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May 13, 2009

Ten teams with something to prove up front

Offensive lines are like electricity: They're largely taken for granted and not fully appreciated until they're not working well.

Running backs and quarterbacks may be described as electrifying, but it's the line that empowers them.

Running backs have fast feet; linemen get fast food. Quarterbacks (Heath Shuler, J.C. Watts, Jack Kemp) run for Congress; linemen run out for pizza.

But coaches know their importance. That's why Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops was concerned in March and criticized his linemen for a lack of effort in offseason conditioning.

"Those guys, at this point, just everything whether it's their work ethic, their attitude, those kinds of things needs to improve," Stoops said. "They haven't had the winter everybody else has had. They, right now, are the weak link of the team."

Of course, some of those linemen were able to redeem themselves in spring drills. But it's what happens in the fall that counts. Last fall, Oklahoma's offensive line arguably was the best in the nation. This season, with four new starters, it will be among the most scrutinized. With four new starters up front, Oklahoma's is just one of several offensive lines that have something to prove this season.

1. Oklahoma: By now it's common knowledge the Sooners lost four starting linemen who earned All-Big 12 recognition. That line protected Heisman-winning quarterback Sam Bradford and paved the way for two 1,000-yard running backs. Trent Williams is the lone returning starter, and he moves from right tackle to left tackle. Cory Brandon made a great impression this spring on the right side, but the Sooners still will be counting on guys that Stoops criticized in March. Bradford's Heisman campaign and OU's national championship hopes depend heavily on the line play.

2. Alabama: Three starters and two NFL picks tackle Andre Smith (first round) and center Antoine Caldwell (third round) are gone from a group that unquestionably was the Tide's offensive strength last season. Without Smith, Alabama struggled offensively against Utah in the Sugar Bowl. Junior college transfer James Carpenter showed promise in replacing Smith this spring, but there are questions at center. Quarterback Greg McElroy will be a first-time starter, so solid line play is even more crucial.

3. Penn State: The Lions must replace three starters from one of the best lines in the country. Two of them were taken in the NFL draft. Stefen Wisniewski moves from guard to center to fill the void left by A.Q. Shipley, while sophomores DeOn'tae Pannell (tackle) and Matt Stankiewitch (guard) are expected to take over starting roles. The Lions also must replace their top three receivers, so a strong running game is vital.

4. Arizona State: The Sun Devils have allowed a combined 89 sacks in the past two seasons and could not establish a consistent running game last season and that was with experienced Rudy Carpenter at quarterback. Seldom-used Danny Sullivan is the starter this season. An unproven quarterback and a leaky line sound like a disaster waiting to happen. Three starters are back, though Garth Gerhart is moving from guard to center.

5. Notre Dame: Four starters are back, but is that a good thing? Notre Dame averaged less than 110 rushing yards to rank 100th nationally in rushing offense and that's while facing nine opponents that ranked 50th or worse in rushing defense. The Irish lost three games in which they had the lead in the fourth quarter, partly because they couldn't run to protect the advantage. Notre Dame has a good passing attack, but the Irish will struggle until the line shows it can man up and get a consistent push.

6. Oregon: The Ducks were among the nation's leaders in rushing offense in each of the past two seasons when they had a strong, proven line. NFL draft picks Max Unger and Fenuki Tupou are among four lost starters who may be replaced by freshmen and sophomores. Will quarterback Jeremiah Masoli and running back LeGarrette Blount be as explosive behind a new set of blockers?

7. West Virginia: Tackle Selvish Capers is the only fulltime returning starter from a line that helped pave the way for one of the country's most dynamic offenses. The loss of All-Big East tackle Ryan Stanchek leaves a big hole, as does losing guard Greg Isdaner, a three-year starter. New starters, such as sophomore guard Josh Jenkins - who was a highly regarded recruit - have high standards to meet. In addition, the Mountaineers no longer have the elusive Pat White at quarterback, which puts more emphasis on the blockers up front.

8. Texas A&M: The Aggies are good at the skill positions, but they've been atrocious up front. Consider this: Last season, the Aggies ranked 114th nationally in rushing offense and 115th nationally in sacks allowed, and that was with mobile quarterbacks. Three fulltime starters are back and Matt Allen - a transfer from LSU - has taken over at one guard spot, so maybe the blocking will improve. If it doesn't, the Aggies are facing another losing season.

9. Tennessee: Center Josh McNeil, guard Vladimir Richard and tackle Chris Scott are returning starters from a line that was average at best last season. Will it be any better this season? Volunteer quarterbacks were sacked 25 times and the running game was largely ineffective in '08.

10. BYU: The offensive line was one of the strengths for the Cougars in '08, but freshman All-America tackle Matt Reynolds is the only returning starter up front. Senior R.J. Willing, a career backup at tackle, moves into the starting lineup at center. The Cougars are strong at the skill positions with quarterback Max Hall, running back Harvey Unga and tight end Dennis Pitta, but somebody has to block for them.


The Edge

This week, it's the brainiac matchup of Northwestern vs. Stanford, requested by reader Bert Krages of Portland, Ore.

Each week, we'll match two teams to determine which has the edge in various categories. Got a matchup you want to see? Send it to olin@rivals.com and we'll work on it.

1. Head to head
Stanford leads the all-time series 3-1-2. The most recent game was a 41-41 tie in the 1994 season opener.
Edge: Stanford
2. NFL first-round picks
Northwestern: Eight (most recent is defensive tackle Luis Castillo by San Diego in 2005).
Stanford: 18 (most recent is offensive tackle Kwame Harris by San Francisco in 2003).
Edge: Stanford
3. Actors on "Cheers"
Northwestern: Shelley Long, who played Diane.
Stanford: Ted Danson, who played Sam.
Edge: Stanford. The show got better after Long left.
4. Attractive actresses
Northwestern: Ann-Margret.
Stanford: Reese Witherspoon.
Edge: Northwestern. Hey, I'm 48 and I remember "Carnal Knowledge."
5. Oscar-winning actors
Northwestern: Charlton Heston (Best Actor for "Ben Hur").
Stanford: Jack Palance (Best Supporting Actor for "City Slickers").
Edge: Northwestern. Best actor trumps best supporting actor. Plus, Heston was Moses.
6. Current Supreme Courts justices
Northwestern: John Paul Stevens
Stanford: Stephen Breyer, Anthony Kennedy
Edge: Stanford. The Cardinal win 2-1.
7. Disgraced governors
Northwestern: Rob Blagojevich (D-Ill.)
Stanford: Gray Davis (D-Calif.)
Edge: Stanford. Davis was recalled. Blagojevich was impeached and arrested.
8. Streaks of futility
Northwestern: Endured 34 consecutive losses from 1979 to 1982.
Stanford: Has not posted a winning record since 2001.
Edge: Northwestern. If you're going to struggle, do it historically.
9. Reversals of football fortunes
Northwestern: The Wildcats bounced back from a 3-7-1 finish in 1994 to go 10-2, win the Big Ten and face USC in the Rose Bowl.
Stanford: After going 1-7-1 in 1939, Stanford went 10-0 in 1940 and beat Nebraska in the Rose Bowl.
Edge: Stanford, which improved by nine victories.
10. Former head coaches to become NFL head coaches
Northwestern: Dennis Green, Lou Saban.
Stanford: Rod Dowhower, Dennis Green, John Ralston, Bill Walsh, Paul Wiggin.
Edge: Stanford.

Olin Buchanan is a senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com.



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