Ranking the Best Defensive Lines for 2017 College Football Season

Brad Shepard@@Brad_ShepardFeatured ColumnistJune 21, 2017

Ranking the Best Defensive Lines for 2017 College Football Season

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    Clelin Ferrell (99) and Carlos Watkins (94)
    Clelin Ferrell (99) and Carlos Watkins (94)Jennifer Stewart/Getty Images

    Before the high-flying Deshaun Watson air assault usurped Alabama in last year's national championship game, the old adage held true that college football games were won in the trenches.

    But a deeper look at the Tigers shows they weren't bad off on the defensive line in 2016. As a matter of fact, they were just the opposite, and head coach Dabo Swinney's team will be even stronger on the defensive front this year.

    The Crimson Tide aren't going anywhere, either.

    All the good teams have difference-makers along the defensive front, and if you identify the teams with the best personnel there, you've normally gone a long way in seeing what teams are going to make noise in the rankings.

    From the teams with super-duper stars like Houston's Ed Oliver to the programs with a bevy of studs like Ohio State and Clemson, let's take a look at which college football teams boast the best defensive fronts in 2017.

    It's a good bet two of these teams will be in the final game of the season.

10. Houston Cougars

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    Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

    The group: Chauntez Jackson, Sr.; Jerard Carter, Jr.; Nick Thurman, Sr.; Zach Vaughan, Jr.; Reggie Chevis, Sr.; D.J. Jenkins, DE; Colby Brignac, RS Fr.; Payton Turner, Fr.; Alexander Duke, Fr.; Reggie Chevis, Sr.; Jacoby Morrison, So.; Courtel Jenkins, Sr.; Noah Jones, Fr.; Ed Oliver, So.; Bryan Jones, Fr.; David Anenih, Fr.

    The star: It was one of the biggest recruiting coups in the nation a couple of years ago when then-coach Tom Herman kept star defensive tackle recruit Ed Oliver at home to play for the Cougars. All he did a season ago was provide one of the best freshman seasons of any defensive lineman in college football history, wreaking havoc to the tune of 65 tackles, including 22 for a loss and five sacks. And he's just getting started.

    Why they're here: Oliver is enough of a reason for Houston to be here, but he's not all new head coach Major Applewhite has in his arsenal. The transfer of Texas A&M graduate Reggie Chevis will bolster an already-strong unit, as he had 25 tackles, including two for a loss for the Aggies a season ago. He'll help keep double-teams off Oliver. Nick Thurman and Bryan Jones should provide a strong pass rush off the edge, and though the group needs depth, the Cougars have plenty of talent.

9. Utah Utes

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    Lowell Lotulelei (93)
    Lowell Lotulelei (93)Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images

    The group: Leki Fotu, So.; Nick Ford, Fr.; Alani Havili-Katoa, Jr.; Mark Kruger, Fr.; Lowell Lotulelei, Sr.; Filipo Mokofisi, Sr.; John Penisini, So.; Hauati Pututau, Fr.; Pita Tonga, Fr.; Aliki Vimahi, Fr.; Bradlee Anae, So.; Kylie Fitts, Sr.; Davir Hamilton, Fr.; Chris Hart, So.; Nick Heninger, Fr.; Caleb Repp, So.; Maxs Tupai, Fr.

    The star: Lowell Lotulelei has the bloodlines, considering his older brother Star was a 2013 first-round pick out of Utah. The younger Lotulelei will certainly be drafted as well, and though it may not be that high, he's still a marquee player for the Utes. His thick frame allows him to be a force against the run, and he's got a strong interior burst as well. Look for him to be an All-Pac-12 performer this year.

    Why they're here: The return of Kylie Fitts will help solidify a unit that lost pass-rushing talents in Hunter Dimick and Pita Taumoepenu. Fitts was lost for the season in the second game of 2016 after finishing the previous year with seven sacks, four forced fumbles and 10 pass breakups. Toss in the return of Filipo Mokofisi and Bradlee Anae, and the Utes still have several playmakers up front.

