Power Ranking College Football's Top 15 Offensive Lines for 2012

Danny Flynn@FlynnceptionSenior Analyst IMay 18, 2012

Power Ranking College Football's Top 15 Offensive Lines for 2012

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    You’ve surely heard that old football saying before. You know, the one about how the “game is won in the trenches.”

    Plenty of analysts and coaches have repeated it for decades, but just because it’s become a bit tired and overused through the years doesn’t make it any less true.

    While star offensive skill position players such as quarterbacks, running backs and wide receivers hog up all of the glory and bask in the spotlight, it’s the linemen battling it out in the trenches, oftentimes without any fanfare, who usually decide which gridiron battles are won and which ones are lost.

    There's simply no disputing the fact that a strong and capable offensive line is the foundation and building block for any great team.

    Sure, in this day and age of high-flying spread offenses and pass-heavy schemes, offensive linemen aren’t asked to fill the same type of “line up and smash 'em in the face” type of roles that they used to back in the days of the Wing T and Power I, but that doesn’t make them any less valuable.

    Those big-name star quarterbacks wouldn’t be stars if they were getting routinely hammered and crushed by pass-rushers snap after snap, and all of those big-name star running backs wouldn’t be stars if they didn’t have any room to run.

    There’s an obvious correlation in football between having a strong offensive line and finding consistent success, so here’s a look at the 15 college football teams that will have the most sound and dependable offensive lines for the 2012 season.

1. Alabama Crimson Tide

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    RB Trent Richardson and the Alabama defense received most of the credit for the Tide's run to a national championship last season, but the offensive line also played a huge role in the team's success in 2011 as well. 

    Led by Outland Trophy winner Barrett Jones, Alabama's front five helped pave the way for Richardson to run for 1,679 yards last year, and they only gave up 17 sacks in 13 games. 

    Jones isn't only the most talented lineman in the country, he's also the most versatile, as he'll be making another position switch from left tackle to center to replace William Vlachos in the middle of the line. The 6'5", 302-pound senior will likely be a top-20 pick in the 2013 NFL draft, but he won't be the only Alabama offensive lineman that pro scouts will be watching closely this season. 

    Right Tackle D.J. Fluker and offensive guard Chance Warmack will both be playing on Sundays next year (If Fluker decides to declare), and both will likely be high draft picks in 2013. 

    Fluker and Warmack are two of the strongest and most physical run-blockers in college football. 

    They'll be joined by left tackle Cyrus Kouandjio, a former 5-star recruit who showed some flashes of his enormous potential during spot duty as a freshman last year, and guard Anthony Steen, a solid 6'3'', 303-pound junior who has been overshadowed by some of his more celebrated linemates. 

    Overall, while Alabama will miss William Vlachos; if Barrett Jones can handle the center duties without a problem, the Tide should once again have the most dominant offensive line in college football in 2012. 

2. LSU Tigers

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    There won't be a better defensive line in college football than the one LSU will put out on the field in 2012, as the Tigers welcome back plenty of standouts such as defensive ends Barkevious Mingo and Sam Montgomery and defensive tackles Bennie Logan, Anthony Johnson and Josh Downs. 

    What makes LSU so scary, though, is that the team will also have one of the best offensive fronts as well next season. 

    The Tigers may lose All-American guard Will Blackwell, but they bring back two of the best offensive tackles in the country—Chris Faulk and Alex Hurst. Plus, they welcome back two other returning starters in the interior—center P.J. Lonergan and guard Josh Williford. 

    Hurst and Faulk will both be the anchors of NFL offensive lines some day soon, and Lonergan and Williford both have what it takes to compete for All-SEC honors in 2012. 

    Last year, the Tigers helped pave the way for the team's deep stable of running backs to rush for 35 touchdowns, which was the highest total in the SEC in 2011. The line also allowed just 18 sacks in 14 games.

    Blackwell, who was not selected in the 2012 NFL draft, will be missed, but he's certainly not irreplaceable. La'el Collins, a monstrous 6'5", 320-pound sophomore who was one of the highest-rated recruits of 2011 class, and sixth-year senior Josh Dworaczyk will likely battle it out in fall camp for the right to step in for him.

