They're the teams within the team - those cohesive little units bound together by their shared responsibilities within the larger team context.
Whether it's the offensive linemen firing off time after time into those familiar blocking sleds, or the defensive linemen drilling repeatedly on how to shed blockers, or the defensive backs breaking on ball after ball - these teams in miniature hone their tasks on the practice field until those tasks become second nature.
Whether or not these units function as one can make the difference between winning and losing, and a single unit can carry a college football team to New Year's Day - or beyond.
It's entirely fitting, then, for us to honor the best of the best at each position with our 11th annual Athlon Awards.
1. Alabama - Despite having three new starters in the secondary, Alabama’s pass defense was rock solid last season. The Crimson Tide finished 13th nationally against the pass, picked off 22 passes and allowed only 12 passing scores. Mark Barron and Robert Lester form one of the nation’s best combinations at safety, while Dre Kirkpatrick and Dee Milliner are a talented up-and-coming duo at cornerback. Seniors DeQuan Menzie and Phelon Jones will provide depth at cornerback. True freshman Ha'Sean Clinton-Dix could push for time as a backup to Robert Lester. Barron (first team) and Kirkpatrick (third team) are Athlon Sports preseason All-Americans for 2011.
2. LSU - Patrick Peterson is gone, but the Tigers remain in great shape in the secondary. Tyrann Mathieu will move into the starting lineup, after an impressive freshman season. Morris Claiborne earned second-team All-SEC honors last year and will join Mathieu at corner. Claiborne picked off five passes last season and his solid play in the secondary was often overshadowed by Peterson. Brandon Taylor returns at strong safety, while promising sophomore Craig Loston takes over at free safety. Sophomore Eric Reid is a name to watch as a backup to dependable senior Brandon Taylor at strong safety.
3. Florida State - Junior Greg Reid and sophomore Xavier Rhodes took their share of lumps, but that experience will pay off in 2011. Their return gives the Seminoles one of the top corner duos in college football, and both will only get better with more snaps. Reid checks in at 5-foot-8, but is one of the ACC's most physical corners. Rhodes is the better cover corner entering 2011. Safety was a concern last year, but improvement is expected with the move of Lamarcus Joyner from cornerback and the arrival of true freshman Karlos Williams. Junior strong safety Nick Moody and senior free safety Terrance Parks are returning starters, but will have to battle with Joyner and Williams for snaps.
4. Virginia Tech - Jayron Hosley shined in his first year as a starter, picking off nine passes and earning first-team All-ACC honors. Hosley is joined at corner by Kyle Fuller, who turned in a solid freshman season in 2010. Fuller collected 32 tackles, broken up six passes and forced one fumble. Strong safety Antone Exum collected 45 tackles as a freshman last year, while free safety Eddie Whitley is back after recording two interceptions last year. Whitley is an Athlon Sports preseason third-team All-ACC safety.
5. Nebraska - The Cornhuskers must replace a couple of key contributors but should remain stingy against the pass. Prince Amukamara was a shutdown corner and it appears Alfonzo Dennard is ready to follow in his footsteps. Dennard earned second-team All-Big 12 honors last year and should emerge as one of the Big Ten's top corners in 2011. Sophomore Ciante Evans is expected to start at the other corner spot. He was only one of three true freshman to play last season and collected nine tackles in eight contests. Austin Cassidy and Courtney Osborne have experience at safety, which should soften the blow of having to replace Eric Hagg and DeJon Gomes.
6. Oregon - As long as Cliff Harris stays out of trouble and rejoins the Oregon secondary, this group should be among the top 10 in the nation. Harris takes some chances, but also makes a lot of game-changing plays. The junior will miss the opener against LSU, but should be reinstated early in the season. Senior Anthony Gildon will likely start at the other corner spot. The Ducks are in great shape at safety, as John Boyett and Eddie Pleasant form one of the nation’s top tandems.
7. Oklahoma - Jamell Fleming’s return pushes Oklahoma over Texas A&M for the top secondary in the Big 12. The senior is the conference’s top cornerback and an All-American candidate. Junior Demontre Hurst is likely to start at the other corner spot, with sophomore Gabe Lynn also seeing significant snaps. Aaron Colvin, Javon Harris and Sam Proctor will lead the way at safety.
8. Texas A&M - The Aggies ranked 89th nationally in pass defense last year, but expect that number to significantly improve with four starters back. Cornerback Coryell Judie is an Athlon Sports preseason first-team All-Big 12 selection and a threat on kickoff returns. Free safety Trent Hunter should contend for All-Big 12 honors this year. Rounding out the starting secondary is strong safety Steven Campbell and cornerback Terrence Frederick.
9. Ohio State - Even with three new starters, the Buckeyes should rank near the top of the Big Ten in pass defense. Safety should be in great shape with Orhian Johnson and Tyler Moeller returning. Travis Howard and Dominic Clarke are the early frontrunners to start at cornerback.
10. Penn State - The offense could be a concern in Happy Valley this year, but the Nittany Lions can lean on a solid defense. Three starters return in the secondary, including safety Drew Astorino and cornerback D’Anton Lynn. Astorino is an Athlon Sports preseason second-team All-Big Ten selection. Penn State ranked 16th nationally in pass defense last year.