The 25 Strongest College Football Positional Units Heading into 2014 Season
Some chains are only as strong as their weakest link, but others are only as weak as their strongest.
Every team that appears on this list, however, does not have to worry about that coming back to nip them in the bud.
In searching for the 25 strongest position groups in college football, a combination of talent and experience was considered.
Alabama, for example, has had the No. 1 recruiting class in the country every cycle since 2011, per the 247Sports team rankings. Pedigree such as that was taken into account—heavily—but unless it was matched with at least a modicum of experience, it didn't win out.
As far as quarterback groupings are concerned, it was difficult to judge. Only one QB unit appears on the proper list, with one other joining it in the honorable mention section.
This was done for reasons of depth. Jameis Winston is one of the best players in the country, but who outside of Tallahassee, Florida, would trust Sean McGuire should Winston get hurt? The position groups that don't rely on only one player to be dominant were given slight preference, which explains the lack of QBs that are mentioned.
If you disagree with the decision to rank the list this way, that's fine. Both sides of the argument are valid; it just seemed, in actually having done the process of ranking all the units, to make more sense the way I did it. I am not necessarily saying this was the only way to do it.
Sound good? Great.
Sound off below in the comments, and let me know whom I missed.
Alabama's linebackers are heavy on talent but light on experience. Trey DePriest is the lone returning starter, and he'll be the one tasked with sliding over to replace C.J. Mosley in the middle. Still, players such as Reggie Ragland, Dillon Lee, Denzell Devall and Reuben Foster were all blue-chip recruits and could become stars as soon as 2014.
Arkansas Running Backs
Alex Collins was the best true freshman running back in college football last season, rushing for more than 1,000 yards and making the FWAA Freshman All-America Team. Behind him—or, if you prefer, beside him—is junior Jonathan Williams, who rushed for 900 yards in 2013. Head coach Bret Bielema loves running the football and distributing carries, as he proved during his time at Wisconsin. This running back depth chart perfectly fits his system.
Auburn Running Backs
Auburn loses 1,800-yard rusher Tre Mason, a Heisman finalist in 2013, but it should manage just fine without him. Corey Grant has the speed to capitalize on even the smallest opening, and Cameron Artis-Payne is a powerful complement who can move the chains and find the end zone. If redshirt freshman Peyton Barber can live up to the hype he's created the past few months, the Tigers will not lack for options to pair up in the backfield with quarterback Nick Marshall.
Florida Defensive Backs
Vernon Hargreaves III is back, but is the hype unrealistic? Probably not; he is every bit as good as advertised. With Jalen Tabor and Duke Dawson coming in to flank him at cornerback and Jabari Gorman, Marcus Maye and Brian Poole at safety, this unit should again be one of the nation's best. However, it is hard to put a group that loses so much—Marcus Roberson, Jaylen Watkins, Louchiez Purifoy and Cody Riggs have all departed—ahead of the 25 groups that made the list.
Notre Dame Quarterbacks
Good riddance, Tommy Rees era. Notre Dame gets Everett Golson back from his university-mandated academic suspension, but the situation in South Bend is tricky. Redshirt freshman Malik Zaire looked like he might be the better quarterback—and like he is definitely the superior athlete—during much of spring practice. But the Irish either get the guy who led them to the national title game in 2012 or the guy good enough to unseat him—neither option sounds particularly bad.
Eric Striker is one of the baddest dudes in college football. If you don't believe me, just ask AJ McCarron, whom Striker sacked three times in the Sugar Bowl upset. Dominique Alexander enjoyed a phenomenal freshman season across from Striker and should do even better in 2014. If not for the questions surrounding Frank Shannon, the star inside linebacker who was arrested for—but not charged with—domestic assault this offseason, OU's linebackers would be on the proper list. Per Ryan Aber of The Oklahoman, Shannon is back working out with the team, but his future remains unclear.
25. South Carolina Offensive Line
Star Player: LG A.J. Cann (Sr.)
Supporting Role: LT Corey Robinson (Sr.)
X-Factor: RT Brandon Shell (Jr.)
Those seniors—left guard A.J. Cann and left tackle Corey Robinson—are the two most important pieces of the line in terms of both talent and leadership. They'll open up some big holes for Mike Davis in 2014.
