The SEC’s Top 10 Units
By Matt Smith
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Will the 2013 SEC season bring another unforgettable position group?
Recent seasons have displayed some of the finest units ever put together on a college football field. Last year’s Alabama offensive line will go down as one of the best in history. Arkansas’s trio of running backs in the mid-2000s was nearly unstoppable. Alabama and LSU’s defensive backfields shut down almost every quarterback they faced in 2011. Will the 2013 SEC season bring another of these unforgettable position groups? Let’s look at the league’s 10 best units heading into the fall.
10. Florida Defensive Line
Will Muschamp knows how to churn out defensive linemen. From Marcus Spears at LSU to Quentin Groves at Auburn to Brian Orakpo at Texas, there’s always a budding star in a Muschamp defensive front. In fact, he might have three this season, in Jonathan Bullard, Dante Fowler, and Ronald Powell. An ACL injury sidelined Powell in 2012, but he’ll be 100% in the fall and should share time with Fowler at the team’s hybrid Buck position. Dominique Easley will move inside with Sharif Floyd and Omar Hunter gone. Any of three players could start at nose tackle, with 290-pound senior Damien Jacobs holding a slight edge coming out of the spring.
9. Missouri Wide Receivers
The Tigers never got their offense cranked up in their first season in the SEC (except against Tennessee, but who didn’t against the Vols?), falling from No. 12 in the nation in 2011 to No. 96. Much of that was due to injuries at quarterback, wasting a talented group of receivers, all of whom return other than T.J. Moe. Dorial Green-Beckham, the most heralded recruit in program history, caught five touchdowns as a freshman, and should be ready for a breakout sophomore season. L’Damian Washington and Marcus Lucas are both big bodies who are entering their fourth year together. Missouri also adds in Texas transfer Darius White, one of the top receivers in the 2010 class.
8. South Carolina Defensive Line
The unit with the best player in the conference has to have a place somewhere on this list, right? While Jadeveon Clowney is a legitimate Heisman Trophy contender, it may be his supporting cast that determines if the Gamecocks can return to the SEC Championship Game for only the second time. Chaz Sutton must replace the departed Devin Taylor at the other end position. He saw significant snaps in 2012, finishing with five sacks. Junior J.T. Surratt joins returning starter Kelcy Quarles on the interior. This unit, which helped hold Georgia and Clemson to a combined 24 points last year, must again be great to help ease some of the losses in the back seven.
7. Florida Defensive Backs
Yes, Matt Elam is a Baltimore Raven, but despite the loss of its leader, the Gators secondary will again be one of the nation’s best. True freshman Vernon Hargreaves III is so well-thought of that the coaching staff moved Loucheiz Purifoy to wide receiver in the spring. Cody Riggs will shift to safety to help ease the loss of Elam, where he’ll join senior Jaylen Watkins. Sophomore Brian Poole, a highly touted 2012 signee, should be the third cornerback and could hold off Hargreaves III for a starting role, at least early in the season.
6. Alabama Running Backs
There’s not much experience behind sophomore T.J. Yeldon, but there wasn’t much behind Eddie Lacy last year either when Yeldon burst onto the scene and made perhaps the signature play of the season with the game-winning touchdown reception at LSU. Derrick Henry and Jalston Fowler are inside runners who should complement Yeldon’s speed and pass-catching ability. If Kenyan Drake stays out of the doghouse and Dee Hart finally stays healthy, they can both be contributors. All four behind Yeldon have dealt with either injuries or suspensions, but at least one should emerge in an offense that requires two capable backs.
5. Vanderbilt Wide Receivers
There’s not the depth of the Crimson Tide quintet, but no duo in the league can match the resumes of Jordan Matthews and Chris Boyd, who have combined for over 3,500 yards in their careers. Matthews would have likely been a second-day NFL Draft pick had he come out after 2012, but chose to return for a final season. He’s the complete package – a weapon in the deep passing game, on screens and crossing routes and in the occasional gadget play. Boyd was the star of the highlight reel a year ago, including circus touchdown catches against Tennessee and N.C. State. Seasoned veteran Jonathan Krause, who also serves as the team’s punt returner, is a solid No. 3 receiver.
4. Alabama Linebackers
Clowney’s the best defensive player in the conference, but C.J. Mosley may not be far behind him. Throughout his career, Mosley has been a playmaker in the middle of the Alabama defense, dating back to an interception return for a touchdown as a freshman against Florida to last year’s memorable deflection that clinched the SEC Championship Game for the Tide. Nico Johnson’s vacated spot beside Mosley likely will go to junior Trey DePriest. Both outside pass rushers return in junior Adrian Hubbard and senior Zxavier Dickson. The key backups, sophomores Denzel Devall and Reggie Ragland and freshman Reuben Foster, would be starters in almost every other program.
3. Tennessee Offensive Line
Lost amid the departure of almost all of their skill position talent and a brutal schedule are the strength and experience of the Volunteers’ front. Left tackle Antonio "Tiny" Richardson is a near-certain first-round draft pick next spring, assuming he leaves early, and his fellow bookend, Ja’Wuan James, could sneak into the first round as well. The interior returns three of its four key contributors in James Stone, Zach Fulton and Alex Bullard, with only Dallas Thomas departing. This isn’t a deep unit, but the starting five is the best in the conference.
2. Georgia Running Backs
Out of respect to national radio host and fellow Nashvillian Bill King, I won’t mention the moniker given to Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall last season. However, if you watched the pair flourish as true freshmen last season, it was hard not to be reminded of Herschel Walker’s legendary 1980 season. Gurley’s 17 touchdowns trailed only Johnny Manziel among SEC players. Neither should have to be 300-carry backs, which should allow them to hold up physically against a rugged schedule. They’ll get an early test in Week 2 against the South Carolina defense that held them to just 76 yards combined in 2012.
1. Alabama Wide Receivers
There might be no receiver outside of Los Angeles better than sophomore Amari Cooper. After being phased in gradually last season, he topped 100 yards in four of his final five games with six touchdowns receptions, including two in the BCS Championship Game. Chris Black and DeAndrew White were forced to take medical redshirts, but White showed big-play ability in limited action in 2011 and in last year’s opener against Michigan before getting injured. Seniors Kevin Norwood and Kenny Bell give the unit a pair of consistent, experienced pass-catchers who have developed a great rapport with quarterback AJ McCarron.