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Thursday, June 3, 2010

Fun With Numbers: The Impact of the O Line

A few weeks back, I added up the returning stats on defense and the offensive skill positions for each SEC team, and I promised I'd eventually get around to taking a more in-depth look at the offensive line. Well, promise delivered.

At this point, saying Georgia has plenty of returning talent on the O line is a bit redundant. Georgia's veteran line has been a routine topic of conversation, but it's worth putting the discussion into context.

Most returning starts by offensive linemen in the SEC:
Most Starts
Georgia 158 5 Chris Davis (38)
Auburn 109 4 Lee Ziemba (38)
Arkansas 89 4 Grayson/Love (23)
Mississippi State 85 4 Brignone/Saulsberry (24)
Florida 85 4 Mike Pouncey (31)
South Carolina 70 4 Jarriel King (19)
LSU 52 3 Joseph Barksdale (26)
Alabama 46 3 3 players tied (14)
Kentucky 31 1 Stuart Hines (13)
Vanderbilt 26 1 Kyle Fisher (18)
Ole Miss 22 2 Bradley Sowell (12)
Tennessee 0 0 N/A
A few obvious points:

-- I couldn't find a list of all NCAA teams (if anyone knows where I can, please let me know) but looking at last year's list, Georgia isn't just out in front in the SEC, but has to be among the best -- if not THE best -- in the nation. Last season, the top team in terms of returning starts was Colorado State with 129 -- or 29 fewer than what Georgia has this year.
UPDATE: Phil Steele's national list for this year was posted to his blog yesterday... and boy would it have saved me a lot of time to wait one more day to write this post.

-- Worth noting, however: Fifteen of those 158 starts belong to two players currently on the defensive line -- Kiante Tripp (3) and Bean Anderson (12). Mark Richt did mention Tuesday that, if things don't go according to plan with Bean this fall, however, he could move back to the O line. He has yet to fully practice on the D line due to an injury this spring.

-- Georgia not only has more returning experience than any other team in the SEC, but it has 45 percent more returning starts than the NEXT most experienced team.

-- Put into perspective, the entire rest of the SEC East combined returns only 212 starts -- or 34 percent more than Georgia. So the difference between Georgia and the second-most experienced line is significantly more than the difference between Georgia and the entire rest of its division.

-- Georgia is the only team in the SEC to return all five starters from a year ago. And that doesn't include Trinton Sturdivant.

-- Holy cow, Tennessee is in trouble! Seriously, when do you suppose the last time a team returned ZERO starts on the O line? I'd love to know that info actually.

-- This bit of info might win you a few bets in some bars around the SEC: The returning players with the most career starts are Lee Ziemba at Auburn and… Chris Davis. Actually, Mark Richt owes Davis an apology for bringing him off the bench against Vandy last season when Josh Davis got his first start of the year and Clint Boling -- a week before sliding over to left tackle -- got the start at right guard. It's the only missed start of Chris Davis' career, which is saying a whole lot considering the significantly painful hip injury he has played with for the past two years.

So all of that should come as some very good news for Georgia fans. But just how important is returning experience on the O line? Perhaps less than you might think.

Last year, the Wall Street Journal penned a brief article on the significance of O line experience among the best teams from the 2008 season. Without any in-depth research, the WSJ assumed a link and made some predictions based on who was bringing back lots of experience for 2009. Their five "teams to watch" included Notre Dame, Virginia Tech, Texas, Florida State and Michigan. Three of those teams were major disappointments.

On the flip side, the WSJ picked out a few teams with little returning experience and made a few projections on who might disappoint. Here's who it picked: Oregon, West Virginia, Oklahoma, Penn State and Alabama.

I don't have to remind you that two of those teams played in BCS bowl games, including the national champs, and only Oklahoma could be considered a disappointment -- and that was largely due to an injury to its Heisman-winning QB.

In fact, doing the math, the top five BCS-conference teams* in terms of returning O line starts last season finished with a combined record of 36-27 (.571) overall and 16-16 (.500) in conference. The bottom five BCS teams finished with a record of 31-31 (.500) overall and 18-22 (.450) in conference.

(*Note: Notre Dame was included among BCS teams and was third in returning offensive line starts.)

There's a difference there, but not a big one.

In fact, of the top 10 teams in the final AP poll last year, the average number of returning starts by O linemen was 65 -- or almost exactly the Division I average.

Of course, simply going by wins and losses isn't entirely fair. A team might have a solid O line but be brutal defensively, which would certainly affect the bottom line. So, let's look instead at the relationship between O line experience and production in the two areas most directly affected by O line play: Sacks allowed and rushing offense.

First off, here are the top five and bottom five teams, statistically, in terms of rushing yards per attempt in 2009 along with their returning starts on the O line:

Top Rushing Teams (per attempt)

Nevada, 67 returning starts
UAB, 108
Florida, 56
Oregon, 20
Fresno State,53

Worst Rushing Teams (per attempt)

Duke, 25 returning starts
Miami (OH), 27
Washington State, 87
San Jose State, 93
Colorado, 66

Again, there's a difference, but it's virtually meaningless, statistically.

So running the football doesn't seem to be tied to experience on the O line, but how about protecting your QB? Again, here are the five best and five worst teams from last season:

Fewest Sacks Allowed:

Boise State, 40 returning starts
Stanford, 78
Army, 19
Oklahoma State, 91
Air Force, 63

Most Sacks Allowed:
Miami (OH), 27 returning starts
Washington State, 87
Tulsa, 45
Colorado, 66
New Mexico, 45

Now, that's a bit more of a difference as we might expect, and while it's not stunning, it's also worth noting that, of the bottom five teams, only Washington State was above the national average in terms of returning starts by O linemen.

