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. Boise State - The Broncos dominated up front last year, finishing seventh nationally against the run and tying Florida State for the most sacks with 48. Three starters are back, including 2011 Athlon Sports preseason All-Americans Billy Winn and Shea McClellin. Joining Winn in the interior of the line will be dependable senior Chase Baker. Ryan Winterswyk leaves big shoes to fill on the outside, but senior Tyrone Crawford is ready to step in. Sophomore tackle Ricky Tjong-A-Tjoe will see snaps as a backup to Baker and Winn in the middle, but could be Boise State's next All-Mountain West lineman in 2012.
2. Florida State - The Seminoles made big improvements on defense last year, largely due to their success up front. Brandon Jenkins blossomed into one of the nation’s top pass-rushers, recording 13.5 sacks. Bjoern Werner had a solid freshman campaign last year, and his ability to get after the quarterback should prevent defenses from focusing too much on Jenkins. Junior college transfer Tank Carradine will also see snaps at end. Everett Dawkins, Jacobbi McDaniel, Demonte McAllister and Anthony McCloud give the Seminoles a deep rotation at tackle.
3. South Carolina - Two starters must be replaced, but the Gamecocks won’t be hurting up front. Devin Taylor should push for the SEC lead in sacks and is expected to be joined at end by Jadeveon Clowney — the No. 1 freshman in the nation. Clowney will have to earn the starting job, but the South Carolina coaching staff feels he can come in and start right away. Melvin Ingram and Travian Robertson combined for 13 sacks last year and should keep the Gamecocks’ rush defense among the best in the SEC. Kelcy Quarles and Byron Jerideau should provide good depth for the interior of the line.
4. Nebraska - The shift to the Big Ten shouldn’t have much of an effect on the Nebraska defense. Jared Crick and Baker Steinkuhler should form the best defensive tackle combination in the nation. Crick is an Athlon Sports preseason first-team All-American. End Cameron Meredith will be counted on to increase his production with Pierre Allen departing, and there’s no shortage of experienced options to choose from for the other defensive end spot. Junior Eric Martin and sophomore Jason Ankrah are the early favorites to see the majority of playing time at the end spot opposite of Meredith. Nebraska finished 2010 ranked 63rd nationally against the run. That stat is a little misleading considering the lack of success teams had passing against the Cornhuskers, but don't expect many 100-yard rushers against this line in 2011.
5. North Carolina - Despite Marvin Austin and Robert Quinn not playing a down in Chapel Hill last year, the Tar Heels didn’t miss a beat. Quinton Coples registered 10 sacks and will move from tackle to his natural position of defensive end in 2011. Coples is an Athlon Sports preseason first-team All-American. Tackle Tydreke Powell returns as one of the ACC’s top run-stuffers, while end Donte Paige-Moss could approach 10 sacks this year. The Tar Heels are counting on junior college transfer Sylvester Williams to join Powell as a starter in the interior.
6. Missouri - Even though Aldon Smith departed early for the NFL, the Tigers own the Big 12’s top defensive line. Nose tackle Dominique Hamilton’s return to full health is critical to the success of this group. Ends Jacquies Smith, Brad Madison and Kony Ealy should help the Tigers rank near the top of the nation in sacks. The interior of the line could get a boost if former top recruit Sheldon Richardson finally gets eligible.
7. Florida - Big things were expected from top freshmen Sharrif Floyd, Dominique Easley and Ronald Powell last year, but the trio had an up-and-down season. All three are expected to take on a prominent role in the defense this year and could work their way into All-SEC honors by the end of 2011. Senior Jaye Howard is a solid and experienced backup in the interior. New coach Will Muschamp also expects big things from senior William Green.
8. Ohio State - The 2011 Buckeyes defensive line may not be as deep as some of the previous groups, but there’s still plenty of talent. End Nathan Williams should be a disruptive force off the edge and will likely lead the team in sacks. John Simon is expected to see time at end and tackle, but could finish the year as one of the top linemen in the Big Ten. The Buckeyes are counting on sophomore tackle Johnathan Hankins and junior defensive end Garrett Goebel to step up as key contributors this season.
9. Arkansas - Bobby Petrino and his assistants have done a nice job of improving the talent on defense over the last couple of seasons. End Jake Bequette is a preseason Athlon Sports third-team All-American, after registering seven sacks last year. Joining Bequette at end will be junior Tenarius Wright, who could be in for a breakout year. The interior is solid with D.D. Jones, Robert Thomas, Alfred Davis and Byran Jones likely to rotate snaps this season.
10. Texas - The Longhorns will miss Sam Acho’s production at end, but two starters are back up front. Senior Kheeston Randall could be the Big 12’s top defensive tackle and is an Athlon Sports preseason third-team All-American. Sophomore Jackson Jeffcoat has enormous upside and should be a future star at Texas. Junior Alex Okafor had a solid spring and will join Jeffcoat on the outside.