The rise of spread offenses and the different schemes teams face on a week-to-week basis in a college football season has altered how some defensive coordinators think. While some are placing more emphasis on building a secondary, the success of any defense starts up front. Generating a pass rush and stopping the run are two staples of any defensive scheme.
Which teams are strongest in the trenches heading into the 2016 season? Alabama takes the top spot in Athlon's rankings, followed by Michigan, Utah, Florida State 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 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 2016, not solely what teams have accomplished in 2015.
College Football's Top 50 Defensive Lines for 2016
New coordinator Jeremy Pruitt must replace three key members from last year’s rotation, but this unit won’t slip too far from its usual dominating ways. Alabama simply owned the line of scrimmage in 2015, limiting opposing rushers to 2.4 yards per carry and just 75.7 yards per game. The Crimson Tide also led the nation in sacks (52). Senior Jonathan Allen is the top returning player and an Athlon Sports first-team All-American for 2016. He will be joined in the trenches by rising stars Da’Ron Payne and Da’Shawn Hand and steady veterans Joshua Frazier and Dalvin Tomlinson. Freshmen Quinnen Williams and Raekwon Davis are two other names to watch under new line coach Karl Dunbar.
Related: Alabama 2016 Schedule Analysis
The success of Michigan’s standout defense starts up front. The Wolverines suffocated ground games last year, holding opponents to just 3.6 yards per carry, and also recorded 32 sacks. With most of last season’s rotation intact, Michigan could improve on those totals in 2016. Chris Wormley, Taco Charlton and Ryan Glasgow are three proven options in the starting lineup, and this group will get even deeper with the return of Bryan Mone from injury and the addition of five-star recruit Rashan Gary.
Winning with defense usually isn’t the preferred method of attack in the Pac-12, but that has been the M.O. for Utah since joining the league in 2011. The front four is where it all starts for new coordinator Morgan Scalley. Seniors Kylie Fitts, Pita Taumoepenu and Hunter Dimick consistently wreak havoc on opposing offensive lines from the edge, while 310-pound tackle Lowell Lotulelei plugs the middle. Utah ranked 13th nationally in sacks (37) and allowed only 108.6 rushing yards per game last year. Junior Filipo Mokofisi is expected to start at the other tackle spot, with senior Pasoni Tasini providing depth on the interior. Incoming freshmen Maxs Tupai, Leki Fotu and Bradlee Anae are promising options for the future.
4. Florida State
One of the underrated additions in last year’s coaching carousel was Brad Lawing’s hire at Florida State. The veteran assistant was a big reason why the Seminoles had one of the nation’s most improved defensive lines in 2015. And this unit could be even better in 2016 with two players — DeMarcus Walker and Josh Sweat — capable of getting double-digit sacks. Rising star Derrick Nnadi anchors an interior that also features other capable options such as junior college recruit Wally Aime, Demarcus Christmas, Arthur Williams and Fredrick Jones. Additionally, coach Jimbo Fisher inked two four-star recruits - Brian Burns and Janarius Robinson - in the 2016 signing class to add to the depth off the edges.
New coordinator Dave Aranda has directed successful defenses at Hawaii, Utah State and Wisconsin, but he hasn’t worked with a group with as much talent as the LSU defense returns in 2016. Aranda plans on utilizing some different looks this year, with edge rusher Arden Key a key component in the hybrid 3-4/4-3 fronts. Davon Godchaux is one of the SEC’s top interior performers and could move back to defensive end with Christian LaCouture out for the year due to a knee injury. Lewis Neal also returns after leading LSU with eight sacks in 2015. This unit was bolstered this offseason by the additions of Rashard Lawrence and Edwin Alexander in the 2016 signing class, along with the arrival of Travonte Valentine from the junior college ranks. The Tigers also have plenty of depth to keep their front four fresh late in games.
6. Ohio State
Each level of Ohio State’s defense was hit hard by departures from a unit that limited opponents to just 15.1 points a game in 2015. However, thanks to elite recruiting, the Buckeyes have plenty of talent waiting in the wings and a quick rebuild is in store. Tyquan Lewis returns after leading the team with eight sacks last season, and he will be joined by rising star Sam Hubbard (6.5 sacks last year) at end. Replacing Joey Bosa won’t be easy, but Lewis, Hubbard and Joey’s brother – Nick Bosa – is more than capable of keeping this pass rush among the best in the nation. The interior is the bigger concern for coach Urban Meyer. Juniors Michael Hill and Tracy Sprinkle gained valuable experience by playing in 12 games last season and are penciled in as the projected starters at tackle. This duo should be solid, but the Buckeyes need more help to emerge here. Redshirt freshmen Davon Hamilton and Dre’Mont Jones are expected to contribute as backups, with Jashon Cornell and Robert Landers also vying for snaps. With Hubbard and Lewis entrenched at end, Bosa could see some snaps at tackle.
