Aside from the offensive line, the defensive line might be one of the hardest groups to get a handle on when it comes to ranking units. What do you look at? Rushing defense is one of the best indicators, but even that can rely on what kind of support the line gets. Sacks are just as likely (if not more so) to come from the linebacking corps as from the line. Defensive lineman don't necessarily put up huge numbers, but that doesn't mean we can't take a crack at ranking them.
Which is exactly what I'll do here as part of a project by the SB Nation's SEC blogs.
1. Alabama Crimson Tide: I want to dock them for only having so few returning starters and the like. Really I do. But expecting Alabama to have a bad defensive line is like believing in unicorns. It might make you feel better about the world, but you ultimately know that it's not really true. In the Nick Saban Era, Alabama has never allowed more than 3.4 yards a carry. Never. I doubt that changes in the 2014 season.
2. Ole Miss Rebels: Even if you ignore the fact that DTDeterrianWhateverYouWantToCallHim Shackelford is listed as a linebacker/defensive end on the Ole Miss roster, this is still a solid unit. Isaac Gross and Robert Nkemdiche could be the headliners, but there's a bit of depth here, and the Rebels allowed only 3.9 yards a rush last year.
3. Georgia Bulldogs: Ray Drew, Sterling Bailey and Chris Mayes are back on a line that allowed 3.7 yards last year. Jon Taylor will also probably contributed. I have a few (very few) questions about the depth here, but the Bulldogs should be pretty good up front on defense this season.
4. Mississippi St. Bulldogs: Speaking of Bulldogs that might be decent up front this year. They weren't terribly impressive last year -- opponents rushed for 4.2 yards a carry -- but there are a lot of returning players here that put up decent numbers, particularly when it comes to tackles for loss and quarterback hurries. Given another year of seasoning, this could be a really good unit in 2014.
5. Missouri Tigers: No Koney Ealy and no Michael Sam, no problem. Okay, that might be a bit of an overstatement. But by my count, there are five returning players here with more than 30 tackles. Beyond the loss of Ealy and Sam, though, the main question is how this team allowed 4.2 yards a carry last year, and how much they can improve. In any case, offensive lines probably won't like lining up against Markus Golden, Matt Hoch, Lucas Vincent and Shane Ray -- the spring depth chart for Mizzou.
6. LSU Tigers: The Bayou Bengals don't get quite as much of a "been there, done that" bump from me as Alabama did, though they do return Danielle Hunter and Jermauria Rasco. I just have questions about the accomplishments of LSU's depth.
7. Auburn Tigers: Lot of Tigers in the latter part of the first half of the ballot. There are really two reasons for this: Gabe Wright and LaDarius Owens. There are also a few reasons not to like it, most of them being the 4.6 yards a rush that Auburn allowed last year. Put the two together and somewhere in the middle feels about right.
8. Florida Gators: Injuries, etc., but there's something that troubles me about ranking a defensive line too high after an FCS opponent put up 429 yards rushing against the team last season. And it wasn't just Georgia Southern -- the Gators allowed 4.3 yards a rush on average last year and got just 19 sacks. This is the one I am most likely to be wrong on -- but I want to see improvement before I give the Gators credit for it.
9. Arkansas Razorbacks: They allowed 4.7 yards a rush last year -- and that was before losing Chris Smith, Robert Thomas and Byran Jones. On the other hand, I like Trey Flowers and Darius Philon out of this group. They could be a sleeper.
10. South Carolina Gamecocks: Jadeveon Clowney, Kelcy Quarles, and Chaz Sutton. That's a list of the starters that South Carolina loses from 2013. And they already allowed 4.3 yards a rush that season. J.T. Surratt is the only player with much starting experience here; if you asked even some South Carolina fans who Darius English was, they would probably guess that he was the lead singer of Hootie and the Blowfish. They get extra credit for having two players named Gerald Dixon.
11. Kentucky Wildcats: They have Bud Dupree and Za'Darius Smith, but they don't have Donte Rumph or Mister Cobble. They also allowed 4.9 yards a rush last year. If C.J. Johnson pans out, this might be a bit low for the group -- but let's see if Johnson really does pan out first.
12. Vanderbilt Commodores: Kyle Woestmann is probably going to play at linebacker this year as Vanderbilt goes to a 3-4 scheme, which moves one of the best players on the defensive line out of the rotation. There's still some talent here, but the new scheme could cause some issues until the Commodores get a handle on it.
13. Texas A&M Aggies: A&M had the worst rushing defense in the league last year in terms of yards per carry (5.4), which isn't much of a surprise, because A&M pretty much had the worst defense in the league last year, period. There's not a big reason to think that, at least on the line, that's going to get any better in 2014.
14. Tennessee Volunteers: Just ahead of Texas A&M last year with 5.3 yards per carry. The bigger problem: Basically everyone is gone. There are several reasons to think that the Volunteers will be better this year; the defensive line is not one of them.