Friday, August 29, 2008

Are you experienced...enough? | by Pat

Ivan Maisel's final pre-season article had an interesting mention in the sidebar about the cumulative starts of an offensive line as predictor of season success.

One of the best hidden statistics I have found for determining the success of a college football team is the number of cumulative starts among its offensive linemen. The magic number for success is somewhere around 75.
Maisel didn't really show his math on how he arrived at that number or how he exactly defines "success", but for the purposes of this post, we'll just take him at his word that good or better than expected teams have offensive lines that land on the plus side of 75 career starts.

So, the question that immediately springs to mind is, what is ND's OL cumulative starts number heading into 2008?

The answer is: 60.

Sam Young has the most experience with 25 career starts to his name. Mike Turkovich and Paul Duncan have 12 starts apiece while Eric Olsen and Dan Wenger have six and five starts under their belts, respectively.

If Maisel's "75 rule" holds true, then perhaps it's best to temper those increasingly optimistic season predictions. When you consider that Paul Duncan has moved to the second string, the career starts from those players who will actually start for ND in 2008 drops to a rather low 48.

If that doesn't scare you enough, the number of career starts at the position each player will play this fall is 17. (15 for Young at right tackle. 2 for Wenger at center.) But that's really splitting hairs. The idea behind this metric seems to be a quick and dirty approximation of game experience among the OL depth chart, not an in-depth look at how many snaps each starter has at his current position.

So how does 60 starts compare to previous lines? Here's a look at the last six years of ND football.
2002 - 77 career starts. Final record: 10-3
2003 - 21 career starts. Final record: 5-7
2004 - 45 career starts. Final record: 6-6
2005 - 102 career starts. Final record: 9-3
2006 - 91 career starts. Final record: 10-3
2007 - 46 career starts. Final record: 3-9
It's an extremely limited data set, but the record does tend to track with the number of OL starts. (yes, yes, pirates vs. global warming, I know...)

In the case of 2007, 33 of those 46 career starts belonged to one player, John Sullivan. The minuscule 21 career starts for the 2003 were tempered somewhat by the fact that ND didn't have to rely primarily on sophomores as in 2007. In 2003, two returning 5th year seniors (Sean Milligan, Jim Molinaro) as well as two juniors (Dan Stevenson, Mark LeVoir) helped the lone sophomore starter (Bob Morton), although it still wasn't enough to avoid a sub-.500 record.

What does it mean for the ND OL in 2008? Well, despite all of the positive press and stories of increased leadership, strength, bulk, and in-practice fights, expect a few hiccups during the year. The experience just isn't quite there yet. There is definitely the opportunity for the line to overachieve. But it's also very likely that the OL will struggle at times to be consistent.

Switching gears, here is the cumulative start numbers for the opponent offensive lines, put in order from highest to lowest. Consider this a supplement to the OL position preview. I included every career start for the current listed offensive linemen, even if they had a few career starts at defensive tackle or tight end. As mentioned earlier, the idea is a rough look at overall experience. And now, without further ado:
Washington - 83
Stanford - 82
North Carolina -73
Purdue - 66
Syracuse - 52
Pittsburgh - 51
Michigan State - 46
Boston College - 41
San Diego State - 36
Navy - 25
Southern Cal - 25
Michigan - 16
If you go by recruiting results, Southern Cal and Michigan are the two most talented teams ND will face. But when it comes to the experience of their offensive line, the Trojans and Wolverines likely will experience a few roadbumps during the season. Michigan's case is even worse when you consider that of the 16 career starts, 13 of them belong to right tackle Steven Schilling. On the other hand, Washington, Stanford, and North Carolina -- three teams that won four games last season apiece -- are in line to have solid seasons if Maisel's idea of 75 career starts holds true (and in one particular case, can overcome coaching incompetence).