the starters.
5. Arkansas: The biggest name on Arkansas’ offensive line from a year ago is gone (Mitch Petrus), but the Hogs still return four experienced starters. Seniors DeMarcus Love and Ray Dominguez form an imposing tackle tandem, and senior guard Wade Grayson is a powerful drive blocker inside alongside junior center Seth Oxner. The Hogs will also have a new offensive line coach in 2010, as Chris Klenakis reunites with Bobby Petrino.
6. Mississippi State: Any good offensive line needs an anchor, and the Bulldogs have that in senior Derek Sherrod, who’s started the last 22 games at left tackle. He joins three other returning starters, all of whom deserve their share of credit for Anthony Dixon's big season a year ago. The only problem is that Dixon has taken his act to the NFL. Nonetheless, this is a physical group that really gets after people.
7. Ole Miss: The middle of the Rebels’ offensive line from a year ago is gone, including third-round draft pick John Jerry. Remember all the trouble Bradley Sowell had at left tackle, particularly early last season? Well, he made it through the storm and is back as one of Ole Miss’ most experienced linemen. Sophomore Bobby Massie returns at right tackle after breaking into the starting lineup as a freshman.
8. LSU: It can’t get much worse for the Tigers up front, not after giving up 37 sacks and failing to generate any kind of consistent running game last season. Senior Joseph Barksdale is moving from right tackle to left tackle. He’s used to moving. In high school, he was a highly recruited defensive lineman. LSU moved a couple of different people around in the spring hoping to find the right combination. Sophomore Alex Hurst shifted from guard to right tackle. Center T-Bob Hebert was suspended in May after being arrested and charged with DUI.
9. South Carolina: The Gamecocks have been through the offensive line coaches. Shawn Elliott is the third different one in as many years. Steve Spurrier has said that a couple of true freshmen may have to play for the Gamecocks, even though that’s easier said than done in the SEC. Like LSU, South Carolina gave up 37 sacks a year ago. Senior tackle Jarriel King is probably the best of the bunch, and sophomore T.J. Johnson is nestled in at center. Prized freshman running back Marcus Lattimore is on his way, but he’s going to need more help than the South Carolina backs got last year.
10. Tennessee: Having a first-year starter at quarterback in the SEC is daunting enough, but the Vols will go one better. They will put five new offensive line starters on the field, too. There’s some young talent in the group, led by true freshman right tackle Ja’Wuan James. Sophomore Dallas Thomas emerged at the other tackle and had a solid spring. This is a line that could be very good down the road if the Vols keep everybody together, but they may take their lumps this season.
11. Kentucky: The Wildcats like their younger talent in the offensive line, and that’s a good thing. A lot of those guys are going to have to play key roles this season. The lone returning starter is junior guard Stuart Hines, and he’s the guy the Wildcats ran behind in key spots a year ago. His leadership and guidance will be even more important in 2010. Mike Summers steps in as Kentucky’s offensive line coach.
12. Vanderbilt: Robbie Caldwell’s job was already tough enough. But in addition to taking over for Bobby Johnson as interim head coach, he also has to whip a Vanderbilt offensive line together that will battle youth and inexperience. The Commodores are hopeful Ryan Seymour can return from shoulder surgery. They also lost promising tackle James Williams to academics after he missed most of last season with a broken ankle. Redshirt freshman tackle Wesley Johnson will have to grow up in a hurry.