One gauge for uncovering the true contenders as well as the surprise teams in college football might be analyzing offensive line experience.
Heading into 2013, virtually no one viewed Duke as a possible threat in the ACC. But with the third-most career offensive line starts returning in the country, the Blue Devils won their first ACC Coastal Division title.
Of course, offensive line experience doesn’t necessarily guarantee a winning team.
And the lack of it doesn’t preclude success, either.
Baylor ranked 98th nationally in offensive line experience last year and wound up winning its first Big 12 title. Oklahoma State ranked 109th and won 10 games.
Yet examining an offensive line’s experience can be a useful indicator in determining how a team might fare.
Michigan State was ninth in career offensive line starts going into last season and won the Big Ten championship and Rose Bowl. Florida State was one spot behind the Spartans and captured the national title.
No team, actually, entered 2013 with more offensive line starts than Texas, which led the nation with 124. For all their issues elsewhere, which included losing starting QB David Ash for the year, the Longhorns still had a chance to win the Big 12 on the final day of the regular season.
Underscoring the strength of its veteran offensive line, Texas ranked third in the Big 12 in rushing and second in fewest sacks allowed.
This year, Oklahoma is the Big 12 leader in career offensive line starts coming back, and one reason why many people are picking the Sooners to open in the top 5 of the polls.
Guard Adam Shead and tackle Daryl Williams are entering their third seasons as starters. Oklahoma also will be returning guard Tyler Evans, who, before tearing his knee twice in successive years, was a three-year starter. Tackle Tyrus Thompson and guard Nila Kasitati also have a lot of starting experience, and round out what could be Oklahoma’s most imposing offensive line since 2008.
The team with the second-most returning starts up front in the league? That's Iowa State.
Because of injuries, the Cyclones had to use nine different starting offensive line combinations last season. But now, they return 87 career starts along the line, including six players with at least eight career starts. Four year-starting center Tom Farniok leads the way with 35 career starts. He joins Texas center Dominic Espinosa and Kansas State center B.J. Finney as the only three offensive linemen in the Big 12 with at least 30 career starts; Espinosa and Finney both have 39.
Below is a breakdown of career offensive line starts returning across the entire league, from most to least:
Iowa State: 87
Texas Tech: 75
Kansas State: 70
West Virginia: 45
Oklahoma State: 38