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A better way to look at college football's returning experience, with LSU No. 1 for 2016

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Here are much better numbers than the traditional method of just counting returning starters. LSU's up top, and Ohio State's right near the bottom.

Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports

Right before the 2015 season, I wrote a post at Football Study Hall exploring a different way to measure returning experience that goes beyond "How many starters do you return?"

We use returning starters because nothing else is particularly available. It is fine as a snapshot, but we know one team's six returning offensive starters aren't another's. What about go-to guys? Returning backups? And quarterbacks are worth more than other starters, right?

You can see some people drawing reference to percent of returning yards/tackles/etc., but it's hard to find concrete data.

Of course, I do compile all of this data, don't I? ... Why don't I weaponize this data for use in projections?

My goal was to begin compiling "percentage returning" data for every level of an offense and defense -- passing yards/attempts/completions, rushing attempts/yards, receiving targets/receptions/yards, offensive line starts (because that's all we have), and tackles/TFLs/pass breakups at each level of the defense.

Once I had this, I could tinker to see how much each category affects a team's offensive or defensive improvement. In theory, this could allow me to create a "percentage of offense/defense returning" figure that could dwarf the effectiveness of just data on returning starters.

With just one year at my disposal (2014) when I wrote the original post, I wasn't able to draw any lasting conclusions, but the potential was obvious. I put together a rough formula that posited that teams like North Carolina (87 percent of production returning), Ohio (85 percent), and Temple (83 percent) were among the most experienced in the country, then watched as those teams improved from a combined 18-9 to a combined 29-12. (Others near the top didn't improve nearly that much.)

Meanwhile, the five that returned less than 40 percent of their production -- Kansas, UTEP, Wyoming, UCF, and UL-Lafayette -- fell from a combined 32-31 to 11-49.

At the end of 2015, I was able to add a second year of data. I have 2013 queued up and ready to go. But the conclusions are becoming clear.

On Monday, I will post initial 2016 S&P+ projections and begin my 2016 offseason preview series. Here's the returning production data I will be using along with these recruiting rankings and other factors. The projected points per game in the table below simply refers to points on the scoreboard.


