Projecting Every Conference's Best O-Line in 2021 College Football Season
There might not be a more important position group in college football than the offensive line.
While the team with the best O-line won't necessarily win its conference, you can take it to the bank that the team with the worst O-line won't win many games. An average quarterback can look great with elite pocket protection, and any average running back can scamper through holes the size of a French door, but unless you've got otherworldly athletes like Michael Vick or Barry Sanders, you can't do much on offense without good blocking.
So, which teams figure to be the best in that department in 2021?
Rather than our tried-and-true approach of ranking the 10 best (insert position group) in the country, we wanted to make sure to show some love to more than just the occasional Group of Five team. Thus, we're taking a conference-by-conference look at the various position groups for the 2021 season.
Last week, we forecasted the best defensive lines in each league. This week, we're staying in the trenches but flipping to the opposite side of the line of scrimmage.
Within each conference, we'll highlight which team should reign supreme at that position, pinpoint the one team most likely to make a serious push for that title and mention another squad worth monitoring. That third "Keep an Eye on" group isn't necessarily expected to be third-best in the conference, but it's an intriguing unit.
Conferences are listed in alphabetical order.
American Athletic Conference
Best of the Bunch: UCF Knights
UCF's Cole Schneider will go down as one of the greatest offensive linemen in AAC history. In 2018, the left guard was the only freshman (offensive or defensive) named to the All-AAC first team. The following year, he secured second-team honors. And last fall, he made it back up to the first team. As did the young man directly to his right, freshman center Matthew Lee.
With that interior duo leading the way, UCF averaged 42.2 points and 210.7 rushing yards per game while doing an adequate job of keeping QB Dillon Gabriel off the turf (2.1 sacks allowed for an offense that averaged 41.5 pass attempts per game isn't too shabby). And with that interior duo (and QB) returning in 2021, expect big things from this offense, per usual.
It's not just those two, either. The entire offensive line is well-preserved, with right guard Lokahi Pauole and veteran tackles Edward Collins and Samuel Jackson each coming back after making at least eight starts in 2020. Former Tennessee transfer Marcus Tatum also returns after making five starts for the Knights last year.
Top Challenger: Tulsa Golden Hurricane
Say this much for Tulsa's line: It is not lacking experience. Dylan Couch is a sixth-year senior. Dante Bivens, Gerard Wheeler and Chris Paul are each fifth-year seniors. All four are multiple-year starters. And while he's the youngest of the bunch, left tackle Tyler Smith is the most talented, having been named All-AAC first team as a redshirt freshman last year. Perhaps all that familiarity up front will improve an offense that was in the middle of the pack in the AAC in terms of both rushing and passing.
Keep an Eye on: Tulane Green Wave
Tulane needs to make drastic improvement in the pass-protection department. The Green Wave allowed 35 sacks despite attempting just 313 passes. But we have to at least mention an offensive line that produced not one but two running backs who each averaged at least 6.0 yards per carry and at least 10 carries per game. Center Sincere Haynesworth and left guard Corey Dublin both return after earning second-team All-AAC honors last fall.
Atlantic Coast Conference
Best of the Bunch: Boston College Eagles
Boston College ranked last in the ACC in yards per carry (3.1) in 2020 and ranked second-to-last in the conference in yards lost on sacks (226). Based solely on that information, forecasting that team to have the league's best offensive line might seem like the rantings of a madman.
On the other hand, of the 15 O-linemen who earned first-team, second-team or third-team All-ACC honors last year, only six are still playing in the ACC—three of whom (Alec Lindstrom, Ben Petrula and Zion Johnson) man the trenches for Boston College. And Tyler Vrabel—who started all 13 games at left tackle as a redshirt freshman in 2019—is probably the best O-lineman of the bunch.
The Eagles did lose first-team All-ACC tight end Hunter Long to the NFL, though he was much more effective as a route-runner than a run-blocker. Perhaps the new starting tight end—be it Joey Luchetti or Jacksonville State transfer Trae Barry—will be more of a blocking presence in what should be a breakout year for BC's offense.
Top Challenger: Clemson Tigers
Losing a player the caliber of Jackson Carman as a second-round pick would be a tough pill to swallow for a lot of programs, but don't expect Clemson to take much of a step backward after three consecutive seasons of ranking in the top four in the ACC in sacks allowed per game. The Tigers still have a veteran anchor in guard Matt Bockhorst, and Carman's presumed replacement in the starting lineup, Walker Parks, was a top 50 recruit in last year's class. And tackle Jordan McFadden should do a fine job of protecting D.J. Uiagalelei's blind side.
