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2018 college football returning production rankings: Clemson’s ready. Who else?

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Also: It’s put-up-or-shut-up time in Ann Arbor, and the Pac-12 South’s got a long way to go.

Clemson v Wake Forest Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

By now, you might be familiar with my process for releasing each season’s S&P+ projections:

  1. Release data on the primary factors that go into the projections — returning production, recent performance, and recruiting — in individual posts.
  2. Release official S&P+ projections.
  3. Begin the 130-team preview series.

Because February’s Signing Day is a little bit later into the month this year (February 7), the recruiting post and overall S&P+ projections post will end up publishing after the series begins on on Monday, Feb. 5.

That doesn’t mean we can’t go ahead and talk returning production, however.

Over the last few years, I have attempted to move beyond the too-simple “returning starters” figure to measure experience and returning production.

We use the best tools we have, even if they’re not that great. We try to derive value from offensive line starts because it’s the only individual measure of offensive linemen that we have. You can’t get much from “he’s been one of Team A’s five preferred linemen 16 times since he started school here.”

It’s the same with returning starters. We use it because it exists. It is fine as a really quick snapshot, but we know that 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?

In 2016, I began using a returning production figure based on what seems to have the most impact on year-to-year performance. With what is now a few years’ worth of data, let’s take a look at some updated correlations.

How returning production in four offensive stats correlates with changes in Offensive S&P+ ratings:

Returning experience on the line doesn’t have nearly the statistical impact that we think it will. But with more data in the bank, we can see there’s a little correlation.

The higher the number, the more likely returning production in these areas is to coincide with strong offense:

  • Receiving yards correlation: 0.322
  • Passing yards correlation: 0.228
  • Rushing yards correlation: 0.176
  • Offensive line starts correlation: 0.088

The conclusion remains: Continuity in the passing game matters a hell of a lot, and continuity in the run game doesn’t have as strong an impact.

Correlation between defensive stats and changes in Defensive S&P+:

On defense, where returning production appears to matter more in general, the correlations are both stronger and more diverse. Since teams use different numbers of defensive linemen, linebackers, and defensive backs, I look at both unit-specific categories and those for defense as a whole.

  • Overall passes defensed correlation: 0.381
  • Overall tackles correlation: 0.366
  • Defensive back passes defensed correlation: 0.340
  • Defensive back tackles correlation: 0.336
  • Defensive back tackles for loss correlation: 0.303
  • Overall tackles for loss correlation: 0.295
  • Linebacker tackles for loss correlation: 0.206
  • Linebacker tackles correlation: 0.192
  • Defensive line sacks correlation: 0.126

The main takeaways are similar to last year: Disruption and continuity in the secondary are key. And the ability to get hands on passes is harder to replicate than any other.

So what does this mean for 2018? As with last year, I used categories like the ones above, weighted for largest effect — so returning quarterbacks, receivers, and defensive backs carry more heft — to create numbers for offense and defense.

2018 college football returning production (as of Jan. 31)

