It's hard, if not impossible, to win in the Big Ten without a great offensive line. This is a lineman's league, as many coaches like to say, and if a team's not physical in the trenches, well, good luck.
This week, the Big Ten writers will be running down which teams have the best position groups entering the season. Today, as you might have guessed from that introduction, we're looking at the offensive lines. It's a particularly interesting discussion after the loss of so many talented offensive linemen, including some All-Americans and four of the six players who made first-team All-Big Ten at the position a year ago. As always with this series, depth and experience are important factors.
Big Ten teams with the best offensive linemen
Why Michigan has the best OL: What a difference from a couple of years ago, huh? Michigan's offensive line was a disaster in 2013 and still a major problem in 2014. Going into 2016, it will be one of the most experienced around. The Wolverines lost center Graham Glasgow but will likely replace him with Mason Cole, a two-year starter at left tackle who is preparing for the position switch. Sophomore Grant Newsome, a 6-foot-7, 300-pounder, should see an increased role at tackle. This group isn't necessarily brimming with future NFL stars and needs to continue to improve in the run game. But Jim Harbaugh and his staff know how to accentuate its strengths, and Michigan has far fewer question marks up front, for a change, than many of its peers right now.
Why Michigan State and Iowa are the runners-up: The Spartans lost a pair of All-Americans in tackle Jack Conklin and center Jack Allen. But Brian Allen, Jack's little brother, should be a first-team all-conference performer wherever Michigan State decides to line him up. There could be as many as four seniors in the group with him, including experienced tackle Kodi Kieler. There's depth here, even if some of the star power is gone.
Iowa is another team with some depth and experience, despite the loss of center Austin Blythe and guard James Walsh, a pair of all-conference performers. Promising sophomore James Daniels is in line to take over for Blythe at center, and tackle is in good hands with Boone Myers and Cole Croston. This should be another strong line in Iowa City in 2016.
Team that just missed the top-three cut: Indiana Hoosiers
The Hoosiers probably deserve the benefit of the doubt, even with the graduation of star left tackle Jason Spriggs and center Jake Reed. The offensive line has been the secret key to the offensive success in Bloomington, as Indiana continues to pile up huge rushing totals along with a top-flight passing game. Guard Dan Feeney is a returning All-American and is joined by veterans like Dimitric Camiel and Jacob Bailey. Position coach Greg Frey is one of the best in the business, too,
Team that could surprise: Ohio State Buckeyes
Surprise probably isn't the right word, since few would actually be taken aback if and when the Buckeyes have a good offensive line. But there are a lot of question marks here as the team must replace three starters, including left tackle Taylor Decker and center Jacoby Boren. Pat Elflein, an All-American at guard who is moving to center, provides a terrific building block, and some talented youngsters will get their shot at a bigger role. There may be some growing pains early, but this group could get it rolling by midseason.
Team that needs to step up: Penn State Nittany Lions
It's not exactly news that Penn State's offensive line has been a smoldering mess for the past two seasons. There are, however, some indications that things are about to improve. Better recruiting and a whole slew of players who have been redshirting and waiting in the wings should be ready to contribute and four starters return, for what it's worth. Joe Moorhead's new up-tempo offense could also help, as the linemen won't have to hold their blocks as long. So there are reasons for optimism, but it's definitely time for the Nittany Lions' O-Line to deliver.