I mentioned yesterday that I thought offensive line play may be the determining factor in how the top teams sort themselves out. Below is a breakdown of the offensive line situation's at some of the team's being consistently ranked in the Top 10 of various polls. Bloggers that cover these teams, feel free to chime in if the situation is different than what I've projected. There were some teams, like Michigan, I just didn't feel comfortable commenting on, as I haven't sorted out who's playing where, etc.
Ohio State The hogs in the Buckeye trench are big, strong, and experienced. Three starters (center, RG, RT) return, and new left tackle Alex Boone, a sophomore, is being labeled as Tressel's best since Orlando Pace. That's scary news and this unit may wind up justifying a lot of voters' preseason faith. The unit is: One of the nation's best. Elite.
Texas: Scott and Allen depart from one of the nation's best lines last year. Fortunately, the three best startin linemen (Sendlein, Blalock, Studdard) return, and Tony Hills played as much or more than Scott did last year anyway. He's more than ready, is fiery, strong, athletic - no downgrade at all. If anything, an upgrade. Assuming C-Dock can play a little guard, and Ulatoski can give us solid minutes in the rotation at tackle, these guys will be terrific. This unit is: One of the nation's best. Elite.
Auburn: There's potential here, but questions linger as the team tries to replace two of the members of last year's dominant line. Junior King Dunlap is getting high praise from coaches, and at 6-8, 315, he's got great size. Some wonder whether this team will be able to run block as well as last year's. I have a feeling this line is being dinged a little bit too much by some. Te unit is: Going to be just fine. Elite? Maybe so.
Southern Cal The NFL had fun picking Trojans off the O-Line, leaving only two returning starters for the Almost Greatest Team Ever. Ryan Kalil and Sam Baker are solid, and Carroll has recruited the position well, so there's not much reason to believe a big dropoff is eminent. Still, it may take some time. One key will be for Jeff Byers to return to full health after missing all of '05. Th unit will be Adequate, easily. Without insanity in the backfield, though, solid blocking will be critical.
Notre Dame Four of the five projected starters started and saw significant action last season. The only big question is at right tackle, from what I can tell. There are no big stars here, but a solid pass blocking unit, which is key for Mr. Quinn and what Weis wants to do. This unit is: More than fine. Another strength for an already scary offense.
West Virginia: Three starters return, including All American Dan Mozes. The unit has typically been of the nation's best and helped Coach Rodriguez run the offense he wants to run. With three starters returning, they look to be strong again. The unit is: Well above average. They'll be fine.
Louisiana State: Our first unit with some serious questions. Only two starters return, and there's some confusion about who's best suited to play where this season. In a crowded SEC, this is enough reason to give the nod to Auburn as the conference's best. This unit is: Up in the air. If it's not sorted out properly, a disappointing season could await the Bayou Bengals.
Florida: This is the unit that scares me the most. The more and more I think about Florida, the more and more I think circumstances may be aligning for a nightmarish season. Don't get me wrong, they'll still be a good football team, but: 1) the schedule, as we all know, sucks; and 2) the offensive line, shaky to begin with, is getting further depleted by injuries. What happens if a below average line allows Leak to be hammered over and over again? What if the run game never materializes? Are we gonna see Tebow-mania in Gainesville? This team could really take a dive. They could also win the SEC East.
Teams with good lines to keep an eye on: Iowa, Clemson, Oregon
Teams with questionable lines that could haunt them: Miami, Oklahoma, Florida State
What does it all mean for Texas? Well, the Ohio State line is better than I realized. They return talent, size, strength - all the goodies. The war in the trenches when Ohio State has the football will be epic. The Texas D-Line will need to have a great day against these big fellas for Texas to slow down the Buckeye attack.
Auburn still gets my nod as your SEC champ as they have a pretty solid little line to work with. I don't know that it'll be as dominant as last year's, but the questions are greater at Florida and LSU. They still get my nod.
Iowa remains my darkhorse team to knock out Ohio State and go 11-1. I'm not really alone on loving Iowa, though, so darkhorse may be a stretch. Still, their excellent returning linemen give me reason to love 'em.
Your thoughts, as always, are welcomed.