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How important are returning starters to college football?

If there is one thing that I love here at the CFBMatrix, it is taking a common football fan assumption and applying some simple stats.  Every year I seem to be combing through the stats on returning starters.  For some reason, I have led myself down the path that a team’s success the next season can be tied into the notion that returning experience will translate to more or at least, as many wins as last season.

But does it matter that much.  You can have all 24 starters back, but if they have less talent than the rest of the conference, does it really matter?  I wanted to know how important is that returning starting QB?  Does kicking experience matter? Or where is the cut line for success based on the number of returning players on offense or defense.

One of the biggest issues that jumped up to start the review was lack of good information.  Most of the articles in the past proved to be too inconsistent and incomplete for a good analysis of results.  As a result, I was able to put together a good Matrix of data for the last 4 years using all the AQ schools.  Not a huge base, but enough to start putting together trends and odds on what your team is looking at heading into 2012.

Link to 2012 Returning Starters for every team

SEC     PAC12     BIG TEN     BIG 12     ACC     Big East

10,000 Feet.  Numbers and Odds for all AQ teams since 2008.

Offense:  The magic number on offense is 7.  This is the cut line for winning.  Below 7 returning offensive starters and your team’s odds for 2012 having as many or more wins than in 2011 drops to or below 50%.  Of the 14 teams that returned 10 or 11 in the last 4 years, 10 went on to an equal or better number of regular season wins in the next season.  Overall, teams with 7 or more starters on Offense coming back had .36 more wins per team and .62 more wins for those returning 8 or more.  Teams with 6 or fewer back on offense averaged -.62 fewer games won for each team and the odds of having a worse record in 2012 versus 2011 is 52%.

Offense Nutshell. There is very little overall impact on offensive returning starters between returning 4-9 players.  8 or more is about an extra win for every other team.  It is clear there is a difference in performance at 7 or more coming back. However the odds of your team having as many or more wins in 2012 based on 9 or fewer returning starters on offense is still less than 62% in at any number.  27 AQ schools return 8 or more on offense.

Click for team chart 

Defense: Unlike the offense, the defense needs another player.  Teams returning 7 or fewer on the defensive side of the ball, have the odds against them.  Those teams average -.21 less games won per team versus the previous year and have a 45% chance of having fewer wins in 2012. Teams with 8+ starters on D coming back, average nearly a plus half a game each over the previous year win total.  There are 23 teams in 2012 with 8+ returning and 6 of those teams are coming off of 10+ win seasons (see more about 10+ Ws below).  Teams returning 7+ on defense average just +.23 games more wins per team.

Defense Nutshell: Returning less than 7 starters on Defense is a 50/50 coin flip for a record as good or better than in 2011.  8-9 back on D and your odds go to just over 60% for an as good of better record.  Only 10+ is a huge lock with 7 out of  7 teams having as good or better records at 100% in the last 4 years.  This year it is an amazing 6 teams with 10+ back on D.
Click chart  blow up of teams with 8+ back on D

Note: Teams with 6 or fewer returning starters on Offense and 7 or fewer on defense have only a 39% chance of more wins in 2012 versus 2011.  There are 27 AQ teams in 2012 that fit that profile.  Round numbers, 10 to 11 of these teams are going to be having a down year in 2012.
Click for chart blow up of the 27 teams   

Kicking:  Here is one of the amazing numbers to come from the stats.  130 times in the last 4 years a team returned both kickers and were +.28 more games won per team in the following year.  166 times teams returned their starting QB and averaged .22 more games won per team.  On average, returning both AQ kickers has a bigger impact than returning your starting QB!  Only 1 kicker back -.25 and lose both its -.31 games per team.

Kicking Nutshell: This is a tremendously undervalued position in CFB.  The winning increase the next year of teams returning both kickers the last 4 years is better than that of returning QBs.  Maybe it’s time for teams, coaches and fans to take kicking a bit more seriously.

QBs:  Does returning your starting QB make a difference across the board for AQ teams?  Yes, but not a huge difference.  The spread between the two (returning and not returning QB) is about half a game per team.  However, the odds your team have the same or better regular season record the next year with your QB back is about 61%. To expect your team’s record to improve with your QB back is just 45%.  While it is nice to have him back, a returning starting QB is no sure thing for a better season.

