The offensive line is often the most overlooked position for any college football team. While the linemen in the trenches don’t get enough credit, they are often the most important piece to a successful offense. Flashy skill talent and quarterbacks take home all of the accolades and headlines, but neither position can thrive without a solid offensive line.
Which teams are strongest in the trenches heading into the 2016 season? Clemson takes the top spot in Athlon's rankings, followed by two teams from the SEC in Alabama and LSU.
Related: Ranking All 128 Teams for 2016
How did we come up with these rankings? A couple of factors were considered. Depth, overall talent, production, level of competition and projected output in 2016 all factored into the rankings for the offensive line. While some teams may have experienced a down year last season, having a different quarterback, a new assistant or a change of scheme can make a huge difference. These rankings reflect projection for 2016, not solely what teams have accomplished in 2015.
CFB's Top 40 Offensive Lines for 2016
The Tigers entered 2015 with just 30 career starts among their returning linemen and were relying on a true freshman (Mitch Hyatt) to protect the blindside of quarterback Deshaun Watson. Despite a few early ups and downs, Clemson’s offensive line developed into one of the best in the nation. Hyatt was a standout performer on the left side and anchored a unit that allowed only 18 sacks in 15 games. Center Jay Guillermo and guard Tyrone Crowder return as starters, and both players should contend for All-America honors. Sophomores Taylor Hearn and Jake Fruhmorgen gained valuable snaps in backup roles last year and are slated to start at left guard and right tackle, respectively.
Alabama’s line didn’t conclude spring ball as a finished product, but this group should jell by the start of SEC play. Left tackle Cam Robinson is a future first-round draft pick and has started all 29 games in his career. Ross Pierschbacher was steady as a redshirt freshman last year and is slated to move from guard to center to replace standout Ryan Kelly. The rest of the starting group will be young, but there’s no shortage of talent. Projected starters Lester Cotton (left guard), Brandon Kennedy (right guard) and Jonah Williams (right tackle) were rated as top-350 recruits out of high school.
Strong offensive line play has been a hallmark of Les Miles’ teams, and despite the loss of standout tackles Vadal Alexander and Jerald Hawkins, LSU’s group should remain among the best in the nation. This unit led the way for rushers to average 6.1 yards per carry and surrendered only 17 sacks last season. Standout freshman performer Maea Teuhema started 11 games at left guard last year and may slide to left tackle to replace Hawkins. Guard Will Clapp and center Ethan Pocic anchor a strong interior, with Josh Boutte, K.J. Malone, Garrett Brumfield and Toby Weathersby rounding out the rest of the key contributors.
The Wolverines could have one of the nation’s most improved lines in 2016 with the return of four starters from a group that allowed only 18 sacks in 13 games last year. Mason Cole is this unit’s top performer and is sliding to center to replace Graham Glasgow. Guards Ben Braden and Kyle Kalis and right tackle Erik Magnuson started all 13 games in 2015, and each should push for All-Big Ten honors. Promising sophomore Grant Newsome will replace Cole at left tackle.
Everything is in place for USC’s offensive line to take a big step forward under new assistant Neil Callaway. All five starters are back from last year’s group, including standout tackle (and Athlon Sports All-American) Zach Banner. He will be joined by senior Chad Wheeler at the opposite tackle spot, while Damien Mama, Toa Lobendahn, Viane Talamaivao and Chris Brown are slated to fill out the starting jobs and rotation on the interior. This unit surrendered 38 sacks last fall, so there’s certainly room to improve this offseason.
6. Ohio State
The Buckeyes must replace three starters, but the cupboard is far from empty for new line coach Greg Studrawa. Pat Elflein and Billy Price provide a solid foundation to build around and are moving to new positions to ease the transition up front. Elflein will slide to center, while Price will flip from left guard to the right side. Jamarco Jones and Isaiah Prince anchor the edges, with sophomore Demetrius Knox and true freshman Michael Jordan fighting for the starting spot at left guard. Junior college transfer Malcolm Pridgeon could push Prince for the No. 1 spot at right tackle.
7. North Carolina
Standout guard Landon Turner will be missed, but North Carolina’s line should remain one of the best in the nation. In 14 games last fall, this unit allowed only 16 sacks and helped the Tar Heels rank second in the ACC in rush offense. Four starters are back in 2016, with three senior performers and Athlon Sports All-ACC selections in center Lucas Crowley, tackle Jon Heck and guard Caleb Peterson leading the way for this group. Promising junior Bentley Spain is slated to start at left tackle, while the right guard spot is up for grabs after John Ferranto’s offseason injury.
Clearing the way for one of the ACC’s top running back tandems in James Conner and Qadree Ollison is a standout offensive line with four returning starters. Left tackle Adam Bisnowaty and guard Dorian Johnson both earned a spot on Athlon’s 2016 All-America team and are generating plenty of buzz among NFL scouts for the 2017 draft. Junior Alex Officer slides to center after starting 13 games at guard last fall, while Alex Bookser and Mike Herndon are slated to battle at right guard. Sophomore Brian O’Neill is the returning starter at right tackle, but he will be pushed for snaps by junior Jaryd Jones-Smith, who returns to the field after missing all of 2015 due to a knee injury.
9. Florida State
A young and inexperienced Florida State offensive line had its share of ups and downs in 2015. However, this group should take a big step forward this fall. Left tackle Roderick Johnson is the ACC’s top returning lineman and a first-team Athlon Sports All-American for 2016. The Seminoles list senior Kareem Are (LG), junior Wilson Bell (RG) and sophomores Alec Eberle (center) and Brock Ruble (right tackle) as the other four starters on the pre-fall practice depth chart. However, converted defensive lineman Rick Leonard and freshmen Landon Dickerson and Cole Minshew are a few names to watch in preseason practices.
10. Notre Dame
The Fighting Irish were hit hard by departures, but there’s a solid foundation in place with the return of guard Quenton Nelson and tackle Mike McGlinchey. This duo should challenge for All-America honors and help ease the transition for coach Brian Kelly and offensive coordinator Mike Sanford. Sam Mustipher is expected to start at center, with Hunter Bivin (right guard) and Alex Bars (right tackle) penciled into the other two spots. Incoming freshmen (and four-star prospects in the 2016 247Sports Composite) Tommy Kraemer and Liam Eichenberg should be able to crack the two-deep this fall.
13. West Virginia
21. Michigan State
27. Arkansas State
28. Appalachian State
29. Virginia Tech
30. Ole Miss
34. Bowling Green
36. Colorado State
37. San Diego State
38. Georgia Southern
40. Washington State