- Adam Rittenberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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The postseason position rankings march on with the group where it all begins: the offensive line. Traditionally one of the stronger positions throughout the Big Ten, the 2013 season brought mixed results. Several traditionally strong lines took a step back, while other groups surprised us.
As a reminder, these rankings are based solely on performance during the 2012 season. Star power matters, but depth often matters more, especially for a spot like offensive line. If you missed our preseason O-line rankings, check 'em out.
Let's begin ...
1. Ohio State (Preseason ranking: 5): Few position coaches in the country made a stronger impact in Year 1 than Ohio State line coach Ed Warinner. He took a talented group that had underachieved in 2011 and turned it into the powerful engine of the Buckeyes' revamped offense. Converted tight end Reid Fragel blossomed at tackle along with Jack Mewhort, while center Corey Linsley stepped forward in his first year as the starter. The Buckeyes received solid guard play, and the line came on strong during the Big Ten schedule, beating up opponents in the red zone. Ohio State led the league in scoring (37.2 ppg) and finished second in rush offense (242.2 ypg).
2. Nebraska (Preseason ranking: 4): Personnel losses didn't faze Nebraska in 2012, whether it was running back Rex Burkhead dealing with chronic knee issues or offensive lineman Tyler Moore transferring to Florida. The Huskers' line took a nice step, leading the way for the Big Ten's top offense. Guard Spencer Long earned first-team All-Big Ten honors and second-team AP All-American honors, and tackle Jeremiah Sirles received second-team All-Big Ten honors. Nebraska's walk-on tradition remained alive and well with Long, Justin Jackson and Seung Hoon Choi. The line blocked well no matter who was carrying the ball. The only knock against Nebraska, much like Ohio State, was its sacks allowed total (35).
3. Penn State (Preseason ranking: 9): First-year coach Bill O'Brien called the offensive line a pleasant surprise during spring practice, and the group continued its upward trajectory during the season. Despite losing four starters from 2011 and needing to absorb a dramatically different system, Penn State's line came together around senior center Matt Stankiewitch. The Lions protected quarterback Matt McGloin and created room for several running backs, including Zach Zwinak, who surged late in Big Ten play. Stankiewitch, guard John Urschel and tackle Mike Farrell all received All-Big Ten recognition, as Penn State's offense proved to be one of the league's biggest surprises in 2012.
4. Northwestern (Preseason ranking: 8): Northwestern rarely has struggled to move the ball since installing the spread offense in 2000, but the run game had been lagging until this year. Although the Wildcats needed a featured back to take charge, as Venric Mark did in 2012, they also needed more from the offensive line, a group to which the coaches had recruited well. The line stepped forward in a big way as Northwestern finished 19th nationally in rushing. Guard Brian Mulroe earned second-team All-Big Ten honors, while tackle Patrick Ward was an honorable mention selection. The Wildcats didn't pass much but protected the pocket well, allowing a league-low 16 sacks.
5. Indiana (Preseason ranking: 12): Youth was our big concern with the Hoosiers before the season, but the line came together nicely despite throwing several unproven players into the fire. Indiana surrendered only 17 sacks despite passing the ball more than anyone else in the league -- and racking up more pass yards (3,734). Freshmen Jason Spriggs and Dan Feeney held their own, and center Will Matte anchored the unit. Indiana struggled at times to run the ball but performed well in the red zone.
6. Michigan (Preseason ranking: 2): The Wolverines' line had its moments, especially in pass protection, but Michigan struggled to generate a run game outside of quarterback Denard Robinson. Left tackle Taylor Lewan did his part in earning Big Ten Offensive Lineman of the Year honors, and his return for 2013 gives Michigan a big boost. Guard Patrick Omameh also earned first-team All-Big Ten honors from the coaches, but the line had some inconsistency against strong defensive fronts such as Notre Dame's and Michigan State's. Help is on the way as Michigan piled up elite offensive line prospects in its 2013 recruiting class.
7. Wisconsin (Preseason ranking: 1): If the Wisconsin line was graded on its three performances in the Hoosier State -- at Purdue, at Indiana and against Nebraska in the Big Ten championship game in Indianapolis -- it likely would be at the top of the list. But the Badgers line only looked like a Badgers line for stretches this season. There were as many depressing performances (Oregon State, Michigan State) as dominant ones. The line repeatedly faced adversity, from the firing of line coach Mike Markuson after Week 2 to three different starting quarterbacks. To its credit, the group kept bouncing back. Tackle Rick Wagner, center Travis Frederick and guard Ryan Groy all earned All-Big Ten honors, and Frederick, like his predecessor Peter Konz, opted to skip his senior season and enter the NFL draft.
8. Purdue (Preseason ranking: 6): The Boilers' line ended up just about where we thought it would, in the middle of the pack. Purdue finished in the top half of the Big Ten in total offense (fifth), rushing offense (sixth) and pass offense (third), despite dealing with a quarterback rotation for much of the season. There were some issues in pass protection, especially early in the season. The line lacked star power but Robert Kugler's emergence at guard later in the season was a bright spot. Purdue has endured some ups and downs with several converted defensive linemen on the offensive front and could take a step forward in 2013.
9. Michigan State (Preseason ranking: 3): The Spartans had high hopes for their offensive line before the season, but things never really got on track. The season-ending loss of right tackle Fou Fonoti after two games really hurt, and other injuries cropped up throughout the fall. Although running back Le'Veon Bell racked up 1,793 rush yards, he made a lot of things happen on his own, and Michigan State struggled to convert red zone opportunities (44) into touchdowns (23). Guard Chris McDonald earned honorable mention All-Big Ten honors.
10. Minnesota (Preseason ranking: 11): Notice a theme here about injuries? It continues with the final three teams on the list. Injuries hit Minnesota's offensive line especially hard, as the Gophers lost their top two centers in a win against Illinois and were constantly moving pieces around up front. The good news for Gopher fans is that the offensive line made significant strides for the bowl game against Texas Tech, as Minnesota racked up 222 rush yards. But the line had its struggles during Big Ten play, as Minnesota eclipsed 17 points just once in eight league games.
11. Iowa (Preseason ranking: 7): Like Michigan State and Minnesota, Iowa's offensive line endured several key injuries, losing two starters (Brandon Scherff and Andrew Donnal) in a blowout loss to Penn State at Kinnick Stadium. The line blocked well for Mark Weisman during his early season surge, but Iowa still finished with the league's worst rushing offense (123 ypg) and second worst total offense (310.4 ypg). Iowa also struggled to reach the red zone (38 opportunities) or convert those chances into touchdowns (league-low 18). Center James Ferentz and guard/tackle Matt Tobin both earned honorable mention All-Big Ten honors.
12. Illinois (Preseason ranking: 10): No position group is absolved of blame for Illinois' offensive struggles, and the line certainly underachieved for the second consecutive season. The Illini finished last in the Big Ten in both scoring and total offense, and 11th in both rushing and pass offense. They allowed a league-worst 39 sacks, and Illinois failed to score more than 22 points in any Big Ten contest. Sure, injuries were a factor, but the Illini had two good building blocks in tackle Hugh Thornton, a likely NFL draft pick in April, and veteran center Graham Pocic. Thornton earned second-team All-Big Ten honors from the coaches, while Pocic was an honorable mention selection. Despite the youth and a new system, this group should have been a lot better.
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1dDan Murphy and Mitch Sherman