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College Football's Title Contenders Have Offensive Line Question Marks

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When determining a preseason pick for college football’s national champion, offensive lines are often the most overlooked aspect to ranking teams No. 1 through No. 124. Quarterback play and success is equally important, but developing a standout offensive line can be just as crucial.

In the BCS standings released on December 4, 2011, each of the top five teams – LSU, Alabama, Oklahoma State, Stanford and Oregon – ranked in the top 25 in fewest sacks allowed. Six of the top 15 teams in Athlon’s 2011 offensive line rankings made a BCS game, while Boise State won 12 contests and finished in the top 10.

Factors such as scheme, conference and quarterback play all figure into sack totals, so it’s impossible to target one specific stat to rank offensive lines.

As the countdown to the 2012 college football season hits under 50 days, it’s time to take a look at how the national title contenders stack up on the offensive line. Some of the top contenders – USC, LSU and Alabama – are in great shape. However, potential contenders like Florida State or Georgia have big question marks to answer.

Athlon will release its national offensive line rankings later this summer, but here’s an early glance at how some of the top contenders look up front.

Offensive Lines In Great Shape

It’s just a coincidence, but each of the teams in Athlon’s projected top five is in great shape up front.

Alabama (Athlon 2012 projected finish: 3) – William Vlachos will be missed, but the Crimson Tide won’t miss a beat up front. Senior Barrett Jones is college football’s best returning lineman and will shift from left tackle to center. The guard spots will be manned by Chance Warmack and Anthony Steen, while junior D.J. Fluker should have a breakout year. Left tackle is a question mark, but Cyrus Kouandjio  - the No. 2 recruit in the 2011 Athlon Consenus 100 – is ready to start.

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LSU (Athlon 2012 projected finish: 2) –The combination of Texas A&M’s Luke Joeckel and Jake Matthews might be the best tackle duo in college football, but LSU’s Chris Faulk and Alex Hurst aren’t too far behind. In addition to the strength at tackle, the Tigers bring back guard Josh Williford and center P.J. Lonergan, while Josh Dworaczyk returns after missing all of 2011 with an injury. The Tigers allowed 18 sacks last season and allowed rushers to average 4.8 yards per rush. With two likely All-Americans (Hurst and Faulk) leading the way, LSU should once again keep its punishing ground attack going, while pushing for a spot in the national title game.

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Oklahoma (Athlon 2012 projected finish: 5) – Three starters are back from a unit that allowed just 11 sacks last season. Gabe Ikard has emerged as one of the nation’s best guards, while this group should get a boost with the return of center Ben Habern. The senior missed time due to an arm injury last year. Seniors Lane Johnson and Tyler Evans and sophomore Daryl Williams are expected to round out the starting lineup. The Sooners struggled to find their offensive rhythm over the final three games of last season, but with one of college football’s top lines returning, along with quarterback Landry Jones, Oklahoma should average nearly 40 points a game.

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Oregon (Athlon 2012 projected finish: 4) – Some of the credit to the Ducks’ rushing attack over the last three years has to go to running back LaMichael James and quarterback Darron Thomas, but the offensive line also played a key role in its success. This group returns three starters in 2012, and the replacements stepping in have experience. Left tackle Jake Fisher is a rising star, while right guard Ryan Clanton played in 11 games last year. Starting left guard Carson York suffered a significant knee injury in the Rose Bowl win over Wisconsin, but is expected to return early – if not by the season opener – in 2012.

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USC (Athlon 2012 projected finish: 1) – Despite losing left tackle Matt Kalil, the Trojans are in good shape up front. Four starters are back, including 2012 Athlon All-American center Khaled Holmes. USC’s offensive line gave up only eight sacks last season and shouldn’t see that number increase by much this season. Considering the Trojans could match up against LSU (one of the best defensive lines in college football) in the national title game, it’s important for this group to jell this fall.

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In Great Shape…Outside of Athlon’s Projected Top 10 for 2012

Michigan State – Quarterback Kirk Cousins must be replaced, but the Spartans can lean on running back Le’Veon Bell and four starters on the offensive line.

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NC State – Looking for a sleeper pick to win the ACC in 2012? Take a look at the Wolfpack. Quarterback Mike Glennon is back, and four starters return on the offensive line.

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Texas A&M – Transitioning to the SEC will be a challenge, but the Aggies can lean on tackles Luke Joeckel and Jake Matthews. Center Patrick Lewis also returns after earning honorable mention All-Big 12 accolades last year.

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Projected Top 25 Teams With Question Marks

Clemson – The Tigers have the firepower (quarterback Tajh Boyd and receiver Sammy Watkins) to win the ACC, but the offensive line could hold this team back from reaching a BCS bowl. This group loses three starters, including both tackles in Phillip Price and Landon Walker. Center Dalton Freeman and guard Brandon Thomas is a good building block, but Clemson’s high-powered offense could sputter with a sluggish performance up front.

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Florida State – The Seminoles are a good darkhorse pick to win the national title, but winning the championship won’t be possible without better play from the line. This unit struggled throughout 2011 and ranked 110th nationally with 41 sacks allowed. Florida State will be young on the offensive line once again in 2012, as the starting five could be composed entirely of sophomores. Line coach Rick Trickett should have this group playing better, but it’s hard to see the Seminoles making the jump to elite offensive line status in 2012.

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Georgia – This unit could be the only area holding the Bulldogs back from contending for a national title. The Bulldogs must replace three starters, including second-team All-SEC center Ben Jones and first-team tackle Cordy Glenn. Justin Anderson also departs after making 14 starts in 2011. There’s some experience returning with Kenarious Gates (9 starts in 2011), Chris Burnette (12) and Dallas Lee (7), but Jones, Anderson and Glenn will be missed. This unit allowed 33 sacks last year and may struggle to lower that number in 2012.

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Michigan – Transitioning from Rich Rodriguez’s spread attack to Al Borges’ offense didn’t have much effect on the Wolverines’ offensive line. This group allowed only 18 sacks and led the way for rushers to average 5.2 yards per carry. With the departures of center David Molk – one of college football’s best linemen in 2011 – and right tackle Mark Huyge, it may take some time for Michigan to jell up front. The good news for coach Brady Hoke is three starters are back, but replacing Molk’s leadership won’t be easy. With a difficult season opener against Alabama, the Wolverines will have an early litmus test to determine how far this unit has improved since spring practice.

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Oklahoma State – Although the Cowboys must replace four starters up front, it’s hard to consider this a real weakness. Line coach Joe Wickline consistently reloads, so Oklahoma State’s offense shouldn’t see too much of a drop in production in 2012. Lane Taylor is the headliner, but three expected starters (Michael Bowie, Parker Graham and Jonathan Rush) could all be in the mix for All-Big 12 honors by the end of the year. The biggest question mark is at center, where Evan Epstein is replacing Grant Garner (the Big 12’s top offensive lineman in 2011).

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Virginia Tech – It’s a good thing the Hokies have Logan Thomas under center. The junior’s mobility will be an important asset in 2012, especially as Virginia Tech replaces four starters on the offensive line. Gone are All-ACC standouts in Blake DeChristopher and Jaymes Brooks, while Andrew Lanier and Greg Nosal have also finished their eligibility. Center Andrew Miller is a solid building block, but there’s a lot of question marks around him. Georgia transfer Brent Benedict is expected to claim one of the guard spots, but likely starters Nick Becton (left tackle), David Wang (left guard) and Vinston Painter (right tackle) have zero starts in their career.