Total Returning Starters:  The number you want to see is 16 or more total returning starters (out of the 24 total in the Matrix).  Anything less and team average more losses and the odds of the same or improved record next year starts to dip under 50%.  Returning 17 or more total starters and your odds jump to nearly 71% for having as good or better win total in 2012.  75% that return 19 or more starters the last 4 years win more games the following season.  Say hello to Kansas, Oklahoma, Auburn, USC, South Carolina, Mississippi, Ohio State, Maryland and Florida.  Odds say 6-7 of these teams gets more Ws in 2012.

Win Total Trends: All returning starter numbers aside, the best trend to see the best odds for improving or declining win totals is simply your team’s previous regular season win total.  79% of all teams in the last 4 years that won 4 or fewer games, had win total increases the next year.  Those that won 10 or more, saw a decline in win totals 68% of the time regardless to the number of returning starters for both groups.

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Breaking down teams coming off 10+ Win seasons:
In establishing that one of the strongest numbers for determining team success the coming CFB season is simply last years win total, lets breakdown the teams by win totals and the impact that returning starters may have on future success and winning.   The first group are those teams with 10+ wins in the regular season.  My assumption before running the numbers was that total returning starters and the QB would be significant as well as the 4 year Matrix recruiting rank (#FARR).

In the last 4 years, 41 times a team has come off 10 or more regular season wins.  Only 18 of those 41 times (43%) has a team gone back to back 10+ wins. Let’s breakdown the numbers of these two groups.

The 23 teams that could not go back to back 10+ win seasons

  • Only 12 of 23 (52%) did not have their starting QB back the next year
  • 19 of the 23 had less that 16 total starters return
  • 11 of 23 had 7 or fewer starters back on Offense
  • 12 had 6 or fewer starters back on Defense
  • Only 7 of the 23 had both kickers back to start
  • Average #RR of the 23 = #26
  • 13 of the 23 teams had a 4 year FARR outside the top 25
  • 7 teams with a 4 year recruiting rank over #40 hit 10 wins, only 1 did it back to back

The 18 teams that have gone back to back 10+ win regular seasons in last 4 years

  • 14 of the 18 had their starting QB back in the huddle
  • 14 of the 18 returned 15 OR FEWER STARTERS
  • Only 3 had 8 or more back on Offense
  • Only 6 of 18 had 8 or more back on Defense
  • Only 4 of 18 returned no starting kickers
  • The average 4 year adjusted CFBMatrix recruiting rank of the 18 was #17
  • 12 of the 18 (67%) had a 4 year recruiting rank in the top 25
  • Only 1 team (Cincinnati) had a 4 year recruiting rank outside the top 40 (#64)
  • No team in the SEC or PAC12 in the last 4 years won back to back 10+ games and had a 4 year recruiting rank outside the top 25.
  • The only 3 teams outside the top 30 in 4 year CFBMatrix recruiting rank to go back to back 10+ win seasons… Wisconsin, Oklahoma State and Cincinnati

So what does all this mean for teams coming off a 10+ win regular season.  Well, I see it as follows:

  1. The worse your recruiting the harder it is to get to 10+ wins and even harder to stay there.
  2. Elite teams do reload and returning starters mean much less to elite recruiters and teams that win a lot of football games.
  3. To stay at a high level the return of the QB and kickers is very important
  4. Winning with defensive experience may be more valuable than offensive experience
  5. If you recruit outside the top 50 and get to 10+ wins in a season, it should be celebrated with incessant food and drink for many years.  (Snyder not being COY in 2011 is complete and utter bull)

My top 5 for repeating 10+ wins seasons: Michigan, Alabama, USC, Georgia, LSU
My top 5 for winning less than 10 games in ’12: Kansas State, Wisconsin, Standford, Virginia Tech, Oklahoma State

Breaking out of single digit win totals to get 10+ Ws
Everyone that isn’t there wants to be there, but not everyone can get there.  In the last 4 years there have been 220 attempts by teams with less than 10 wins the previous year to get to double digits the following season. 195 have failed to do so (88%)For this article, the question is, can we tie returning starters into the 25 teams that made it and what are other ‘telltale numbers’ from the CFBMatrix?

