"Look at those dudes," Doug Marrone said. "They are big and they are ugly. But they need to be bigger and uglier. Like I was. I'm not as big as I used to be. But I am still ugly."
That was August 2011 when Marrone, former Syracuse Orange offensive lineman-turned-head coach, chatted with me at fall practice as members of the Orange O-line emerged from the athletics building.
Since his days at Syracuse (1983-85), Marrone played briefly with the Miami Dolphins, New Orleans Saints and London Monarchs before coaching O-linemen at a range of schools, including Tennessee, Georgia and the Coast Guard Academy. He returned to the pros in '02, coaching the Jets' line and then serving as offensive coordinator for the Saints when they became a Super Bowl-winning scoring machine. In his three years with the team, they threw 1,232 passes and gave up only 39 sacks.
Marrone knows about life in the trenches. It's a violent, underappreciated place to make a living, where no one notices you until everything goes wrong.
"The skill players are always going to get the most attention," he explained last fall as I talked to him about rebuilding the once-proud Syracuse program. "But it all begins and ends with the guys on the line. It doesn't matter if you're Don McPherson [whom he blocked for] or Drew Brees [whom he coached]. No matter how much talent you have, if you don't have the time to do your thing, it doesn't matter, does it?"
No sir, it does not.
Marrone ended our conversation by pointing to an upcoming opponent, USC, saying "everyone dreams of that kind of talent up front." One year later, just last week, as he prepared to play USC again -- a 42-29 loss to the Trojans -- he was reminded of that '11 statement. "Yeah, well, they're even better now," he said. "Maybe the best in the nation. Just ask Mr. [QB Matt] Barkley."
While Marrone wasn't available this week to talk about O-lines, I did the next best thing: I talked with multiple coaches around the nation to get their take on college football's best front five, detailed in the list below. (Don't worry, none of the players listed are offended by being called big or ugly -- or both.)
To read the ranking of the five best offensive lines in college football, sign up for ESPN Insider.