Still, I'm not sure it's fair to say that returning experience is a particularly accurate predictor of either rushing offense or sacks allowed -- just that perhaps it's a bit better at the latter category.

But here's one last bit of numbers to consider…

Here's that list of the top five most experienced BCS offensive lines from last year, and this time, I'm adding their rushing and pass protection stats:
TeamRush/Att (nat'l rank)
Sacks Allowed (nat'l rank)
Wake Forest3.69 yds (84th)28 (77th)
Minnesota3.01 yds (112th)40 (113th)
Notre Dame3.84 yds (75th)25 (65th)
Iowa3.27 yds (106th)29 (82nd)
Georgia4.68 yds (28th)12 (6th)
Boy, those top four teams sure didn't use their O line experience to much success. But that fifth team really did. And that fifth team is Georgia.

So maybe experience doesn't mean a whole lot. But what is important is talent, and Georgia has a very talented line. A talented line that just so happens to be returning all five starters and more experience than any other team in the SEC by a wide margin.

So while returning starts probably isn't the best indicator of success in the big picture of college football, in Georgia's case, it's still probably something to be pretty excited about.


Senator Blutarsky said...

David, Phil Steele has a national list:

I'm not sure it's entirely up-to-date, though, as he's showing Tennessee with 13 returning starts. My guess is that's from Aaron Douglas, who recently transferred.

Anonymous said...

One thing to consider is that Army and Air Force rely on option offenses and do not throw the ball often, so that is going to skew the "sacks allowed" analysis. What is the average number of starts if you toss them out and replace them with the next two teams?

Anonymous said...

David et al., ACC stats are up at

And the worst OLs in the country.....

Corbindawg said...

I think the strong offensive line is important for an offense like Georgia's.

The offensive line in 2005 returned its 2-deep from the previous year, and had the fewest amount of sacks allowed (20). That is obviously attributed to Shockley also. But even with athletic quarterbacks like Shockley (and Stafford to an extent), Georgia's offense has remained relatively the same.

It may not matter as much for some teams, but with the drop back, pro style offense UGA has, the O-Line is important.

Anonymous said...

Instead of total sacks allowed, a better statistic to look at to gage the effect of experience on protecting the QB would be sacks allowed per pass attempt

Andy said...

Great post and great points, David. This post reminds me of an ESPN segment last week where they were discussing who had the best returning line in the country. Of course ESPN only talks about the same 6 or 7 teams, and the debate focused on Ohio State and Florida.
Anyway, it is nice to see UGA has so much experience and talent to draw from this year. You really couldn't ask for a better situation for Murray to play as a freshman.

Big Muddy Dawg said...

Wow, this whole time I thought Lee Ziemba was Auburn's slot receiver.

Thanks for taking the time to crunch the numbers, David. Between this and Steele's write-ups, looking at all these digits makes me feel like I've enrolled in the North Ave. trade school.

NCDawg said...

Another interesting view would be to consider starts from bench players. Offensive lineman get hurt; it's a tough job. I would expect depth at O-line is important to winning throughout the season. Can any team match Georgia's starts from bench players? How many teams even have bench players with starts?

Anonymous said...

I think that this is fantastic so long as it translates into efficiency on offense.

I've decided that its not only defense that wins championships. Its defense and efficient offense. There are plenty of teams with great defense that never sniff a championship.

Its one thing the last two SEC champions had in common and its clearly more important that being spectacular although in '08 UF had both.

meansonny said...

There are a million stats to look over.

Someone else blogging on the AJC site pointed this out.

Scoring Offense versus the SEC

Scoring Defense versus the SEC

Nobody was better than UGA in scoring offense versus the SEC.
UGA & Arkansas were tied at #1.

Nobody was worse than UGA in scoring defense versus the SEC.
Alabama was #1 and Florida was #2.

Defense wins championships.
Offense didn't help UGA or Arkansas much last season.

meansonny said...

Links didn't paste well.

Go to conferences
Go to Southeastern
Go to Scoring Offense
Sort by Vs. Conference Opponent.

Repeat with Scoring Defense

Anonymous said...

This O-line has had the same players for two years, they are experienced, yet have underperformed with mediocre running stats and results for two years. The Dawg Nation wants "Championships Plural" like Alabama, LSU and Florida. This requires an offensive line and running backs that are posting rushing stats at the top of the SEC. This Offensive line has rushed poorly against SEC opponents.They averaged 4.0 yards per carry against the SEC opponents last year.

Anonymous said...


Leading the conference in scoring DOES NOT equal an efficient offense. You couldn't possibly think that what we had last year was an efficient offense can you?

Just to expand on the point, an efficient offense is one that can control the ball for long drives, converts a high percentage of 3rd and short yardage, and has minimal turnovers.

meansonny said...


Defense wins championships.

Efficiency sounds like one of those subjective things.

Fair enough for a debate i guess.

The only counterpoint I'll make is to look up the definition of efficient. Wouldn't an efficient offense score lots of points on all drives (long and short) with few plays?

Like I said... sounds like a subjective debate.

But, I'm not gonna touch it (we scored a lot of points, and points determines wins and losses).