Experience is the best teacher—at least, according to a popular idiom. The degree to which experience translates to success on the college football field can vary between programs, but it can be an invaluable building block.
There is certainly evidence that suggests experience is overrated. After all, the last two Heisman Trophy winners were first-year performers. The most recent, Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston, led the Seminoles to the BCS Championship despite returning just 10 2012 starters from both sides of the ball.
Recruits arrive on college campus better prepared to make an immediate splash now than ever before, and as a result their progression as players is accelerated. Where players once had to learn the playbook, mature and defer to upperclassmen, many are becoming instant sensations.
One byproduct of the game's youth movement is a record 98 underclassmen declared for this spring's NFL draft. That's quite an exodus of talent out of the collegiate game and does not even account for scores of seniors whose eligibility expired at season's end.
All that turnover continues the cycle, as more underclassmen are then expected to contribute sooner to fill the gaps.
Turnover also puts experience at a higher premium, and it can still have an impact on a team's success. There's a reason UCLA is a very early top-10 candidate and considered a contender for the 2014 Pac-12 championship: The Bruins have the conference's most returning starters with 16.
The Pac-12's 2013 season is an interesting study in the impact of returning experience. Eight of the nation's 40 most veteran rosters entering the campaign were from the Pac-12, most of any conference. The league went on to have its best season collectively, with six teams ranked in the final Associated Press Top 25 and nine teams in bowl games.
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Arizona State and Stanford won the Pac-12's two divisions and met in the conference's championship game. They returned 14 and 15 total starters respectively, and both members of both teams credited veteran savvy for their success.
"Our players are leading the team," Arizona State head coach Todd Graham said in his teleconference before the Pac-12 Championship game.
Indeed, experience's impact can be made through immeasurable means. Stanford linebacker Shayne Skov credited the lessons from past upperclassmen for preparing this year's Cardinal after the Pac-12 Championship game.
We've had the fabulous opportunity of watching other guys come before us: Dave DeCastro, Andrew Luck, Bo McNally. There are so many guys that I can look to and say not only are they great human beings, but they're great leaders. You learn as a young guy coming in, what that standard is and what that expectation is. When it's your time to lead, you follow in the footsteps of those guys.
Not far from The Farm, Cal languished through a 1-11 season that was void of any wins over Football Bowl Subdivision opponents. Head coach Sonny Dykes started a lineup heavy on freshmen, including quarterback Jared Goff and wide receiver Kenny Lawler, a response in part to losing 15 starters.
"Experienced, tough, grown men win games in the Pac-12," Dykes told The San Jose Mercury News after Cal's season-ending loss at Stanford. "That's not what we are right now. That's who we're going to be."
Cal is seeking a defensive transformation after finishing 2013 worst among BCS conference teams for points surrendered, and the Golden Bears can take some inspiration from the turnaround experience that helped fuel conference counterpart Arizona.
Arizona finished 2013 with an 8-5 record that matched the team's 2012 mark despite returning a conference high 17 starters, but all that experience was crucial for keeping the Wildcats in the bowl picture.
An area Arizona notably struggled in the season's early weeks was at quarterback, one of the few starting positions head coach Rich Rodriguez had to fill the previous offseason. B.J. Denker finished the year strong, winning Most Valuable Player at the AdvoCare V100 Bowl, but his season-long improvement was a testament to the value of game experience.
Predecessor Matt Scott, for example, had nearly a half-season to his credit before taking over the offense in 2012.
Scott carried the Wildcats while an inexperienced defense lacking depth struggled as the No. 104 scoring unit in the nation. This year, a defense that returned 10 starters finished No. 39 in scoring defense.
The most noteworthy entry in Arizona's turnaround was holding offensive juggernaut Oregon to a season low 16 points. In his teleconference following that win, Rodriguez summarized the place experience still has as a teacher in college football.
"Sometimes with a young guy you can throw a different look or new...formation or play that may get them. But with a veteran team, that probably won't happen," he said.
Kyle Kensing is the Pac-12 Lead Writer. Quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.
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