College football: Personnel comings, goings offer clues

June 27, 2022 05:43 PM
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Following up last week’s piece on college football stability, I like to combine that data with key stats and other tidbits from the prior season and fit them to my systems that predict potential improvement or decline. If you recall, I did something similar for pro football a couple of months back.

College sports present some different challenges from the pros in that there is typically much greater turnover in rosters and coaching staffs from one season to the next. Evaluating these changes properly is one of the most crucial aspects to season-long success for bettors. 

A lot of factors can affect how much different a team might wind up being from the previous season. You have to consider personnel losses, coaching changes, momentum lost or gained and many other factors. Sometimes the change is immense. Adding to the difficulty is the thought that many programs are taking players right out of their most recent recruiting class and plugging them into starting spots early.

The 2022 college football season will be different from any other in recent memory in that the “super senior” conditions from last season, and their graduation thereafter, has introduced some new variables in the offseason handicapping process. First, and perhaps most importantly, with veteran players having been given an extra year, and most often in a starting position, it leaves a lot of teams highly inexperienced heading into this fall. Second, the transfer portal continues to grow as a factor, and there are many teams that will be starting a new quarterback as a result of the portal, affected by either the previous starter leaving or a new and experienced player signing on. For the purposes of this piece, a new quarterback is a new quarterback, whether or not that player previously started at another school.

Although the last three seasons have presented some new variables and have wreaked a bit of havoc on my typical offseason work, I try to quantify the signs of potential improvement or decline out of teams when considering some year-to-year transitional situations. All of the things that come into play in this piece were factors in my College Football Stability Scores. After identifying some key criteria for each of the factors, I went back and looked at teams from recent seasons fitting these criteria to determine their average improvement or decline.

Admittedly, the statistics have been skewed because the number of teams qualifying for these systems has fluctuated tremendously over the last few seasons. However, the methodology is sound, and the fundamental logic hasn’t changed based on the unusual circumstances of the last few years.

As you will see from my findings, there are a number of obvious reasons why teams have gotten significantly better or worse from one season to another. Taking this a step further, I am using the findings to identify some teams to watch in 2022. Hopefully, this will provide a foundation on which to start a successful handicapping run this season, both in terms of game-by-game handicapping and in attacking season win total props.

The data I used dates to the 2013 season or the last nine seasons.

Next week, in Part 2 of this miniseries, I will address some statistical transition systems that the 2022 teams fit into.

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 have discovered and track annually: 

— Over the last nine years, 77 teams have had at least six fewer returning starters than the prior season, and only 14 of those teams have improved that season. The average drop-off was a winning percentage decline of 14.1% and ATS drop of about 5.0%.

Potential decline teams for 2022: Arizona State, Arkansas, Ball State, Buffalo, Central Michigan, California, Coastal Carolina, Colorado State, Eastern Michigan, Florida Atlantic, Florida International, Georgia Tech, Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa State, Kent State, Louisiana, Liberty, LSU, Middle Tennessee State, Minnesota, Nebraska, Nevada, Ole Miss, Rutgers, San Diego State, San Jose State, Toledo, Tulsa, Texas-San Antonio, UCLA, USC, Western Michigan, Wake Forest, Washington State, Wisconsin, Wyoming (note that list of 38 teams for 2022 is about nine times bigger than the average season because of last season’s super senior rule)

— Alternatively, of the 111 teams over the last nine years that brought back at least six starters more than the prior season, only 33 got worse, although half of them came last season when most teams had a greater percentage of their starters back. The average improvement of this group was a winning percentage bump of 9.3% and ATS rise of 4.6%.

Potential improve teams for 2022: BYU, New Mexico State, Notre Dame, Old Dominion (this list is less than half of usual because of the massive loss of veteran players after last season)

— The total number of starters returning has also proven to be a great predicting factor, as there have been 141 teams in the last nine seasons that returned 10 or fewer starters, and only 27 have improved their winning percentage. The average drops for this group were 13.9% in winning percentage and 4.5% in ATS%. The combined ATS mark of these teams was 781-909 ATS, or 46.2%, a clear play-against group.

Potential decline teams for 2022: Arizona State, Arkansas State, Buffalo, California, Coastal Carolina, Florida International, Georgia, Georgia Tech, Hawaii, Iowa State, James Madison, Kent State, LSU, Nevada, Oklahoma, Texas A&M, UCLA, USC, Virginia, Washington State, Wisconsin, Wyoming

— The opposite group of that last system includes those teams that return 16 or more total offensive and defensive starters in a season. That group has included 295 teams over the last nine seasons, and only 91 (30.8%) have recorded a worse won-lost record. The average improvement was a bump of 7.8% outright and 2.6% against the spread.

Potential improve teams for 2022: Akron, Boise State, Bowling Green, BYU, Florida State, Kansas, Maryland, Massachusetts, Mississippi State, Northern Illinois, NC State, Old Dominion, South Alabama, South Florida, Southern Miss, Stanford, Syracuse, TCU, Troy, Tulane, UCF

What does a retuning starting quarterback mean?

In a generic sense, returning a starting quarterback has meant an increase of about 2.2% on winning percentage. However, oddsmakers seem to place an emphasis on this, as there is an average decline in ATS winning percentage, and these teams have covered about 50.2% of their games, so in the end, it is still advantageous to back teams with returning QBs. Before last season, there was a lofty number of 87 teams that brought back their starting quarterback, and of those 51 held par or improved, while 36 wound up with lesser records than in 2020. 