On the right side, junior tackle Brandon Shell made the All-SEC Freshman Team in 2012 and is poised for a breakout season. He is a physical marvel with true All-SEC potential. But, more than anything, the Gamecocks make this list because of depth.
"It’s a really good feeling to have," said offensive line coach Shawn Elliott of the Gamecocks' depth, per Bennett. "There are going to be some tough decisions because we've got a lot of really good players. But that’s what we get paid to do. But I told our players, if you all can play at a high level, you all are going to play."
24. Maryland Receivers
Star Player: Stefon Diggs (Jr.)
Supporting Role: Deon Long (Sr.)
X-Factor: Amba Etta-Tawo (So.)
If this group stays healthy, watch out.
That means you, Big Ten secondaries.
Stefon Diggs is one of the most electric players in the country on offense and on special teams. He was the No. 8 overall recruit in the country in 2012, and before breaking his leg against Wake Forest in 2013, he was starting to live up to that hype.
Deon Long—who was lost for the season in the same game as Diggs last year—is one of the best No. 2 options is America. He starred at New Mexico in 2011 (809 receiving yards) before landing at UMD.
The injuries to Diggs and Long last year were crippling in the short term but helped foster the depth that makes this unit so dangerous. Levern Jacobs, Amba Etta-Tawo, Nigel King and Marcus Leak have all proven themselves in real games and can be counted on.
23. Texas Running Backs
Star Player: Malcolm Brown (Sr.)
Supporting Role: Johnathan Gray (Jr.)
X-Factor: Joe Bergeron (Sr.)
That is too much talent to ignore.
Brown and Gray have shown glimmers of reaching their potential the past two seasons, and both are being counted on to carry the offense amid quarterback questions in 2014. Gray did miss spring practice recovering from last year's Achilles injury, which is a little bit disquieting, but Brown was a star of spring camp.
Behind them, senior Joe Bergeron provides an experienced, reliable third option that many teams would envy. But that's only the case if he's allowed to play; Bergeron missed spring practice for personal reasons and is apparently in Charlie Strong's dog house.
"If he does what I asked of him, then he has an opportunity to be back in the summer," Strong said, per B/R's Taylor Gaspar. "He needed to work on some things, so if he gets that done then he will be back."
If Gray and Bergeron did not have question marks surrounding them, this unit would rank even higher.
As it stands, the UT running backs are still pretty good.
22. LSU Defensive Backs
Star Player: Tre'Davious White (So.)
Supporting Role: Jalen Mills (Jr.)
X-Factor: Rashard Robinson (So.)
A pair of high-upside sophomores, Tre'Davious White and Rashard Robinson, highlight a deep group of cornerbacks that also includes junior Jalen Collins—an All-SEC Freshman from 2012.
White, in particular, has a chance to be special.
"I think this guy's gonna go from a very good SEC cornerback to [Morris] Claiborne 2.0; Patrick Peterson 2.0," said Bleacher Report's Michael Felder of White in the video above. "He is the best cornerback in his class…and yes, that includes Florida's Vernon Hargreaves."
At safety, the questions surrounding Jalen Mills put a cap on this unit as a whole, keeping it out of the top 20. Mills was charged with felony battery after allegedly punching a woman in the mouth, but according to Glenn Guilbeau of The Advertiser, his attorney remains hopeful that the charges will be dropped.
With Mills, LSU's secondary might flirt with the top 15 or 10. But even without him, safeties such as Ronald Martin and Rickey Jefferson should still be able to patch up the holes and keep this unit sharp.
21. Auburn Quarterbacks
Star Player: Nick Marshall (Sr.)
Supporting Role: Jeremy Johnson (So.)
X-Factor: Sean White (Fr.)
Nick Marshall has his flaws, but there is no denying the impact he had once he finally started to put all his tools together last season.
Now one year older and wiser, he is a bona fide Heisman candidate who looked great—with his arm—during spring practice. If he can improve his accuracy and continue doing ridiculous things like this, Auburn has a real chance of repeating as SEC champs.