Keep an Eye on: Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets
Head coach Geoff Collins is evidently building an offensive line out of former SEC players. The Yellow Jackets added former Tennessee lineman Ryan Johnson as a graduate transfer last year, and he'll be back for one more season. They also picked up Vanderbilt transfer Devin Cochran and Mississippi State transfer Nick Pendley this year. It's possible all three will start in 2021, and it's likely that the sheer athleticism of QB Jeff Sims and running back Jahmyr Gibbs will make up for a lot of missed assignments anyway.
Big 12 Conference
Best of the Bunch: Iowa State Cyclones
After playing in a New Year's Six bowl, Iowa State is a trendy sleeper pick to reach the College Football Playoff because nearly all of last season's starters will be back.
That luxury starts in the trenches, where center Colin Newell is the only first-team All-Big 12 lineman returning. He'll be joined by second-team right guard Derek Schweiger, as well as returning starters Sean Foster (LT) and Jake Remsburg (RT).
The Cyclones will also get left guard Trevor Downing back after he suffered a season-ending injury in the opener against Louisiana. He started 12 games in 2019, and his return figures to improve what was already one of the best offensive lines in the country. Running back Breece Hall led them to 195.0 rushing yards per game, and they only allowed 14 sacks in 12 contests.
Top Challenger: Oklahoma Sooners
From 2013 to 2019, Oklahoma averaged at least 220 rushing yards per game. Even last year's mark of 179.7 was respectable, considering Kennedy Brooks opted out, Trey Sermon transferred and Rhamondre Stevenson wasn't available until the sixth game of the season. In other words, this offensive line is always rock solid. Losing three-year starting center Creed Humphrey and two-year starting right tackle Adrian Ealy hurts, but look for Tennessee transfer Wanya Morris to make an immediate impact at left tackle.
Keep an Eye on: Texas Tech Red Raiders
They lost a key piece of the puzzle with 2020 first-team All-Big 12 guard Jack Anderson departing for the NFL, but the Red Raiders still have one of the better lineman in the conference in center Dawson Deaton. In two seasons with him as the linchpin of the line, Texas Tech has limited the opposition to 34 total sacks (1.5 per game) while attempting more than 42 passes per contest. Four-time transfer T.J. Storment (TCU, Colorado State, Fullerton College, Old Dominion) will be key as the likely starting left tackle.
Big Ten Conference
Best of the Bunch: Ohio State Buckeyes
Ohio State had a pair of interior linemen (Josh Myers and Wyatt Davis) selected within the first three rounds of the 2021 NFL draft, but the Buckeyes are not lacking for talent in the trenches.
Thayer Munford and Nicholas Petit-Frere should be the two best offensive tackles in the Big Ten. That duo is so good, in fact, that 2020 No. 9 overall recruit Paris Johnson Jr. is switching from tackle to right guard for the upcoming season as a result of Munford's decision to return for a super senior year. Ohio State also has 2019 5-star recruit Harry Miller to man either left guard or center.
Sans Myers and Davis, the fifth spot on the starting line is a bit of a question mark, likely to end up in Luke Wypler's capable-but-inexperienced hands. But when a guy who was rated as the second-best center in the 2020 recruiting class is your biggest unknown, you're in great shape.
Top Challenger: Iowa Hawkeyes
Just like Ohio State, Iowa lost both a first-team (Alaric Jackson) and second-team (Cole Banwart) All-conference linemen from last season but still has a returning first-teamer in center Tyler Linderbaum. Iowa has also finished top-three in the Big Ten in sacks allowed per game in each of the past three seasons and has a budding star in right tackle Cody Ince.
Keep an Eye on: Penn State Nittany Lions
Penn State's 2020 campaign was much more forgettable than it was promising, but the Nittany Lions did rush for more than 240 yards in more than half of their games despite not having a featured back. Look for more of the same from that running back committee behind an offensive line anchored by Rasheed Walker and Mike Miranda.
Best of the Bunch: UAB Blazers
What's better than an offensive line that allowed four sacks in nine games for an offense that averaged 200.0 rushing yards per contest?
Getting that entire offensive line back for another season.
Left tackle Colby Ragland and right tackle Sidney Wells were both named first-team all-conference for their near-flawless work during the 2020 campaign, and they will return as the anchors of an offensive line composed entirely of former transfers who are in at least their fourth academic year.
Replacing Spencer Brown's more than 4,000 rushing yards over the past four seasons won't be anywhere near as easy as this veteran offensive line figures to make it look.
Top Challenger: UTSA Roadrunners
UAB gets back a pair of first-team offensive linemen, but UTSA brings back a trio of seniors (Spencer Burford, Makai Hart and Ahofitu Maka) who earned second-team all-conference honors last fall. The Roadrunners also have the luxury of retaining their star running back, Sincere McCormick, who rushed for 1,467 yards in 11 games in 2020. A second consecutive year of helping to pace Conference USA in yards per carry (5.21) is a definite possibility for this O-line.