    The Tigers are truly going to be scary up front once again this season. With the nation's deepest and most talented backfield, there's no reason that the boys from Baton Rouge shouldn't have one of the most powerful and productive rushing attacks in the country in 2012. 

3. Texas A&M Aggies

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    It's easy to make the argument that Texas A&M has the best pair of bookend offensive tackles in the country with Jake Matthews and Luke Joeckel.

    Both Matthews and Joeckel are former highly-touted recruits who have excelled during their time in College Station, and both are in store for some big NFL paydays down the line. 

    The two junior tackles were the anchors of an offensive line that gave up just nine sacks last season, a total which ranked third in the country in 2011. 

    Matthews, the son of NFL legend Bruce Matthews and the cousin of Green Bay Packers Pro Bowl linebacker Clay Matthews, seems like he's destined to be a top-15 pick in the 2013 NFL draft, and if Joeckel has the type of showing he's capable of this season, he may very well join him in the first round. 

    The two tackles aren't the only reason that Texas A&M will have one of the showcase offensive fronts in the country this year, though. 

    Center Patrick Lewis, a veteran senior who is entering his fourth year as a starter, is one of the most solid and dependable linemen in the country, and he should make quite a name for himself in the SEC this season. 

    Flanking Lewis will be offensive guards Cedric Ogbuehi and Jarvis Harrison, who are two big, athletic sophomores who have bright futures ahead of them. 

    With Matthews and Joeckel leading the way on the outside and Lewis, Ogbuehi and Harrison holding down the fort on the inside, there's no question that the Aggies have the type of offensive line that they'll need to grind it out and battle with the big, physical fronts that they're going to face in the SEC in 2012. 

4. USC Trojans

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    The USC offensive line may have lost its linchpin, left tackle Matt Kalil, who was taken with the No. 4 overall pick in this year's NFL draft. However, the Trojans return all four other starters from a unit that ranked first in the country, allowing just eight total sacks last year.

    Kalil will be missed, but the other four returning starters should be able to offset his loss. 

    The strength of the line is inside, where center Khaled Holmes and guards Marcus Martin and John Martinez are capable of lining up and moving bodies around with ease for all four quarters. 

    Holmes and Martin could both land on the All-Pac-12 first-team offense this season, and Martinez is one of the most athletic and agile interior linemen in the conference. 

    Kevin Graf, a 6'6", 295-pound junior, will be back at right tackle, where he did an excellent job in 2011, but the real intrigue is at left tackle, where Aundrey Walker will take over for Kalil. 

    Walker, a 6'6", 320-pound sophomore, possesses remarkable athleticism for his immense size. He looks like he has the potential to possibly develop into USC's next coveted NFL offensive tackle prospect. 

    If Walker can step up and handle the starting role this season, the Trojans should once again have one of the strongest lines in college football in 2012. 

    Don't expect to see much dirt on QB Matt Barkley's uniform this season, because the Trojans are truly a brick wall when it comes to pass-blocking. 

5. Oklahoma Sooners

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    Oklahoma may have lost star receiver Ryan Broyles, but the Sooners still have all the proper pieces in place to employ one of the most effective offensive attacks in college football this season. 

    QB Landry Jones, RB Dominique Whaley and WR Kenny Stills will be the skill position players to watch, but one of the real keys to Oklahoma's offensive success in 2012 will be the offensive line. 

    The Sooners return four starting linemen from a year ago, with potential All-American candidate OG Gabe Ikard being the true spotlight player of the bunch. 

    Ikard, a 6'4", 295-pound junior, has been the starter at left guard since his redshirt freshman season in 2010, and he even moved over to center for a few games last season. 

    The coaching staff is hoping Ikard can stay at guard this season, as they're hoping that center Ben Habern can survive a full year injury-free in 2012. 

    Habern missed five games with an arm injury last year and he spent the spring rehabbing from neck surgery. When healthy, though, the 6'4", 292-pound senior is one of the Big 12's best blockers. 