Behind him, Jeremy Johnson is one of the most highly regarded backup quarterbacks in the country. So highly regarded, in fact, that according to ESPN's Kirk Herbstreit, Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn once mentioned giving him a chance to beat Marshall for the starting job in 2014, per Drew Champlin of AL.com.
Sean White is a freshman that is unlikely to play but worth keeping an eye on in the future. He was the Elite 11 MVP in 2013.
20. Oregon Running Backs
Star Player: Byron Marshall (Jr.)
Supporting Role: Thomas Tyner (So.)
X-Factor: Kani Benoit (Fr.)/Royce Freeman (Fr.)
Byron Marshall does not get the respect he deserves, often being chalked up as a product of Oregon's system instead of a true star.
But a true star Marshall is, and after rushing for 1,038 yards and 14 touchdowns in 2013, this should be the year that he cements it.
Having said that, though, he might not even be the best running back on the roster. On pure talent, he probably is not.
Thomas Tyner was the No. 20 overall prospect in America in 2013 and burst on the scene to rush for 711 yards and nine touchdowns as a true freshman last season. With D'Anthony Thomas gone—and Marcus Mariota perhaps trying to keep his knee healthy by running less—he and Marshall should both see a heavy workload.
Behind them, young but talented players such as redshirt freshman Kani Benoit and true freshman Royce Freeman have nice potential.
19. Ole Miss Defensive Backs
Star Player: Cody Prewitt (Sr.)
Supporting Role: Tony Conner (So.)
X-Factor: C.J. Hampton (Fr.)
Safety Cody Prewitt is one of just two returning players from the AP All-America first-team defense—and the only one from the SEC.
Joining him in the secondary is emerging sophomore Tony Conner, who fit in well as a nickelback/linebacker hybrid in 2013. He was a 5-star recruit and the No. 32 overall prospect in the 2013 class.
Trae Elston and Senquez Golson—assuming the latter does not get hit with a suspension for a recent arrest—also return as full-time starters from 2013, as do 6'2" cornerback Derrick Jones (four starts last season) and 5'9" cornerback Mike Hilton (five starts last season)
The wild card of the bunch, though, is early enrollee C.J. Hampton, a top-100 prospect in the 2014 class who impressed coaches this spring. He is expected to see the field often as a true freshman.
18. Wisconsin Running Backs
Star Player: Melvin Gordon (Jr.)
Supporting Role: Corey Clement (Sr.)
X-Factor: Taiwan Deal (Fr.)
Wisconsin would not be Wisconsin without at least two superstar running backs, and even with eternally-underrated James White graduating, that should be the case once again in 2014.
Melvin Gordon kept his ridiculous per-carry numbers intact last season and is a Heisman candidate after rushing for 1,609 and 12 touchdowns on 206 attempts. According to Dan Parr of NFL.com, professional scouts said he would have been the top running back selected in the draft had he decided to forgo his senior season.
Behind him, Corey Clement emerged as sort of a Gordon-lite in limited action last season, rushing for 547 yards and seven touchdowns on 67 carries. Clement was a 4-star prospect in 2013 and should thrive with more playing time as a true sophomore.
Taiwan Deal is not expected to play a huge role but should see the field as a power complement to Gordon and Clement. He is only an incoming freshman but checks in at an impressive 6'2", 225 pounds.
17. USC Defensive Backs
Star Player: Su'a Cravens (So.)
Supporting Role: Josh Shaw (Sr.)
X-Factor: Adoree' Jackson (Fr.)
Su'a Cravens was the No. 5 overall prospect in the country in 2013, and he immediately justified that ranking as a true freshman.
After becoming a Day 1 starter in 2013, he is poised to take on an even bigger role as a sophomore in 2014, when he is expected to pair with Leon McQuay III—the No. 31 overall prospect in the 2013 class—to form a young, high-upside pair of safeties.
At cornerback, Josh Shaw and Kevon Seymour both played well in 2013 and give the Trojans an experienced starting duo. Behind them, Chris Hawkins, yet another blue-chip defensive back from the 2013 class, is an ideal fit in the nickel package.
This unit could be scary, scary good.
16. LSU Offensive Line
Star Player: LT La'el Collins (Sr.)
Supporting Role: LG Vadal Alexander (Jr.)
X-Factor: RT Jerald Hawkins (So.)