8. Washington Huskies

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    Vita Vea (50)
    Vita Vea (50)Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

    The group: Vita Vea, Jr.; Jared Pulu, RS So.; John Clark, RS So.; Ricky McCoy, RS So.; Jaylen Johnson, Jr.; Levi Onwuzurike, RS Fr.; Shane Bowman, Jr.; Jason Scrempos, RS So.; Greg Gaines, Jr.; Ali Gaye, Fr.; Jordan Lolohea, Fr.; Joe Tryon, Fr.

    The star: The combination of Vita Vea and Greg Gaines make for one of the best interior tandems in the nation, but Vea is the star who is among the top defensive tackles in the country. Though the 6'4", 346-pound mammoth started just five games a season ago, he's a space-eater who will spearhead a stellar run defense. With him in the center, the Huskies should again have one of the best fronts in the country.

    Why they're here: Vea and Gaines are exceptional, and though neither of them is an athlete, they're both hard workers who produce big numbers and are all-conference-type players. Though Elijah Qualls leaves a major gap, the Huskies have waves of players who can defend the run and the pass. Considering outside linebackers Connor O'Brien and Azeem Victor can play with their hands down, they could join this formidable group, too.

7. Michigan Wolverines

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    Rashan Gary
    Rashan GaryDuane Burleson/Getty Images

    The group: Maurice Hurst, RS Sr.; Bryan Mone, Sr.; Aubrey Solomon, Fr.; Donovan Jeter, Fr.; Lawrence Marshall, Sr.; Michael Dwumfour, So.; James Hudson, Fr.; Deron Irving-Bey, Fr.; Phillip Paea, Fr.; Rashan Gary, So.; Chase Winovich, Sr.; Carlo Kemp, So.; Ron Johnson, So.; Reuben Jones, Jr.; Luiji Vilain, Fr.; Corey Malone-Hatcher, Fr.; Kwity Paye, Fr.; Shelton Johnson, Jr.

    The star: Look for Rashan Gary to have a breakout year that proves why he was one of the most sought-after recruits in the 2016 cycle. Though he was merely in the rotation of the deep line a year ago, the 6'5", 287-pound jumbo defensive end is ready to make his mark as a starter. He's a freakish athlete who can get after the passer and excel against the run, and it's a matter of time before he's an all-conference performer.

    Why they're here: How can you lose a slew of studs like Taco Charlton, Chris Wormley and Ryan Glasgow and still have one of the best lines in the country? That's because the recruiting from former coach Brady Hoke to Jim Harbaugh didn't slack in the least. Hurst is the steady playmaker, and with plenty of able freshmen ready to join the rotation, the Wolverines won't miss a beat.

6. Miami Hurricanes

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    Kendrick Norton
    Kendrick NortonEric Espada/Getty Images

    The group: Pat Bethel, So.; Ryan Fines, RS So.; Jonathan Garvin, Fr.; Trent Harris, Sr.; Demetrius Jackson, RS Jr.; Joe Jackson, So.; Zachary Lerman, Fr.; Tyreic Martin, RS Fr.; RJ McIntosh, Jr.; Anthony Moten, Sr.; Kendrick Norton, Jr.; Scott Patchan, RS So.; Chad Thomas, Sr.; Gerald Willis, RS Jr.; D.J. Johnson, Fr.; Jon Ford, Fr.

    The star: RJ McIntosh anchors a Hurricanes unit that could surprise many with the handful of impact defensive linemen they can throw at teams in 2017. A year ago, the 6'4", 293-pound sophomore finished with 47 tackles, 9.5 tackles for loss and two pass breakups, and he will only improve on those numbers with so much talent around him.

    Why they're here: Defensive line coach Craig Kuligowski is enough of an answer here. The longtime Mizzou assistant produced several NFL players when he coached the Tigers, and he's poised to do the same in Coral Gables. McIntosh and Kendrick Norton in the middle are strong, and those guys will fortify the line in Mark Richt's second season as head coach. Chad Thomas and Joe Jackson are beasts off the edge, and there's a lot of young depth behind them. The 'Canes are loaded.