O returning Proj. O
PPG change

D returning
Proj. D
PPG change
Overall
returning
Overall proj.
PPG change
Rank
LSU 96% +5.0 88% -4.4 92% +9.4 1
UCF 99% +5.4 84% -3.6 92% +9.0 2
Syracuse 100% +5.5 80% -3.0 90% +8.5 3
Kent State 94% +4.7 83% -3.5 89% +8.2 4
Charlotte 92% +4.5 82% -3.3 87% +7.8 5
Rutgers 81% +2.9 90% -4.6 85% +7.5 6
Louisville 98% +5.2 77% -2.3 87% +7.5 7
Kansas 81% +2.9 85% -3.9 83% +6.8 8
Wake Forest 89% +4.0 79% -2.7 84% +6.7 9
Ball State 78% +2.5 87% -4.1 82% +6.6 10
Nevada 95% +4.9 73% -1.7 84% +6.6 11
Tennessee 84% +3.3 78% -2.6 81% +5.9 12
UConn 94% +4.7 70% -1.1 82% +5.8 13
Texas 79% +2.7 81% -3.1 80% +5.8 14
BC 92% +4.4 71% -1.3 81% +5.7 15
Colorado 81% +2.9 78% -2.6 80% +5.5 16
Army 71% +1.6 85% -3.8 78% +5.4 17
SMU 97% +5.1 65% -0.3 81% +5.4 18
New Mexico 76% +2.3 80% -3.0 78% +5.3 19
South Florida 89% +4.0 70% -1.2 79% +5.2 20
Idaho 82% +3.0 76% -2.1 79% +5.1 21
Miami (Ohio) 84% +3.3 74% -1.8 79% +5.1 22
WSU 87% +3.7 71% -1.4 79% +5.1 23
NMSU 88% +3.8 71% -1.3 79% +5.1 24
Nebraska 94% +4.7 63% +0.1 78% +4.6 25
EMU 78% +2.6 75% -2.0 77% +4.6 26
Washington 72% +1.7 79% -2.8 76% +4.5 27
UCLA 61% +0.2 88% -4.3 75% +4.5 28
Georgia 75% +2.1 76% -2.3 76% +4.4 29
Duke 80% +2.7 73% -1.6 76% +4.3 30
App State 72% +1.7 78% -2.6 75% +4.3 31
Virginia Tech 66% +0.9 82% -3.3 74% +4.2 32
Oregon State 72% +1.6 78% -2.5 75% +4.1 33
Fresno State 89% +4.1 62% +0.2 76% +3.9 34
Missouri 82% +3.0 69% -0.9 75% +3.9 35
Texas Tech 76% +2.2 72% -1.6 74% +3.8 36
OK State 79% +2.6 69% -0.9 74% +3.5 37
NIU 85% +3.5 63% +0.1 74% +3.4 38
Wyoming 60% +0.0 83% -3.4 71% +3.4 39
Vanderbilt 59% -0.1 83% -3.5 71% +3.3 40
CMU 80% +2.7 67% -0.6 73% +3.3 41
Pittsburgh 72% +1.6 72% -1.6 72% +3.2 42
Iowa 72% +1.7 72% -1.4 72% +3.1 43
ODU 65% +0.8 76% -2.2 71% +3.0 44
Virginia 80% +2.8 64% -0.1 72% +2.9 45
ECU 85% +3.5 60% +0.6 73% +2.9 46
UTEP 89% +4.0 56% +1.2 73% +2.8 47
BYU 67% +1.0 73% -1.7 70% +2.7 48
Cincinnati 55% -0.6 82% -3.2 69% +2.6 49
WMU 79% +2.6 62% +0.2 70% +2.4 50
Tulsa 73% +1.7 67% -0.7 70% +2.4 51
Kansas State 77% +2.4 62% +0.2 70% +2.2 52
Iowa State 65% +0.7 71% -1.4 68% +2.1 53
Miami 78% +2.4 62% +0.3 70% +2.1 54
Oklahoma 72% +1.7 66% -0.4 69% +2.1 55
Baylor 71% +1.5 66% -0.5 69% +2.0 56
Indiana 47% -1.8 84% -3.7 66% +1.9 57
Boise State 87% +3.7 53% +1.9 70% +1.8 58
Rice 51% -1.3 80% -3.0 66% +1.7 59
Hawaii 66% +0.8 69% -0.9 67% +1.7 60
Clemson 90% +4.1 50% +2.4 70% +1.7 61
Southern Miss 65% +0.7 69% -1.0 67% +1.7 62
SDSU 52% -1.1 79% -2.8 66% +1.7 63
USC 54% -0.8 77% -2.5 66% +1.6 64
