College football statistics point to risers, fallers

July 9, 2022 07:49 PM
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I hope you enjoyed the last two weeks of college football preseason coverage, focusing on the changes and returnees in personnel for all of the nation’s 131 FBS teams. Last week’s personnel transitional systems piece leads to this article, as I move from personnel characteristics to statistical characteristics in determining which teams fit the bill of being ready to improve or decline in 2022.

One of the most difficult things about handicapping college sports is evaluating teams from one season to the next. A lot of factors can affect a team’s strength or how much different it might perform from the prior season. You have to consider personnel losses, coaching changes, momentum lost or gained and many other factors. Sometimes the changes can be 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. The recent growth of the transfer portal and its immediate impact has only increased the challenge.

Over the last few years, we have witnessed situations never seen before. The 2020 season was, of course, the COVID-19 season with little to no fans in the stands, players and teams opting out and major modifications to every team’s schedule. Last year, we saw the impact of “super seniors” and the most returning experience to the field that we’ve ever encountered. For 2022, the experience factor takes a huge hit, as those super seniors are gone, leaving behind veteran but inexperienced players who otherwise would have benefited from starting roles. We’ll see how big of an impact this has on the upcoming season. After anticipating potential new teams in the College Football Playoff at this time last year because of the experience advantage that fringe teams had over NFL-feeding powers, I am predicting a return to normalcy. In other words, teams with the most talent (ie: four- and five-star recruits) figure to be title contenders.

Each year, I try to quantify the signs of potential improvement or decline for teams when considering some year-to-year transitional situations. As I indicated earlier, last week I looked at personnel factors, many of which make up my College Football Stability scores. This week I dive into statistics from the previous season that can best forecast a team’s upcoming prospects.

Are there any revealing statistics from the prior season that can predict the coming season?

Sometimes teams just catch consistently good or bad breaks throughout a season that affect their record and spread success significantly. Let’s dig through the data to see if we can find anything of this nature that might help us find some strong fade or follow teams for 2022.

— There have been 53 teams over the last nine seasons that have had losing seasons despite outscoring their opponents. Of those, 19 brought back 13 or more starters, including their quarterback. The collective improvement of this group was about 13.4% SU. These teams combined to go 52.1% ATS.

Potential improve teams for 2022: Florida State, Louisville 

— Alternatively, there have been 50 teams over the last nine seasons that have enjoyed winning seasons despite being outscored by their opponents. Of those, 12 of them brought back 13 or fewer starters and turned to a new starting quarterback. Only one team improved (by one win), and the collective decline of this group was a drop-off of about 15.9% SU. This bunch included Michigan State and Utah State in 2020, and they combined to go 3-10 SU and ATS.

Potential decline teams for 2022: None, although Tulsa (returning QB) and South Carolina (14 starters back) came closest, just missing the criteria by these marks 

Naturally, turnover luck is an easy-to-recognize opportunity for spotting teams capable of improving or in danger of falling from season to season. For the last nine seasons, teams that had a turnover ratio of -1.0 or worse per game improved by 13.2% winning percentage the next season. Those that were in the -0.1 to -0.9 range improved by 4.2%. On the opposite side, teams with a turnover ratio of 1.0 or better dropped by 12.8%, while those in the 0.1 to 0.9 range were about 3.8% worse the next season. Of course, with this much straightforward data, we must dig further into this.

— Over the last seven seasons, 15 teams managed to go .500 or better against the spread despite having a -1.0 or worse turnover differential per game. Those teams bounced back the following season, improving by over 12.6%.

Potential improve team for 2021: Arizona

— In the “there’s nowhere to go but up category,” since 2013, there have been 44 teams that have won two or fewer games in a season while enduring a -1.0 or worse turnover ratio. Only three of those 44 teams got worse, while the average win improvement was 1.96 per season. The SU win% upgrade was 18.8%, and the ATS improvement was 16.1%. Despite the mistake-prone play, the most dramatic improvement came from teams that brought back 15 or more starters. That group of 22 teams improved by 4.5 wins per season, 26.3% SU winning percentage, and 25.7% ATS.

Potential improve teams for 2022: Arizona

— There is a potential landmine system that has affected teams coming off a season in which they enjoyed a positive 1.0 or better turnover differential but are now starting fresh at quarterback. The 30 most recent teams that have fit this bill have dropped by 1.4 wins per season in the next campaign, representing an 18.2% plunge outright and an 11.3% dip ATS.