5. North Carolina State Wolfpack

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    Bradley Chubb
    Bradley ChubbGrant Halverson/Getty Images

    The group: Bradley Chubb, Sr.; Kentavius Street, Sr.; James Smith-Williams, RS So.; Bryan Smith, RS Sr.; Darian Roseboro, Jr.; Davlon Allred, RS Sr.; Deonte Holden, RS Jr.; Evin Bellamy, RS So.; Tyrone Riley, RS So.; Xavier Lyas, Fr.; Justin Jones, Sr.; Ben "Shuq" Frazier, RS Fr.; Eurndraus Bryant, Jr.; B.J. Hill, Sr.; Quentez Johnson, RS So.; Grant Gibson, Fr.; Larrell Murchison, Fr.; Kevince Brown, Fr.; Ibrahim Kante, Fr.; Dante Johnson, Fr.

    The star: Senior Bradley Chubb is the best all-around defensive lineman in the country. Not only can he collapse the edge and disrupt plays in the backfield, he's one of the best ends nationally defending the run. NFL teams will salivate over him, and he's as close to they come as a can't-miss talent on the line. As a matter of fact, it's surprising he's in Raleigh at all after turning down millions in the NFL draft.

    Why they're here: Chubb is the anchor and a superstar who'll try to help the Wolfpack defense shut down all those strong ACC offensive attacks and save head coach Dave Doeren's job. Justin Jones and B.J. Hill are among the best 20 or so defensive tackles in the country, and they'll take some pressure off Chubb. It's a unit that will have multiple pro players, and the impact of Darian Roseboro and Kentavius Street (12.5 combined sacks in 2016) is often overlooked. 

4. Alabama Crimson Tide

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    Da'Shawn Hand
    Da'Shawn HandJamie Squire/Getty Images

    The group: Da'Shawn Hand, Sr.; Isaiah Buggs, Jr.; Vohn Keith Jr., Sr.; Daniel Powell, So.; Josh Frazier, Sr.; Jamar King, Sr.; O.J. Smith, RS Jr.; Quinnen Williams, RS Fr.; Da'Ron Payne, Jr.; Johnny Dwight, RS Jr.; Taylor Wilson, So.; Raekwon Davis, RS So.; LaBryan Ray, Fr.; Phidarian Mathis, Fr.; Jarez Parks, Fr.

    The star: While it's certainly possible that Da'Shawn Hand could break out and live up to the expectations that made him one of the most coveted recruits in the country, Da'Ron Payne is a known commodity. He's another highly rated recruit who has blossomed into a beast and is torch-carrier from last year's havoc-wreaking Crimson Tide line. Expect him to be a force on the interior and a high draft pick.

    Why they're here: Beyond Payne, Hand is a stud who should surge now that he's out from behind all the stars UA churned out the past few years. The Tide always has a dynamite D-line, and JUCO transfer Isaiah Buggs showed signs this past spring of being an instant-impact star, too. Between Josh Frazier, Raekwon Davis and Quinnen Williams, 'Bama is reloaded once again.

3. Florida State Seminoles

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    Don Juan Moore/Getty Images

    The group: Josh Sweat, Jr.; Janarius Robinson, RS Fr.; Joshua Kaindoh, Fr.; Kris Dixon, RS So.; Claudio Williams, RS So.; Adam Torres, RS Jr.; Jalen Wilkerson, RS So.; Isaiah Smallwood, RS Jr.; Brian Burns, So.; Arthur Williams, RS Jr.; Cedric Wood, RS Fr.; Fredrick Jones, RS Jr.; Darvin Taylor II, RS So.; Demarcus Christmas, RS Jr.; Derrick Nnadi, Sr.; Walvenski Aime, Jr.; Justin Smith, RS Fr.; JT Mertz, Jr.; Marvin Wilson, Fr.; Ja'len Parks, Fr.; Cory Durden, Fr.; Tre Lawson, Fr.

