Everybody knows the main difference between the SEC and all other league is the beasts on the defensive line. Each team has a group of maulers - here is how I rank them...
1. South Carolina - I feel like every year for the last several years the Gamecocks defensive front has been up near the top of the SEC. One main reason is the incredible DE Jadeveon Clowney. I don't think there is a better player in the country and it's really not even that close. He will demand double and triple teams all year (and that might not be enough), opening up opportunities for guys like DT Kelcy Quarles to excel. So while they lose some players on the D-line I think they will be just as good as last year - which is pretty darn good.
2. Florida - They were really good last year and they should be really good this year. That 2010 class is going to flex its muscles as they are led by DT Dominique Easley and DE Ronald Powell who is coming back from an ACL that forced him to miss 2012. There is talent all across the board here - they should be stout.
3. Alabama - Saban runs a 3-4 so just three guys here. They won another national title without a dominating presence on the line last year and they may have similar results in '13. Ed Stinson is the only returning starter and they lose four guys who had significant playing time. But it's Bama, they are going to be solid. DE Jeoffrey Pagan could, and should, be a breakout star.
4. Ole Miss - The Rebs can fill their sky with as many stars on the DL as Bama, LSU or Florida, but they are young. They had a lot of success last year from this group which now includes the likes of CJ Johnson, Lavon Hooks, Robert Nkemdiche, Channing Ward, etc. They will be a force, but how will they do against veteran offensive lines?
5. Arkansas - The Hogs return some good players from last year including DE Chris Jones who had 9 sacks and 3.5 TFL. Overall they have 3 returning starters and lose just 15 of 48 starts from last year - a group that was in the top half of the SEC in rushing yards per game and sacks.
6. Mississippi State - Denico Autry is poised for a big year at DE. Kaleb Eulls moved back over to tackle where he will be pushed by the young talent of Quay Evans and Nick James. DE Preston Smith could be a breakout star with young pup Chris Jones behind him. This is the most talented line MSU has had in a while...but like OM they are young.
7. LSU - The Tigers have been absolutely gutted in this unit. They lose 48 of the 52 starts last year including Mingo and Montgomery. What is usually their most feared group will have to do a lot of growing up quickly. DT Anthony Johnson is a top prospect who was a Frosh All-American in 2011, so look for him to lead the way. As per the usual there is a lot of talent, but they are young.
8. Tennessee - The Vols would have their entire 2-deep back if Darrington Sentimore would not have decided to go pro where he went undrafted. 2012 was a very poor year for the D-line, but they should improve and be closer to the middle of the pack. Lookout for massive 377 pound DT Daniel McCullers because he is humongous...and good.
9. Georgia - Another 3-4 here that loses a lot of poundage with Kwame Geathers and John Jenkins leaving. They had a really bad year in rushing defense last season and losing 28 of 42 starts isn't encouraging. Garrison Smith does return at end. They do have some hefty talent ready to take over in NG John Taylor and DE Ray Drew.
10. Vanderbilt - The 'Dores were decent in 2012 but they have a lot of attrition (31 of 52 starts) that may be hard to replace. The good news is most of their TFL comes from the LBs and DBs and DE Walker May (3 sacks, 7.5 TFL) will return and despite the losses they return nearly all of their sack production. I think they will be close to what they were last year.
11. Kentucky - Believe or not last year was actually UK's best defensive line in 5 years under DL coach David Turner (now with MSU). They return three starters and should be even better under in 2013.
12. Auburn - This was a mediocre unit last year despite having stud DE's Corey Lemonier and Dee Ford (Ford did miss 7 games with injury). Lemonier goes pro but they have three returning starters and the entire 2-deep back so they should be slightly better.
13. Missouri - This was a mediocre line last year and they lose their best player in DT Sheldon Richardson. The good news is they have the other three guys back so they should be able to recover.
14. Texas A&M - The starters on the Aggies' line had 16.5 sacks and 12 TFL last year. After losing 1st team All-American Damontre Moore and their NG Nealy, they will only return 2 sacks and 1 TFL from that group in 2013. This is going to be a big hole for them this year.
My top 5 SEC players on the D-line:
1. Jadeveon Clowney, USC
2. Dominique Easley, UF
3. Chris Smith, UPig
4. Jeoffrey Pagan, Bama
5. Denico Autry, MSU
Check back tomorrow for the SEC Preview on the Linebackers.