The latest post on his website features his annual experience chart. In it, he factors in the number of seniors a school has returning, the number of tackles and yards returning, career offensive line starts and the like. All 128 FBS schools are listed and we suggest you take a gander at the full list right here.
For our purposes, we'll just show you where the SEC's 14 teams fell in his breakdown. For some, the news is good. For others, it's downright frightening.
Phil Steele's Combined Experience Chart (SEC only)
5. Mississippi State
22. South Carolina
26. Ole Miss
90. Texas A&M
Now, to rank high in experience doesn't guarantee success. An older player isn't necessarily a better player. And injuries can take a toll on veterans once a season begins.
Likewise, being young doesn't necessarily foretell doom. Alabama and LSU, for example, have recruited so well in recent years that they typically replace players like a shark replaces teeth. One group gone, next group in. Also, there's no telling when one of the youngsters taking over at a school might be a hotshot sophomore like Johnny Manziel or Tim Tebow.
Still, numbers can be a useful tool at times. Take Tennessee. Butch Jones had a top 10 recruiting haul in February, but the Vols' roster is still thinner than it should be thanks to the attrition caused by multiple coaching changes (Lane Kiffin to Derek Dooley to Butch Jones in the last five seasons). The Vols are also the only team in America that will have to replace all of its regular starters across both the offensive and defensive lines. The outlook on Rocky Top, therefore, should be, well, rocky for 2014.
And that brings us to one of Steele's categories within the chart -- offensive line starts. Followers of the SEC know that three things matter most of all: offensive line, defensive line and quarterback. If a squad's got those three elements, a lot of the rest will take care of itself. Steele places a great deal of value on offensive line experience in particular. Below are the returning starts -- starts, not starters -- for each SEC squad along it's O-line in 2014:
Returning Starts Along Offensive Line (SEC Only)
South Carolina 113
Texas A&M 89
Mississippi State 81
Ole Miss 61
Auburn needed some fluky plays to defeat Georgia and Alabama last season. Many are projecting the Tigers to slip just a hair in 2014 because it's doubtful they'll get the bounces they got last season again. But when you look at experience Gus Malzahn has returning overall and specifically on the offensive line, it seems a bit foolhardy to be projecting much of a decline from Auburn. Malzahn's program is so system-oriented that it would seem having a better grasp of that system would equate to having a better team, at least on offense.
South Carolina is another team expected to dip slightly after losing stars Jadeveon Clowney, Kelcy Quarles and Connor Shaw. But Steve Spurrier has recruited well and his team has experience just about everywhere other than those three aforementioned spots. Georgia and Florida rank in the middle of the East pack in terms of returnees. Florida is also having to break in an entirely new offensive system. If Dylan Thompson is smart with the football and Spurrier is smart enough to lean on his ground game (and those returning O-linemen), the Cocks could head back to Atlanta at year's end.
Meanwhile, for all of those just penciling Alabama in as the team to beat in 2014, look again at the experience numbers above. Bama doesn't have it. At least not starting experience. Not across the offensive line. And not at quarterback, either. Nick Saban has shown that he can reload quickly, but we can't help thinking all of the preseason publications are simply listing Alabama as a national title contender because the Tide always seems to be in the race. The roster might suggest otherwise upon closer inspection.
And, once again, woe unto Jones and Tennessee. Vol fans will expect improvement in 2014, but record-wise they're unlikely to see it. UT faces nine bowl teams from a year ago with kids and new starters across most of the roster. Six starts for the offensive lineman on Tennessee's roster? That's bad news any way you slice it.
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