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Offensive Lines, Inexperience and You: A Brief Public Service Announcement

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Or, a stats-ish look at returning starters, tackles for loss, and why this line so, so awful.

Tennessee 2014 Offensive Line Play (Pictured)
Tennessee 2014 Offensive Line Play (Pictured)
Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

Since the Florida debacle (and a not-at-all reassuring performance against Chattanooga), there's been a lot of discussion here about the offensive line play, and some very understandable frustration with line coach Don Mahoney's results. So I thought it'd be a nice time to take a more quantitative look at this line, and some other recent programs in similar situations- charting the teams with the fewest returning starts on the offensive line over the last three years, along with the number of tackles for loss they allowed. To be honest, I was a little surprised at the results.

You may think you know inexperience. You do not know this much inexperience:

'14-'15 Fewest Returning Offensive Line Starts & TFL/G

Team Returning OL Starts Rank TFL/G Rank Sagarin SOS Rank
Tulsa 31 118 5.5 58 59
UMass 30 119 6.71 102 110
Utah St 27 120 7.83 120 53
Stanford 26 121 4.5 22 41
Boise St. 26 121 7 109 63
Air Force 25 123 4.83 34 126
La. Tech 24 124 5.67 63 39
San Jose St 23 125 6.6 97 86
Ohio St 21 126 5.8 69 62
Penn St 20 127 7.67 116 54
Tennessee 6 128 8 122 6

As you can see from the chart, there's total inexperience, there's "Kirk Ferentz at The Gathering of the Juggalos" inexperience, and then there's Tennessee's 2014 offensive line (In case you're wondering, Tennessee's '13-'14 line has the fewest returning starts of any FBS team in the last three years). That, and... they're really, really bad.

But as you can see, returning starts on the offensive line tracks pretty closely to tackles for loss- the only exceptions being Air Force, who runs the triple-option, and Stanford, who I'd be remiss not to mention plays roughly elevenybillion lineman on every snap- and both of whom play immeasurably softer schedules. More to the point- nobody playing this green a line is doing very well. There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy, PAAAWWLL, and teams with offensive linemen who have no idea what they're doing tend to give up a lot of plays behind the line of scrimmage.

But "Trey!" I hear you saying. "The top two teams in the country are both from Mississippi this year! YOUR SIMPLE CONCEPTS OF STATISTICS AND CORRELATION MEAN NOOOOTTTTHHHIIIINNG." And fair enough, I'd say. Which is why I made more charts:

'13-'14 Fewest Returning Offensive Line Starts & TFL/G

Team Returning OL Starts Rank TFL/G Rank Sagarin SOS Rank
SMU 29 116 6 63 67
Utah 28 117 6.5 88 3
Cal 28 117 7.58 118 4
Texas Tech 27 119 7.08 110 42
Kansas 27 120 7.42 116 28
UMass 26 121 6.58 92 83
Troy 25 122 6.5 88 102
FAU 23 123 5.83 59 112
Southern Miss 20 124 7 105 90
La. Tech 15 125 8 121 144
FIU 9 126 8.83 124 97

'12-'13 Fewest Returning Offensive Line Starts & TFL/G

Team Returning OL Starts Rank TFL/G Rank Sagarin SOS Rank
TCU 28 118 5.31 52 16
Cincinnati 28 118 5.15 46 80
Toledo 26 119 5.54 60 92
N. Illinois 24 120 4.14 6 121
SMU 24 120 5.69 65 74
Hawaii 20 121 7.08 111 114
Wake Forest 19 122 6.42 94 59
Virginia Tech 17 123 6.54 101 47
Penn St 17 123 3.92 2 58
UAB 17 123 7.08 111 94
Rice 15 124 6.46 96 109


So as you can see, the pattern overwhelmingly holds- the exceptions being the '12 Jordan Lynch-led Huskies playing a comically weak schedule and that '12 Penn St. team, which was a sorta.. uh.. peculiar situation. Nobody else in '12 or '13 cracked even the top 50, and most did much worse. When you factor in strength of schedule, things look even grimmer.

Taken all together, the 33 teams with the fewest returning starts over the last three years averaged 83rd in tackles for loss allowed- despite an average strength-of-schedule of 70th. And that's with an average of 22.75 starts, better than a full-season's-worth more than Tennessee's improbable 6. The complexity of the position and the absolute necessity of every-down consistency make offensive line, likely more than any other group, heavily dependent on development. There are things good - or even great - coaching just can't immediately overcome.

Now, none of this completely abrogates the dismal performances we've seen from the line this year- and I'd imagine Tennessee's coaching staff would be the first to tell you that. While realistically, the Vols probably aren't doing too much worse than one would project given the inexperience, they certainly aren't exceeding that estimation, either. But these numbers should at least give an idea of what degree of improvement, if any, is reasonable to expect from this group- and show how steep is the hill yet to climb.

(Returning starts from old copies of Phil Steele, TFL/G Allowed from the irreplaceable cfbstats.com, and Sagarin SOS from... Sagarin)