Recently an article appeared in the Wall Street Journal describing the importance of having a veteran offensive line. The correlation between teams with veteran offensive lines and winning games is apparent.
Of course, how veteran your line is doesn't mean it's good, but in most cases in college football, the difference between a freshman lineman and a senior lineman can be the difference between a benchwarmer and a first round draft pick. Many teams in the past have had some amazing talent at the skill positions, but high expectations from stars were debunked by bad play of an offensive line.
On the other hand, some teams with really great lines can make mediocre skill position players look better because they are given time to throw, and holes to run through.
In my opinion, I think the offensive is the most important part of a team, at least offensively. Without at least a decent line, there is no way skill position players can overcome bad play and be consistent winners.
Last year we saw two preseason top 10 teams, Missouri and Clemson, fail because of young, inexperienced, and sometimes downright awful offensive lines. The stars each team possessed at skill positions could help either of the teams overcome the lines and resulted in disappointing seasons, which originally were expected to be punctuated with BCS bowl berths.
In light of this article, I will go through each of the conferences and analyze some of the teams that might be like Clemson and Missouri, while also discussing those who should live up to, or beyond expectations.
I know it's not the absolute best way to judge a team's skill on the line, but statically, it does have some history of being right.
To give you an idea of what kind of scale we are working on here, if you have 50-75 starts returning, that is respectable and about average to above average. Anywhere fro 75 to above 100 and you have a very experienced line coming back. Anything lower than 50 and down to about 20 and we are talking about young lines that might be good one day, but likely spell the signs of a team that is overrated.
First let's look at some teams outside of the major conferences:
Utah, 39 starts returning
Ball State, 16
Notre Dame, 100
Colorado State, 125
As you can see, all the first three teams saw some great success on the field last year, and that might be attributed to having good lines. Although expectations are lower at all three schools, anyone who might be overly optimistic might want to reconsider.
Notre Dame and Colorado State were both low-end bowl teams last season and could both see continued improvement this season. Notre Dame has a schedule with lots of game against middle of the road teams, which they could all theoretically win if the line turns out to be this good.
Alabama and Florida are both rather average in terms of their lines, a clear fall from last year when both had very good lines. Although they are just average, it will be interesting to remember as the season rolls on that they won't be as solid up front.
All three had disappointing seasons last year but could rebound this year. Georgia lost its main playmakers, but having the most veteran line in the conference might help the guys who step in find success on the field fast. LSU and Tennessee could see significant jumps in their win totals.
Oregon State, 37
This clearly shows to me that the Trojans are legitimate national title contenders again. Although they lost a lot, they always have five-star athletes waiting in the wings.
Oregon and Oregon State have high expectations this year, but maybe it's time to curb some of that enthusiasm. Oregon has a lot of skilled players on offense, but as a preseason top 10-15 team, I might look for them to one of our bigger disappointments if our formula holds true.
Big Ten Conference:
Penn State, 30
Michigan State, 47
Ohio State, 62
First off, it looks like Iowa might be poised to be the surprise out of this conference in 2009. Coming off a good end to the '08 campaign, the Hawkeyes could be in the top three of this conference when all is said and done.
Ohio State is right in the middle and should be in the mix for another BCS berth. Minnesota could return to a bowl with a solid line returning. On the other hand, Wisconsin, Michigan State, and especially Penn State might want to curb the optimism.
The Nittany Lions have reason to be hopeful with some of their skill players returning, but they could be a big disappointment if their line struggles.
Big East Conference:
West Virginia, 25
South Florida, 29
While UConn lost alot from last year, they can bank on a good line and that might be good enough for another bowl appearance. Rutgers could be the surprise of the conference in 2009 as they return a veteran squad. On the other hand, South Florida and West Virginia might struggle as they look to rebuild up front.
Big 12 Conference:
Oklahoma State, 86
Texas Tech, 52
The powerful offenses in Austin and Stillwater have reason to be hopeful as they both look to be legit top 10 preseason picks. On the other hand, Kansas and Texas Tech could see a fall off next season. Finally, Oklahoma might want to hold off on booking a return trip to the national championship; with a weak offensive line, Oklahoma might even play there way out of a BCS berth.
Atlantic Coast Conference:
Virginia Tech, 100
Florida State, 86
NC State, 45
Georgia Tech, 55
Some of the preseason hype around teams like Miami, NC State, and even Georgia Tech might prove to fall short if their lines don't hold true. Although Georgia Tech has 55 starts returning, the option offense makes the line all the more important and dreams of winning the conference might be a bit hopeful.
Maryland could struggle to help out their returning playmakers, while they rebuild on defense. Virginia Tech looks to legitimize their place in preseason top 10s, while Florida State has reason to be favorites in the Atlantic.
Finally, Clemson might be able to find offense to complement the great defense where it couldn't last year, making them a possible surprise out of the ACC.
Overall, nothing is clear about the stats. Because Oklahoma has 29 starts returning doesn't mean they can't win the national championship, nor does it go the other way. It's a fun set of stats that can give hope to those teams that might need some, while it's reason to be cautious for others.
Either way, it'll be a fun season that can't get here soon enough!