Potential decline teams for 2022: Louisiana, Nevada

— It can easily be argued that the teams that got the “luckiest” in the prior season were those that had the best turnover differentials combined with smallest point differentials. It can also be predicted that these teams are due for a fall when “starting over.” Historically that is the case, as only one of the last 16 teams to have a TO differential of 1.0 or better and PPG differential of 12.0 or less with 14 or fewer starters returning improved their winning percentage the next season. The average decline of this group was 2.6 wins per season, for an average percentage drop of 19.6% outright and 4.8% ATS. Collectively, they were 46.4% ATS.

Potential decline teams for 2022: Nevada

Analyzing the quality of wins and losses from the prior season

You will find a lot of prognosticators who tout close wins or losses as motivation for a team heading into the next season. Let’s look at that along with blowout wins and losses. I define close wins/losses as seven or fewer points and blowout wins/losses as 20 or more points. 

— Experienced teams have shown a penchant for bouncing back. Coming off seasons in which they lost at least six games by 20 points or more, teams with at least 14 starters back have wiped the slate clean enough to improve by 3.7 wins per season over the last nine years. This represents an 18% improvement outright and a jump of 22.9% ATS.

Potential improve teams for 2022: Akron, Connecticut, Kansas, Massachusetts, Temple

— There have been 70 teams over the last nine seasons that have lost one or fewer games by 20 points or more in a season but still finished with a losing record. Of the 41 that brought back 14 or more starters, only seven finished worse the next season. The average win improvement was 3.2 per season, good for an 18.6% jump outright and a 6.5% bump against the spread.

Potential improve teams for 2022: Florida State, Louisiana Tech, Louisville, Texas

— There have been 29 teams over the last eight seasons that started a new quarterback after a season in which they finished with a winning record despite suffering three or more losses of 20 points or more. Only five finished with a better record the next season, with the average drop being 15.8% or 2.9 wins per season.

Potential decline teams for 2022: Eastern Michigan, South Carolina 

— As another sign of experienced teams being able to wipe the slate clean, only two of the last 37 qualifiers that failed to record a blowout win of 20 points or more and are bringing back 16 starters got worse the next season. The average win gain was a whopping 4.9, good for a 16.5% bump. This group also recorded a 53.3% ATS mark.

Potential improve teams for 2022: Bowling Green, Kansas Massachusetts, Stanford

— There have been 14 teams that have recorded seven or more blowout wins of 20 points or more one season and then changed coaches. Only one of the 14 teams got better the next season, by an average of 19% or 2.7 wins per season.

Potential decline team for 2022: None 

— Close losses can be a galvanizing factor for teams that stay the course. In fact, of the 21 teams over the last eight seasons that suffered five-plus close losses of seven points or fewer and brought back their head coach and at least half of their starters (11 ), only two finished worse the next season. The average win improvement was 2.4 per season, representing an 18.7% jump.

Potential improve teams for 2022: Nebraska, Toledo, Tulane

— Not being tested by close losses can be a warning signal for inexperienced teams on the verge of dropping. There have been 37 teams over the last nine seasons that won nine, 10 or 11 games while suffering one or zero close losses of seven points or fewer and brought back no more than half of their starters (11). Of these, only three teams won more games the next season, with the average win drop being 3.8 per season, a 22.4% SU slide accompanied by a 10.6% ATS drop.

Potential decline teams for 2022: Central Michigan, Kentucky, Oklahoma, Wisconsin

— Close wins are often characterized as getting “lucky.” Well, teams that have a lot of them and then come back inexperienced are naturally expected to drop. Over the last nine seasons, 22 teams brought back 12 or fewer starters from a team that was fortunate to get five or more close wins of seven points or fewer in the prior season. Only one of these teams finished better the next season, with the average win drop being 2.6 per season, a 14.8% plunge.

Potential decline teams for 2022: Kentucky, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, San Diego State, Tulsa

— Subpar teams that experience zero close wins in a season also tend to improve, particularly when choosing to stay the course. In fact, since 2013, 31 teams have finished under .500 and had zero close wins of seven points or fewer in the prior season, then brought back their starting QB, at least 12 total starters and their full coaching staff (HC, OC, DC). Of those, 26 finished better the next season. The average win bump was 1.8 per season, a 21.8% surge.

Potential improve teams for 2022: Northwestern 

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