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Brace yourself, friends: We’re going to be talking about the Noles quite a bit in 2023. After winning their last six games of 2022 to finish with double-digit wins for the first time in six years, Mike Norvell and Florida State have entered the offseason with the most returning production in all of the FBS.
At the moment, FSU returns 87% of last year’s production — 80% on offense (11th overall) and 94% on defense (second). The Seminoles lead the way in this year’s rankings, while other teams with exciting 2022 stories have plenty to be encouraged about as well. Kansas and UConn bowled for the first time in 14 and seven years, respectively, and they rank second and sixth in returning production. Michigan just made its second straight College Football Playoff, with its second straight Big Ten title, and ranks a tantalizing fifth.
Full 2023 SP+ projections will run next week. As always, those projections stem from three primary questions: How good has your team been recently? How well has it recruited? And who returns from last year’s roster?
The latter question is the focus of today’s discussion. While high or low returning production percentages don’t guarantee a good or bad team, they do correlate well with improvement and regression.
For a few years now, I’ve been attempting to expand how we measure returning production. The formula I have created shifts with each new year of data and has had to shift quite a bit with the recent heavy increase in transfers.
Here are the returning production percentages and rankings for all 133 FBS teams. (Yes, there are 133 teams now. Please welcome Sam Houston and Jacksonville State to the party!)
Here’s the current weighting for determining the offensive percentages above:
Percent of returning WR/TE receiving yards: 24% of the overall number
Percent of returning QB passing yards: 23%
Percent of returning OL snaps: 47%
Percent of returning RB rushing yards: 6%
Broken out by position/player, you’re looking at roughly 29% for the quarterback, 6% for the running back and each of four wide receivers and/or tight ends and 9% for each offensive lineman. With each year of data, offensive line snaps become a heavier piece of the equation, which I find interesting.
(Note: Since Sam Houston and Jacksonville State played at the FCS level in 2022, I didn’t have full snap-count data for them. I used player starts as a decent if not quite sufficient substitute.)
It’s a bit trickier on defense, where units aren’t as strictly defined and the percentage of returning production is derived both from position units and types of stats (tackles, tackles for loss, sacks, passes defensed). Here’s the approximate layout:
Percent of returning tackles: 70%
Percent of returning passes defensed: 14%
Percent of returning tackles for loss: 12%
Percent of returning sacks: 4%
Perhaps surprisingly, turnover in the back of the defense causes far more of a shift in a team’s SP+ rating from year to year than turnover up front. By position, defensive backs make up about 46% of the defensive formula, while linebackers are at 40% and the defensive line is at 14%.
(Remember: This is not based on my personal opinion of positional importance — it’s all about what impacts the numbers the most. On average, teams can evidently overcome turnover upfront more easily than turnover in the back.)
How SP+ accounts for transfers
With the recent explosion in use of the transfer portal, I have had to make a couple of changes to the way transfers are accounted for in the SP+ projections. They now show up in both the returning production and recruiting portions referenced above.
Returning production: Quite crudely, if a player transfers from one FBS school to another, I mash his production from his previous team into the numerator and denominator for his new team. So if your quarterback leaves, and you bring in a transfer who was starting somewhere else, that dampens the overall blow of your QB leaving significantly.
(Because the translation from lower levels to upper is extremely inconsistent, I don’t do this for players transferring up from the FCS or Division II. I would like to get to a point where I can make adjustments to players’ stats as they move from level to level, but I’m not there yet.)
Recruiting: As of 2022, I began attempting to account for incoming transfers’ recruiting rankings in a team’s recruiting averages. It was pure guesswork last year because we simply hadn’t experienced anything like USC bringing in 18 transfers, including the reigning Biletnikoff winner and a Heisman-favorite quarterback, before. We still have only one year of mega-transfer data to work with, but I’ve been able to make some decent tweaks based on said year.
Obviously the portal never stops portaling, so it should be noted that the data above was derived according to players’ status in the portal as of Monday morning, Feb. 6.
What these numbers mean for your team
I have been collecting returning production data since 2014. Not including the 2021 season — because the glut of returnees following the pandemic-shortened season produced averages far higher than usual (and teams therefore didn’t benefit as much from high returning production totals) — about 5% of teams return at least 80% of overall production each year based on the current formula. For a 133-team FBS, that’s equivalent to about seven teams. Six currently top that mark.
On average, teams returning at least 80% of production improve by about 5.8 adjusted points per game in the following season’s SP+ ratings. That’s a pretty significant bump! For a team ranked 25th in SP+ last year, adding 5.8 points to its rating would have bumped it to 10th. And in the past two seasons that weren’t majorly impacted by a pandemic (2019 and 2022), the average improvement for teams at 80% or higher is 6.8 points.
