The most valuable position group in 2012 quite literally pushed Alabama to its third national championship in four years. The Tide’s offensive line helped one of the country’s more efficient offenses average 5.59 yards per rush (sixth in the Football Bowl Subdivision) and 6.95 yards per play (fifth).
That’s quite a standard for a program celebrated for its defensive prowess during its recent run. It’s no wonder Notre Dame, as good as that defense was all year, was hapless versus Bama. Three pieces of the 2012 Crimson Tide line are now gone -- including the 10th and 11th overall NFL draft picks -- but this is how Alabama football stacks up: Its O-line, despite those losses, ranks atop our 10 most valuable position groups for 2013, which features units with top talent that play a critical role in determining their teams' success.
With that in mind, here’s our ranking of the 10 most important position groups for the 2013 college football season.
1. Alabama offensive line
Led by: Cyrus Kouandjio
Someone close to the Alabama program told me young center Ryan Kelly, who replaces heart-and-soul guy Barrett Jones, has the potential to be the best center in Bama history. Tackle Kouandjio is on a similar track to Chance Warmack and D.J. Fluker, both first-rounders. Plus, returning guard Anthony Steen, often overshadowed by those draft prospects, did not allow a sack or commit a penalty last season.
And with veteran QB AJ McCarron back alongside a blossoming group of young skill players, Alabama’s offense could be even better in 2013.
2. Texas A&M running backs
Led by: Ben Malena
For the sake of this exercise, let’s just say it’s doomsday for A&M and Johnny Football -- even though most people close to the situation say it’s unlikely Manziel serves a suspension of any substantial length. So let’s say it does go a different way and Manziel is ruled ineligible. The depth, and the quality of the depth at the running back position, is a means by which the Aggies would survive.
Malena is the steady, 5-yards-per-carry back. Trey Williams and Brandon Williams are home run hitters. Oregon transfer Tra Carson will have to fight for carries. And if he is eligible, Manziel often becomes another back for which defenses have to account.
“With or without Johnny, Kevin’s offense is going to be fine. It always has been and will be,” one coach told me last week, referring to Kevin Sumlin’s successes wherever he has been.
You’ll see Georgia’s running backs listed later as an honorable mention. Listen, if you gave me Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall as a top two, I’m going to take that. But the Aggies go four deep with backs who could play just about anywhere.