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SEC Unit Rankings: Comparing Athlon & Lindy's

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Combining two sets of popular unit rankings for a look at the best and worst teams in the SEC.

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An interesting way to compare teams heading into the season is ranking each unit (quarterback, wide receivers, linebackers, etc.) then producing an average unit ranking to get a more complete sense of how each team projects. This year Athlon and Lindy's once again offer objective unit rankings for the SEC in their conference preview magazines.

I say it's an interesting way to do it because the last time Tennessee was good enough for us to think about this exercise in preseason was 2008, and when you combined the average unit rankings from Athlon & Lindy's the Vols actually ended up at the top. As I wrote at the time on Bleacher Report, Tennessee didn't lead in any single unit, but the Vols were believed to have very few holes and plenty of balance. This helped Tennessee have the best average unit ranking in the SEC.

That didn't help the Vols avoid a 5-7 season that cost Phillip Fulmer his job. Both publications clearly underrated what Nick Saban had done in a short time in Tuscaloosa. So clearly this isn't a foolproof exercise, but it is I think a more thorough way of looking at the league.

Here's how the SEC stacks up in 2016 in average unit ranking from Athlon and Lindy's, using each of the seven unit rankings from each publication (plus special teams in Lindy's):

1. Alabama (2.3)

  • Highest:  Defensive Line & Linebackers (1st both)
  • Lowest:  Quarterback (5th both)

It's the team you'd expect with the reasoning you'd expect at the top:  the Crimson Tide are led by the strength of their front seven. The fact that Alabama's lowest ranking in any unit is just fifth out of 14 teams continues to speak volumes about their overall talent level. The assumption is that talent will manifest itself one way or another at quarterback in a year with plenty of unknowns at the position in the SEC.

2. LSU (3.4)

  • Highest:  Running Back (1st both)
  • Lowest:  Linebackers (7th both)
The difference between LSU and Alabama isn't quite as close at the top in average unit ranking as it is with other metrics. It's also no surprise here to find LSU a unanimous pick at the top of the running back ladder with Leonard Fournette returning. In Athlon LSU's linebackers were the only unit to rank outside the top five.

3. Tennessee (3.6)
  • Highest:  Special Teams (1st Lindy's), Quarterback & Linebackers (2nd both)
  • Lowest:  Wide Receivers (7th Athlon, 6th Lindy's)
By this measure you can make a better argument that Tennessee is the second-best team in the conference than you can for LSU as the best team in the conference. The Vols had the best special teams unit in the nation last year and all the pieces return, while Josh Dobbs joins Chad Kelly as easy options for the two most proven quarterbacks in the league coming into the season. The linebacker ranking clearly looks only at the starters, where Jalen Reeves-Maybin and Darrin Kirkland Jr. are very good but the Vols are very thin behind them. Questions at wide receiver can translate into questions at quarterback if no one emerges from a talented pool.

4. Georgia (5.6)
  • Highest:  Running Back (2nd both)
  • Lowest:  Defensive Line (10th both)
Even if Nick Chubb isn't 100% right away, Sony Michel is around to help pick up the slack. The back end of Georgia's defense ranked in the top four in both publications, but the line lost both ends. The Dawgs also have questions at wide receiver and certainly quarterback, but ranked in the top five in every other category in both publications.

5. Texas A&M (6.5)
  • Highest:  Wide Receivers (2nd Athlon, 1st Lindy's)
  • Lowest:  Linebackers (13th Athlon, 8th Lindy's)
This metric is also good for removing thoughts that the Vols got a better draw in the SEC West this season. A&M's fleet of Christian Kirk, Josh Reynolds, Ricky Seals-Jones, and Speedy Noil caught 197 passes for 2,702 yards and 18 touchdowns last year. The Aggies were also fourth in QB ratings in both publications, meaning their passing game should be a challenge for any defense, but their ratings were all over the board elsewhere.