On the other end, about 10% of teams (roughly 14 per season) return less than 50% of their production in a given season. That results in an average drop of about 6.0 adjusted points in SP+. For a team that was 10th last year, losing 6.0 points would drop it to 28th. And for the rare team that returns less than 40% of production, the outlook is generally dire: Only about 2% of teams fall under 40%, but they fall by an average of 11.3 points. Wyoming (34%), Hawai’i (31%) and Nevada (22%) were all on the terribly low end of the scale last season, and they fell by a massive average of 17.4 points.
There are no guarantees here, of course. Returning 87% of its production didn’t stop BYU from underachieving in 2022, and returning just 33% didn’t prevent Ohio State from improving slightly in 2016. But there’s significant reason for optimism or pessimism if your team is at one extreme or the other in the table above. That’s great news if you’re a Florida State fan … and pretty terrible news if you root for Kent State.
Most likely to improve in 2023
Again, the percentages above correlate to improvement and regression, not pure quality. That’s important to reinforce. But plenty of this year’s top teams from a returning production standpoint were pretty good last year. And now they’ve got a chance to get even better. Here are the teams that ranked in the SP+ top 40 last year and currently rank in the top 25 in returning production:
Florida State (27th in SP+ in 2022, first in returning production in 2023)
Optimism is rampant in Tallahassee, and it’s not hard to see why. After a midseason funk left the Noles 4-3, they ignited down the stretch, and now they return virtually everyone responsible for that ignition, from quarterback Jordan Travis to running back Trey Benson, receiver Johnny Wilson, 3½ offensive line starters and almost every primary defender (including star edge rusher Jared Verse).
It also appears Norvell aced the transfer portal for the second year in a row, bringing in reinforcements on both lines (most notably Western Michigan defensive tackle Braden Fiske and UTEP offensive tackle Jeremiah Byers) and adding Virginia cornerback Fentrell Cypress II, among others.
This piece probably won’t help tamp down any growing hype, nor will Mark Schlabach’s Way-Too-Early rankings, in which he placed the Seminoles fourth. But they aren’t going to project in the SP+ top five because they finished only 27th last year.
They were 38th when their rebound started, and while they drastically overachieved projections in the weeks that followed, (A) SP+ caught up over the final two weeks, posting pretty accurate projections for the wins over Florida and Oklahoma, and (B) Florida (34th) and Oklahoma (20th) were the only two teams Florida State beat in its winning streak that finished in the SP+ top 60. FSU beat each team by one score, which suggests that a year-end ranking in the 20s makes sense.
Still, the Noles are back in the national consciousness, they should absolutely be projected in the SP+ top 15 or so, and their 2023 schedule doesn’t feature an obvious, likely loss. They are going to be a story.
Michigan (third in SP+ in 2022, fifth in returning production in 2023)
When FSU has a chance to be the story, FSU is the story. That’s the way these things tend to work. But it’s pretty jarring to see a team that made the CFP one year also rank in the top five in returning production the next.
The Wolverines are projected to return quarterback J.J. McCarthy, running back and Heisman hopeful Blake Corum and nine of their 12 defenders with 400-plus snaps. Plus, Jim Harbaugh made deft use of the portal, adding reinforcements to both the linebacking corps and an already-awesome offensive line. Both Ohio State and Penn State enter 2023 with hopes of preventing a third straight Big Ten title for Michigan, but they’ll have to clear a really high bar.
Texas A&M (35th in SP+ in 2022, seventh in returning production in 2023)
You’ve probably seen a lot about the attrition Jimbo Fisher is battling this offseason in College Station. The Aggies have placed nearly 30 players in the transfer portal, many of whom were recent star recruits. That could hurt down the line, but they don’t lose many players who were impactful in 2022.
A team that was painfully young and offensively disorganized last fall will be a lot more experienced this time around. And if new offensive coordinator Bobby Petrino is able to build some quick traction, a turnaround could be forthcoming.
Missouri (40th in SP+ in 2022, ninth in returning production in 2023)
Eliah Drinkwitz has gone 5-5, 6-7 and 6-7 in his three seasons in Columbia. Almost perfectly mediocre. But he signed a stellar recruiting class in 2022, and he saved his best recruiting work of 2023 for his veterans.
Quite a few key players from a strong defense (19th in defensive SP+) elected to stay in town for the coming fall, and the offensive line returns mostly intact, too. If Drinkwitz can finally figure out the quarterback position — 2022 starter Brady Cook returns, along with two recent blue-chippers (redshirt freshman Sam Horn and Miami transfer Jake Garcia) — the Tigers might have everything else they need for a nice step forward in 2023.
USC (17th in SP+ in 2022, 14th in returning production in 2023)
Lincoln Riley hasn’t loaded up on the same high volume of star transfers he did a year ago, but he also didn’t have to — he already returns quite a few stars. On offense, at least. The Trojans should be in the top five offensively once again, and their overall fate in the Pac-12 and CFP races will again be determined by whether Riley can coax competence out of his defense. That’s not something he has done much of as a head coach, and 2022 was particularly dreadful in that regard.