Team OFF RET Rk DEF RET Rk TOTAL RET Rk
Team OFF RET Rk DEF RET Rk TOTAL RET Rk
Michigan State 92% 3 91% 5 92% 1
Kansas 91% 4 92% 4 91% 2
Georgia Southern 85% 12 95% 3 90% 3
Baylor 93% 2 82% 17 88% 4
Ball State 84% 16 85% 12 84% 5
Charlotte 76% 38 90% 6 83% 6
Liberty 77% 37 85% 11 81% 7
Mississippi State 82% 19 80% 22 81% 8
BYU 85% 14 76% 28 81% 9
UAB 96% 1 65% 63 81% 10
Duke 82% 20 78% 25 80% 11
Fresno State 83% 18 74% 39 79% 12
Michigan 74% 42 83% 15 78% 13
Nevada 79% 28 78% 26 78% 14
UL-Monroe 86% 9 70% 44 78% 15
Kent State 87% 8 68% 51 77% 16
Wyoming 79% 26 74% 34 77% 17
Bowling Green 68% 66 85% 13 76% 18
California 85% 13 68% 52 76% 19
Notre Dame 54% 98 96% 1 75% 20
Florida 77% 34 74% 36 75% 21
Washington 70% 58 81% 20 75% 22
Old Dominion 72% 49 79% 24 75% 23
Rice 84% 17 67% 54 75% 24
Arizona 70% 60 79% 23 75% 25
Louisiana Tech 73% 44 76% 29 74% 26
Central Florida 71% 51 76% 30 74% 27
Clemson 73% 45 75% 32 74% 28
Middle Tennessee 86% 10 61% 77 74% 29
North Carolina 77% 33 70% 46 73% 30
Boston College 81% 23 65% 61 73% 31
Marshall 65% 75 81% 19 73% 32
Miami-OH 72% 47 74% 37 73% 33
Buffalo 82% 21 64% 66 73% 34
Texas A&M 66% 70 78% 27 72% 35
Florida Atlantic 53% 103 90% 8 72% 36
Wake Forest 74% 43 69% 49 72% 37
Tulsa 77% 35 66% 59 71% 38
Massachusetts 87% 7 55% 94 71% 39
Arkansas 76% 39 66% 58 71% 40
UTEP 71% 52 71% 43 71% 41
Boise State 54% 101 88% 9 71% 42
Rutgers 60% 82 81% 18 71% 43
San Jose State 90% 5 49% 113 70% 44
North Texas 78% 29 60% 83 69% 45
SMU 58% 88 80% 21 69% 46
Auburn 78% 31 61% 80 69% 47
Miami-FL 68% 67 70% 45 69% 48
UL-Lafayette 89% 6 48% 116 69% 49
Kentucky 47% 109 90% 7 69% 50
South Alabama 79% 24 58% 87 69% 51
Missouri 70% 54 66% 55 68% 52
UNLV 70% 59 66% 56 68% 53
Minnesota 69% 61 66% 60 68% 54
Texas 79% 27 57% 91 68% 55
Coastal Carolina 65% 74 70% 47 67% 56
Pittsburgh 60% 84 75% 33 67% 57
Oregon 72% 50 63% 72 67% 58
Oregon State 58% 90 76% 31 67% 59
Utah State 69% 63 65% 62 67% 60
Stanford 81% 22 51% 110 66% 61
Virginia Tech 68% 65 64% 67 66% 62
Northern Illinois 68% 64 63% 69 66% 63
Temple 71% 53 61% 82 66% 64
Hawaii 58% 94 74% 35 66% 65
New Mexico 64% 77 66% 57 65% 66
South Carolina 84% 15 47% 119 65% 67
Tulane 86% 11 44% 123 65% 68
West Virginia 72% 46 57% 89 65% 69
Texas State 58% 91 71% 42 65% 70
Nebraska 59% 87 70% 48 64% 71
Northwestern 67% 68 61% 79 64% 72
Kansas State 77% 36 52% 107 64% 73
Eastern Michigan 43% 118 84% 14 64% 74
Syracuse 59% 86 68% 53 63% 75
Texas Tech 31% 127 96% 2 63% 76
Ole Miss 64% 78 62% 73 63% 77
Illinois 64% 79 62% 75 63% 78
Arizona State 78% 30 48% 115 63% 79
Cincinnati 69% 62 56% 92 63% 80
Ohio 70% 55 54% 99 62% 81
New Mexico State 41% 122 83% 16 62% 82
Arkansas State 66% 73 58% 86 62% 83
Ohio State 72% 48 51% 109 62% 84
Air Force 70% 57 53% 103 62% 85
Maryland 65% 76 58% 88 61% 86
Connecticut 75% 40 47% 118 61% 87
Akron 35% 126 87% 10 61% 88
Utah 58% 89 64% 65 61% 89
Virginia 50% 106 72% 41 61% 90
Iowa 67% 69 54% 95 61% 91
Wisconsin 79% 25 42% 124 60% 92
Florida State 74% 41 46% 120 60% 93
San Diego State 57% 95 63% 70 60% 94
Georgia 66% 71 54% 96 60% 95
Purdue 77% 32 41% 125 59% 96
UCLA 45% 111 72% 40 59% 97
Georgia Tech 66% 72 52% 108 59% 98
Iowa State 54% 99 62% 74 58% 99
Toledo 54% 100 62% 76 58% 100
Western Kentucky 47% 110 69% 50 58% 101
Army 42% 121 74% 38 58% 102
Alabama 62% 81 53% 102 58% 103
Georgia State 60% 85 54% 97 57% 104
Western Michigan 63% 80 51% 112 57% 105
East Carolina 55% 96 55% 93 55% 106
Washington State 49% 108 61% 81 55% 107
Vanderbilt 58% 92 52% 105 55% 108
Appalachian State 45% 112 63% 71 54% 109
Memphis 44% 114 64% 68 54% 110
Oklahoma 55% 97 52% 106 53% 111
NC State 70% 56 35% 129 53% 112
Tennessee 58% 93 48% 117 53% 113
TCU 44% 116 61% 78 52% 114
USC 40% 123 65% 64 52% 115
Penn State 51% 105 53% 101 52% 116
Troy 44% 117 59% 85 51% 117
Houston 42% 120 59% 84 51% 118
Indiana 60% 83 41% 126 51% 119
Oklahoma State 44% 115 54% 98 49% 120
Navy 51% 104 46% 121 48% 121
LSU 39% 124 57% 90 48% 122
Colorado 44% 113 51% 111 47% 123
Louisville 54% 102 38% 127 46% 124
South Florida 38% 125 54% 100 46% 125
Florida International 50% 107 37% 128 43% 126
UTSA 28% 128 53% 104 40% 127
Central Michigan 27% 130 49% 114 38% 128
Southern Miss 43% 119 30% 130 37% 129
Colorado State 27% 129 44% 122 35% 130

