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The Big Board: The Value of Experience

If there's one overwhelming reason for all the hype around Florida State this summer, it's the defense.

Mark Stoops' squad finished fourth in the country in total defense last season, leading the ACC in rushing defense, passing defense, scoring defense, total defense and sacks.

Of course, that meteoric rise wasn't an accident.

In 2010, Florida State finished 42nd in the nation in total defense, allowing 353.7 yards per game. In 2011, they returned 76.6 percent of their total tackles from the year before, according to Phil Steele's numbers, which ranked them as the 19th most experienced unit in the country.

All that experience coming back took a big leap forward, and by the end of 2011, Stoops' D was an elite unit.

Now, Florida State's defense is littered with NFL-level talent, from Brandon Jenkins and Timmy Jernigan up front to Lamarcus Joyner and Xavier Rhodes in the secondary. And once again, the bulk of last year's D will be back again in 2012.

But here's the question: Does having tons of experience on defense really translate into better performance, or was FSU's rise in 2011 just a matter of having the talent to be great?

To get an idea, we dug into the numbers.

Entering the 2011 season, 20 teams returned at least 75 percent of their total tackles from the previous season, including Florida State.

Of those 20 teams, 10 moved up in the rankings for total defense by season's end, and 10 moved down. On average, teams moved up seven spots in the national rankings in total defense and shed about 12 yards per game from their average allowed.

In other words, there didn't seem to be much correlation between experience and improvement.

The problem with those raw numbers, however, is that not all experience is created equal. If a team has bad players on defense, there's not much benefit to having those same bad players return for another year.

Obviously there's no simple way to factor out ability from the analysis, but let's assume that BCS-conference schools are recruiting more talented players who, in theory, get better with experience. Given the more complex schemes installed at big-time programs, experience would also likely be a bigger factor at Alabama, for example, than UAB.

So if we split that group into two, we get 11 BCS-conference teams and nine smaller-conference teams, and the difference between the two is dramatic.

BCS conference teams rose, on average, 17 spots in the national rankings for total defense and shaved an average of 31.5 yards per game off their totals. Non-BCS conference teams, on average, fell five spots nationally and allowed 12.5 more yards per game. Of the 11 BCS conference teams to return at least 75 percent of their tackles from the previous year, seven saw significant improvement in performance in 2011, one remained about the same (Minnesota) and only three (Kentucky, Purdue and N.C. State) saw diminished output. Meanwhile, two-thirds of the non-BCS conference teams were worse.

So perhaps experience is a significant factor, at least at the BCS-conference level. And if that's the case, FSU should have another standout year in 2012.

The Seminoles have 75.6 percent of 2011's tackles returning for 2012, according to Steele, which makes them one of 19 BCS-conference teams to bring back at least three-quarters of last year's totals (Georgia leads the way with 88.4 percent, while Maryland tops ACC schools with 84.7 percent).

Of course, the interesting twist on all of this is that FSU's top competition for an ACC title might be Virginia Tech, and those Hokies manage to bring back 76 percent of their tackles (and 40 of their 41 sacks) from last year, too.