Let’s start with the easy one.  Of the 25 teams that have gone from single to double digit regular season wins, none came from any lower than 6 wins the previous season (and that happened just twice (Alabama and Michigan State).  The 17 teams that went 5-7 or worse should simply want to get back to .500 (expect the Vols who’s placement on this list is nothing short of embarrassing).

Returning Starter Profile numbers on the 25 teams that have made the jump from 9 or less wins to 10+ in a season:

  • None had a win total under 6 (just two of 25) before the leap to 10+
  • 16 of 25 had at least 15 total returning starters
  • 21 of 25 had a least 1 kicker back and 16 of 25 had both kickers
  • 17 of 25 had their starting QB back
  • Average CFBMatrix 4 year adjusted recruiting rank for the 25 was #23.  The other 195 averaged #38
  • Only 3 outside the top 40 4 year RR made the jump to 10+ wins
  • In the last 4 years the jump has been made only 1x from the Big East and 2x from the ACC
  • Only 6 of 25 had less than half their Defensive starters return
  • Only 3 of 25 had less than half their Offensive starters return
  • 10 of the 25 jumped from 6-7 wins to 10+ and only 1 had less than half their O back, only 1 had less than half their D back, 7 had their starting QB back and all of them had at least 1 or both kickers return

That leaves 36 teams with 6-9 wins in 2011 vying to be one of the 12% of teams that makes that annual leap.  That’s just 5 teams, based on the 4 year averages, that will make the jump to 10 or more wins in 2012.  My favorites to make the jump, schedule and win/loss predictions not withstanding, are Ohio State (from the 6-7 win group) and from the 8-9 win group Clemson, Florida State and Oklahoma.  The final team from the numbers is Texas or Notre Dame.  Both have the talent but have shown that the coaching is bad to terrible the last several years.  I would not be surprised to see either coach go in 2012 if 10+ wins is not achieved.

Getting to .500 – Teams coming off sub .500 seasons in 2011

We have already established that any team going from less than 6 wins to 10+ has not happened in the last 4 years and just once to AQ schools (Wake from 4 to 11 Ws) in the last decade.  There were 5 times in the last decade that non-AQs did it but that is a different set of numbers.  I broke this group down to just getting back to .500.  Lets crawl before we walk and see what the numbers say about the 76 times teams have won 5 or fewer games in the last 4 years (’07-’10) and only 37 of those teams made it to 6 or more wins the next season (48%).  Here’s the breakdown:

  • 24 of 37 returned their starting QB
  • 33 of 37 returned at least 1 kicker
  • Of the 39 teams that DID NOT get to 6 wins or more only 3 had 5 or fewer returning starters on offense!
  • Only 10 of 39 not making it had 5 or less returning starters on Defense
  • Teams that did make it to .500 after a 5 win or less season averaged more returning starters on Offense, the same number of returning starting QBs  and nearly as many kickers returned to start
  • 31 of the teams were coming off of 4 or 5 win seasons

My conclusion off these numbers is that returning starter numbers have little to NO impact on predicting a 5 wins or less team getting at or above .500 football the next season.  It all comes back to FARR (4 year Field adjusted recruiting rank) for the CFBMatrix.  For additional support of the CFBMatrix idea, the numbers are nothing short of wonderful.

  • Of the 76 teams that won 5 or fewer games, 29 of them had FARR rankings of #40 in the country or better.  Of those 29, 22 teams (76%) went .500 or better the following season.
  • Of the 37 teams with less than .500 records and a FARR ranking over #40, only 15 (40%) made it back to .500 or better the following year. and only 22% of team ranked #50 or worse hit 6+ wins.
  • For those of you that need to know the 7 teams that couldn’t hit .500 that had FARR ranks over #40 was ’11 Ole Miss, ’09 Arizona State, Illinois, Michigan and Mississippi State along with ’08 Washington.  ’09 Washington didn’t make it to .500 but did hit 5 wins after the ‘season that must not be named’.
Special thanks to Bo Bounds of 105.9 The Zone for having me and the stats on the Out of Bounds show,Bob Condetta of the Seattle Times,  Josh Kendall of the The State, Tommy Duff of The Kickoff, Adam Jaboci of The Bleacher Report and Ted Miller of ESPN for linking and using the CFBMatrix returning starter metrics for their publications.