It all starts up front, coaches will tell you.
So perhaps offensive line experience is a better way to evaluate a team than just looking at returning skill players who grab the headlines. The Wall Street Journal said as much before the 2009 season.
Of course, there's no perfect formula, and more than a few folks have noted it's as much about quality as quantity when evaluating a line. It's notable that the the WSJ touted Texas before the 2009 season due to 91 starts coming back on its O-line. The Longhorns went on to play for the national title. Only the team they lost to, Alabama, was supposed to be in trouble due to just 50 career starts.
And Oregon fans might note that a certain Rose Bowl team did OK even though it had just 20 career starts on its line.
Phil Steele has compiled a complete list of the numbers of career starters for every FBS team's offensive line. Here's how the Pac-12 stacks up (number to the left is national ranking).
Number of returning starts on the offensive line
No. 17 Colorado, 97
No. 22 Oregon State, 91
No. 30 California, 85
No. 32 Arizona State, 84
No. 37 UCLA, 80
No. 53 Washington State, 71
No. 62 Washington, 65
No. 65 Utah, 63
No. 83 Oregon, 56
No. 89 Stanford, 50
No. 111 USC, 27
No. 120 Arizona, 1
What to make of these numbers, other than you see why USC and Arizona both have big questions on their lines?
Well, I'd probably take what Stanford has coming back on its line -- first-team All-Pac-10 linemen Jonathan Martin and David DeCastro -- over what Oregon State, California, UCLA, Washington State and Washington welcome back. Pretty sure their coaches would, too.
Still, this is firm grounds upon which to project better line play this fall from Oregon State, California and Arizona State.
You also may see a repeat of 2009 for the Ducks. Sure, they lack experience up front. But Mark Asper, Carson York and Darrion Weems are a pretty solid returning core, not to mention that Steve Greatwood is one of the best line coaches on the West Coast.
And Colorado's experience up front -- though losing tackle Nate Solder can't be just written off -- combined with a very good running back in Rodney Stewart, might give some pause before relegating the Buffaloes to also-ran status this fall.