How important are returning starters when analyzing preseason college football information?
Spring practices are in full swing, fan forums and message boards are lighting up with false hope and wishful thinking and beat writers are trying to convince us that some redshirt freshman has the “potential” to become the next RG3.
But the main topic of conversation this time of year and right up through August always seems to be about Returning Starters. Heck, Phil Steele released his 2012 Returning Starters list in late January.
How Important are Returning Starters?
Common sense would suggest that there is a strong correlation between years with high numbers of returning starters and more wins than losses. However an ESPN article The Importance of Returning Starters cautions otherwise.
Even smaller is the difference between experienced squads. Teams with 16 or more returning starters have won about 54 percent of their games since 2004.
Another good article by College Football Matrix looks at the impact of returning starters broken out by offense, defense and special teams. He seems to suggest that there is a correlation, but that it isn’t as big as many suggest.
Returning Starters is a Flawed Metric
The first problem I have when people start tossing around figures for returning starters is, what constitutes a returning starter? If a senior free safety started 6 games, and a redshirt freshman started the other 6, is the team losing a starter or returning a starter at that position? And what about someone who started 12 games in a previous year but missed last season because of injury or academics? Is he now considered a returning starter?
Different programs, people and publications have different definitions for what constitutes a returning starter. If you read the comments section of the Phil Steele article I mentioned earlier, you will see that nearly every comment disputes the validity of his numbers.
So is a returning starter anyone returning who started x amount of games the previous season? Anyone who has started x number of games throughout their career? Clearly “returning starters” is a flawed measurement.
All Lost and Returning Starters are not Created Equal
I personally don’t concern myself as much with returning starters as I do with overall team starts and experience. And I place even more emphasis on the caliber of the players lost or returning.
Some players are just more important than others, and some schools are better prepared to deal with those losses than others.
For example, according to my numbers Baylor is only losing 5 starters on offense and 3 on defense from last season. But one of those offensive losses is the Heisman Trophy winner. There is no way that Baylor is capable of replacing that loss or replicating the same offensive numbers that they put up in 2011 without him.
Whereas in 2011 Alabama lost a Heisman Trophy winning RB yet didn’t miss a beat last year in the running game because they were able to replace him with a player of equal talent.
In the Alabama case, the loss of a quality player was insignificant; however I suspect we will find out later this year that the loss of RG3 will have a significant impact on Baylor’s overall success.
Some Positions are More Important than Others
Some positions are usually easier to replace than others. In our example above, not only was it easier for a program like Alabama to replace a Heisman Trophy winner than it will be for Baylor, but the running back position is typically an easier position to replace than the quarterback position.
From the same ESPN article I cited earlier:
The positions your returning starters play matters, and it starts at QB. We looked at BCS teams since 2000 to determine which positions were most important to the most successful teams in college football, and discovered that 80 percent of all quarterbacks who have led their teams to a BCS bowl game were returning starters.
Besides quarterback, BCS teams have the highest return rate at offensive tackle (71 percent of tackles on BCS teams are returning starters), cornerback (71 percent) and free safety (72 percent).
A few days ago I wrote an article about betting on the home field advantage in college football. I concluded that while it certainly existed, the overall concept of the home field as a betting advantage was overrated. This is the same conclusion I am making concerning the importance of relying on the simplistic concept of returning starters to cap college football games.
While a correlation between the number of returning starters and future wins or losses does seem to exist, the significance is not nearly as important as most of the college football preseason magazines and so-called experts would have you believe.
I place a lot more value in overall team experience and on the caliber of the players lost or returning. Let’s use Alabama and Baylor as examples again.
Baylor on the other hand will be returning 16 starters, including 8 from a defense that allowed 512 yard a game against FBS opposition.
Which school do you believe is more likely to come closer to their win totals from last season? Let me know what you think below. Thanks.