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Thursday, June 3, 2010

Fun With Numbers: The Impact of the O Line

A few weeks back, I added up the returning stats on defense and the offensive skill positions for each SEC team, and I promised I'd eventually get around to taking a more in-depth look at the offensive line. Well, promise delivered.

At this point, saying Georgia has plenty of returning talent on the O line is a bit redundant. Georgia's veteran line has been a routine topic of conversation, but it's worth putting the discussion into context.

Most returning starts by offensive linemen in the SEC:



Most Starts
Georgia 158 5 Chris Davis (38)
Auburn 109 4 Lee Ziemba (38)
Arkansas 89 4 Grayson/Love (23)
Mississippi State
85 4 Brignone/Saulsberry (24)
Florida 85 4 Mike Pouncey (31)
South Carolina
70 4 Jarriel King (19)
LSU 52 3 Joseph Barksdale (26)
Alabama 46 3 3 players tied (14)
Kentucky 31 1 Stuart Hines (13)
Vanderbilt 26 1 Kyle Fisher (18)
Ole Miss
22 2 Bradley Sowell (12)
Tennessee 0 0 N/A

A few obvious points:

-- I couldn't find a list of all NCAA teams (if anyone knows where I can, please let me know) but looking at last year's list, Georgia isn't just out in front in the SEC, but has to be among the best -- if not THE best -- in the nation. Last season, the top team in terms of returning starts was Colorado State with 129 -- or 29 fewer than what Georgia has this year.

UPDATE: Phil Steele's national list for this year was posted to his blog yesterday... and boy would it have saved me a lot of time to wait one more day to write this post.

-- Worth noting, however: Fifteen of those 158 starts belong to two players currently on the defensive line -- Kiante Tripp (3) and Bean Anderson (12). Mark Richt did mention Tuesday that, if things don't go according to plan with Bean this fall, however, he could move back to the O line. He has yet to fully practice on the D line due to an injury this spring.

-- Georgia not only has more returning experience than any other team in the SEC, but it has 45 percent more returning starts than the NEXT most experienced team.

-- Put into perspective, the entire rest of the SEC East combined returns only 212 starts -- or 34 percent more than Georgia. So the difference between Georgia and the second-most experienced line is significantly more than the difference between Georgia and the entire rest of its division.

-- Georgia is the only team in the SEC to return all five starters from a year ago. And that doesn't include Trinton Sturdivant.

-- Holy cow, Tennessee is in trouble! Seriously, when do you suppose the last time a team returned ZERO starts on the O line? I'd love to know that info actually.

-- This bit of info might win you a few bets in some bars around the SEC: The returning players with the most career starts are Lee Ziemba at Auburn and… Chris Davis. Actually, Mark Richt owes Davis an apology for bringing him off the bench against Vandy last season when Josh Davis got his first start of the year and Clint Boling -- a week before sliding over to left tackle -- got the start at right guard. It's the only missed start of Chris Davis' career, which is saying a whole lot considering the significantly painful hip injury he has played with for the past two years.

So all of that should come as some very good news for Georgia fans. But just how important is returning experience on the O line? Perhaps less than you might think.

Last year, the Wall Street Journal penned a brief article on the significance of O line experience among the best teams from the 2008 season. Without any in-depth research, the WSJ assumed a link and made some predictions based on who was bringing back lots of experience for 2009. Their five "teams to watch" included Notre Dame, Virginia Tech, Texas, Florida State and Michigan. Three of those teams were major disappointments.

On the flip side, the WSJ picked out a few teams with little returning experience and made a few projections on who might disappoint. Here's who it picked: Oregon, West Virginia, Oklahoma, Penn State and Alabama.

I don't have to remind you that two of those teams played in BCS bowl games, including the national champs, and only Oklahoma could be considered a disappointment -- and that was largely due to an injury to its Heisman-winning QB.

