UCLA leads Pac-12 in experience
Phil Steele sizes up the conference based on returning production
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 Pac-12:
1. UCLA Bruins (national rank: No. 24)
Expectations are high for the Bruins coming off their first 10-win season since 2005 and returning a league-high 17 starters. They are led by quarterback Brett Hundley, who became the first UCLA QB since 1964 to lead the team in rushing (748 yards) and he also threw for 3,071 yards. The Bruins return their top four rushers and five of their top six receivers. Overall, they return 84 percent of their offensive yards (No. 15 in the country) and have 88 career starts back on the offensive line.
The defense returns four of its top five tacklers, including All-American candidate Myles Jack and tackling machine Eric Kendricks (332 career tackles) at linebacker. While they play my 11th toughest schedule, they get most of their key games (Oregon, USC and Stanford) at home and I have them favored in all 12 of their games.
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