College sports present some different challenges from the pros in that turnover is typically much greater with rosters, and even 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 a team’s strengths and how much different it might wind up being from the previous season. Among the factors to consider are personnel losses, coaching changes and momentum lost or gained. Sometimes the change is immense. Adding to the difficulty is that many programs are taking players right out of their most recent recruiting classes and plugging them into starting spots.
The 2021 college football season will be different from any in recent memory because the COVID-19 pandemic and its repercussions have introduced some new variables into offseason handicapping. First, and perhaps most importantly, players were granted an extra year of eligibility. This has resulted in a greater number of returning experienced players, or essentially starters. This season could provide an answer to the age-old argument of what means more — raw talent or experience? Second, teams played a widely varying number of games in 2020, anywhere from zero to a full season. How are bettors supposed to accurately judge the mostly incomplete 2020 campaign and the impact it will have this fall? Third, with most games last season played in environments resembling scrimmages, how will the full return of fans affect the players’ motivation?
A couple of weeks ago, I released my College Football Stability Scores for the season. As usual, I was inundated with questions. Most stemmed from the eligibility-rule change and how I thought that might affect the season. No one can tell for sure, but I have been answering with my belief that the gap from the elite to the second-tier teams could close a bit. Teams not affected as much by the loss of talent to the NFL could benefit the most, as they are getting players with an extra year of experience back on the field. Other questions I have fielded usually revolved around changes in coaching staffs and how to interpret won-lost records for teams that didn’t play complete seasons in 2020. The answers are impossible to predict, and we’ll just have to see how the 2021 season plays out.
Though the new variables wreaked some havoc on my typical offseason work, I have sought in recent years to address the usual concerns by trying to quantify the signs of teams’ potential improvement or decline when considering some year-to-year transitional situations. All the things that come into play here were factors in my College Football Stability Scores. After identifying some key criteria for each factor, I went back and looked at teams from recent seasons fitting this criteria to determine their average improvement or decline.
As my findings indicate, teams have gotten significantly better or worse from one season to another for a number of reasons. Taking this a step further, I am using my findings to point out some teams to watch for in 2021. Hopefully this will provide a foundation on which to start a successful handicapping run. Again, though, it will be up to the handicapper to try to best weigh what effect the unusual circumstances of the previous year might have.
The data I used dates back to the 2013 season, or the last eight seasons.
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 continue to track annually:
— Over the last eight years, 74 teams have had at least six fewer returning starters than the previous season, and only 13 improved. The average drop was a winning percentage decline of 13.8% and ATS drop of about 4.7%.
Potential decline teams for 2021: New Mexico State, Northwestern, Old Dominion, Tennessee.
— Alternatively, of the 77 teams over the last eight years that brought back at least six starters more than the previous season, only 17 got worse. The average improvement was a winning percentage bump of 11.7% and ATS rise of 5.6%. The combined ATS winning percentage of the 77 teams was 52.8% (473-423 ATS). Over the last two years, all but three of 21 teams that qualified for this system improved their won-lost mark, including 2019-20 national champ LSU in the last full season.
Potential improve teams for 2021: Arizona State, Auburn, Ball State, Baylor, Boise State, Central Michigan, Eastern Michigan, Florida Atlantic, Florida International, Hawaii, Iowa State, Kansas, Kansas State, Louisiana, Liberty, Louisiana Tech, LSU, Maryland, Miami, Michigan State, Minnesota, San Jose State, Syracuse, Toledo, Troy, Tulsa, Texas-San Antonio, UCLA, Utah, UTEP, Western Michigan, Wake Forest, Washington, Wyoming. (This list is much longer than usual due to the extra year of eligibility granted.)
— The total number of starters returning has also proven to be a great predicting factor, as 137 teams in the last eight seasons returned 10 or fewer starters and only 26 have improved their winning percentage. The average drops for this group were 13.6% in win percentage and 4.2% in ATS percentage The combined ATS mark of these teams was 757-883 ATS, or 46.1%, a clear play-against group.
Potential decline teams for 2021: New Mexico State, Northwestern, Notre Dame, Old Dominion.
— The opposite group of that last system contains teams that return 16 or more total offensive and defensive starters. That group has included 210 teams over the last eight seasons, and only 54 (25.7%) have recorded a worse won-lost record. The average improvement was a bump of 9.3% outright and 3.7% against the spread. These 210 teams combined for an ATS winning percentage of 52.3%.