How effective is it to look at returnees this way?

Over the last four years, 37 teams have returned at least 80 percent of their production based on current calculations; 32 of them (86 percent) improved, and 22 (59 percent) improved their adjusted scoring margin per game by at least six points.

Meanwhile, 56 teams returned under 50 percent of their production; 48 of them (86 percent) regressed, 27 (48 percent) by at least a touchdown.

Thus far for 2018, 11 teams return 80 percent or more, and 11 return under 50 percent.

Hello, Clemson (and UCF and Washington)

Here are 2017’s top 10 teams, according to S&P+, ranked in order of 2018 returning production:

  1. Washington (75 percent, 23rd)
  2. UCF (74 percent, 27th)
  3. Clemson (74 percent, 28th)
  4. Auburn (69 percent, 49th)
  5. Wisconsin (63 percent, 82nd)
  6. Ohio State (62 percent, 86th)
  7. Georgia (60 percent, 96th)
  8. Alabama (58 percent, 104th)
  9. Oklahoma (53 percent, 111th)
  10. Penn State (52 percent, 116th)

2017 was supposed to be a retooling year for 2016 national champion Clemson. The Tigers were limited in the passing game, and it caught up with them, but not until the semifinals against Alabama. That they managed to get that far was impressive, and now they’re returning basically as much as any of last year’s other top 10 teams.

The announced return of virtually the entire defensive line was a surprise, but the Tigers’ depth is impressive — by my count, they are scheduled to bring back 100 percent of their passing yards (plus two five-star underclassman quarterbacks), 100 percent of their running back rushing yards, 56 percent of receiving yards, 100 percent of defensive line tackles, 76 percent of linebacker tackles, and 73 percent of defensive back tackles.

There are questions to answer in the receiving corps (Deon Cain and Ray-Ray McCloud are gone) and on an offensive line that loses three all-conference starters. But recruiting should assure the replacements are high-caliber athletes. Clemson is in great position to improve in 2018.