In fact, doing the math, the top five BCS-conference teams* in terms of returning O line starts last season finished with a combined record of 36-27 (.571) overall and 16-16 (.500) in conference. The bottom five BCS teams finished with a record of 31-31 (.500) overall and 18-22 (.450) in conference.

(*Note: Notre Dame was included among BCS teams and was third in returning offensive line starts.)

There's a difference there, but not a big one.

In fact, of the top 10 teams in the final AP poll last year, the average number of returning starts by O linemen was 65 -- or almost exactly the Division I average.

Of course, simply going by wins and losses isn't entirely fair. A team might have a solid O line but be brutal defensively, which would certainly affect the bottom line. So, let's look instead at the relationship between O line experience and production in the two areas most directly affected by O line play: Sacks allowed and rushing offense.

First off, here are the top five and bottom five teams, statistically, in terms of rushing yards per attempt in 2009 along with their returning starts on the O line:

Top Rushing Teams (per attempt)

Nevada, 67 returning starts
UAB, 108
Florida, 56
Oregon, 20
Fresno State,53

Worst Rushing Teams (per attempt)

Duke, 25 returning starts
Miami (OH), 27
Washington State, 87
San Jose State, 93
Colorado, 66

Again, there's a difference, but it's virtually meaningless, statistically.

So running the football doesn't seem to be tied to experience on the O line, but how about protecting your QB? Again, here are the five best and five worst teams from last season:

Fewest Sacks Allowed:

Boise State, 40 returning starts
Stanford, 78
Army, 19
Oklahoma State, 91
Air Force, 63

Most Sacks Allowed:

Miami (OH), 27 returning starts
Washington State, 87
Tulsa, 45
Colorado, 66
New Mexico, 45

Now, that's a bit more of a difference as we might expect, and while it's not stunning, it's also worth noting that, of the bottom five teams, only Washington State was above the national average in terms of returning starts by O linemen.

Still, I'm not sure it's fair to say that returning experience is a particularly accurate predictor of either rushing offense or sacks allowed -- just that perhaps it's a bit better at the latter category.

But here's one last bit of numbers to consider…

Here's that list of the top five most experienced BCS offensive lines from last year, and this time, I'm adding their rushing and pass protection stats:

TeamRush/Att (nat'l rank)
Sacks Allowed (nat'l rank)
Wake Forest
3.69 yds (84th)
28 (77th)
Minnesota 3.01 yds (112th)
40 (113th)
Notre Dame
3.84 yds (75th)
25 (65th)
Iowa 3.27 yds (106th)
29 (82nd)
Georgia 4.68 yds (28th)
12 (6th)

Boy, those top four teams sure didn't use their O line experience to much success. But that fifth team really did. And that fifth team is Georgia.

So maybe experience doesn't mean a whole lot. But what is important is talent, and Georgia has a very talented line. A talented line that just so happens to be returning all five starters and more experience than any other team in the SEC by a wide margin.

So while returning starts probably isn't the best indicator of success in the big picture of college football, in Georgia's case, it's still probably something to be pretty excited about.


Rob said...


Didn't the Senator have an article a few weeks ago about how returning starts on the offensive line was one of the better indicators of a team's success? I can't remember exactly, but it just seemed weird to me to get two different stances on the same issue so soon.

In addition to that, I know that Phil Steele uses returning starts on the offensive line as one of his biggest predictors of success. I'm not saying you're wrong or your facts are wrong, it just seems like you could have a bit of a sample size issue.

On a side note, in the first paragraph...158-129=29...not 19.

NCT said...

Phil Steele's numbers re returning OL starts:

Anonymous said...

Quality/experience along the OL is more important in the SEC and Big 11 than wide-open offensive conferences like the PAC10 and Big 12. Add to the UGA advantage at those five positions true, quality depth at RB, FB, and TE to get a formidable offense for any team to deal with.

Anonymous said...

Georgia at Carolina at Noon. Half the stadium will be in the hospital before halftime.