Examining which teams have the best defensive line in the nation
The defensive line is arguably the deepest position in college football for the 2018 season. As expected, thanks to Christian Wilkins, Austin Bryant and Clelin Ferrell passing on the NFL, Clemson takes the top spot in the defensive line unit rankings. The Tigers have consistently produced elite lines under coordinator Brent Venables, and this unit is a big reason why coach Dabo Swinney’s team has a good shot at winning it all in 2018. Ohio State and Michigan hold the next two spots in the rankings, with Auburn, Alabama and Mississippi State rounding out the top six.
How did we come up with these rankings? Several factors were considered. Depth, overall talent, production, level of competition and projected output in 2018 all factored into the rankings for the defensive line. While some teams may have experienced a down year last season, having an impact freshman or transfer, a new assistant or a change of scheme can make a huge difference. These rankings reflect projection for 2018 not solely what teams have accomplished in 2017.
College Football's Top 25 Defensive Lines for 2018
Clemson seems to have an annual place near the top of college football’s best defensive line rankings, but the 2018 unit might be the best of them all. Tackle Christian Wilkins and ends Austin Bryant and Clelin Ferrell passed on the NFL for one more season in Death Valley. As if that wasn’t enough talent, coach Dabo Swinney has junior tackle Dexter Lawrence primed for a big season after battling injuries last year. Depth will be provided from five-star freshmen Xavier Thomas and KJ Henry, while Richard Yeargin returns after missing 2017 due to injury. Senior Albert Huggins and sophomore Nyles Pinckney will also contribute in a reserve role on the interior.
2. Ohio State
The Buckeyes have to replace ends Sam Hubbard, Jalyn Holmes and Tyquan Lewis and tackle Tracy Sprinkle, but line coach Larry Johnson is molding the next wave of stars, ensuring Ohio State won’t miss a beat in the trenches. Nick Bosa wasn’t a full-time starter last season but is primed for a monster year after recording 16 tackles for a loss and 8.5 sacks in 2017. He’s joined by fellow rising star Chase Young off the edge, with Jonathon Cooper and Jashon Cornell providing depth. Dre’Mont Jones is the top performer on the interior, but Robert Landers, Haskell Garrett, Davon Hamilton and talented true freshman Tommy Togiai give Johnson plenty of options to rotate on the interior.
Michigan returned only one starter on defense last year yet still limited opponents to 4.5 yards per play, tied for first nationally in tackles for a loss (114) and held opposing rushing attacks to 3.5 yards per carry. This unit could be even more dominant in 2018. Maurice Hurst departs up front, but the interior is set with sophomore Aubrey Solomon, Michael Dwumfour and Bryan Mone. On the edge, Rashan Gary and Chase Winovich form one of college football’s top end combinations after contributing 14 sacks in 2017.
Auburn could be deeper in the trenches despite losing standout edge rusher Jeff Holland. Two juniors — Marlon Davidson and Derrick Brown — are set to push for All-SEC honors after combining for 15.5 tackles for a loss last season. Sophomores T.D. Moultry and Big Kat Bryant flashed potential last year and will help fill the void left behind by Holland. Senior Dontavius Russell joins Brown as a starter on the interior. Sophomore Nick Coe is another name to watch off the edge after recording 4.5 tackles for a loss in a limited role last fall.
Da’Ron Payne will be missed, but Alabama’s defensive line won’t stray too far from its standard of dominance. End Raekwon Davis returns to Tuscaloosa poised for a monster year after recording 10 tackles for a loss and 8.5 sacks last fall. He’s joined off the edge by Isaiah Buggs, Quinnen Williams and LaBryan Ray. Buggs — a former junior college recruit — should be more comfortable in his second year in Tuscaloosa. Replacing Payne on the interior is the top priority for new line coach Craig Kuligowski. Senior Johnny Dwight, redshirt freshman Phidarian Mathis and junior college recruit Tevita Musika are vying to fill the void left by Payne at nose tackle.
6. Mississippi State
7. Virginia Tech
8. Florida State
15. Boise State
17. Penn State
20. Northern Illinois
21. Notre Dame
23. Oklahoma State
24. Michigan State
25. Texas A&M