This could be the best offensive line Les Miles has coached.
Star left tackle La'el Collins likely could have been an early-round selection in the 2014 NFL draft but decided to return for his senior season. He is a road-grade run blocker who, alongside Vadal Alexander, should help open huge holes on the left side of the line for Terrence Magee and No. 1 overall recruit Leonard Fournette.
Right tackle Jerald Hawkins and center Elliott Porter also return for a unit that will be coached by veteran position specialist Jeff Grimes. Grimes' one year at Virginia Tech in 2013 did not go as planned, but he earned a sterling reputation at Auburn from 2009-2012.
He should be able to get the most out of this talented group.
15. Oregon Offensive Line
Star Player: C Hroniss Grasu (Sr.)
Supporting Role: LG Hamani Stevens (Sr.)
X-Factor: LT Tyler Johnstone (Jr.)
Hronnis Grasu is one of the best centers and leaders in the country. When he and quarterback Marcus Mariota announced their decision to return in 2014, it ensured that the Oregon offense would be in safe, capable hands.
Flanking Grasu are a pair of experienced guards, Cameron Hunt and Hamani Stevens, and a pair of experienced tackles, Jake Fisher and Tyler Johnstone. Assuming he recovers from the ligament damage he suffered in his knee during the Alamo Bowl, Johnstone in particular has the physical tools to emerge as a first-round NFL prospect.
The Ducks' line was great as usual in 2013, but it was embarrassed, once again, by its performance against the physical front seven of Stanford. As a result, it has hit the weight room hard this offseason.
"We’re the biggest and fastest and strongest we’ve ever been," said head coach Mark Helfrich, per Aaron Fentress of CSN Northwest, "and now we have to turn that into functional football skill."
This seems like the right group to do it.
14. Michigan State Defensive Line
Star Player: Shilique Calhoun (Jr.)
Supporting Role: Marcus Rush (Sr.)
X-Factor: Demetrius Cooper (Fr.)
Michigan State loses both of its starting defensive tackles from 2013, but head coach Mark Dantonio and defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi have always done a great job up the middle of the defensive line, so that is no reason to fret about this year's Spartans defense.
At end, MSU has the talent to compete with any defensive line in the country. Shilique Calhoun is an All-America candidate and future first-round NFL draft pick, and Marcus Rush was an FWAA Freshman All-American in 2011 and is about to be a fourth-year starter.
The real key to this group, however, lies in the upside.
Redshirt freshman defensive end Demetrius Cooper was the star of spring practice. Former blue-chip recruit Lawrence Thomas is moving to tackle and has a chance to finally reach his potential. And 5-star defensive end Malik McDowell won a staring contest with his parents to finally get them to agree to let him play at MSU.
Get ready for another big, mean, talented, scary unit.
13. Alabama Defensive Line
Star Player: A'Shawn Robinson (So.)
Supporting Role: Brandon Ivory (Sr.)
X-Factor: Da'Shawn Hand (Fr.)
A'Shawn Robinson looks more like a 10-year NFL veteran than a guy who just completed his true freshman season. He didn't play like he was one year out of high school, either.
Bleacher Report's Michael Felder has been effusive in his praise of Robinson, writing in January that, in playing the longstick, he was "doing things it usually takes guys two years to learn." He and massive nose guard Brandon Ivory are All-SEC candidates next season.
Behind them, though, the recruiting depth is what makes this unit special. Would you expect anything else from Alabama?
JUCO transfers Jarran Reed and D.J. Pettway join former blue-chip recruits such as Jonathan Allen, Dee Liner and Da'Shawn Hand—an incoming freshman who was the No. 5 overall player in the class—to form a wellspring of talent that should anchor the Tide's defense.
12. Nebraska Running Backs
Star Player: Ameer Abdullah (Sr.)
Supporting Role: Imani Cross (Jr.)
X-Factor: Terrell Newby (So.)
Ameer Abdullah is the leading returning rusher in college football and the top-ranked senior running back on Mel Kiper Jr.'s early Big Board at ESPN.com (subscription required).
Per Kiper, Abdullah also leads all active FBS players in career yards from scrimmage, and there is little chance he cedes that ranking this season. Whether carrying the rock or catching it out of the backfield, he is as complete of a weapon as there is in college football.
