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January 4, 2009

Kids are all right: Youth will be served in title game

RELATED: Franks not impressed with Tebow | Notes: OU defenders get defensive

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. The importance of senior leadership traditionally is as big a part of college football as tailgaters, polls and cries for a playoff.

But a look at the depth charts of the BCS Championship Game participants suggests that theory could be going the way of the wishbone offense.

More sophomores than seniors are expected to start in this game. Florida and Oklahoma have a combined 12 senior starters, and the Gators don't list a senior on their defensive two-deep.

"I feel like it's overrated," Florida junior linebacker Brandon Spikes said about the importance of senior leadership. "Just because you're an older guy really doesn't make you a leader."

The value of seniors didn't seem so overrated the past two seasons. LSU started 12 seniors in its title-game victory over Ohio State last season. Florida won the national title two seasons ago with 11 seniors starting in the championship game.

This championship game features college football's two sophomore Heisman Trophy winners: Florida quarterback Tim Tebow (now a junior) and Oklahoma quarterback Sam Bradford. They're only the most obvious examples of this championship game's youth movement.

Three redshirt freshman start for Oklahoma defensive end Frank Alexander, wide receiver Ryan Broyles and linebacker Travis Lewis. Cornerback Janoris Jenkins and running back Jeff Demps start for Florida as true freshmen. The only freshmen to start the past two championship games were Ohio State defensive end Cameron Heyward last season and Florida wide receiver Percy Harvin two seasons ago.

"I still think experience matters," Bradford said. "Obviously on offense we've got a lot of guys who are experienced, but it doesn't really surprise me that two teams as young as we are are in the national championship game. It's all about how hard you work and how hard you get prepared for the season."

The emphasis on underclassman is particularly evident on defense. The only senior defensive starters are Oklahoma players: strong safety Nic Harris and free safety Lendy Holmes.

Oklahoma defensive coordinator Brent Venables insists he would much rather have a defense full of seniors, but a unit heavy on underclassmen has his team one win from a national title.

"In 2003, we had a defense with seven senior starters, and you would much rather have that, trust me," Venables said. "Experience is everything. You can't replace experience."

The freshmen starting for Florida and Oklahoma haven't made too many mistakes. Oklahoma probably wouldn't even be here without Lewis, whose meteoric rise to stardom helped the Sooners withstand a season-ending injury to senior linebacker Ryan Reynolds. Lewis has picked off four passes while passing Brian Bosworth as the school's leading freshman tackler with a team-high 133 stops.

Jenkins enrolled at Florida in time for spring practice and performed well enough to win a spot in the starting lineup for the season opener. He has a team-leading 11 pass breakups as part of a secondary that has spent the entire season delivering performances that dismiss the importance of senior leadership.

Youth movement
The next national champion will have fewer seniors starting in the BCS Championship Game than the past two teams to win the title. Here's a look at the class composition of the starting lineups for Florida and Oklahoma as well as the past two national champions.
Year Team Sr. Jr. So. Fr.
*- If Jim Tartt starts at guard for Florida instead of Carl Johnson, it would be four seniors and nine sophomores. **- Oklahoma's depth chart has 12 starters on offense because it includes three wide receivers and a fullback. The Sooners will open a game with three receivers or two backs, depending on the situation.
Florida ranks second in the nation in pass efficiency defense with a starting secondary that has Jenkins and three true sophomores (strong safety Ahmad Black, free safety Major Wright and cornerback Joe Haden).

"Experience plays a great factor," Black said, "but if you know what you're doing and you have great players, it shouldn't be that much of a big deal."

Of course, that experience doesn't necessarily have to come from seniors. In an era when more and more guys are deciding to turn pro before using all their college eligibility, players can emerge as elder statesmen well before their senior years.

Spikes is a textbook example. After playing in a backup role during Florida's 2006 national championship season, Spikes developed into one of the Gators' top defenders as a sophomore. Now a junior, he is the unquestioned leader of the Florida defense. Spikes believes leadership isn't necessarily about age.

"It's about how guys look at you," he said. "With me, I feel like guys are watching me. There are things that I notice. It's kind of hard to explain, [that] there are other grown men on the team watching me, but I kind of feel like if you carry yourself as a leader and you feel like you're making all the right decisions, [even if] you're not perfect, guys know football's your life and that you want to win."

The Gators' ability to put together a championship-caliber defense without a senior starter shows the trend toward playing underclassmen early, but the Florida and Oklahoma depth charts reveal at least one area where the presence of seniors remains essential.

More than half of the senior starters on these two teams play in the offensive line. Oklahoma starts four seniors and one junior on its line. Florida has two fifth-year seniors (Phil Trautwein and Jason Watkins) starting at tackle, while fifth-year senior Jim Tartt is listed as a co-starter with sophomore Carl Johnson at left guard.

"The very good teams are the ones with upperclassmen offensive lines," Florida coach Urban Meyer said. "It all starts there, so I think it's not a coincidence that two of the best teams in America have mature offensive lines."

Everywhere else on the field, having a whole bunch of seniors seems more and more like a luxury than a necessity. Even the senior offensive linemen are realizing that much.

"Our underclassmen are leaders, and they act like they've been around here a long time," Oklahoma senior center Jon Cooper said. "They act like upperclassmen and seniors."

And they're forcing the college football world to second-guess the conventional wisdom that a team can't win a championship without senior leadership.

RELATED: Franks not impressed with Tebow | Notes: OU defenders get defensive

Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at smegargee@rivals.com.

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