6. Ole Miss (6.8)
  • Highest:  Quarterback (1st both)
  • Lowest:  Linebackers (12th both)
Ole Miss joins LSU and A&M as talented squads with serious questions at linebacker. Oregon State graduate transfer Rommel Dooley Mageo will be expected to contribute if not start immediately. On offense Chad Kelly will roll with a highly-touted group of receivers, but the running game is a significant question mark with inexperience in the backfield and in the offensive line. Ole Miss has been good enough long enough under Hugh Freeze for the Rebels to benefit from positive assumptions in rankings like these at times - we'll see this fall if those assumptions are true.

7. Florida (6.9)
  • Highest:  Defensive Backs (3rd Athlon, 1st Lindy's)
  • Lowest:  Wide Receivers & Offensive Line (9th Athlon, 10th Lindy's)
The Vols may still like to think of themselves as Wide Receiver U, but it feels even more jarring to see Florida be rated so low here and it's still uncertain what will come of Antonio Callaway's suspension. Hargreaves may be gone but Jalen Tabor and a ton of experience return in Florida's secondary, which means it will once again be interesting to see how Mike DeBord chooses to attack the Gator defense with Josh Dobbs. I've wanted to jump the gun on Tennessee being as or more talented as Florida for the last few years, but there's no denying it this season.

8. Auburn (8.0)
  • Highest:  Special Teams (2nd Lindy's), Running Back (5th both), Offensive Line (4th Athlon, 6th Lindy's)
  • Lowest:  Linebackers (11th Athlon, 13th Lindy's)
Apparently all the good linebackers are in Tuscaloosa and the SEC East. There's a bit of separation here as we get to the second half of the conference; the Tigers don't rank in the top three in any category outside of special teams, but outside of linebacker they only rank in the bottom three at quarterback according to Athlon, while Lindy's strongly disagrees and puts the Tiger QB situation sixth. Lots of uncertainty at QB at Auburn and throughout the league.

9. Arkansas (8.7)
  • Highest:  Wide Receivers (4th Athlon, 5th Lindy's)
  • Lowest:  Special Teams (14th Lindy's), Defensive Backs (12th both)
Arkansas' units rank between 7-10 in both publications everywhere but their high and low marks listed above, and their offensive line which Lindy's ranks fourth.

10. Kentucky (10.1)
  • Highest:  Running Back (6th Athlon, 8th Lindy's)
  • Lowest:  Linebackers (14th both)
The worst LB's in the league apparently belong to the Cats, but Boom Williams is back to help put Kentucky at the front of the league's lower tier. There's almost no distinction in these ratings between them and...

11. Vanderbilt (10.2)
  • Highest:  Linebackers (5th both)
  • Lowest:  Special Teams (13th Lindy's), Quarterback (13th both)
Perhaps a bit higher than you were expecting to show your gold? Vandy certainly gets a boost from Zach Cunningham and the return of Nigel Bowden at linebacker, but the Commodores also don't rank dead last in any category in the league, which certainly counts for something.

12. Missouri (10.5)
  • Highest:  Defensive Line (3rd both)
  • Lowest:  Running Back (14th both)
It gets crowded in this tier in a hurry. Three of four starters return from another great Mizzou defensive line on another strong Mizzou defense, which got mixed results in these ratings at linebacker and in the secondary. But once again it looks like the offense will drag this whole thing down:  dead last at running back, and Athlon had the Tigers last at quarterback and offensive line as well.

13. Mississippi State (10.8)
  • Highest:  Wide Receivers (6th Athlon, 8th Lindy's)
  • Lowest:  Running Back (12th Athlon, 13th Lindy's), Offensive Line (11th Athlon, 14th Lindy's)
That's a bad combination to be worst at. I was surprised to see the Bulldogs below Kentucky and Vanderbilt, even if just barely in these ratings. I've got no beef with the Bulldogs and I think Dan Mullen has done one of the best coaching jobs in the league. That said, can you name a Mississippi State player from this year's team (other than Jeffery Simmons)? I got Fred Ross at WR and that's it without looking.

14. South Carolina (11.8)
  • Highest:  Linebackers (8th Athlon, 4th Lindy's)
  • Lowest:  Wide Receivers & Defensive Backs (14th both)
Yikes, Will Muschamp. Also ranking 12th-14th in both publications at running back, offensive line, and defensive line. We don't often assume South Carolina is going to be the outright worst team in the league, and they certainly might not be. But by this metric they're the clear choice.