- Phil Steele, ESPN Staff Writer
Way back in 2002, in a time before freshmen won Heisman Trophies, I based my yearly team experience rankings on returning senior starters and actually penalized teams for having freshman starters. Then Tim Tebow won the Heisman in 2007 and started a trend of underclassmen playing more prominent roles. By 2009, I had to tweak my formula to factor in returning letter winners, percentage of yards and tackles returning, and career offensive line starts returning.
While experience doesn't necessarily trump talent, teams from the Power Five conferences that have ranked in the top 10 of my experience rankings since 2009 have seen their records, on average, improve or stay the same over the previous year 76 percent of the time. On the opposite end of the spectrum, teams that have ranked in the bottom 10 of my experience rankings have seen their records, on average, get weaker or stay the same 78 percent of the time.
It is worth noting that the average experience ranking for teams playing in the national championship game since 2009 is just 49th, with last year's national champ Florida State Seminoles coming in at 78. That makes sense when you consider that most championship contenders lose several starting underclassmen to the NFL draft each year but make up for the losses by bringing in elite recruits.
With that in mind, here are my 2014 experience rankings for the Big 12:
1. Oklahoma Sooners (national rank: No. 29)
A major reason for the Sooners' high expectations this season is their 14 returning starters and the fact that they get 74 percent of their lettermen back (No. 29 in the country). The OU offense returns quarterback Trevor Knight, but it does lose the top two rushers and three of the top four receivers from a year ago. While the Sooners rank just No. 88 in offensive yards returning (52 percent), they make up for it with 107 career starts on the offensive line (No. 15).
The defense returns nine starters, including its top three tacklers and eight of its top 10, good for No. 21 in the country with 78 percent of its total tackles back. The Sooners' experience coupled with an advantageous schedule (they will be favored in all 12 games) makes them one of my four picks for the first College Football Playoff.
4dSharon Katz, ESPN Stats & Information
4dAndrea Adelson and Matt Fortuna