College Football's Title Contenders Have Offensive Line Question Marks

Florida State's EJ Manuel needs more help from the offensive line in 2012.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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).

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.

Solid…But Not Spectacular

Arkansas – It’s tough to envision the Razorbacks as a national title contender without Bobby Petrino on the sidelines. However, Arkansas returns quarterback Tyler Wilson and running back Knile Davis and catches Alabama and LSU in Fayetteville. Alvin Bailey has potential to be one of the best guards in the nation, while junior Travis Swanson is back after a solid sophomore campaign.

Nebraska – This unit returns only two starters, but there’s enough experience returning to keep the Nebraska rushing attack going in 2012. Guard Spencer Long is expected to challenge for All-Big Ten honors, while Andrew Rodriguez is back after making seven starts last year. Seung Hoon Choi (guard) and Tyler Moore (right tackle) are expected to crack the starting lineup after combining for 10 starts in 2011. Jeremiah Sirles played in 12 games last year and should seamlessly slide into the left tackle spot. 

Notre Dame – Largely due to the quarterback issues, the Irish’s offensive line flew under the radar last season. This group allowed only 17 sacks and allowed rushers to average 4.8 per carry. Three starters are back, including left tackle Zack Martin. Notre Dame needs a quarterback to emerge to reach a BCS game, but this line could rank among the top 10 nationally in 2012.

South Carolina – The Gamecocks allowed 31 sacks in 2011, but rushers averaged 4.5 yards per carry. Only two starters are back in 2012, but sophomore A.J. Cann is an emerging star, and center T.J. Johnson could be one of the best in the SEC.

Stanford – Despite losing David DeCastro and Jonathan Martin, the Cardinal should have one of the Pac-12’s top offensive lines. David Yankey and Cameron Fleming form a solid duo to build around, while a talented freshman class will add to the competition in the fall.

Texas – Even if the Longhorns struggle to get better quarterback play, their offensive line, rushing attack and defense should push this team to 10 wins. Texas will have four starters back in 2012 and adds touted junior college recruit Donald Hawkins at left tackle.

West Virginia – This unit was criticized often last year but should be better with another offseason to learn under line coach Bill Bedenbaugh. The Mountaineers return three starters and regain the services of guard Josh Jenkins (missed 2011 with knee injury).

Wisconsin – The Badgers rarely struggle to reload up front, but three first-team All-Big Ten selections are gone, while coach Bob Bostad departed Madison. The returning starters (Travis Frederick and Ricky Wagner) are two of the best in the Big Ten, but the Badgers must reload at three spots.

Can’t win the National Title…but Has Question Marks

Ohio State – Urban Meyer’s arrival in Columbus should add some much-needed punch to the Buckeyes’ offense, but the line was a question mark last season and may not be much better in 2012. Ohio State allowed 46 sacks in 2011 and must replace three starters this season. Jack Mewhort and Andrew Norwell are the lone returning starters, and both players started in all 13 games last season. The rest of the starting lineup has experience, but it may take some time for this unit to jell. The Buckeyes can’t win the national title, but could finish among the top 10 teams in college football for 2012.


Returning Starters on the Offensive Line for BCS Conferences*


2012 Ranking Team Returning Starters
9 Florida State 3
15 Clemson 2
16 Virginia Tech 1
28 NC State 4
29 North Carolina 4
35 Georgia Tech 4
36 Virginia 3
48 Miami, Fla. 2
57 Wake Forest 1
72 Maryland 2
80 Duke 4
86 Boston College 4

Big East

2012 Ranking Team Returning Starters
23 Louisville 4
34 South Florida 3
45 Pittsburgh 2
46 Rutgers 2
56 Cincinnati 2
67 Syracuse 3
69 Connecticut 3
73 Temple 1

Big Ten

2012 Ranking Team Returning Starters
6 Ohio State 2
7 Michigan 3
14 Nebraska 2
17 Wisconsin 2
18 Michigan State 4
44 Penn State 1
49 Northwestern 3
50 Iowa 2
52 Illinois 3
53 Purdue 3
62 Minnesota 2
89 Indiana 2

Big 12

2012 Ranking Team Returning Starters
5 Oklahoma 3
11 Texas 4
12 West Virginia 3
19 Oklahoma State 1
22 TCU 2
27 Kansas State 2
40 Baylor 3
58 Texas Tech 3
60 Iowa State 3
81 Kansas 3


2012 Ranking Team Returning Starters
1 USC 4
4 Oregon 3
21 Stanford 3
25 Washington 3
33 Utah 3
38 California 3
42 UCLA 2
43 Arizona 5
51 Washington State 3
55 Arizona State 2
61 Oregon State 2
84 Colorado 3


2012 Ranking Team Returning Starters
2 LSU 4
3 Alabama 4
8 Georgia 3
10 South Carolina 2
13 Arkansas 3
26 Florida 5
30 Auburn 3
31 Missouri 3
32 Texas A&M 3
37 Tennessee 5
41 Vanderbilt 2
47 Mississippi State 2
71 Ole Miss 1
75 Kentucky 2

Non-BCS Conferences and Independents

2012 Ranking Team Returning Starters
20 Notre Dame 3
39 BYU 3
65 Navy 1
96 Army 3
Conference USA    
2012 Ranking Team Returning Starters
66 UCF 2
70 Houston 4
74 Tulsa 2
78 East Carolina 4
82 Southern Miss 4
83 Marshall 3
93 SMU 0
105 UTEP 4
106 UAB 1
107 Rice 1
113 Tulane 2
115 Memphis 4
2012 Ranking Team Returning Starters
59 Ohio 3
77 Western Michigan 4
79 Toledo 2
85 Northern Illinois 1
94 Bowling Green 4
97 Kent State 3
99 Miami (Ohio) 3
102 Ball State 3
103 Eastern Michigan 5
110 Central Michigan 3
111 Buffalo 4
119 Akron 1
122 UMass 4
Mountain West    
2012 Ranking Team Returning Starters
24 Boise State 3
54 Nevada 3
87 Fresno State 4
88 Wyoming 2
91 Colorado State 3
92 Air Force 2
95 San Diego State 2
108 Hawaii 2
112 UNLV 5
117 New Mexico 5
Sun Belt    
2012 Ranking Team Returning Starters
64 Arkansas State 2
68 FIU 4
76 UL Lafayette 4
100 UL Monroe 3
101 Western Kentucky 4
104 North Texas 4
109 Troy 3
114 MTSU 2
120 FAU 3
123 South Alabama 2
2012 Ranking Team Returning Starters
63 Louisiana Tech 4
90 Utah State 3
98 San Jose State 2
116 New Mexico State 2
118 Idaho 3
121 Texas State 2
124 UTSA 5

* Returning starters were compiled from depth charts in Athlon's 2012 National College Preview Annual. Athlon's criteria for a returning starter is making seven starts in a season or six consecutive starts to finish the year.

by Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven on Twitter)

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