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What Can Returning Starter Data Predict About Season Momentum?

It is one thing to understand that the number of starters a team returns from the previous year is particularly good or bad. It is another thing to look into when particularly experienced or inexperienced teams might be at their best or worst.

LEXINGTON, KY - NOVEMBER 26:  Tyler Bray #8 of the Tennessee Volunteers runs with the ball during the game against the Kentucky Wildcats  at Commonwealth Stadium on November 26, 2011 in Lexington, Kentucky.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
LEXINGTON, KY - NOVEMBER 26: Tyler Bray #8 of the Tennessee Volunteers runs with the ball during the game against the Kentucky Wildcats at Commonwealth Stadium on November 26, 2011 in Lexington, Kentucky. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
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As we take heed of all the layers of questions regarding the 2012 football season, I find myself zeroing in, for now, on a specific topic: experience. We looked into it last week as it pertained to changes in a team's F/+ ratings, and we discussed it this week in regard to how incredibly experienced teams like Tennessee and Texas Tech (20 returning starters each in 2012) and woefully inexperienced teams like Boise State (six returning starters) may fare this fall.

When discussing Boise State, I have made mention of them perhaps taking the same path in 2012 as TCU took in 2011 -- mediocre at the start, then improving as the year progresses. It is worth it, then, to figure out how valid this theory is. Using the returning starters figure (a flawed, but still somewhat predictive measure), what can we figure out about the path your team will take in a given season?

Below is a chart that looks at two factors: the combined number of starters a team returns on offense and defense, and the team's change in average Adj. Scoring Margin when compared to last year. (For simplicity's sake, everything is broken into three months; those occasional Aug. 30-31 games fall into the "September" category, while all November, December and January games fall under "November.")

Basically, what this says is the following: a team returning fewer than eight starters can probably expect to be about a touchdown worse (in terms of the opponent-adjusted Adj. Points measure) in September than they were last season. They improve by a little over three points in October and November. Meanwhile, teams returning more than 17 starters can expect to improve by between about three and five points the following September, and perhaps somewhat surprisingly, they continue to improve as the year progresses.

The last part is an interesting one. My guess would have been that the most experienced teams come out of the gate strong, then either level out or regress.

As mentioned previously, we already know that "returning starters" is a bit of a flawed metric. If a senior offensive guard started six games, and a sophomore started the other six, is a team returning a starter at that position? And what about a player who was a starter in a previous year but missed last season? We are basically placing 120 teams into one of about 15 categories based on a single, limited number (no team has returned fewer than six starters since 2005, while only four have returned 20 or more), and that isn't a recipe for predictive success. And that's why, when final 2012 projections are released, they will include adjustments for the caliber of starter gone or returning (Did Team A lose six starters, or six first-round draft picks?), the position they play (quarterback appears to carry a bit more heft, though not as much as some might believe), and the level of experience of the players returning. This is a wonderful starting point, however, and it is probably worth a reminder of who returns an extreme number of starters.

  • 6 Returning Starters: Boise State
  • 7: Air Force
  • 9: Temple, Toledo
  • 10: Arizona State, Arkansas State, New Mexico State, Wisconsin

Because of conference realignment, 2012 schedules are, at best, trickling out at this point, and everything relating to conferences like the Big 12, Big East, etc., is subject to epic change. But here are some of the September games involving the teams above. Think of this as a list of games where the team above might not have as good a showing as you might expect.

Notable Games
August 31: Boise State at Michigan State
September 1: Toledo at Arizona
September 1: Arkansas State at Oregon
September 8: Air Force at Michigan
September 8: Maryland at Temple
September 8: Illinois at Arizona State
September 8: Wisconsin at Oregon State
September 15: Arizona State at Missouri
September 15: Arkansas State at Nebraska
September 22: BYU at Boise State
September 22: Temple at Penn State

On the flipside, here are some the teams who, as currently constituted, stand to return the most starters in 2012.

  • 19: Boston College, Bowling Green, Florida International, Indiana
  • 20: Tennessee, Texas Tech

And here are some notable late-2012 games. Being a part of the Big 12, Texas Tech has yet to release a schedule for 2012 (and might not for some time), but an educated guess can at the very least place their game versus Baylor on Thanksgiving weekend, when the Red Raiders could be at their absolute best.

Notable Games
October 27: Tennessee at South Carolina
November 3: Iowa at Indiana
November 10: Notre Dame at Boston College
November 10: Wisconsin at Indiana
November 10: Missouri at Tennessee
November 24?: Baylor vs Texas Tech