    Ikard and Habern will once again be joined up front by OG Tyler Evans and OT Lane Johnson, who were both solid starters last season. 

    The only real question mark is who will replace Donald Stephenson, who was a third-round pick in the 2012 draft. Daryl Williams, a talented 6'6", 313-pound redshirt sophomore, looks like he'll be the favorite going into fall camp.  

    With Ikard and Habern leading the way, this could potentially be one of the best offensive lines that Oklahoma has had during Bob Stoops' tenure. 

6. Stanford Cardinal

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    You may be saying to yourself, wait a minute, how can a team that just lost two of the best offensive linemen in the country—OG David DeCastro and OT Jonathan Martin—still have one of college football's top offensive lines?

    Well, when you've stockpiled the type of offensive linemen that Stanford has in recent years, it's not about rebuilding, it's about reloading. 

    Yes, DeCastro and Martin were two vital parts of Stanford's offensive front five last year, but the Cardinal have enough talent waiting in the wings to make up for their early departures. 

    Not only does Stanford return its other three starters from last year; the Cardinal also just brought in what was arguably the greatest collection of offensive line recruits ever. The school signed seven of the top-rated linemen in the country for its 2012 recruiting class, including All-American-caliber players such as Andrus Peat, Kyle Murphy and Josh Garnett.

    The leader of this year's line will be OT Cameron Fleming. 

    Fleming is only just a redshirt sophomore, but he already looks like he's going to be the same type of coveted NFL prospect that DeCastro and Martin were. 

    The 6'6", 308-pound sophomore will be joined on the line by center Sam Schwartzstein, offensive guards Kevin Danser and David Yankey and fellow tackle Brendon Austin. Guard Khalil Wilkes could also factor into the equation, and it's possible that Yankey could kick out to tackle if Austin can't handle the job. 

    Yes, Stanford will obviously miss key offensive pieces like QB Andrew Luck, TE Coby Fleener and linemen like DeCastro And Martin. However, with one of the Pac-12's top running backs, Stepfan Taylor, returning, along with one of the most physical and athletic lines in the conference, the Cardinal should still have the type of offensive attack that can strike fear in the heart of any opponent in 2012. 

7. Texas Longhorns

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    After two mediocre down seasons in 2010 and 2011, nobody is really quite sure what to expect from Texas this year. Yes, the Longhorns have one of the most talented rosters in the country, but the question is, will they be able to finally put all of that talent to good use in 2012? 

    While it remains to be seen what questionable starting QB David Ash will be capable of this season, it seems pretty certain that with running backs like Malcolm Brown, Joe Bergeron and Johnathan Gray all in the mix, the Longhorns should have one of the top rushing attacks in the Big 12 this year.

    Not only is the backfield loaded with talent, the offensive line is as well. 

    Texas returns four of its starting offensive linemen from last season, with potential star offensive guard Mason Walters leading the way. 

    Walters, a 6'6", 315-pound junior, seems like he could be in store for a breakout campaign this season after starting every game for the past two years. 

    He'll be joined by fellow returning starters: center Dominic Espinosa and tackles Josh Cochran and Trey Hopkins. 

    Replacing departed guard David Snow and finding someone that can provide the same type of leadership he did last season won't be easy, but with the caliber of offensive line recruits that have arrived in Austin in recent years, there's certainly plenty of talent to sift through. 

8. Notre Dame Fighting Irish

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    We likely won't know who Notre Dame's starting quarterback will be until August, but we do already know who will be in charge of protecting whoever wins the job. 

    The Irish will bring back three starting offensive linemen from last season—OT Zack Martin, OG Chris Watt and C Braxston Cave (Mike Golic Jr. also returns, but he will likely be a reserve).

    Martin, Watt and Cave are all some of the premier players in the country at their respective positions, and the trio will form a solid nucleus to build around for 2012. 

    Filling out the front five will likely be Christian Lombard at right tackle and Nick Martin at right guard. 

    While the left side of the offensive line will obviously be the strong side this season, Lombard and Martin both seem capable of stepping up and really balancing things out in 2012. 