Somehow, Washington quarterback Jake Browning and running back Myles Gaskin still have eligibility remaining, and they’ll head an offense that returns six linemen with starting experience and 57 percent of last year’s receiving yards. The defense loses star tackle Vita Vea ... and very little else.

UCF must replace linebackers Chequan Burkett and Shaquem Griffin, receiver Tre’Quan Smith, and head coach Scott Frost. But the latter doesn’t apply to this formula, and quarterback McKenzie Milton will have a lot of familiar faces.

Michigan’s 2017 season was about 2018. And now it’s 2018.

NCAA Football: Outback Bowl-Michigan vs South Carolina
Jim Harbaugh
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Both of the Big Ten’s Michigan schools are in the top 15. Mark Dantonio’s Spartans lead after surging back into the S&P+ top 25 in 2017, a year ahead of schedule. It’s obviously difficult to talk too much about State’s future at the moment, however.

Down the road, Jim Harbaugh’s Wolverines return quite a bit, too, especially on defense. Michigan’s 2017 season felt disappointing, but it wasn’t far off what was projected; 2017 was always about building for 2018.

Well, now it’s 2018. Put-up-or-shut-up time.

Watch out for Mississippi State

NCAA Football: TaxSlayer Bowl-Louisville vs Mississippi State
Aeris Williams
Melina Vastola-USA TODAY Sports

Former Penn State offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead took over for Dan Mullen, and he inherits a far greater level of expectation than Mullen did when he arrived in 2009. Not only has MSU achieved at an unprecedented level (eight straight bowls, plus at least nine wins in three of the last four years), but the Bulldogs also return so much:

  • 100 percent of passing yards (and now with two tested QBs)
  • 100 percent of RB rushing yards
  • 71 percent of receiving corps yards
  • 80 percent of offensive line starts
  • 82 percent of overall tackles
  • 92 percent of TFLs

In terms of combined experience and talent, this could be one of MSU’s most impressive teams. Moorhead won’t get much of a breaking-in period in Starkville, will he?

A Pac-12 rebound could be tricky.

Average returning production by conference:

  1. Mountain West (66.5 percent)
  2. MAC (66.3 percent)
  3. Sun Belt (66.1 percent)
  4. Conference USA (66.1 percent)
  5. ACC (65.8 percent)
  6. SEC (65.5 percent)
  7. Big 12 (65.4 percent)
  8. Big Ten (64.9 percent)
  9. Pac-12 (63.7 percent)
  10. AAC (60.2 percent)

The Pac-12 graded out as the worst of the power conferences in 2017. Thanks to USC and Washington suffering early upset losses, the conference was basically eliminated from national title contention midway through the season, and it finished with only one team in the S&P+ top 25.

And now it returns the least production of any of the P5s. Yikes.

Granted, this year’s averages are pretty damn tight. Among FBS’ 10 conferences, nine return between 63.7 and 66.5 percent of their production; only the AAC falls outside of that range (also note every other Group of 5 league ranking Nos. 1 through 4).

Still, when you slump like the Pac-12 did, you hope it’s because of youth and that there’s growth on the horizon. That’s not automatically the case here.

Strong gets stronger

NCAA Football: Fiesta Bowl-Penn State vs Washington
Myles Gaskin
Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

Average returning production by power conference division:

  1. ACC Coastal (67.9 percent)
  2. Pac-12 North (67.8 percent)
  3. SEC West (67.4 percent)
  4. Big Ten East (66.6 percent)
  5. ACC Atlantic (63.8 percent)
  6. SEC East (63.6 percent)
  7. Big Ten West (63.2 percent)
  8. Pac-12 South (59.5 percent)

The Pac-12, SEC, and Big Ten all have some imbalance issues at the moment, each sporting one division (the Pac-12 North, SEC West, and Big Ten East) that is quite a bit stronger than the other. In all three instances, the stronger division is scheduled to return quite a bit more than the weaker division.

This is particularly pronounced in the Pac-12, where five of six North teams rank among the top half of the country in returning production and five of six South teams rank 79th or worse.

At least the ACC’s balancing out a little bit.