Potential improve teams for 2021: Akron, Appalachian State, Arizona State, Arkansas, Auburn, Ball State, Baylor, Boise State, Boston College, Central Michigan, California, Coastal Carolina, Colorado, Colorado State, Eastern Michigan, East Carolina, Florida Atlantic, Florida International, Florida State, Fresno State, Georgia State, Georgia Tech, Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa State, Kansas, Kansas State, Kent State, Louisiana, Louisiana-Monroe, Liberty, Louisiana Tech, LSU, Marshall, Maryland, Miami, Miami (Ohio), Michigan, Michigan State, Middle Tennessee State, Minnesota, Mississippi State, Missouri, Northern Illinois, NC State, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, North Carolina, North Texas, Ohio, Ole Miss, Oregon, Oregon State, Purdue, Rice, Rutgers, South Alabama, San Diego State, San Jose State, SMU, South Florida, Southern Miss, Syracuse, TCU, Texas State, Toledo, Troy, Tulane, Tulsa, Texas-San Antonio, UAB, UCLA, UNLV, USC, Utah, Utah State, UTEP, Western Michigan, Wake Forest, Washington, Washington State, West Virginia, Wyoming. (Again, this list is about three times longer than usual due to the extra year of eligibility granted.)
What does a returning starting quarterback mean?
In a generic sense, returning a starting quarterback has meant an increase of about 2.4% 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 50.5% of their games. So in the end, it is still advantageous to back teams with returning QBs. On the other hand, teams with new quarterbacks see their records drop by 5.3% on average while covering just 48.7% of point spreads. Let’s dig deeper to see if we can uncover more.
— Since 2013, a total of 52 teams have brought in new starting quarterbacks and four or fewer total offensive starters. Of these, only 12 teams improved, and the average decline was a 12.9% decrease in winning percentage. Combined ATS percentage was just 46.7%.
Potential decline teams for 2021: Alabama, Northwestern, Notre Dame, Tennessee.
— The opposite group is one you’ll want to keep track of for backing in 2021, though it includes many more than usual. Teams with returning starting quarterbacks as well as at least nine other offensive starters have shown great improvement, about 12.2% on winning percentage and 5.4% ATS. Collectively, these 47 teams have gone 54.9% against the spread over the last eight seasons.
Potential improve teams for 2021: Akron, Ball State, Central Michigan, California, Eastern Michigan, East Carolina, Florida Atlantic, Florida State, Georgia State, Iowa State, Kansas State, Kent State, Liberty, Miami, Minnesota, Nevada, Rutgers, Toledo, Troy, Tulane, Texas-San Antonio, UCLA, UTEP, Wake Forest, Washington, Wyoming.
— A dangerous assumption is made about teams bringing back starting quarterbacks from what was an explosive unit to an otherwise relatively new offensive group. In fact, teams that scored 40-plus points per game the previous season and return the starting QB but 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).
Potential decline teams for 2021: None. Oklahoma State comes closest with four other offensive starters back but averaged only 30.2 PPG in 2020.
— Teams returning a quarterback for at least his third straight season as starter usually show nice improvement, typically by about 2.5% in winning percentage and 1.0 PPG. When you add the same head coach and offensive coordinator to the recipe along with at least eight other total offensive returning starters, the improvement jumps by 10.3% in won-lost record per season and 52.3% ATS combined.
Potential improve teams for 2021: East Carolina, Iowa State, Kansas State, Kent State, Nevada, Purdue, UCLA, Wake Forest.
— 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 the previous season. The average win increase is 19.6% SU and 27.3% ATS. These teams score nearly 8.0 PPG more as well and combined to go 53.9% ATS.
Potential improve teams for 2021: Akron, California, Florida Atlantic, Florida State, Ohio, Purdue, Washington.
— On the opposite side of that mix come the teams that are off seasons in which they won 66.7% or more of their games against the spread and return six or fewer offensive starters, plus are breaking in new quarterbacks. The 26 teams that have fit that description have dropped by 15.2% outright, 17.9% ATS and 5.0 PPG offensively. The four teams that added a new head coach plummeted by 5.8 wins per season.
Potential decline teams for 2021: Alabama, Northwestern.
What impact does a new coaching staff have?
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 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 a new starting quarterback and 11 or fewer total starters returning is a real unstable situation, certainly not a winning recipe in college football. These 20 teams over the last eight seasons have seen their winning percentage drop by 16.4% on average, and the teams have collectively gone just 34.5% SU and 38.5% ATS.
Potential decline team for 2021: Tennessee.
— Clearly, major room for improvement exists when a team wins 25% or fewer games, 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 eight seasons, the average winning percentage increase of the 48 teams that have done this has been 15.6% SU and 13.3% ATS.
Potential improve teams for 2021: Arizona, Illinois, Kansas, Louisiana-Monroe, South Carolina, Utah State, Vanderbilt.
— Offensive coordinator changes when combined with little experience returning is also a sign of trouble. A total of 44 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 16.9% in winning percentage and 4.5% ATS. They collectively have gone just 40.8% ATS, making them the best play-against group we have found. The average scoring output dropped about 5.3 PPG.
Potential decline teams for 2021: Alabama, Florida, Tennessee.
— Defensive coordinator changes and inexperience is also a recipe for disaster. Of the 103 teams that have changed defensive coordinators and brought back five or fewer defensive starters, only 28 have improved their won-lost percentage. The average decline was 10.2% in winning percentage and 4.3% ATS. These teams have covered only 45.5% of their point spreads and allowed 3.2 PPG more.
Potential decline teams for 2021: Northwestern, South Carolina.