1. Ohio State Buckeyes
Tackle and fifth-year senior Jack Mewhort has an opportunity to launch his first round NFL draft campaign with a great season for the championship-contending Buckeyes. Tony Gerdeman at The O-Zone writes what makes Mewhort special is his ability to play any of five positions on the line.
A three-man front on the interior of center Corey Linsley, as well as guards Andrew Norwell and Marcus Hall will help pave the way for the talented two-man rushing attack of quarterback Braxton Miller and running back Carlos Hyde.
2. Nebraska Cornhuskers
With former walk-on-turned-All-Big Ten guard Spencer Long as its anchor, the Husker offensive line is talented and experienced. Long is one of the nation’s top interior lineman and a 2012 All-American who contributed to the multifaceted Husker run game’s success.
Tackles Jeremiah Sirles and Brent Qvale are tabbed with protecting dual-threat quarterback Taylor Martinez as starters, and veteran reserve Andrew Rodriguez gives the Huskers depth.
3. Michigan Wolverines
Taylor Lewan’s equal parts unexpected but welcomed return to Ann Arbor gives Michigan the best single offensive lineman in the conference. Lewan will be without All-Big Ten cohort Patrick Omameh and two more of the Wolverines’ 2012 starters.
That puts a pretty hefty burden on Lewan, but Brady Hoke has recruited well along the line. Kyle Kalis reportedly “wowed” Al Borges during the spring. Ben Braden is another Hoke recruit stepping into a starting role, and a third, Erik Magnuson, provides depth.
The Wolverines also have veteran savvy from Michael Schofield.
4. Wisconsin Badgers
From Barry Alvarez to Bret Bielema, Wisconsin offensive lines are typically among the best in college football. Gary Andersen arrives in Madison with a track record of strong offensive lines at Utah State, include last season’s unit. The Aggie front gave up just 18 sacks and open the way for the nation’s No. 26 rushing offense.
Kyle Costigan transitioned from defensive to offensive line last year and carved a niche. At 6-foot-5, 320 pounds, Ryan Groy provides the kind of front line beef typically associated with Badger football. Speaking of size, sophomore Ray Ball is a whopping 330 pounds at 6-foot-7. Oh, and tackle Rob Havenstein? Six-foot-eight, nearly 340 pounds.
Whether James White or Melvin Gordon, the Badger ball carriers have big bodies in front of them.
5. Michigan State Spartans
Freshman All-American Jack Allen stepped up immediately last year, helping pave holes for running back Le’Veon Bell. With Bell’s bruising rushing style gone, the importance of a big year from the Spartan line is paramount. Center Travis Jackson was part of Sparty’s original starting five before suffering a season-ending injury. Tackle Fou Fonoti, a cornerstone of the Spartans’ 2011 line, returns from a one-year injury redshirt.
6. Penn State Nittany Lions
Penn State’s offensive renaissance in Year One of the Bill O’Brien era can largely be credited to outstanding line play. The protection provided to quarterback Matt McGloin helped the senior flourish.
Gone is center Matt Stankiewitch, but fellow 1st Team All-Big Ten selection John Urschel is back as the foundation for a unit. With Akeel Lynch and Zach Zwinak expected to shoulder heavier loads of the production, the Lions’ run blocking must improve. PSU averaged only 3.6 yards per rush last season.
7. Minnesota Golden Gophers
Minnesota’s front last season was one of the best at keeping blitzing defenders out of the backfield. The Gophers were top 20 nationally in tackles for loss, with just 59 surrendered. That’s particularly relevant to 2013, because the Golden Gophers have starters back in all five positions across the line, including Zac Epping and Ed Olson.
There’s certainly room for improvement. Minnesota averaged just 3.8 yards per rush en route to a 22 point-per-game average.
8. Northwestern Wildcats
Brandon Vitabile returns to anchor a Wildcat line that helped NU post nearly 32 points per game. Vitabile is a preseason All-Conference selection, but one of only two returning starters. The other is Jack Konopka.
Northwestern’s spread scheme employs smaller, faster blockers than many of the Wildcats’ Big Ten counterparts. Vitabile is the only lineman who checks in at 300 pounds.
9. Iowa Hawkeyes
The Hawkeyes struggled offensively in 2012 for a number of reasons. Coordinator Greg Davis’ play calling came under fire, quarterback James Vandenberg was ineffective and a plethora of transfers and injuries depleted the running back corps. Gauging the line’s productivity on last year’s numbers doesn’t paint the whole picture.
Austin Blythe is a preseason All-Conference nominee, and senior Brett Van Sloten started the entire 2012 campaign. Fellow veteran Nolan MacMillan has experience, though his progress was slowed by an injury that sidelined him through 2011. MacMillan — first draft pick of the new, Ottawa RedBlack CFL franchise — is trying to come back after missing spring drills. If he meets the potential he showed in the first half of 2012, MacMillan can be an important contributor to reestablishing the Hawkeye offense.
10. Indiana Hoosiers
Four starters from last year’s unit that helped IU average 30.8 points per game return, including Phil Steele preseason All-Big Ten selection Dan Feeney.
IU’s front gave the quarterbacks time to throw, limiting opponents to 17 sacks, an improvement of 14 from 2011. Helping to establish a more consistent ground game is going to be a key for this unit’s success in 2013. The Hoosiers averaged fewer than 4 yards per carry last season.
11. Purdue Boilermakers
Purdue blockers provided adequate protection for the various quarterbacks who manned the position in 2012, allowing 25 sacks in 13 games. The Boilers also rushed the ball effectively, averaging nearly 4.5 yards per carry. And, with three returning starters, new head coach Darrell Hazell and his offensive staff inherit a battle-tested bunch. Trevor Foy, Devin Smith and Kevin Pamphile are all seniors.
A No. 11 ranking is less an indictment on the Purdue offensive line than an endorsement of the Big Ten’s overall play up front. Certainly, the production could surpass this rank.
12. Illinois Fighting Illini
The Illini’s offensive woes stemmed in large part from an inability to protect the quarterback. Whether Nathan Scheelhaase or Reilly O’Toole, opposing defenses broke through for 39 sacks.
Illinois also averaged a paltry 3.5 yards per carry on the ground game. There is hope for improvement in the restructured offense, though. Michael Heitz has two seasons of experience under his belt, and sophomore Teddy Karras earned praise from USA Today‘s Paul Myerberg as “a foundation.” The Illini also have Corey Lewis, who was granted a sixth year of eligibility following a medical hardship waiver.