Miss. St. tops SEC in experience

Mississippi State linebacker Benardrick McKinney leads one of the SEC's top defenses. John David Mercer/USA TODAY Sports

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 BCS championship game since 2009 is just 49th, with last year's national champ Florida State coming in at 78th. 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 SEC:

1. Mississippi State Bulldogs (national rank: No. 5)

The Bulldogs finished the 2013 season with three straight wins, and they return 16 starters, including quarterback Dak Prescott, who led the team in both passing and rushing a year ago. They also welcome back their top three receivers, beginning with Jameon Lewis, and their offensive line has 81 career starts. On defense, they return nine of their top 11 tacklers, including All-American candidate Benardrick McKinney at linebacker.

Overall, MSU returns 83 percent of its lettermen (57 of 69 players), which ranks No. 3 in the country, and has 12 senior starters, which ties Auburn for the most in the SEC. I think the Bulldogs could be a surprise contender in the brutal SEC West.