Phil Steele has released his list of returning offensive line starts. This stat can be important. More experience is preferable to less. It can temper inevitable skill player bias in analysis. Returning starts can also be endowed with too much importance, however. Offensive line play is just one of many factors in a team’s performance. Talent can often trump experience. Four starters coming back can be deceptive, if the fifth was top five draft pick.
The predictive value of returning starts can be fickle. Looking back at 2012, Ball State, with 115 returning starts, had a solid season. Alabama and Texas A&M tied for 10th with 95 returning starts. One would credit offensive line play for all three schools’ success. LSU and Oklahoma underwhelmed a bit compared to preseason expectations, when their expected experience evaporated with injuries. One could counter those examples, though, with Northern Illinois, who had just 24 starts and went to the BCS. West Virginia and Tennessee both began last season in the top five and disappointed. FIU, No. 6 overall with 103 returning starts, fell to 3-9 and got Mario Cristobal fired.
For 2013 purposes, returning offensive line starts are worth looking at, but, again, not taking too seriously. We’d take our chances with Alabama’s 39 starts over New Mexico’s 107. Texas and Tennessee are No. 1 and No. 2 with 124 and 123 starts back respectively. Both are projected to be among the nation’s top units.
The Longhorns, with most of their skill personnel back as well, should be an offensive juggernaut. Place Georgia (No. 6 overall with 101 starts) and Miami (13th overall with 93 starts) into that same category. Tennessee with questions everywhere else on offense after Bray, Patterson and Hunter left? Not so much. All those schools have question marks defensively.
Some BCS teams near the bottom in returning line starts? Utah, Cal, Texas Tech and Kansas. It’s hard to see things getting much worse for Southern Miss and FIU than they did in 2012, but both teams are in the bottom three nationally.
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