Maryland 93% +4.6 46% +3.1 70% +1.5 65
MTSU 80% +2.8 55% +1.4 68% +1.4 66
Texas A&M 59% -0.2 72% -1.6 65% +1.4 67
UL-Lafayette 54% -0.8 75% -2.1 65% +1.3 68
Oregon 49% -1.5 79% -2.8 64% +1.3 69
Georgia Tech 97% +5.1 42% +3.8 70% +1.3 70
GA Southern 89% +3.9 48% +2.6 69% +1.3 71
Purdue 68% +1.1 65% -0.2 66% +1.3 72
Arkansas 37% -3.2 89% -4.5 63% +1.3 73
North Carolina 50% -1.3 78% -2.5 64% +1.2 74
Tulane 54% -0.9 75% -2.0 64% +1.2 75
Michigan 53% -0.9 73% -1.7 63% +0.8 76
Minnesota 84% +3.3 48% +2.6 66% +0.7 77
Arizona 61% +0.1 65% -0.3 63% +0.4 78
UL-Monroe 78% +2.5 51% +2.2 65% +0.3 79
Air Force 34% -3.6 85% -3.9 60% +0.3 80
South Carolina 61% +0.2 63% 0.0 62% +0.2 81
Northwestern 68% +1.1 58% +0.9 63% +0.2 82
Ole Miss 74% +1.9 54% +1.7 64% +0.2 83
Florida Int'l 80% +2.7 48% +2.6 64% +0.1 84
Auburn 64% +0.6 61% +0.5 62% +0.1 85
Temple 73% +1.8 53% +1.8 63% 0.0 86
NC State 50% -1.4 70% -1.2 60% -0.1 87
Akron 72% +1.6 53% +1.8 63% -0.2 88
Marshall 72% +1.6 53% +1.8 62% -0.2 89
Kentucky 62% +0.3 61% +0.5 62% -0.2 90
Florida State 77% +2.3 49% +2.5 63% -0.2 91
SJSU 69% +1.2 55% +1.5 62% -0.3 92
North Texas 42% -2.5 76% -2.2 59% -0.4 93
Florida 63% +0.4 59% +0.8 61% -0.4 94
UTSA 61% +0.2 58% +0.9 60% -0.7 95
West Virginia 86% +3.6 38% +4.5 62% -0.9 96
Penn State 53% -1.0 63% +0.0 58% -1.0 97
FAU 54% -0.9 62% +0.3 58% -1.2 98
Utah 35% -3.5 76% -2.2 55% -1.3 99
Georgia State 45% -2.1 68% -0.7 56% -1.3 100
Miss. State 44% -2.2 69% -0.9 56% -1.3 101
Texas State 52% -1.2 62% +0.3 57% -1.5 102
Houston 72% +1.7 44% +3.3 58% -1.6 103
Alabama 45% -2.1 66% -0.5 55% -1.6 104
Memphis 40% -2.7 68% -0.8 54% -1.9 105
UNLV 56% -0.5 55% +1.5 56% -2.0 106
Ark. State 37% -3.2 69% -1.0 53% -2.1 107
Troy 57% -0.4 52% +1.9 55% -2.3 108
Illinois 74% +2.0 38% +4.6 56% -2.6 109
Notre Dame 60% +0.1 47% +3.0 54% -2.9 110
USA 34% -3.6 64% -0.1 49% -3.5 111
TCU 29% -4.3 68% -0.8 48% -3.5 112
Ohio 64% +0.5 40% +4.1 52% -3.6 113
Buffalo 18% -5.8 73% -1.7 46% -4.1 114
Stanford 33% -3.7 61% +0.5 47% -4.2 115
Utah State 57% -0.4 41% +3.9 49% -4.3 116
WKU 34% -3.6 59% +0.7 47% -4.3 117
CSU 58% -0.3 40% +4.2 49% -4.5 118
BGSU 29% -4.2 62% +0.3 46% -4.5 119
Mich. State 26% -4.6 64% 0.0 45% -4.6 120
Navy 34% -3.6 56% +1.4 45% -5.0 121
Wisconsin 34% -3.6 54% +1.7 44% -5.3 122
Toledo 44% -2.2 43% +3.6 43% -5.8 123
California 15% -6.2 62% +0.2 39% -6.4 124
LA Tech 42% -2.5 37% +4.7 39% -7.2 125
Arizona State 27% -4.5 43% +3.7 35% -8.2 126
Ohio State 22% -5.2 36% +4.7 29% -9.9 127
UMass 15% -6.3 34% +5.2 24% -11.5 128

