If there is one reason the Big Ten is known for its past as a three yards and a cloud of dust league it's because for about as long as I've been alive and my father and his father have been alive the offensive line has been an important part of the conference. While styles are changing, the importance of the offensive line isn't going anywhere anytime soon. So, let us take a look at what teams bring to table heading into this season at one of the most important positions in this conference.
We're nearing the end of our position by position rankings here and of course by we, I mean ME. So, if you think these picks stink, are dead on, or are something in between direct all comments my way via @andycoppens or @TheB1GTime on Twitter.
So, with all of that out of the way… Let's get to the rankings, shall we?
1. Ohio State: Four of the five returning sure helps the rankings. So does blocking for an offensive that ranked 1st in the Big Ten in scoring and 2nd in total and rushing offense. This unit only loses Reid Fragel from last season and they have one of the best left sides of the line in the league with Jack Mewhort and Andrew Norwell helping to protect for a potent offense. Opposite of Mewhort at right tackle is the biggest question mark with Chase Farris and Taylor Decker fighting it out for the position. Rounding out the line is Marcus Hall at right guard and center Corey Linsley. The only knock against this line is that they need to get better at pass protecting and it could be their Achilles heel again this year after finishing 10th in sacks allowed last season with 29. Part of that is Miller's scrambling ability but part of it was the line as well – it was a major emphasis point of the spring this year and should be much improved in 2013.
2. Michigan: The Maize 'n Blue have perhaps the best tackle tandem in the league in a returning Taylor Lewan at left tackle and Michael Schofield at right tackle. That's the good news, the bad news? Well, 70 starts are gone from the interior and that means a youth movement is afoot there. Jack Miller, a sophomore, is expected to take over at center while Kyle Kalis and Eric Magnuson look like good options as guards. Both have bright futures in my book, but they will be put to the test this season and if they don't get it together quickly the Wolverines could be in trouble. Luckily there is enough depth in the interior of the line that should anyone falter or get injured they can be replaced quickly and with someone nearly as good or just as good. The depth of this line is what keeps it near the top despite all it has lost.
3. Wisconsin: The Badgers lose two starters to the NFL, but what else is new in Madison, right? However, they should have two solid building blocks for this offensive line in tackles Rob Havenstein (RT) and Ryan Groy (LT). Groy is moving to left tackle after starting at guard this last season and earning 2nd team All-Big Ten honors from the coaches (HM by the media). Inside is where there could be some question marks and it starts at center where redshirt freshman Dan Voltz (Army All-American in HS) takes over for the departed Travis Frederick. He's been getting rave reviews since he stepped on to the UW campus and nearly won a starting job at guard out of the box last season. So, his development curve may not be as bad as some expect. Next to him will be Kyle Costigan and Dallas Lewellan. Both are capable options, but the question for this line is if all the moving parts can gel right away. If they do this has the makings of another great Wisconsin offensive line. The only other question is depth for this group, they aren't super deep thanks to some injuries and a transfer just this past week.
4. Nebraska: Options, this group has options. Of course that also means there are some question marks on the line as things are totally settled. You'd expect that when there was so much turmoil along the line last year. It showed as they allowed the 2nd most sacks. However, they were 2nd in scoring offense and rushing offense as well, so not all was bad for this unit in 2012. For this year though, let's start in the middle where Cole Pensick should get first crack there having played/started at the spot last season. Continuing inside with the options theme is a gluttony of players at guard opposite this unit's rock in right guard Spencer Long (just another in the walk-on to stud story in Lincoln). Those options include the likes of Chongo Kondolo (JUCO transfer), Jake Cotton, Mike Moudy and Andrew Rodriguez. Rodriguez could be an option outside as well at either tackle spot and versatility like that can't be overlooked. If he does play tackle expect it to be at right tackle where he could be battling Jeremiah Sirles. Left tackle is expected to be Brent Qvale.
5. Penn State: We all know how important a good center can be and outside of Travis Frederick there wasn't a better one than Matt Stankiewitch for Penn State last season. He's gone and he's joined by Mike Farrell as the dearly departed from a very underrated offensive line last season. Replacing those two will be seniors Ty Howle and Adam Grees, so at least there is some veteran experience coming in. The leader of this unit should be John Urschel, who is perhaps one of the smartest offensive lineman in the league. Sophomore left tackle Donovan Smith has star written all over him should he stay healthy and he'll form a nice left side of the line with junior left guard Miles Dieffenbach. Penn State only allowed 21 sacks last season and they'll need to keep their QB upright if this team wants to be successful this season since no matter who it will be they haven't seen time in a Big Ten game in their lives.
