Some of the Southeastern Conference's best players this season are Vadal Alexander, Ryan Kelly and Laremy Tunsil.
If one or more of those names doesn't ring a bell, that's not surprising. They are part of an obscure group to most fans, but well-known to teammates, opponents and coaches.
The three critical players are on the offensive line — college football's anonymous units that clear the way for more well-known players.
But there's no coincidence that many of the SEC's best teams this season also have some of the best offensive linemen. If they are doing their job up front, it goes a long way toward masking other deficiencies.
Check out No. 4 LSU. The Tigers are undefeated despite having one of the league's least productive passing games. That's because a talented offensive line that features Alexander, a right tackle, and four other potential NFL prospects is making big holes for perhaps the nation's Heisman Trophy frontrunner — running back Leonard Fournette.
The spread offense and big passing numbers might be here to stay, but for LSU, there's nothing quite like being able to throw defenders out of the way and run straight up the field.
"We enjoy the fact that there is a physicality to the style of offense that we run, that we're going to challenge a defense and try to control the line of scrimmage and block them," LSU coach Les Miles said.
LSU does it better than just about anybody. The Tigers lead the SEC and are fifth in the nation with 309.1 yards rushing per game.
LSU guard William Clapp said Miles deserves a lot of credit for creating a hard-nosed program that expects to dominant physically.
"He knows how to develop an offensive lineman," Clapp said. "He played the position. He played at Michigan. He was a tough guy. He knows what it's like to be down in the trenches, so having his insight into that really helps."
The Tigers play against No. 7 Alabama this Saturday in what is likely to be a showcase for fans who love a little more old-school, push-the-pile football. This might not be one of the Crimson Tide's best offensive lines by the lofty standards of the last 10 years, but they still have some elite talent in Kelly, who is a center, and left tackle Cam Robinson.
They've been a big reason there's been ample running room for Derrick Henry, who ranks second in the SEC with 1,044 yards rushing.
"Any game in the SEC is going to be won in the trenches. LSU's no different," Kelly said. "They have a great front seven, a lot of guys who have played a lot of games."
Alabama linebacker Reggie Ragland said LSU's strong offensive line is no surprise.
"They got a bunch of good NFL prospects that love to play the game," Ragland said. "They got some big physical guys, we got big physical guys, and it's always been like that for years."
No. 19 Ole Miss is also in the running for a Western Division title. A lot of the optimism surrounding the program is because of the return of junior All-SEC left tackle Laremy Tunsil, who missed the first seven games of the season because of an NCAA suspension for receiving improper benefits.
The Rebels don't have the depth along the offensive line that the Tide or Tigers boast. But Tunsil gives them a dominant presence on the edge to protect quarterback Chad Kelly's blind side.
Ole Miss has won both games since Tunsil returned.
"He has really infused our offensive line," Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze said.
No. 11 Florida looked like it might have a terrible year on the offensive line back in the spring, when just six healthy scholarship offensive linemen participated in spring practice.
But the Gators have managed to cobble together a respectable group. Starting left guard Martez Ivey is a true freshman and was among the top offensive line recruits in the country.
Florida first-year coach Jim McElwain said he's been pleased at the group's resiliency, even if the process hasn't always been pretty.
"Are you going to sit and cry over it or are you just going to figure out somebody needs to step up," McElwain said. "And we've had some guys step up."
Quiet as it's kept, so have other teams — guys like Alexander, Kelly and Tunsil.
AP Sports Writers Brett Martel, John Zenor and Mark Long contributed to this story.
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Posted on Thu, November 5, 2015
by DAVID BRANDT, AP Sports Writer