    The star: Since the last slide went the safe route going with Payne for the "star" pick, we're going out on a limb and saying Josh Sweat will outperform stud defensive tackle Derrick Nnadi this year. Nnadi is a stud, but Sweat coming off the edge is a terror for offenses. With DeMarcus Walker gone, he'll improve on his seven sacks, especially with Brian Burns coming off the other end.

    Why they're here: Simply put: The 'Noles are loaded. Sweat and Burns are emerging superstars, and Nnadi is one of the best defensive tackles in the country. As the names above suggest, FSU will be able to throw waves of talent into the rotation. It's also probable that young heavily recruited players like Joshua Kaindoh and Marvin Wilson are too talented to stand on the sideline, even with a bunch of great players higher on the depth chart right now. That's going to be a fun group of eight- or nine-deep to watch.

1. (Tied) Ohio State Buckeyes

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    Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    The group: Rashod Berry, RS So.; Chase Young, Fr.; Sam Hubbard, Jr.; Jalyn Holmes, Sr.; Tracy Sprinkle, Sr.; Jerron Cage, Fr.; Darius Slade, Jr.; Haskell Garrett, Fr.; Dre'Mont Jones, RS So.; Noah Donald, So.; Nick Bosa, So.; Robert Landers, So.; Tyquan Lewis, Sr.; Dylan Thompson, Jr.; Jonathon Cooper, RS Fr.; Joshua Alabi, RS So.; Michael Hill, Sr.; Jashon Cornell, RS So.; Malik Barrow, RS Fr.; Davon Hamilton, RS So.

    The star: Picking the best Ohio State lineman is as difficult as choosing between the Buckeyes and Clemson as to who's got the best group. It's nearly impossible. Sam Hubbard, Tyquan Lewis and Nick Bosa are all going to be NFL players. Lewis is the surefire stud though, coming off a Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year award. He finished with 10.5 tackles for a loss and eight sacks a season ago.

    Why they're here: Lewis is the surest bet, but Hubbard and Bosa have higher ceilings. To give you an idea of how talented Hubbard is, he was a high school safety. That trio is causing some talk of rabbit packages galore where the Buckeyes will throw pass-rushers from all different angles on the field at once. Jalyn Holmes, Robert Landers, Dre'Mont Jones and Mike Hill are all productive returning players, too. The Big Ten had better watch out. This has the potential to be one of the best D-lines in college football history.

1. (Tied) Clemson Tigers

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    Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

    The group: Lasamuel Davis, RS Fr.; Xavier Kelly, RS Fr.; Chris Register, RS Jr.; Richard Yeargin, RS Jr.; Kaleb Bevelle, RS Sr.; Austin Bryant, Jr.; Sterling Johnson, RS So.; Clelin Ferrell, RS So.; Christian Wilkins, Jr.; Jabril Robinson, RS Jr.; Jordan Williams, Fr.; Nyles Pinckney, RS Fr.; Albert Huggins, Jr.; Dexter Lawrence, So.; Logan Rudolph, Fr.; Justin Foster, Fr.

    The star: If you asked 100 different people who Clemson's top defensive line star is, it's possible you'd have it split three ways between Clelin Ferrell, Christian Wilkins and Dexter Lawrence. But Lawrence is the freak of the bunch, breaking out in his freshman year with 62 tackles and 6.5 sacks. This is a 6'5", 346-pound behemoth who plays with the nimble footwork of a defensive end. He could be a No. 1 overall pick in the future, and he'll only get better.

    Why they're here: How can you have the potential to be one of the best lines ever and not hold the top spot all your own? Ohio State must contend with Clemson, and after a 30-0 loss in last year's College Football Playoffs, everybody should know it isn't that easy. In that game, the Tigers line hassled J.T. Barrett, and many of those players are back for defensive coordinator Brent Venables. Ferrell and Wilkins, along with Lawrence, are going to make a lot of money in the NFL. There is plenty of help for them, too.