One of the hardest things about handicapping college sports is evaluating teams from one season to the next. Many factors can affect how much different a team might be from the previous season. Personnel losses, coaching changes and momentum are among factors that must be weighed. Sometimes the changes can be immense. Adding to the difficulty is that many programs take players right out of their most recent recruiting class and plug them into starting spots.
Every time I release my College Football Stability Scores for the season, I am bombarded with questions. Most often they are from handicappers who want more specifics. It’s easy to assume that teams with a lot of starters back will be better, but how much better? Same goes for horribly inexperienced teams. How much can they be expected to decline? What percentage of new coaches actually improve their teams?
In recent years, I have sought to quantify the signs of potential improvement or decline when considering year-to-year transitions. All factors that come into play in this analysis were used in my College Football Stability Scores. After identifying some key criteria for each factor, I looked at teams from recent seasons fitting these criteria to determine their average improvement or decline.
A number of obvious reasons indicate why teams have gotten significantly better or worse from one season to another. Taking this a step further, I am using my findings to highlight some teams to watch in 2020. Hopefully this will provide a foundation on which to start a successful handicapping run this season. The data I used dates to 2013, or the last seven seasons.
Next week I will address some statistical transition systems for 2020 teams.
Analyzing Number of Returning Starters
Just looking at the sheer number of returning starters on a team can provide great clues. Here are some of the systems I found:
— Over the last seven years, 67 teams have had at least six fewer returning starters than the previous season, and only 11 won more games that season. The average drop was 1.7 wins accompanied by a winning percentage decline of 12.4% and ATS drop of about 5.2%.
Potential declining teams for 2020: Baylor, Florida International, Hawaii, LSU, Michigan State, Texas State, UCLA
— Alternatively, of the 62 teams over the last seven years that brought back at least six starters more than the previous season, only 12 won fewer games. The average improvement was 1.9 wins per season for a winning percentage bump of 12.7% and ATS rise of 6.2%. The combined ATS winning percentage of the 62 teams was 53.1% (418-369 ATS). All six teams that met this criteria in 2019 improved, including national champ LSU.
Potential improving teams for 2020: Buffalo, California, Fresno State, Georgia Tech, Houston, Massachusetts, Miami (Ohio), Navy, Nevada, Northwestern, Oklahoma State, Old Dominion, Stanford, Texas, UAB, USC
— The total number of returning starters has also proven to be a great predicting factor, as 124 teams in the last seven seasons returned 10 or fewer starters and only 24 improved their win total. The average drops for this group was 1.7 in total wins, 12.9% in win percentage and 3.8% in ATS percentage. The combined ATS mark of these teams was 702-830 ATS, or 45.8%.
Potential declining teams for 2020: Air Force, Auburn, Baylor, Florida Atlantic, Florida International, Kansas State, Liberty, Louisiana Tech, LSU, Michigan State, Ohio State, Utah, UTEP
— The opposite group from that last system is teams that return 16 or more total offensive and defensive starters. That group has included 183 teams over the last seven seasons, and only 41 have recorded fewer wins. The average improvement was 1.5 wins, with a bump of 10.2% outright and 4.3% against the spread. These 183 teams combined for an ATS winning percentage of 52.6%.
Potential improving teams for 2020: California, Connecticut, Florida State, Fresno State, Georgia State, Georgia Tech, Houston, Indiana, Louisville, Miami (Ohio), Nevada, North Carolina, Northwestern, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Old Dominion, Purdue, Rice, Rutgers, Stanford, Tennessee, Texas, Texas A&M, UAB, UCF, USC, Vanderbilt, Virginia, Western Kentucky
What does a returning starting quarterback mean?
In a generic sense, returning a starting quarterback has meant an increase of about 0.46 wins per season and an uptick of about 3.2% in winning percentage. However, oddsmakers seem to emphasize this, as average ATS winning percentage declines and these teams cover about 50.7% of their games. On the other hand, teams with new quarterbacks win about 0.7 fewer games and cover only 48.4% of spreads. Let’s dig deeper to see if we can uncover more.
— In the last seven seasons, 47 teams have brought in new starting quarterbacks and four or fewer total returning offensive starters. Of these, only 10 improved their win total, and the average decline was 1.7 victories and a 12.5% decrease in winning percentage. Combined ATS% was just 46.7%.