6. Northwestern: Yes, this group loses three starters from last season, but they have two really good members of one of the best offensive lines in the league in 2012 back in center Brandon Vitabile and tackle Jake Konopka. Vitabile could be All-Big Ten worthy this season so that's not a bad starting point on this rebuilt line. Konopka is moving to tackle from guard after the graduation of Patrick Ward. The right side of the line is going to be all new but is full of potential with Paul Jorgenson or Shane Mertz at right tackle and Adam DePietro at guard. I'm a fan of the potential DePietro has and overall this line has some good depth to it with sophomore Matt Frazier being the biggest name to watch for playing time this season. Let's not forget this was a team that ranked 4th in rushing offense, 3rd in passing offense, and 1st in sacks allowed last season – so there clearly was some talent up front and it wasn't all in the guys that are gone either.
7. Michigan State: How quickly things turn around in East Lansing, huh? It wasn't long ago this unit was the Achilles heel of the offense (arguably the reason they didn't win the conf. title outright in 2010), but that's no longer the case at all – as long as the starters can stay healthy which was a major issue last season. The O-Line has some very good parts in guard Blake Treadwell, center Travis Jackson and an expected fully healthy Fou Fonoti at left tackle. The issue is no one really knows who will take over for Skyler Burkland at right tackle. If they find a steady hand there then this is a top half line, if not no way. It's also not a deep line and that means injuries can't affect this group like they did last year and have this team stay in the race for the Legends Division
8. Minnesota: Zac Epping escaped Wisconsin for the neighbors to the west and he's making the most of his time in a Gophers uniform. He made our Preseason Top 25 Players list at No. 19 and if this group follows his physical and nasty nature from whistle to whistle look out. Especially since all five of the guys that started the season ender are back as starters this season as well. Look for the Olson brothers to occupy the left side of the line with Ed Olson being the vocal leader of this offensive line unit. Younger brother Tommy will likely line up at left guard. On the right it'll be Josh Campion and Caleb Bak. As long as they all play like they did to end the season all year this season this ranking will be too low. However, if you've been paying attention you know I want to see if before I believe it. This is the one ranking that could be way too low come the end of the season, be forewarned.
9. Iowa: Left tackle Brandon Schreff is a massive talent, but he's also got a lot to prove coming into this season after breaking his leg and dislocating his ankle in October last season. His loss didn't help a team who finished dead last in the Big Ten in rushing offense last season despite some talent. Opposite of him will be senior Brett Van Sloten who's a decent option in a league full of really talented tackles. The interior of the line is a bit of question mark with James Ferentz gone at center which as shuffled Austin Blythe in to the center position as just a redshirt sophomore. He'll need to make it a smooth transition for this group to be of any assistance to a new QB behind him. Question marks for this team are next to Blythe as Andrew Donnel (right guard) is coming off of his own season ending injury last October and Connor Boffeli (left guard) was up and down to say the least last season. If the Hawkeyes improve it'll be because of this group, if they are stuck in neutral it'll be because of this group and I think the latter is most likely.
10. Indiana: Yes, all five starters are back and that counts for something and yes, they gave up the 2nd fewest sacks in the Big Ten last season, but they struggled to give Stephen Houston enough holes to run through. When you are talking about an offense that doesn't run the ball nearly as much as everyone else does in the league you need to look at their average yards per carry and 3.9 yards per carry IS NOT GOOD at all. I like sophomore tackle Jason Spriggs, he's a great building block for a young offensive line. Opposite of him is Peyton Eckert, who's made 18 starts. Sophomore Dan Feeney will start next to Spriggs and they could become a massive part of building this line to even better heights. Collin Rahrig is the center after Will Matte graduated. The issue for this line is depth and you'd expect that with all the youth they have. However, if you follow Kevin Wilson's offenses, you'll know that it won't be long before this could be a top half line (just look at what Oklahoma was able to produce in his years there).
11. Purdue: Robert Kugler is the name to know here. He was thrust in the deep end of the pool last season and he did more than not drown. He'll need to do it again this year as he slides over to center from guard and for my money he's he best offensive lineman on the roster by a long mile. Kevin Phamphile has potential as a converted defensive lineman as well and could be a story to watch. However this team sucked badly at keeping a QB upright last season, giving up 25 sacks. They'll also be making a switch from a more finesse style to much more of an in your face style and that could be trouble. It may be a year or two before those type of lineman are fully integrated into this program.
12. Illinois: Corey Lewis is about the only good thing we can talk about with this offensive line and that's because he's back following two years off the football field nursing FIVE knee injuries. He'll play right tackle and will be a good story to watch all season long. However, this group was finesse and not in a good way along the line last year as they dealt with poor play and injuries all over the place. This season they must deal with the loss of a good center in Graham Pocic. If this team gets better it'll be because of Simon Cvijanovic and Michael Hietz who make up the left side of the line. Ted Karras played a ton as a redshirt freshman and is an important building block at right guard. Watching the spring game this unit overall looked better, but is it good enough and deep enough to move up? HELL NO.