7. Ole Miss
Even though the Rebels lose standout Robert Nkemdiche, the cupboard is far from empty. There’s more than enough talent for Ole Miss to rank among the SEC’s best against the run once again and surpass last year's sack total (29). End Marquis Haynes is the headliner for coach Hugh Freeze. The junior could be the one of the most underrated defenders in the nation, as he finished 2015 with 10 sacks and 16.5 tackles for a loss. Senior Fadol Brown is expected to start on the other side, with Victor Evans and John Youngblood providing depth. D.J. Jones is expected to anchor the interior after Nkemdiche’s early departure to the NFL, and the former junior college product posted a strong 2015 campaign (40 tackles and four sacks) in his first season on campus. Promising sophomore Breeland Speaks should join Jones as a starter on the interior, with freshman Benito Jones, sophomore Ross Donnelly and senior Isaac Gross helping to anchor the rotation.
8. Texas A&M
Offense has led the way for Texas A&M since it joined the SEC in 2012. However, there’s a small shift underway in College Station for 2016, as the defense should carry the Aggies in 2016. The addition of John Chavis as the program’s coordinator paid huge dividends last fall. After giving up 28.1 points a game and 5.9 yards per play in 2014, the defense cut those totals to 22.5 points per contest and 5.4 per play in Chavis’ first year. Another step forward should be expected in 2016. Junior Myles Garrett (12.5 sacks in 2015) is the nation’s top defensive player and will be joined by Daeshon Hall (seven sacks) off the edge. The interior should show marked improvement against the run this season, as sophomores Daylon Mack and Kingsley Keke are two breakout candidates to tandem with the experienced duo of Zaycoven Henderson and Hardreck Walker.
Missouri’s defense didn’t have much help from the offense last fall, yet still managed to rank as one of the nation’s top units. The Tigers limited opponents to 4.3 yards per play and ranked fifth nationally in scoring defense. Barry Odom was the architect of last year’s defense and was promoted to head coach after Gary Pinkel’s retirement. While Odom has to spend more time as the program CEO than coordinator, don’t expect this unit to suffer much in production. End Charles Harris is one of the nation’s top defenders, leading the way off the edge after recording seven sacks in 2015. Walter Brady was expected to start at the other end spot, but he was dismissed from the team in August. Marcell Frazier is expected to get the first opportunity in Brady’s spot. Senior Josh Augusta returns as a starter at tackle after recording 27 stops last fall. Sophomore Terry Beckner Jr. played in 10 games and recorded eight tackles for a loss prior to a season-ending knee injury last fall. The former five-star recruit should be at full strength by the opener.
Another year, another wave of departures to the NFL for this unit. However, the Tigers have recruited well, and there’s enough returning experience and talent to prevent a major drop in production this fall. And it certainly doesn’t hurt Clemson has one of the nation’s top coordinators in Brent Venables, along with standout assistants Marion Hobby (DEs) and Dan Brooks (DTs). Senior Carlos Watkins is this unit’s top returning performer after generating 7.5 tackles for a loss and 3.5 sacks in 2015. He should challenge for All-America honors this fall. Sophomore Christian Wilkins is just scratching the surface of his potential and is expected to claim the other starting job on the interior. Wilkins’ versatility is a valuable asset for Venables, as the sophomore could also see snaps off the edge in addition to his starting spot on the interior. Sophomore Austin Bryant and redshirt freshman Clelin Ferrell could be the next standouts at end, with Richard Yeargin, Xavier Kelly and Chris Register also in the mix for snaps. True freshman Dexter Lawrence is expected to see immediate playing time on the interior.
13. Michigan State
22. NC State
23. Notre Dame
25. Virginia Tech
26. Arizona State
27. Kansas State
29. Boston College
30. Mississippi State
34. Oklahoma State
36. Arkansas State
37. San Diego State
38. Wake Forest
44. Penn State
47. Georgia Southern