Potential declining teams for 2020: Florida International, LSU, Oregon, UTEP, Washington
— The opposite group is one you’ll want to keep track of for backing in 2020. Teams with returning starting quarterbacks as well as at least nine other offensive starters have shown great improvement, about 2.0 wins per season on average as well as 13.3% in winning percentage and 5.2% ATS. Collectively, these 40 teams have gone 55.2% against the spread over the last seven seasons.
Potential improving teams for 2020: California, Houston, Miami (Ohio), NC State, Nebraska, Nevada, North Carolina
— A dangerous assumption is made about teams bringing back a starting quarterback from an explosive unit to an otherwise relatively new offensive group. In fact, teams that scored 40-plus PPG the previous season and return the starting QB but four or fewer other starters have declined by 3.0 wins on average and by 11.1 PPG. The combined ATS winning percentage of these eight teams was only 35.6% at 36-65.
Potential declining teams for 2020: None. Clemson and Memphis come closest with five other offensive starters back
— Teams returning a quarterback for at least his third straight season as starter usually show nice improvement, typically by about 0.8 wins and 1.4 PPG. When you add the same head coach and offensive coordinator to the recipe along with at least eight other returning offensive starters, the improvement jumps to 1.6 wins and 53.4% ATS combined.
Potential improving teams for 2020: Akron, Marshall, Tennessee, Tulsa, UAB
— One of the biggest improvements in wins from one season to the next comes when nine or more offensive starters, including the quarterback, return from a team that won three or fewer games against the spread. The average win increase is about 3.9, with bumps of about 27.5% SU and 27.8% ATS. These teams score nearly 9.5 PPG more and combine to go 56.9% ATS.
Potential improving teams for 2020: Akron, Georgia Tech, NC State, Nebraska, Stanford
— On the opposite side of that mix are teams coming off seasons in which they won nine or more games against the spread and have six or fewer offensive starters returning, plus are breaking in new quarterbacks. The 18 teams that have fit that description have dropped by about 3.2 wins, 19.8% outright, 23.3% ATS and 5.5 PPG offensively. Also, the four teams that added new coaches plummeted by 5.8 wins per season.
Potential declining teams for 2020: Central Michigan, LSU, Navy, Ohio State, Tulane
What impact does a new coaching staff have?
Obviously one of the biggest factors affecting team stability from one year to the next is the status of a coaching staff. New coaches or coordinators can change a team’s fortunes dramatically. It’s not always negative, however. Much depends on the combination of coaches and player experience. Look at these recent results.
— Entirely new coaching staffs (HC, OC, DC) combined with new starting quarterbacks and 11 or fewer total starters returning is a very unstable situation and certainly not a winning recipe. Win totals dropped by about 2.1 for this group of 18 teams over the last seven seasons, and collectively they have gone just 34% SU and 38.6% ATS.
Potential declining teams for 2020: Hawaii, Michigan State
— Teams that win three or fewer games clearly have a long way to go, but some of the biggest improvement is realized when these teams bring back their starting quarterback and hire a new coach and coordinators. Over the last seven seasons, the average win gain has been 2.8 accompanied by an increase of 20% SU and 14.3% ATS.
Potential improving teams for 2020: Old Dominion, Rutgers
— Changing offensive coordinators combined with little experience returning is a trouble sign. Some 32 teams have hired new offensive coordinators the same season they had five or fewer offensive starters returning and a new quarterback. These teams have declined by over 2.4 wins, 17.3% in winning percentage and 4.3% ATS. They collectively have gone just 40.5% ATS. The average scoring output dropped about 5.6 PPG.
Potential declining teams for 2020: Eastern Michigan, Louisiana Monroe, Missouri, Oregon, Washington
— Changing defensive coordinators and inexperience is also a recipe for disaster. Of the 28 teams that have changed defensive coordinators and brought back four or fewer defensive starters, only five teams have improved their won-lost records. The average decline is 1.7 wins and 13.3% in winning percentage. These teams have covered only 44.7% of their point spreads and allowed 4.0 PPG more.
Potential declining teams for 2020: Baylor, Florida Atlantic, Louisiana Tech, Miami, Michigan State, Minnesota, New Mexico, Syracuse, Texas State, UNLV