There are few areas that Ohio State has lived up to the hype this season.
Kevin Wilson’s offense has underwhelmed. It still isn’t clear if we’ll ever see 2014 J.T. Barrett again. The receivers have been “meh,” and the secondary is even worse (but playing better).
But you know what hasn’t disappointed? The Buckeyes’ defensive line.
And it’s exactly what’ll keep the team in contention for another national title.
It’s been said that championships are won in the trenches.
It rings true year after year in college football, but you don’t have to look any further than the start of the College Football Playoff to see how a dominant defensive line alone can give you a puncher’s chance at winning it all.
Every national championship bout for the past three seasons has been between two teams with stout lines.
The Buckeyes were more than Cardale Jones and Ezekiel Elliott in 2014. A D-line featuring Joey Bosa, Michael Bennett, and Adolphus Washington stymied offenses and powered a title run.
Don’t forget, though, that it was Oregon who trotted out a pair of first-round draftees that year in DeForest Buckner and Arik Armstead.
Since then, Alabama and Clemson have gone at it in the national championship game in back-to-back seasons. The talent level on their lines has been so close each year that you honestly could’ve just taken your pick.
I’d be here forever if I listed all of the great defensive ends and tackles – A'Shawn Robinson, Jarran Reed, Jonathan Allen, Dalvin Tomlinson, D.J. Pettway, Shaq Lawson, Kevin Dodd, DJ Reader, and Carlos Watkins.
All are currently in the NFL.
Fast forward to the 2017 campaign and we see similar trends.
Alabama and Clemson are favorites to again make it back to the natty. The Tigers probably have the best defensive line, if not positional unit, in the FBS, led by surefire first-rounder Christian Wilkins, 2016 ACC Defensive Freshman of the Year Dexter Lawrence, Clelin Ferrell and Austin Bryant.
Ranked second in the FBS in sacks (17), they’ve tossed aside opposing offenses and made Heisman Trophy candidate Lamar Jackson look anything but in a 47-21 rout of Louisville.
One of my favorite plays of Saturday night. So difficult to defend Lamar Jackson in the read option, and this is an absolute CLINIC. pic.twitter.com/PqimQMkI3t— Dear Old Clemson (@DearOldClemson) September 19, 2017
The Crimson Tide is banged up in the trenches, but remains steady with Da'Shawn Hand, Isaiah Buggs, and Da'Ron Payne.
Looking at other contenders, Florida State is loaded. Josh Sweat and Brian Burns are emerging stars, and Derrick Nnadi is a force at tackle. And we know what Oklahoma and speedy edge-rusher Ogbonnia Okoronkwo can do.
In the Big Ten, Penn State is solid across the line and Rashan Gary stands out on a defense ranked first in the FBS in sacks (18).
And that brings us to the Buckeyes.
There’s no question as to if the Scarlet and Gray have an elite defensive line. It’s one of the most disruptive, versatile, and deepest units in the nation. Clemson is the only team that can come close to, or match, OSU’s talent up front.
That line is something serious, folks.
Returning Big Ten Defensive Lineman of the Year Tyquan Lewis and Sam Hubbard are as good of ends as you’ll find in college football. Tracy Sprinkle has bounced back strong from a torn patellar tendon he suffered in 2016 and is joined in the interior by potential-laden Dre'Mont Jones.
Well, Rebels 1st play after fumble recovery leads to a safety. 16-0 Ohio State. #unlvfb pic.twitter.com/cUET1ZUbfE— Mick Akers (@mickakers) September 23, 2017
Notably coming off the bench – the bench, mind you – are studs Nick Bosa and Jalyn Holmes. Bosa continues to impress and has shown no signs of slowing down.
Nick Bosa with the TFL. pic.twitter.com/T5FbdXjYkl— Tony Gerdeman (@TonyGerdeman) September 23, 2017
As Urban Meyer always puts it, there are no real starters on this defensive line.
The Buckeyes D-line has been everything we thought they’d be in 2017.
They’re stuffing the run game (I refuse to count Army), consistently creating pressure on the passer, and have made big plays when the team has sorely needed them.
Can such a dominant group carry OSU to a conference Championship, let alone a playoff appearance?
No, it can’t. What it can provide, however, is a crutch to lean on.
Case and point, on a night of offensive ineptitude against Oklahoma in Week Two, it was Hubbard, Bosa, and others that kept things close. Baker Mayfield struggled to make plays, and running lanes were nonexistent. It was only in the fourth quarter with the Sooners up 17-13 that the floodgates opened in Columbus.
The Buckeyes still control their own destiny, and are capable of running the table.
But a great D-line has its limits.
We’ve seen those limits firsthand. And until Meyer and Co. can get it figured out on offense, those limits will remain.
Albeit at the expense of the defensive line.