With Abdullah absent from the spring game, highly regarded power back Imani Cross took the reins and put on an impressive show, rushing for 100 yards and two touchdowns. He is 6'1", 230 pounds and needed just 85 carries to score 10 touchdowns last season.
As a third option, Terrell Newby is fresh off a nice true freshman season (54 carries, 298 yards, two touchdowns) and was a top-125 prospect in the country in 2013.
From top to bottom, the Nebraska backfield is stacked.
11. Texas A&M Offensive Line
Star Player: LT Cedric Ogbuehi (Sr.)
Supporting Role: LG Jarvis Harrison (Sr.)
X-Factor: RT Germain Ifedi (So.)
Jake Matthews is gone, but Cedric Ogbuehi—another potential top-six NFL draft pick—shifts over from right tackle to left tackle, and the drop-off should prove negligible. That maneuver worked just fine when Matthews himself switched from right tackle to left tackle to replace top-six NFL draft pick Luke Joeckel in 2013.
The interior of the line is set up well with center Mike Matthews—Jake's younger brother—and left guard Jarvis Harrison leading the way, and former right guard Germain Ifedi has the size (6'5", 230 lbs) and feet to do a good job at right tackle.
According to Football Study Hall, the Aggies' offensive line finished No. 3 in the country in adjusted line yards (run blocking) and No. 20 in adjusted sack rate (pass blocking) last season.
It returns enough talent to be just as good in 2014.
10. Clemson Defensive Line
Star Player: Vic Beasley (Sr.)
Supporting Role: Grady Jarrett (Sr.)
X-Factor: Shaq Lawson (So.)
Clemson's defensive line is led by senior Vic Beasley, one of two returning players from the AP All-America first-team defense and the odds-on favorite to win nearly every major defensive award.
Beasley finished fourth in the country—and first among returning players—with 23.0 tackles for loss last season, and although teams will be ready for him in 2014, there is enough talent surrounding him on the line to avoid harrying double-teams each week.
The key pieces complementing Beasley are defensive tackle Grady Jarrett and defensive ends Corey Crawford and Shaq Lawson. All three of those players had either 10.0 or 10.5 tackles for loss last season—including Lawson, who was only a true freshman.
Also worth keeping an eye on is senior Tavaris Barnes, who had only two tackles for loss last season but exploded with a team-record five sacks in the Clemson spring game, per Tigernet.com.
9. Florida State Offensive Line
Star Player: LT Cameron Erving (Sr.)
Supporting Role: LG Tre' Jackson (Sr.)
X-Factor: C Austin Barron (Sr.)
Florida State's offensive line paved the way for Jameis Winston & Co. to be so efficient in 2013, and with four starters returning from that unit, it is fair to expect much of the same next season.
The one piece they lose, center Bryan Stork, is an important one, but senior Austin Barron is an experienced and capable replacement. He joins four other seniors on the projected starting line.
The key piece is left tackle Cameron Erving, who quickly established himself as one of the premier blockers in the country after replacing Menelik Watson last season. Left guard Tre' Jackson joined Erving on the All-ACC first team, right guard Josue Matias made the third team and right tackle Bobby Hart earned an honorable mention.
This is not a group to be trifled with.
8. Virginia Tech Defensive Backs
Star Player: Kendall Fuller (So.)
Supporting Role: Kyshoen Jarrett (Sr.)
X-Factor: Brandon Facyson (So.)
A pair of true sophomore, Kendall Fuller and Brandon Facyson, were thrown into the fire last season and came out unburnt. Both made the 247Sports True Freshman All-America Team in 2013 and should contend for All-ACC honors this upcoming season.
Fuller was the No. 17 overall prospect in the 2013 class, and his older brother/former teammate, Kyle, was just selected No. 14 overall in the NFL draft by the Chicago Bears. Facyson, meanwhile, has the length at 6'2" to matchup with any-sized receiver. The duo complements each other perfectly and combined for 11 interceptions last season.
And they'll both be around until (at least) 2015.
Safety Kyshoen Jarrett is another good one on the back end, a big hitter capable of patrolling the box and showing up in the highlights (as he did after nearly killing Devin Street last season). Detrick Bonner, Donovan Riley and Desmond Frye provide ample depth.
