The offensive line is often the most overlooked position for any college football team. While the linemen in the trenches don’t get enough credit, they are often the most important piece to a successful offense. Flashy skill talent and quarterbacks take home all of the accolades and headlines, but neither position can thrive without a solid offensive line.
Which teams are strongest in the trenches heading into the 2017 season? Oklahoma takes the top spot in Athlon's rankings, followed by Alabama, Clemson and Auburn.
How did we come up with these rankings? A couple of factors were considered. Depth, overall talent, production, level of competition and projected output in 2017 all factored into the rankings for the offensive line. While some teams may have experienced a down year last season, a new assistant, top recruit or a change of scheme can make a huge difference. These rankings reflect projection for 2017, not solely what teams have accomplished in 2016.
CFB's Top 50 Offensive Lines for 2017
In order for Oklahoma to challenge for a CFB Playoff bid, the line has to keep opposing defenders away from quarterback Baker Mayfield. That task shouldn’t be tough for Lincoln Riley's group with all five starters returning. Orlando Brown was selected as the Big 12’s Offensive Lineman of the Year in 2016 and is back to anchor this group at left tackle. Right tackle Bobby Evans and left guard Ben Powers are rising stars, with Dru Samia (right guard) and center Erick Wren rounding out the returning starters. Jonathan Alvarez and Cody Ford provide quality depth.
Few true freshmen could step into a starting job on the offensive line from Day 1 in the SEC, but that’s exactly what Jonah Williams did last season. Williams started all 15 games for the Crimson Tide and is slated to move from right to left tackle to replace Cam Robinson. Stalwarts Ross Pierschbacher (left guard) and Bradley Bozeman (center) anchor the interior. Alabama has some uncertainty on the right side with a mix of candidates vying for spots. However, with four- and five-star talent competing for jobs, it’s hard to envision Nick Saban not finding the right answers.
Replacing standout center Jay Guillermo won’t be easy, but the return of left tackle Mitch Hyatt and guard Tyrone Crowder is more than enough to keep Clemson’s offensive line among the best in the nation. Hyatt has started 29 games in his first two seasons on campus and is an Athlon Sports preseason second-team All-American. Left guard Taylor Hearn and right tackle Sean Pollard also return, while junior Justin Falcinelli steps into the middle after playing just 174 snaps last year.
The success of Auburn’s high-powered attack starts up front. Last year’s group mauled opposing defensive lines in opening holes for the SEC’s No. 1 ground game and allowed only 19 sacks in 13 contests. Expect more of the same in 2017, as line coach Herb Hand builds around three returning starters. Hand and coach Gus Malzahn are working with different combinations this fall, so the exact spots for the starting five aren’t set. Braden Smith is an Athlon Sports first-team preseason All-American, with Austin Golson and Darius James returning as starters. Smith was a guard last season but shifted to tackle in the spring. Graduate transfers Wilson Bell (Florida State) and Casey Dunn (Jacksonville State) are pushing for starting spots at guard and center, respectively. Sophomores Marquel Harrell and Mike Horton and Prince Tega Wanogho are also in the mix for starting jobs. Despite the uncertainty about the starting five, this is a strong group for Hand.
Easing the transition of a new starting quarterback for coach Kirk Ferentz is one of the nation’s top offensive lines. The Hawkeyes return five starters, including standouts James Daniels at center and All-America guard Sean Welsh. Seniors Boone Myers and Ike Boettger are the anchors at tackle, while Keegan Render is set to take the full-time job at left guard. Redshirt freshman Alaric Jackson is expected to provide depth at tackle and is a name to file away for 2018.
New line coach Scott Huff inherits three returning starters, along with two other players with experience to round out a solid starting five. Mammoth left tackle Trey Adams is the unit’s top player and is expected to vie for All-America honors. Kaleb McGary will bookend Adams on the other side, with Coleman Shelton back at center. Nick Harris is slated to start at one of the guard spots, with Andrew Kirkland taking the other side. This unit allowed just 26 sacks and cleared the way for rushers to average 5.24 yards per carry last year.
The Tigers have to do some offseason shuffling here, but the offensive line is an annual strength in Baton Rouge. Will Clapp has emerged as one of the SEC’s top linemen over the last two seasons and is slated to slide to center to replace standout Ethan Pocic. Left tackle K.J. Malone — the son of NBA Hall of Famer Karl Malone — returns as an All-SEC candidate after starting all 12 games for the Tigers in 2016. Toby Weathersby (right tackle) and guard Garrett Brumfield are solid players stepping into full-time roles for the first time, with one of the guard spots up for grabs after Maea Teuhema was released from the team in fall camp. Redshirt freshman Lloyd Cushenberry or sophomore Donavaughn Campbell will replace Teuhema at right guard. Depth is a concern for Orgeron and coordinator Matt Canada after a couple of players departed this offseason. Last year’s line helped LSU lead all Power 5 teams by averaging 6.1 yards per rush.
8. Ohio State
Urban Meyer’s Buckeyes return a strong foundation up front with four returning starters. Senior Billy Price has started 41 straight games at guard but will move to center to replace standout Pat Elflein. While Elflein will be missed, Price’s experience and ability should alleviate concerns in the middle. Senior left tackle Jamarco Jones is poised to emerge as one of the best in the Big Ten, with sophomore Michael Jordan (left guard) and junior Isaiah Prince (right tackle) back in the lineup as returning starters. The only vacancy up front is at right guard, where a handful of candidates are vying for snaps. Junior Demetrius Knox, sophomore Matthew Burrell and junior Malcolm Pridgeon are the top candidates for line coach Greg Studrawa at this position. Pridgeon was a top junior college recruit in the 2016 signing class but redshirted due to injury. This unit allowed 28 sacks last fall.
9. Notre Dame
With a group that features two of the nation’s top draft prospects in the trenches, the Fighting Irish could easily climb into the top five of this list by the end of 2017. Can this unit put all of the pieces into place? Last season, Notre Dame’s front five surrendered 28 sacks and cleared the way for rushers to average 4.5 yards per carry. This group has the potential to show marked improvement from those numbers, as left tackle Mike McGlinchey and guard Quenton Nelson are both Athlon Sports All-America selections for 2017. Sam Mustipher (center) and Alex Bars (right guard) return after starting all 12 games in 2016. The lone open spot on the line is at right tackle, where freshmen Tommy Kraemer and Robert Hainsey are battling Liam Eichenberg for the starting job.
10. Kansas State
The Wildcats showed marked improvement on the offensive line throughout the 2016 season and should rank among the nation’s best for 2017. Coach Bill Snyder’s group returns three starters, including standout right tackle Dalton Risner and Athlon Sports 2016 All-Freshman Team selection Scott Frantz at left tackle. Senior Reid Najvar should push for All-Big 12 honors at center. The guard spots are up for grabs this fall, with Abdul Beecham and Tyler Mitchell considered the frontrunners. This unit cleared the way for Kansas State rushers to average 5.3 yards per carry last fall.
12. Washington State
24. NC State
27. Penn State
29. Georgia Tech
30. Florida State
32. Texas A&M
33. Ole Miss
36. Oklahoma State
38. Appalachian State
39. Western Michigan
44. New Mexico
45. Virginia Tech
48. Northern Illinois
49. Colorado State