Keep an Eye on: Marshall Thundering Herd
Needing to replace Josh Ball (fourth-round draft pick) and Cain Madden (transferred to Notre Dame) will likely cause Marshall to step backward from what was a dominant year in the trenches. The Thundering Herd does have building blocks, though, in tackle Will Ulmer, guard Alex Mollette and a key incoming transfer from North Carolina, Billy Ross.
Best of the Bunch: Kent State Golden Flashes
It was a short, four-game season for Kent State, but what a breakthrough year for the Golden Flashes offensive line.
In each of the previous three seasons, they had allowed more than 40 sacks for an average of 3.5 per game. But in 2020, they slashed that rate all the way down to 1.25. They also paved the way for a rushing attack that averaged 283.0 yards. And with QB Dustin Crum not under constant duress, Kent State also passed at will and led the nation in scoring (49.8 points per game).
In fairness, the Golden Flashes did run the score up a bit and pad their stats against the dreadful defenses of Akron and Bowling Green. Expecting them to repeat as the country's highest-scoring offense is probably too optimistic. However, with Crum and his entire starting offensive line—most notably right tackle Bill Kuduk and right guard Nathan Monnin—back for another season, this will easily be one of the most potent offenses in the MAC.
Top Challenger: Western Michigan Broncos
After starting all 13 games as a sophomore in 2018, tackle Jaylon Moore earned second-team All-MAC honors in both 2019 and 2020 before becoming a fifth-round draft pick. That's a big loss for the Broncos O-line. But the team has also ranked top-five in the MAC in both total sacks allowed and rushing yards per game in each of the past five seasons. And with 2020 first-team All-MAC left guard Mike Caliendo back for a fifth year of starting in the trenches, they still have perhaps the best individual lineman in the conference.
Keep an Eye on: Buffalo Bulls
Star running back Jaret Patterson and starting left tackle Kayode Awosika went to the NFL. Head coach Lance Leipold took the Kansas job, and starting center Mike Novitsky followed him there. Starting left guard Jacob Gall transferred to Baylor. Lots of new faces here. But Buffalo led the MAC in sacks allowed in each of the past three seasons while rushing for 104 touchdowns in 34 games. Even if the offensive line is 50 percent less effective than it has been lately, the Bulls should still be solid.
Mountain West Conference
Best of the Bunch: Air Force Falcons
Air Force only had two players selected to either first team or second team All-MWC in 2020. Both (LG Nolan Laufenberg and LT Parker Ferguson) were offensive linemen, but they both left this offseason. In just about any other program, that would be a major concern.
But this is Air Force we're talking about.
The Falcons have averaged at least 260 rushing yards per game in each of Troy Calhoun's 14 seasons as head coach, and they have allowed a grand total of 13 sacks since the beginning of the 2018 campaign. Even though Air Force has only had one player drafted in the past two decades, that triple-option system churns out "whole is greater than the sum of its parts" offensive lines over and over again.
Look for seniors Hawk Wimmer, Ryan Booth and Isaac Cochran to lead the way through business as usual.
Top Challenger: San Jose State Spartans
SJSU's perfect 7-0 record during the regular season was one of the biggest surprises of the fall. It was the Spartans' first winning season since 2012, but with all five starters returning to the offensive line, this should be one of the better MWC teams yet again. All-MWC first-team tackle Jack Snyder will return as the anchor of a group that allowed 1.0 sacks per game.
Keep an Eye on: Boise State Broncos
It has been a long time since Boise State struggled to run the ball quite like it did in 2020, but primary running back George Holani was limited by a knee injury and there were several new starters along the offensive line. The Broncos did a good job of keeping opponents out of the backfield, though, allowing fewer than six tackles for loss per game. With four returning starters along the offensive line and the addition of Oregon transfer Cyrus Habibi-Likio for backfield depth, they should bounce back this fall.
Best of the Bunch: Washington Huskies
Washington only played four games last fall, but it only allowed one two-yard sack during those contests. And despite lacking a stalwart in the backfield, the Huskies had a respectable rushing attack, averaging better than 175 yards on the ground per game.
Now for the ridiculous part: The entire two-deep of offensive linemen is back for another year.
Left tackle Jaxson Kirkland is the most noteworthy of the bunch, but every starter and every backup on the Nov. 2, 2020, depth chart remains on the roster for 2021.
Maybe it was a flash in the pan in a truncated season, or maybe that complete lack of attrition will translate into Washington having the most impenetrable offensive line in the country.