On the other hand, teams with a brand new quarterback see their records drop by 4.3% on average while covering just 49.1% of point spreads. Let’s dig deeper to see if we can uncover more. 

— Since 2013, there have been 56 teams that brought in a new starting quarterback and four or fewer total offensive starters. Of these, only 14 teams improved, and the average decline was a 12.8% decrease in winning percentage. Combined ATS% was just 46.8%.

Potential decline teams for 2022: Arizona State, Buffalo, California, Florida International, Hawaii, Indiana, Kent State, Nevada, New Mexico State, San Diego State, Virginia Tech, Western Kentucky, Western Michigan, Washington State, Wyoming

— The opposite group of the one above is one you’re going to going to want to keep track of for backing in 2022, although there are many more than usual. Teams with a returning starting quarterback as well as at least nine other offensive starters have shown great improvement, about 11.8% on winning percentage and 4.9% ATS. Collectively, these 72 teams have gone 54.5% against the spread over the last nine seasons, although in 2021 there were far more teams than usual (25 in fact) that qualified for this angle and collectively went 50.5% ATS.

Potential improve teams for 2022: Old Dominion, South Florida, Stanford 

— There is a dangerous assumption made about teams bringing back a starting quarterback from what was an explosive unit to an otherwise relatively new offensive group. In fact, teams that scored 40+ PPG the prior season and return the starting QB with four or fewer other starters have DECLINED by 3.0 wins per season on average and by 11.1 PPG. The combined ATS winning percentage of these eight teams was only 35.6% (36-65 ATS). In 2021, no teams qualified on this angle because of the huge amount of retuning experience. For 2022, 10 teams will test this system.

Potential decline teams for 2022: Alabama, Arkansas State, Coastal Carolina, Georgia Tech, Michigan State, Middle Tennessee State, Navy, Ohio, Virginia, Wisconsin

— Teams returning a starting quarterback for at least his third straight season as starter usually show nice improvement, typically by about 3% winning and 1.0 PPG. When you add the same head coach/offensive coordinator to the recipe along with at least eight other returning starters on offense, the improvement jumps by 9.8% in won-lost record per season and 52.3% ATS combined.

Potential improve teams for 2022: Bowling Green, Kansas, Maryland, Miami (Ohio) 

— 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 33% or less of its games against the spread in the prior season. The average win increase is 16.9% SU and 25.9% ATS. These teams score nearly 7.0 PPG more as well and combined to go 52.9% ATS.

Potential improve teams for 2022: Northwestern, Southern Miss, Stanford, Troy

— On the opposite side are the teams coming of seasons in which they won 66.7% or more of their games against the spread and have six or fewer offensive starters returning, plus are breaking in a new quarterback. The 28 teams that have fit that bill have dropped by 16.5% outright, 19.1% ATS and 5.2 PPG offensively. (The four teams that added a new head coach plummeted by 5.8 wins per season, and Nevada qualifies for 2022)

Potential decline teams for 2022: Baylor, Nevada, Western Kentucky

What impact does a new coaching staff have?

I’ve spoken at length about this in the past, and wrote about all the changes for 2022 recently, but obviously one of the biggest factors affecting team stability from one year to the next is the status of a coaching staff. New head coaches or coordinators on either side of the ball can change a team’s fortunes dramatically. It’s not always negative, however, as much of it depends on the combination of coaches and player experience. Take a look at these recent results. 

— Entire new coaching staffs (HC, OC, DC) combined with new starting quarterback and 11 or fewer total starters returning is a very unstable situation, and certainly not a winning recipe in college football. These 21 teams over the last nine seasons have seen their winning percentage drop by 14.5% on average, and they have collectively gone just 35.4% SU and 38.5% ATS. You’ll see below that some very big-name programs qualify on this angle for 2022.

Potential decline teams for 2022: Duke, Florida International, LSU, Nevada, Oklahoma, USC, Virginia, Virginia Tech

— Clearly there is major room for improvement when a team wins 25% or fewer games in the prior season, but some of the biggest improvement is realized when these teams bring back their starting quarterback AND hire a new head coach AND coordinators. Over the last nine seasons, the average winning percentage increases of the 52 teams that have done this have been 16% SU and 13.7% ATS.

Potential improve teams for 2022: Massachusetts, Temple 

— Offensive coordinator changes, when combined with little player experience returning, is another sign of trouble. There have been 47 teams that 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 16% on winning percentages, and 5.0% ATS. They collectively have gone just 40.6% ATS, making them the best play-against group we have found. The average scoring output dropped about 5.0 PPG.

Potential decline teams for 2022: Arizona State, Florida International, Hawaii, Indiana, LSU, Marshall, Nevada, New Mexico State, Oklahoma, Ole Miss, Virginia Tech, Western Kentucky, Washington State, Wyoming

— Defensive coordinator changes combined with inexperience is also a recipe for disaster. Of the 105 teams that have changed D-coordinators in a season and brought back five or fewer defensive starters, only 29 teams have improved their won-lost percentage. The average decline was 10.2% on winning percentage and 4.5% ATS. These teams have covered only 45.3% of their point spreads and allowed 3.2 PPG more.

Potential decline teams for 2022: Arizona State, Duke, Florida International, Georgia Southern, Louisiana, Louisiana-Monroe, Liberty, LSU, Miami (Ohio), Michigan, Nevada, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Texas A&M, UCLA, USC, Washington

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