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Peavler: What does Phil Steele see in BYU's offensive line?

Published: Tuesday, June 3 2014 2:42 p.m. MDT

Brigham Young Cougars offensive linesman Solomone Kafu (73) and Brigham Young Cougars offensive linesman Quinn Lawlor (61) block during a scrimmage in Provo Friday, April 4, 2014. BYU alumni attended the scrimmage.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

College football master prognosticator Phil Steele surprised many BYU fans with his comments on "BYU Sports Nation" on Monday.

Hosts Spencer Linton and Jarom Jordan asked Steele which position group was strongest for BYU headed into the 2014 season. He said that five Cougar position groups made his rankings for his upcoming 2014 College Football Preview. The defensive backs are No. 37, running backs are No. 27, wide receivers are No. 21 and quarterbacks are No. 17 in the nation in their respective categories.

No real surprises there. Cougar fans expect those position groups to do well next season.

Then, Steele said something few BYU fans would expect. "I'll go with my No. 1 unit: The offensive line. I rate them the No. 15 offensive line in the country."

Come again? The offensive line? Did he mean the offensive line that gave up 38 sacks last season, including five in BYU's embarrassing loss to Washington? The same offensive line that struggled to open up the running game at times last season and contributed to BYU's 102 penalties last season? The same offensive line that struggled inside the 20-yard line, leading to the Cougars scoring just 27 touchdowns in 56 trips to the red … er … blue zone?

Did he just place that offensive line in the top 15 in the nation?

Yes, he did.

Remember, Steele isn't your average college football analyst. His annual College Football Preview is the preseason bible for professionals covering the sport. Steele is one of the foremost experts in the country on college football.

So, what does Steele see in BYU's offensive line?

First off, he points to how much more experienced this offensive line is compared to last season.

“It’s a veteran group," Steele said on "BYU Sports Nation." "You look at the career starts. Last year they only had 44 career starts. This year they’ve got 87 career starts."

That's quite a jump, but how much does that increase in starts really matter?

"Experience is a lot in the offensive line," Steele said. "That’s why every year in the magazine I put career starts. If you go back, and I have a database taking me back like 20, 22 years of career starts, you can see teams that have a big upgrade in the amount of career starts usually upgrade."

Hard to argue with a man who has that kind of data at his disposal.

Steele certainly has a point. Not only was last year's line inexperienced at the FBS level in general, but it also had to learn Robert Anae's new "go fast, go hard" offense. It's particularly hard on offensive linemen to adjust to BYU's new blistering pace. A full year of experience should make a world of difference.

And BYU brings back four starters on the line.

Steele pointed out two interesting stats from last season. The Cougars were No. 10 in the nation in rushing offense with 267.3 yards per game and No. 19 in yards per attempt with 5.23, according to the NCAA. Those stats make it sound like BYU's offensive line did a solid job opening up holes for the running game.

Well, it's not that simple.

A closer inspection of the numbers reveals an interesting dichotomy. BYU had five games last season where the team averaged 5.0 yards or more per carry: Idaho State (9.15), Nevada (8.76), Texas (7.63), Middle Tennessee State (5.62) and Notre Dame (5.25). BYU went 4-1 in those games.

At the same time, BYU also had five games where the team averaged less than 4.0 yards per carry: Utah (3.89), Washington (3.83), Houston (3.71), Virginia (3.53) and Utah State (3.18). BYU was 2-3 in those games.

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