    Coach Brian Kelly may be ambivalent about his starting quarterback situation, but he has to be very excited about the type of talent that the Irish will have in the trenches this year. 

9. Florida Gators

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    Florida's offense definitely didn't provide the same type of thrills last year that Gators fans had come to expect during Urban Meyer's tenure, but the Gators should be able to improve in year two of the Will Muschamp era this season. 

    While the new skill position players will need a few games to get their feet under them, it should certainly help that the offensive line will bring back six linemen with legitimate starting experience. 

    It starts at center, where Jonotthan Harrison is back to man the middle of the line. The 6'3", 309-pound junior is one of the most intelligent and fundamentally sound linemen in the SEC.

    Flanking Harrison will be guard Jon Halapio, who improved dramatically as a sophomore in 2011, and fellow guard James Wilson, a former heralded recruit who has been hampered with injuries during his time in Gainesville. 

    The Gators will have three offensive tackles—Chaz Green, Xavier Nixon and Matt Patchan—to fill two spots. 

    Nixon may be the most talented of the three, but he struggled mightily last year and he's going to have to fight hard to win a starting spot in fall camp. 

    No matter how the tackle positions shake out, there's no question that Florida's offensive line unit is loaded with talent, and with more stability up front, the Gators should be able to find more consistent offensive success in 2012. 

10. Michigan Wolverines

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    I ranked Michigan OT Taylor Lewan as the No. 4 prospect for the 2013 NFL draft in a recent watch list, and I truly believe that Lewan has what it takes to be the first tackle selected in next year's draft. 

    While he may not be quite as polished as former Wolverine tackle Jake Long, who was the No. 1 overall pick of the 2008 draft, Lewan has all of the necessary physical skills and tools that scouts are looking for in a potential franchise tackle. 

    Now that center David Molk has moved on to the NFL, the 6'8", 302-pound junior will now be counted on to be the undisputed leader of Michigan's offensive line in 2012. 

    Lewan will be joined by fellow returning starters OT Michael Schofield and OG Patrick Omameh. 

    Lewan, Schofield and Omameh are a great core to build around, but the Wolverines still have to fill holes at both center and guard for the upcoming season. 

    Ricky Barnum, a 6'3", 292-pound senior, seems like the favorite to take over for Molk at center, while Joey Burzynski, a 6'1", 284-pound redshirt sophomore, will likely assume the left guard role. 

    If Barnum and Burzynski can handle themselves on the inside this season, QB Denard Robinson and RB Fitzgerald Toussaint should both have plenty of room to run in 2012. 

11. Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets

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    Georgia Tech has finished either first or second nationally in rushing offense in each of the last three years, and it doesn't look like that trend is going to change in 2012. 

    Sure, it may be easy to pile up tons of yards on the ground when you run the ball 55 times per game. However, you still have to give credit to the Yellow Jackets' offensive front for being able to consistently create running lanes for whoever ends up with the ball.

    This year's line will return all five starters from last season, including potential standout OG Omoregie Uzzi, who opted to return for his senior year instead of entering the 2012 NFL draft. 

    Uzzi, a 6'3", 300-pound senior, is one of the ACC's top lineman, and he'll again be one of the key leaders up front for Georgia Tech in 2012. 

    Joining him will be center Jay Finch, fellow guard Will Jackson and tackles Ray Beno and Morgan Bailey. 

    Now that coach Paul Johnson has the type of linemen that he's recruited specifically for his system, it should be interesting to see just how potent his triple-option attack will be in 2012. 

12. Michigan State Spartans

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    After losing quarterback Kirk Cousins and receivers such as B.J. Cunningham and Keshawn Martin, Michigan State is likely going to lean on running backs Le'Veon Bell and Larry Caper and the rushing attack quite often in 2012. 

    It's a good thing then that Spartans will have one of the best offensive lines in the Big Ten this season. 

    Michigan State will return four of its five starting linemen from last season, including OT Fou Fonoti and C Travis Jackson, two of the top blockers in the conference. 

    Fonoti, a 6'4", 300-pound senior, and Jackson, a 6'3", 280-pound sophomore, will be the two cornerstones for a line that will be asked to open up plenty of holes for Bell and Caper this year. 

