Offensive line experience doesn't guarantee gridiron success, but it certainly doesn't hurt.
Phil Steele recently compiled his annual list of career starts among offensive linemen throughout the FBS. Northwestern ranks second nationally with 137 combined starts, trailing only SMU (158). There's a big drop-off as the next Big Ten team comes in 40th in O-line experience (Purdue, 79 starts).
Northwestern returns four starters up front, including left tackle Al Netter and center Ben Burkett, both of whom are entering their fourth seasons as starters.
Here's a look at where the Big Ten offensive lines rank nationally in career starts entering 2011:
No. 2: Northwestern (137)
No. 40: Purdue (79)
T-43: Ohio State (77)
T-49: Wisconsin (74)
T-53: Indiana (71)
T-56: Michigan (70)
T-58: Illinois (69)
T-74: Minnesota (60)
T-77: Iowa (59)
T-81: Michigan State (57)
T-87: Penn State (52)
T-99: Nebraska (40)
I wouldn't get too giddy or concerned about these numbers. Minnesota had the nation's fourth-most experienced line in 2010 and went 3-9. Then again, both Wisconsin and Ohio State ranked in the top 20 in O-line experience and went on to share the Big Ten title.
Several things stand out about this year's list.
Northwestern needs its experience up front to translate to a better rushing attack. The Wildcats' inability to move the ball on the ground the past few seasons has put tremendous pressure on the quarterback position. While this has been a decent pass-blocking line, it must generate more push and give the team's running backs more daylight.
Purdue is another team relying on its offensive line to be a strong point in 2011. Left tackle Dennis Kelly is a nice anchor, and if the Boilers can stay healthy, they should be able to run the ball well with Rob Henry, Ralph Bolden and others.
Offensive line will be a group to watch for two league title contenders -- Michigan State and Nebraska. Both teams are solid elsewhere but could sink or swim depending on how their offensive fronts perform.
Although both Wisconsin and Iowa aren't among the leaders in offensive line experience, both teams have established a track record of producing elite lines. While Wisconsin must replace two All-Americans (Gabe Carimi and John Moffitt), I expect both the Badgers and Hawkeyes to be solid up front this fall.