According to the FEI ratings at Football Outsiders, Virginia Tech had the second-best pass defense in the country last season, trailing only Michigan State. It is reasonable to expect yet another big season.
7. Alabama Receivers
Star Player: Amari Cooper (Jr.)
Supporting Role: O.J. Howard (So.)
X-Factor: Robert Foster (Fr.)
Amari Cooper took a statistical dip in 2013 after his breakout true freshman season in 2012. Sure. What of it?
The same thing happened to former Alabama great Julio Jones between 2008 and 2009, and it happened again to Clemson superstar Sammy Watkins between 2011 and 2012. Both bounced back with huge numbers the following season and became top-five NFL draft picks. Suffice it to say that it was not the end of the world.
Cooper is still (at the very least) one of the three most dangerous wide receivers in the country, and the supporting cast around him is deep. Receivers DeAndrew White, Chris Black and Christion Jones all got meaningful snaps last season, and sophomore tight end O.J. Howard (then a true freshman) made a few highlight-reel plays.
But the real wild card of this group is redshirt freshman Robert Foster, an athletic 6'2" freak who checked in as the No. 23 overall prospect in the country in 2013. Bleacher Report's Michael Felder predicted big things after watching Foster in the A-Day game.
If that prediction comes to light, this unit will be crazy good.
6. Ohio State Defensive Line
Star Player: Noah Spence (Jr.)
Supporting Role: Michael Bennett (Sr.)
X-Factor: Joey Bosa (So.)
There was no good way to discern which Ohio State lineman is the "star player," which is the "supporting role" and which is the "X-factor." Any (or all) of its three best players could realistically garner All-American consideration in 2013.
Seriously. This group is that good.
One defensive end, Noah Spence, was the No. 5 overall prospect in the country in 2012 and had 14.0 tackles for loss as a sophomore last season; the other defensive end, Joey Bosa, was the No. 37 overall prospect in the country in 2013 and had 13.5 tackles for loss as a freshman last season (including 9.5 in the final six games).
And then there is Michael Bennett, a top-60 overall prospect from the 2011 class who made the All-Big Ten second team last year and is favored to make this first team in 2014. He'll pair up with converted defensive end Adolphus Washington, another skilled pass-rusher, although Bosa is capable of playing up the A-gap as well.
Depth is a bit of concern behind that core four, but Ohio State recruits well enough—and that first group is good enough—to call its defensive line one of the 10 best units in America regardless.
This could be a special year.
5. Georgia Linebackers
Star Player: Ramik Wilson (Sr.)
Supporting Role: Jordan Jenkins (Jr.)
X-Factor: Leonard Floyd (So.)
Ramik Wilson is one of the least-talked-about superstars in college football, a complete inside linebacker in every sense of the word. He led the SEC with 133 tackles last season, and Amarlo Herrera, his partner in crime, finished third with 112. Both return in 2014.
On the edge, perhaps no pair of starting outside linebackers in the country has a higher ceiling than Jordan Jenkins and Leonard Floyd.
That is a terrifying group of starters.
Because of their presence, the backups may not be counted on to do much in 2014. But, if forced into playing time, Reggie Carter and Ryne Rankin are solid up the middle, and Davin Bellamy and Johnny O'Neal are talented players on the outside.
4. Florida State Defensive Backs
Star Player: P.J. Williams (Jr.)
Supporting Role: Jalen Ramsey (So.)
X-Factor: Tyler Hunter (Jr.)
Florida State's defensive backfield has a unique blend of first-round NFL talent and depth that makes it the best in the country despite losing Terrence Brooks and LaMarcus Joyner to graduation.
Junior cornerbacks P.J. Williams and Ronald Darby began last season as backups but emerged as starters by the Maryland game and never looked back. Now they are one of the best tandems in America.
That emergence allowed then-freshman defensive back Jalen Ramsey, the No. 15 overall prospect in the 2013 class, to slide over to safety, where he excelled (as he would at any spot). It is unclear how creative the Seminoles will get with Ramsey this season, but he has the upside to become an All-American if they find the right place to use him.