Top Challenger: Arizona State Sun Devils
Just like Washington, Arizona State only played four games in 2020. The offensive line stomped a mudhole in those four opponents, though. The Sun Devils averaged 6.4 yards per carry while allowing just six sacks. Four of the five starting offensive linemen return, headlined by center Dohnovan West and left tackle Kellen Diesch.
Keep an Eye on: Oregon State Beavers
Oregon State brings back all five starters from an offensive line that allowed 1.7 sacks per game while paving the way to 197.6 rushing yards per contest in 2021. Center Nathan Eldridge is the elder statesman at the heart of that corps, and left tackle Joshua Gray bears mentioning as someone who earned second-team All-Pac-12 honors last year as a redshirt freshman. If the Beavers are going to snap their seven-year bowl drought, it starts in the trenches.
Best of the Bunch: Alabama Crimson Tide
Texas A&M, Alabama and Kentucky ranked first, second and third, respectively, in the SEC in both yards per carry and sacks allowed per game in 2020. Each of those offensive lines had three players selected to either the first-team or second-team All-SEC. And then each of those lines was gutted by players declaring for the NFL draft, making it difficult to decipher any sort of hierarchy among the SEC's O-lines for 2021.
When in doubt, though, go with Alabama, right?
The Crimson Tide lost three stars in Alex Leatherwood, Landon Dickerson and Deonte Brown, but returning starters Evan Neal and Emil Ekiyor Jr. figure to rank among the 10 best linemen in the SEC. Chris Owens—a sixth-year senior who started at center after Dickerson hurt his knee in the SEC title game—might also be a part of that club.
Just for good measure, head coach Nick Saban also signed the two highest-rated offensive linemen in the 2021 class in JC Latham and Tommy Brockermeyer. One of those two figures to start at right tackle as a true freshman.
Top Challenger: LSU Tigers
Trying to replace basically every starter on the roster during a pandemic didn't work out so well for LSU last year, particularly along the offensive line. But with all five starters back for another go, the Tigers should be much better in the trenches in 2021. Right tackle and fifth-year senior Austin Deculus will lead a quintet that stands as one of the most experienced in the SEC.
Keep an Eye on: Arkansas Razorbacks
Arkansas has a lot of improving to do up front after it allowed 3.4 sacks per game in 2020. However, all five starters return, and Sam Pittman had multiple decades of experience as an offensive line coach before taking the head coaching gig with the Razorbacks before last season. Expect the offensive line to become a strength in 2021, though we'll see if the defense improves enough for it to matter in the slightest.
Sun Belt Conference
Best of the Bunch: Louisiana Ragin' Cajuns
After a near-perfect season, Louisiana cleaned up nicely in the All-Sun Belt voting, particularly at offensive line. The Ragin' Cajuns didn't have any first-team big men, but they did have two second-teamers (O'Cyrus Torrence and Max Mitchell) as well as a pair of third-teamers (Ken Marks and Shane Vallot).
That quartet returns in 2021, as does Carlos Rubio, who made seven starts in 2020. And that's fantastic news for a team that rushed for 213.0 yards per game and allowed just nine sacks in 11 contests.
If they do regress a bit statistically, though, cut them some slack. Elijah Mitchell and Trey Ragas rushed for a combined 6,839 yards and 79 touchdowns over the past four seasons, and Louisiana has huge shoes to fill at running back now that they're both gone.
Opening the season against Texas on Sept. 4 will be a strong immediate litmus test for an O-line that has ranked top-five in the nation in tackles for loss allowed per game in each of the past two years.
Top Challenger: Coastal Carolina Chanticleers
Is it possible 2020 was just the beginning of a Coastal Carolina Sun Belt dynasty? The Chanticleers went 11-0 during the regular season and bring back 19 of the 22 starters from that squad. That includes the entire offensive line, led by right guard Trey Carter. It also includes mobile QB Grayson McCall, who can turn pocket pressure into a big rushing gain when things break down.
Keep an Eye on: Appalachian State Mountaineers
Coastal Carolina and Louisiana were awesome last year, but let's not forget about the Sun Belt's usual juggernaut. Appalachian State has averaged at least 5.4 yards per carry in each of the past seven seasons. However, while the Chanticleers and Ragin' Cajuns bring back just about everyone, the Mountaineers need to replace both Noah Hannon (52 career starts) and Ryan Neuzil (44 career starts).
Still, expect big things with running back tandem Camerun Peoples and Daetrich Harrington returning in the backfield. They also still have center Baer Hunter, who, in addition to having one of the greatest names in all of football, might be the best lineman in the conference.
Recruiting information via 247Sports.