Utah (10th in SP+ in 2022, 16th in returning production in 2023)
It appears that quarterback Cameron Rising‘s decision to stay in Salt Lake City has prompted quite a few similar decisions throughout the depth chart. The two-time defending Pac-12 champions are scheduled to return somewhere around 16 total starters, and while star tight end Dalton Kincaid went pro, he will be replaced by Utah’s original starting tight end, Brant Kuithe, who returns from injury.
Texas (seventh in SP+ in 2022, 19th in returning production in 2023)
One good thing about the Florida State hype: It might distract us from the Texas hype! The Longhorns went just 8-5 in 2022, but they wooed virtually every computer ranking with a combination of close losses (their five defeats were all by a touchdown or less) and random displays of brilliance (they beat five bowl teams by an average of 43-18 and won at Big 12 champ Kansas State). Game management might still be an issue in 2023, but experience won’t be: They lose star back Bijan Robinson but return virtually everyone else on offense, including quarterback Quinn Ewers. A majority of the defense is back, too.
Washington (15th in SP+ in 2022, 22rd in returning production in 2023)
Thanks primarily to a wonderfully efficient offense, the Huskies surged to 11-2 in Kalen DeBoer’s first season at the helm. Now they are scheduled to return quarterback Michael Penix Jr. and most of last year’s skill corps. The offensive line has some holes to fill, but if that leads to regression, an experienced defense should be able to counteract that. The 2023 Pac-12 title race could feature four or five top-25-level teams.
Most likely to regress in 2023
There is a particularly intriguing batch of teams that were already good and will be far more experienced this fall. That could make improvement among those teams a little difficult, but it could also make life tricky for potentially good teams that aren’t nearly as experienced.
Here are the five teams that made Schlabach’s Way-Too-Early top 25 but rank 75th or worse in returning production:
Alabama (fifth in ESPN Way-Too-Early 2023 rankings, 125th in returning production)
I’m not going to pretend to be all that worried about Nick Saban. He’s still only two seasons removed from fielding his best-ever team (the 2020 rendition), and while Georgia has clearly surpassed the Crimson Tide for now, the Tide still finished second in SP+ in each of the past two seasons.
That said, Saban is going to be dealing with quite a bit more change than usual in 2023. (And he’s used to dealing with a lot!) Not only will he have two new coordinators, but he’ll also be looking to replace starting quarterback Bryce Young, leading rusher (and No. 3 receiver) Jahmyr Gibbs, most of the offensive line’s two-deep and about half of 2022’s defensive regulars.
Saban’s recruiting success is not even slightly waning, and most of the open on-field roles will be filled by recent blue-chippers who might quickly thrive. But this is a particularly stout amount of turnover, and there’s a chance the Tide start 2023 as low as, gasp, third or fourth in SP+.
TCU (12th in ESPN Way-Too-Early 2023 rankings, 118th in returning production)
How low can a team be projected one year after reaching the national title game? We might find out in 2023. Sonny Dykes’ Horned Frogs finished last season eighth in SP+ — great overall but not particularly impressive for a team that went as far as they did — and now must replace quarterback Max Duggan, two leading rushers, three leading receivers and three starting O-linemen. Yikes.
The defense took less of a hit, but, well, the defense wasn’t the primary reason for their success.
Kansas State (18th in ESPN Way-Too-Early 2023 rankings, 76th in returning production)
Over the past two seasons, the Big 12 race has been defined by super-experienced teams winning close games and making big runs. In 2022, defending champion Baylor and runner-up Oklahoma State lost a ton of production and regressed; this year, champ K-State and runner-up TCU have to fight doing the same.
I’m more confident in the WIldcats than the Frogs, I think, but Chris Klieman still has to replace stars, such as running back Deuce Vaughn, receiver Malik Knowles, defensive end Felix Anudike-Uzomah and corner Julius Brents.
UTSA (22nd in ESPN Way-Too-Early 2023 rankings, 115th in returning production)
Jeff Traylor’s Roadrunners have won the past two Conference USA titles and drew a round of happy headlines when star quarterback Frank Harris announced he was returning for his last year and his school’s first in the AAC. But both the secondary and offensive line took major hits in the attrition department, and as referenced above, those are particularly important areas when it comes to avoiding year-to-year regression. Traylor has hit just about every correct note in San Antonio, but we’ll see what answers he comes up with in those spots.
Iowa (25th in ESPN Way-Too-Early 2023 rankings, 95th in returning production)
Kirk Ferentz has built a nearly change-resistant program. The 2011 season was the last time his Hawkeyes either ranked inside the offensive SP+ top 50 or outside the defensive SP+ top 30. Over the past four years, they’ve averaged rankings of 87th on offense and third on defense, and with both coordinators scheduled to return (both the good one and the not-so-good one), why would things change?
Experience levels won’t be amazing in 2023, though. Michigan transfer Cade McNamara comes to replace injured quarterback Spencer Petras, but tight end Sam LaPorta, almost the only offensive player who flashed upside in 2022, is gone. The amazing defense, meanwhile, must replace stars in linebacker Jack Campbell and corner Riley Moss and loses half its regulars.