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Big Ten Positional Rankings: Offensive Line

Throughout the month, we’ve been rolling out Big Ten positional power rankings to gage how Northwestern stacks up with the rest of the conference. It’s also a good opportunity to educate yourself on the rest of the conference. Naturally, these rankings will be subjective, and therefore up for debate, but the idea is to assess each unit and project its strength for the coming season. There’ll also be a section at the end of each set of rankings to analyze Northwestern’s standing. Should you disagree with the assessments though, let your opinion be heard in the comments. Next up are the big boys that lead the way, the offensive lines.

Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Before we begin, I must introduce these rankings with an admission of sorts. Have I extensively scouted all 14 Big Ten offensive lines, and the individual players that constitute them? Of course not. And thus, I won’t claim to be an expert on the subject. But with that being said, I’ve read the words of those who are experts, and I’ve seen enough to know each team reasonably well. Therefore, these rankings aren’t just a matter of throwing darts – in fact, they’re far from it. Without further ado...

The Rankings

1. Wisconsin – Any ranking of Big Ten offensive lines might as well just start at No. 2 every year.

2. Iowa – Barring something unforeseen, senior left tackle Brandon Scherff will be a first round draft pick next May, and all five starters are upperclassmen. It also doesn’t hurt to have a former NFL offensive line coach, Kirk Ferentz, as your head coach.

3. Indiana – This group paved the way for over 200 rushing yards per game last year, and all five starters return, plus two 2012 starters who missed last year due to injury.

4. Minnesota – Despite underwhelming talent at the skill positions last year, the Gophers offense was good enough to help this team achieve an eight-win season. The biggest reason for that was the O-line, from which they only lose one starter this year.

5. Michigan State – The Spartans only have two returning starters, but the returnees are at left tackle and center, the two most important positions on the line. And there’s always been good depth here.

6. Northwestern – This NU line presents an interesting conundrum. The general consensus among analysts is that experience is a fairly good predictor of future success. The more returning starters, the better a unit, especially an offensive line, should be. But to counter that, is experience really a positive if most of it was experiencing failure? That might be a little harsh, but this Wildcats offensive front was poor last year. All five starters return this year – though one of the five could lose his job – so this unit should be better, but saying it will be drastically better just because of its experience is a stretch.

7. Maryland – A solid group that returns four of five starters. The biggest question mark will be the adjustment to the Big Ten.

8. Ohio State – There’s extensive turnover on the Buckeyes’ O-line, with four of five starters gone. Urban Meyer has even voiced his displeasure with the group. But surely there are talented youngsters ready to step in.

9. Rutgers – Much like Northwestern, Rutgers has five returning starters, but it’s the quality of those starters that is the issue. There’s also the step up to the Big Ten from the AAC.

10. Nebraska – Nebraska’s situation is similar to Ohio State’s in that they lose four of five starters from last year, but add a graduate transfer and have some talent waiting in the wings.

11. Illinois – The Illini should be better up front than they’ve been in recent years. This year’s unit is much more experienced. However, after last year’s recurrent struggles, there are more than a few lingering questions.

12. Michigan – The interior of Michigan’s offensive line a season ago was, to put it bluntly, atrocious. And the line as a whole was faulty, even with a first round NFL draft pick and a third round pick as the starting tackles. With both tackles now gone, this year’s line is potentially disastrous, but there are still plenty of top recruits in the mix, so you’d have to think some of the mistakes get corrected.

13. Penn State – Outside of one proven tackle, this group comprises former walk-ons, converted defensive tackles, and players who have never set foot on a college field on gameday. In other words, there are question marks aplenty.

14. Purdue – Yeah, they’re not very good. Or at least they weren’t last year.

Second Guessing

Why Northwestern should be higher: Maybe we’ve fallen victim to recency bias. After all, NU’s O-line was outstanding in 2012, and both Brandon Vitabile and Jack Konopka were a part of it. With three new starters last year, there were bound to be some growing pains, but with everybody back this season, those should be alleviated. Maybe we’re underestimating the value of continuity. The Wildcats could be as high as fourth, maybe even third.

Why Northwestern should be lower: For years, Pat Fitzgerald and NU’s coaching staff were able to find under the radar recruits and develop them into upper-tier Big Ten lineman. But maybe Fitz and co. have whiffed on this current wave of players (outside of Vitabile and Konopka) and maybe they’ll never be better than what they showed last year. Another accusation would be that NU always recruits "system guys," but that McCall deviated from that system and his offensive identity last year.

Second thoughts: If anything, I could see myself moving NU above Michigan State and slotting them at No. 5.

Previous Rankings:
Running Backs
Wide Receivers and Tight Ends