    Joining them up front will be fellow returning starters OT Dan France and OG Chris McDonald, who have a combined 39 games of starting experience between them. 

    Returning from injury will be OG Blake Treadwell, who missed all but three games last season. 

    This will be one of the most experienced and talented lines in college football in 2012. 

13. Wisconsin Badgers

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    Since 2005, Wisconsin has churned out eight offensive linemen that have been drafted by NFL teams, including first-round picks such as OG Kevin Zeitler, OT Gabe Carimi and OT Joe Thomas. 

    It looks like the Badgers will produce another first-round lineman for the 2013 NFL draft, just as long as left tackle Ricky Wagner can play up to his potential in 2012. 

    Wagner is one of only two returning starters from a line that loses Zeitler, C Peter Konz and OT Josh Oglesby, and he'll have to step up and now become the leader of the front five if the Badgers want to continue their dominance in the trenches this season. 

    The 6'6", 322-pound senior is one of the most talented lineman in the country, but he's going to have to take his game to the next level this year in order to offset the losses of such key players. 

    Luckily for Wagner, he'll have versatile guard-center 'tweener Travis Frederick back to help him out in the interior. 

    Frederick, a 6'4", 328-pound junior, will likely take over for Konz at center, which will open up the competition at both guard spots. 

    Junior Ryan Groy and senior Robert Burge are the favorites to lock down the starting guard positions in fall camp, and sophomore Rob Havenstein and junior Casey Dehn will likely battle it out to replace Oglesby at right tackle. 

    While Wisconsin's offensive line may come back down to earth just a bit in 2012, one thing you can always expect from the Badgers is that they're going to have a big, physical crew up front. That won't change this year, especially with Wagner and Frederick leading the way. 

14. Oregon Ducks

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    Oregon has ranked in the top five nationally in rushing offense in each of the past two seasons. A big reason why is because the Ducks have had explosive running backs like LaMichael James, Kenjon Barner and De'Anthony Thomas, but you also have to give credit to the offensive line, which has consistently opened up some big holes for those backs to run through.

    This year, Oregon will welcome back three starters from the 2011 offensive line: OT Nick Cody, OG Carson York and C Hroniss Grasu.

    All three linemen are capable of competing for All-Conference honors this season, and they should provide plenty of stability up front for the Ducks in 2012. 

    Last year, Grasu turned out to be one of the most stable freshman starters in college football, while Cody and York continued to be reliable stalwarts. 

    Joining the trio in the starting lineup this year will be OG Ryan Clanton, a 6'4", 296-pound senior, and OT Jake Fisher, a 6'6", 285-pound sophomore. 

    With this offensive line blocking for backs like Barner and Thomas, there's no reason that Oregon shouldn't continue to have one of the most dangerous rushing attacks in college football this season. 

15. North Carolina Tar Heels

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    North Carolina returns four of its starting offensive linemen from last season, including OT James Hurst and OG Jonathan Cooper, two of the ACC's top offensive linemen. 

    Hurst, a 6'7", 310-pound junior, and Cooper, a 6'3", 310-pound senior, are two players that will be firmly on the NFL's radar this season and they should help open up some nice, big running lanes for RB Giovani Bernard in 2012. 

    Hurst and Cooper will be joined by fellow returning starters OG Travis Bond and OT Brennan Williams and newcomer C Russell Bodine, a sophomore who will attempt to replace Cam Holland.

    It should be interesting to see how the Tar Heels offensive line adapts to new coach Larry Fedora's system, but there's no question that North Carolina has the type of veteran talent up front to cause some major damage in the trenches in 2012. 

Honorable Mention

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    Arkansas Razorbacks

    Auburn Tigers

    BYU Cougars

    Mississippi State Bulldogs

    Nebraska Cornhuskers

    Ohio State Buckeyes

    Rutgers Scarlet Knights

    South Carolina Gamecocks

    South Florida Bulls

    Tennessee Volunteers

    Virginia Cavaliers

    West Virginia Mountaineers