Each year, Athlon Sports produces conference and national unit rankings for all of the major position groups on the field.
Who has the best receiving corps — both wide receivers and tight ends — in the nation? Who has the best set of linebackers — both inside and out, 4-3 or 3-4?
It’s a fun and illuminating exercise that can help provide clarity when it comes to making predictions. Sure, wide receivers, running backs and safeties are important players but what defines a truly great football team — one that can compete for a national championship — is the line of scrimmage.
A great offensive line can mask issues at tailback or even quarterback. A stout defensive line can make linebackers look like superstars. The game is still played in the trenches and being strong along both lines of scrimmage is generally a calling card for most championship teams.
So, as fall camp is set to open across the nation, which teams have the best combination of offensive and defensive lines in the nation?
Note: There are 17 teams ranked in the top 25 nationally in both offensive and defensive line unit rankings.
OL Rank: 2 | DL Rank: 7
Alabama’s strength doesn’t lie in the elite upside of starters (which is excellent) but the astounding depth along both sides of the ball. A’Shawn Robinson on defense and Cam Robinson on offense could blossom into superstars as just underclassmen and neither was a starter last fall. Steady veterans like Brandon Ivory at nose guard and both Ryan Kelly and Austin Shepard on offense give Nick Saban the best combination of linemen in the nation.
2. Florida State
OL Rank: 1 | DL Rank: 9
The Noles boast five senior starters along the offensive line, including three preseason first- or second-team All-Americans and four returning starters. Only Austin Barron is a new face up front for Jameis Winston. Losing Timmy Jernigan hurts the D-line but Mario Edwards, Eddie Goldman and Chris Casher form one of the nastiest groups in the nation.
OL Rank: 8 | DL Rank: 6
All three starters return along the D-line for the Stoops brothers and two of them (Jordan Wade and Chuka Ndulue) might not even start for the Sooners. The defense will be the best the Sooners have seen in a decade while the O-line continues to churn out big-time players. This unit is going to feature five upperclassmen, including four returning starters, and two bookend seniors at left and right tackle (Tyrus Thompson and Daryl Williams).
OL Rank: 4 | DL Rank: 14
The offensive line in Baton Rouge has been great since Nick Saban got to town and La’El Collins and Jerald Hawkins form one of the best tackle duos in the nation. There are no holes up front on offense. Defensive ends Danielle Hunter and Jermauria Rasco could also be one of the best duos in the nation, but Les Miles must replace both interior tackles on defense. The overall talent and depth of these two units should give LSU a chance to win every game this fall.
5. Ohio State
OL Rank: 20 | DL Rank: 1
Michael Bennett, an Athlon Sports preseason first-team All-American, is the only non-five-star starter along the defensive line for Ohio State. In fact, every member of the OSU two-deep on defense returns. The offense isn’t as lucky but is very talented in its own right. This group doesn’t have the star power it had last fall but it’s a veteran group headlined by Taylor Decker and former Alabama blocker Chad Lindsay.
6. Michigan State
OL Rank: 19 | DL Rank: 3
The defensive line is a proven commodity with national award candidate Shilique Calhoun anchoring things at defensive end. His counterpart Marcus Rush is another stellar edge rusher, giving Mark Dantonio and Pat Narduzzi an elite pass rush. Center Jack Allen and left tackle Jack Conklin headline a veteran O-line that is one of the Big Ten’s best once again.
OL Rank: 2 | DL Rank: 17*
Auburn would have been fifth on this list if not for the crushing injury to Carl Lawson — who might be the Tigers' best defensive lineman. Even without Lawson and first-round pick Greg Robinson, Auburn returns four starters along the O-line and three out of four on the other side.
* - Before Carl Lawson’s injury. Auburn would have been No. 5 on this list if Lawson had been healthy.
OL Rank: 21 | DL Rank: 4
Vic Beasley and Corey Crawford bookend one of the nastiest defensive lines in the nation while three returning interior starters highlight the offensive line. The Tigers' O-line will feature five upperclassmen while the D-line is projected to boast four senior starters. From a talent and experience standpoint, few teams can match what Clemson returns to the trenches.
OL Rank: 6 | DL Rank: 20
How could a unit with one returning starter on offense be one of the nation’s best? Because David Shaw has recruited at an elite level up front along the line and that one starter, left tackle Andrus Peat, might be the nation’s best player at his position. Defensively, Henry Anderson and David Parry return to action with big-time names like Blake Lueders and Aziz Shittu poised to breakout for new coordinator Lance Anderson.
OL Rank: 17 | DL Rank: 13
The Bears lost some star power along both lines of scrimmage but Art Briles has recruited so well that Baylor still figures to be one of the toughest teams up front this fall. Shawn Oakman and Andrew Billings form a dynamic inside-outside tandem on defense while left tackle Spencer Drango is a budding superstar on offense. This ranking is a major testament to the job Briles and Baylor have done restocking the cupboard in the trenches.
OL Rank: 23 | DL Rank: 7
End Cedric Reed and tackle Malcolm Brown form one of the best defensive line duos in the nation. And while the offensive line has struggled of late, new O-line coach Joe Wickline is sure to develop some toughness and tenacity on a line that returns a lot of big-time recruits. A kick in the pants is just what these two lines need in Austin.
Best of the Rest:
11. Washington (OL: 16, DL: 16)
12. UCLA (OL: 22, DL: 10)
13. Kansas State (OL: 14, DL: 21)
14. South Carolina (OL: 5, DL: UR)
15. USC (OL: UR, DL: 5)