No pressure, Les.

LSU was ninth in S&P+ last seasonranks eighth in two-year recruiting, and is first in returning experience. I don't know, do you figure my projections might have the Tigers pretty high next week?

LSU fell into a three-week funk last November, which colored our perceptions but only did so much to temper their numbers. The Tigers otherwise played at the 81st percentile or higher in every game and are scheduled to return last year's quarterback, every rusher (including that Leonard Fournette guy), 10 of their top 11 receiving targets, every defensive lineman, and nine of 10 defensive backs. Last year's freshmen and sophomores are this year's sophomores and juniors.

There are still questions -- Can Brandon Harris develop into a more efficient passer? Do experience and a new defensive coordinator shore up a leaky run defense? -- but on paper, the pieces are in place for the Tigers in a way they haven't been in years.

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Which experience matters?

I didn't say anything about LSU's offensive line or linebackers. The Tigers do return three OL starters, and linebacker Kendell Beckwith elected to return for his senior season. But from a statistical perspective, it appears experience in these two units means very little.

With a couple years of data, here are the correlations between a percentage returning category and change in Off. S&P+ (the higher, the more correlated returning experience is with production):

  • Receiving yards returning: 0.285
  • Passing yards returning: 0.264
  • Rushing yards returning: 0.079
  • Career offensive line starts returning: 0.015

And here are the correlations between some returnee categories and Def. S&P+:

  • Passes broken up returning (overall): -0.440
  • Passes broken up returning (DBs): -0.404
  • Tackles returning (overall): -0.388
  • Tackles returning (DBs): -0.378
  • Sacks returning (DLs): -0.194
  • Passes broken up returning (DLs): -0.161
  • Tackles returning (LBs): -0.161

Offensive line experience, as calculated by career starts returning, has almost no impact on a team's Off. S&P+. That is rather mind-blowing. Now, that could be because career starts aren't the best measure to use. I will look into using solely the previous year's total -- percentage of 2015 OL starts returning, in other words -- and putting a cap on career starts. As it stands, losing one three-year starter and returning four one-year starters means you've barely returned 50 percent of your career starts. That might not be the best way to measure things.

For now, however, the correlations are null. And for that reason, this initial correlation ignores offensive line starts*. That feels like a strange thing to do, but if a measure has no impact, there is no reason to use it.

When these projections are finalized after spring football, I'll hopefully have data for stronger conclusions.

* I don't yet have all the offensive line start data compiled anyway, so this is convenient.

As with recruiting, experience matters more on defense.

The squared correlation between a team's defensive percentage returning and Def. S&P+ change is 22.1 percent, meaning this change in experience can account for 22 percent of a team's change in defensive quality.

On offense, it's only 13.8 percent.

As you see in the table above, experience can be a little more powerful on defense, at least at the extreme end. Returning 34 percent of your offense, like Air Force does, means regression of about 3.6 points per game, while returning 34 percent of your defense, like UMass does, means 5.2 points. On the other end, Clemson returning 90 percent of its offense benefits it by 4.1 points; Rutgers returning 90 percent of its defense means 4.6.

Experience in the secondary is worth more than experience in the front seven. And it appears that the skill of being able to either pick off or bat down passes is far more difficult to replace than other skills.

Do you have Ohio State and Stanford in your top 10?

Because if so ... well ... consider this a red flag. The Cardinal are under the 50 percent bar, and Buckeyes are one of five teams projected to return less than 40 percent of their production. That meant doom across the board last year, and while both of these programs could fall a couple of notches and still be quite good, you might not want to expect too much. That might serve as an alarm bell to many far-too-early prognosticators.

Two other teams on the wrong side: Cal and Arizona State.

Cal's easy to figure out -- the Golden Bears are a pass-first team that must replace their quarterback (soon to become a high draft pick) and top six receiving targets. And as we see above, quarterback and receiver experience are worth far more than running back or offensive line experience. (Losing two starters in the defensive backfield doesn't help.)

Arizona State is coming off of a terribly disappointing 6-7 campaign, and head coach Todd Graham has been tasked with replacing longtime offensive coordinator Mike Norvell (who took the Memphis head coaching job), tight ends coach Chip Long (who followed Norvell), and defensive line coach Jackie Shipp (who left for the same position at Missouri). The Sun Devils must now replace their quarterback, their top two receivers, and four of their top five defensive backs. Yikes.

Approaching returning talent like this is exciting. It has already led to projections more strongly correlated to improvement and regression, and there are still further matters to tackle -- how to handle offensive line experience, for instance. I feel comfortable enough with this data to use them in the upcoming projections and previews, but hopefully I'll get a little bit further with this by the next round of projections.

What stands out to you in the table above?

(Note: This post was updated to account for some roster errors. Michigan, Notre Dame, and Stanford do not list redshirts, so some of the players listed as seniors are juniors, juniors are sophomores, etc. It's annoying, and it manages to trip me up every damn year. Granted, that's partially on me. But I will still complain about it.)