Nate Andrews is also back after leading the team in interceptions as a true freshman last season, and if Tyler Hunter, who started in 2012 and at the start of 2013 before suffering a scary neck injury, can come back and provide some meaningful snaps, it would give Florida State (at least) three safeties it could feel safe about. Nick Waisome is another experienced senior who provides depth at the cornerback position, which will allow Ramsey the freedom to move around.
Florida State led the country with 5.1 yards allowed per pass attempt last season. Even without Joyner and Brooks, it should finish near the top of that category once again.
3. Auburn Offensive Line
Star Player: C Reese Dismukes (Sr.)
Supporting Role: LG Alex Kozan (So.)
X-Factor: LT Shon Coleman (So.)
It is hard to overstate how dominant Auburn's offensive line was in the running game last season, even though it did finish second in the country behind Ohio State in terms of adjusted line yards (run blocking), according to the numbers at Football Study Hall.
The best player from last year's group, left tackle Greg Robinson, is gone to the NFL, but the Tigers return every other starter along the line. Especially along the interior, where center Reese Dismukes and guard Alex Kozan should compete (or be favored) for All-SEC honors, this team will have no problem opening up holes.
The X-factor is Robinson's replacement, Shon Coleman, a fourth-year sophomore who took two years away from the game fighting cancer. He returned last season to back up Robinson and played sparingly, but he looked better than ever during spring camp.
If Coleman continues to claim a hold on the left tackle spot, that would open up Patrick Miller, who started the first five games of 2013 at right tackle, to operate in the "swing tackle" role, providing important depth behind Coleman and Avery Young on the outside.
Gus Malzahn's offense will not be slowing down any time soon.
2. Georgia Running Backs
Star Player: Todd Gurley (Jr.)
Supporting Role: Keith Marshall (Jr.)
X-Factor: Sony Michel (Fr.)/Nick Chubb (Fr.)
Todd Gurley is the best running back in college football. Plain and simple. He might even be—read: probably is—the best player.
Despite an ankle injury that forced him to miss three games (and hobbled him in six others), he managed to rush for 989 yards and 10 touchdowns on just 165 carries as a true sophomore last year.
His 2012 classmate, Keith Marshall, is the lightning to Gurley's thunder-and-lightning, but he is recovering from a torn ACL last October. Were he 100 percent healthy, the Bulldogs' running backs would have an even better case to be ranked No. 1 on this list.
As it stands, Marshall's injury kept this unit pretty squarely at No. 2. However, it did not force the UGA running backs to drop any further down the list. This is in large part due to recruiting, as Georgia hauled in two blue-chip running backs for the second time in three years.
Those incoming freshmen, Sony Michel and Nick Chubb, were the No. 19 and No. 33 overall prospects in the nation, respectively. At least one—and probably both—should prove ready for game action and have a role to play for the Bulldogs this season.
And the rich just continue getting richer.
1. Alabama Running Backs
Star Player: T.J. Yeldon (Jr.)
Supporting Role: Derrick Henry (So.)
X-Factor: Kenyan Drake (Jr.)
Let's get this out of the way.
No player has sparked more debate this offseason than Derrick Henry, a former 5-star recruit (and the leading rusher in high school football history) who played sparingly last season until the Sugar Bowl. In that game, however, he scored a couple of long touchdowns that announced loudly his arrival to the college football world.
The discourse this winter has concerned whether one good game—and, really, just a few good plays—is "enough." Can we really trust Henry to be so dominant over the course of an entire season?
In short, my answer is yes. In long, feel free to read here.
Even an 80-percent-realized version of Henry would be one of the five hardest players to tackle in the country. He is 6'3", 238 pounds and runs like a gazelle. How is anyone supposed to stop him?
That's a scary question because even an 80-percent-realized version of Henry might not be the best running back on Alabama's roster.
T.J. Yeldon was himself a 5-star recruit in 2012, and he's rushed for 2,343 yards and 26 touchdowns through two seasons. He also starred once again in the 2014 A-Day game, taking home MVP honors for a third consecutive year, per Andrew Gribble of AL.com.
Behind the both of them, Kenyan Drake put up a "quiet" 694 yards and eight touchdowns on 92 carries as the primary backup last season.
There is no position group like this in the country.