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 - This group was criticized for its play at times last year, but the Tide’s offensive line should be a strength this season. Guard Barrett Jones and center William Vlachos are 2011 Athlon Sports preseason All-Americans, while Chance Warmack and D.J. Fluker return as starters. Jones worked at left tackle during the spring after two excellent years at right guard. The question is whether the team feels better with sophomore Anthony Steen at right guard or senior Alfred McCullough at left tackle. The Tide will need a more cohesive performance after a 2010 season that saw them rank 88th nationally in sacks allowed.
2. Oklahoma State - Joe Wickline doesn’t get enough credit as one of the top offensive line coaches in college football. This group had to replace four starters last year but quickly established itself as one of the best in the Big 12. The Cowboys allowed only 10 sacks last year (7th fewest in America) on 532 pass attempts (7th most in America) All five starters return for 2011, including Athlon Sports preseason second-team All-American Levy Adcock. The lone non-senior, right guard Lane Taylor, is the one with the most starting experience, taking over his spot in the fourth game of the 2009 season.
3. Ohio State - Even though depth is an issue, the Buckeyes still feature the Big Ten’s best offensive line. Center Mike Brewster is a 2011 Athlon Sports preseason All-American, while J.B. Shugarts returns at right tackle. Left tackle Mike Adams will miss the first five games due to a suspension, but he is one of the Big Ten’s best when he’s on the field. Marcus Hall returns from a redshirt season and should be a steady performer at guard. While Adams serves his suspension, sophomore Andrew Norwell is projected to be the fill-in. Norwell is considered a steady run-blocker with work to do as a pass blocker.
4. Texas A&M - One of the big reasons for last year’s turnaround was the play of the offensive line. Tackles Luke Joeckel and Jake Matthews were solid as true freshmen last year and will only get better in 2011. Patrick Lewis earned honorable mention All-Big 12 honors last season and will slide from guard to center. Brian Thomas and Shep Klinke will man the guard spots. None of the projected starters are seniors, and as they gain experience, they should gain even more cohesion. The Aggies ranked in the bottom third nationally in sacks allowed, but 23 of the 37 sacks were allowed during their sluggish 3-3 start, including six against FIU and seven against Missouri.
5. Boise State - Opposing defenses didn’t have much luck getting to Bronco quarterbacks last year thanks to a line that allowed only eight sacks, third-fewest in the FBS. Three starters return, including tackle Nate Potter and center Thomas Byrd. Potter is a 2011 Athlon Sports preseason All-American and is regarded as one of the top tackle prospects for the 2012 NFL Draft. For his part, Byrd joined Potter on the All-WAC first team. Joe Kellogg returns at left guard, while sophomores Jake Broyles and Charles Leno move into the lineup, filling in the right side.
6. Wisconsin - The Badgers lost two All-Americans, but the three returnees are very good in their own right. Ricky Wagner takes over for Gabe Carimi at left tackle, and is a preseason All-Big Ten favorite. Center Peter Konz and right guard Kevin Zeitler could earn similar honors at season's end.
7. Iowa - The Hawkeyes return three of last season's starters and five overall that have starting experience. Junior Riley Reiff is an Athlon Sports third-team preseason All-American, who has started 24 of 26 games since he arrived in Iowa City. Right tackle Markus Zusevics is also receiving preseason all-conference consideration.
8. Stanford- Only two starters return, but both left tackle Jonathan Martin and right guard David DeCastro were first-team All-Pac-10 last year. The most intense battle appears to be at center, where junior Sam Schwartzstein and sophomore Khalil Wilkes are battling to replace All-American Chase Beeler.
9. Missouri - Four linemen return with a combined 108 career starts, so the Tigers have one of the most experienced lines in America. Tackles Dan Hoch and Elvis Fisher are both All-Big 12 contenders. Right guard Austin Wuebbels also enters his third season as a starter. Replacing center Tim Barnes is the biggest question mark.
10. BYU - Four of five starters return, including left tackle Matt Reynolds, who pondered entering the NFL Draft. Reynolds allowed only one sack in 2010. Right tackle Braden Brown allowed five, a respectable total for a converted tight end in his first full season as a lineman.