The First College Football Rankings That Matter

Bill Connelly at SB Nation has our first realistic look at how good Michigan and others could be in 2019.

Personnel specialization and package substitutions similar to what we’ve seen in the NFL for years now. Freshmen, especially those enrolling early, being asked to contribute right away more than ever before because of how many players are now leaving early for the NFL.

Those are just two of the reasons why the traditional returning starters statistic, which was the benchmark of the football preview magazines every summer back in the day, just isn’t sufficient anymore. For example, Josh Uche won’t be considered a returning starter for Michigan next fall—despite leading the Wolverines in sacks. So who would you rather have returning for your team? The starting defensive end for Oklahoma State, or the guy who led Michigan in sacks?

Leave it to Bill Connelly at SB Nation to offer a potential solution to this dilemma. For my money, Connelly is one of the best college football analytics guys out there. One of the primary examples why I think so is he was one of the first to truly tackle how to get a better grasp on preseason rankings, given the game’s evolution. That solution is to instead take a look at a team’s overall returning production (for a more complete explanation of how Connelly computes this click here).

How good of an early indicator are Connelly’s analytics? Among the top 10 teams in returning production last season, only Michigan State and Mississippi State failed to win more games in 2018 than they did in 2017. In the five years Connelly has been doing this, 80% of the teams with 80% or more of their returning production improved their scoring margin from the previous season. 86% of the teams that returned 50% or less of their production regressed by at least a touchdown.

Minnesota is the only Big Ten team to appear on either list, while none of Michigan’s 2019 opponents are on either list.

Top 10 in Returning Production

  1. Western Michigan, 2) Tennessee, 3) Texas State, 4) Southern Miss, 5) Rice, 6) Florida International, 7) Memphis, 8) Kent State, 9) Hawaii, 10) Minnesota

There are only two power five teams on this list. One from the SEC (Tennessee) and one from the Big Ten (Minnesota).

Bottom 10 in Returning Production

  1. UAB, 129) Fresno State, 128) UMASS, 127) Buffalo, 126) Navy, 125) Colorado State, 124) UTEP, 123) South Alabama, 122) Middle Tennessee, 121) Texas

Texas as the only power five team on this list stands out, especially because the Longhorns will probably be in every preseason top 10 after beating Georgia in the Sugar Bowl. However, they’re one of only three power five teams returning 50% or less of their production (Georgia Tech & Washington are the others).

Big Ten Returning Production

  1. Minnesota (78%), 2) Indiana (77%), 3) Illinois (75%), 4) Wisconsin (73%), 5) Michigan State (66%), 6) Iowa (65%), 7) Michigan/Ohio State (63%), 9) Maryland/Northwestern, 11) Rutgers (60%), 12) Nebraska (57%), 13) Penn State (56%), 14) Purdue (54%)

Keep in mind this is a percentage of returning production, not necessarily an assessment of the actual talent. For example, would you rather have 75% of the production returning from Illinois’ returning talent, or the 63% of returning production from Ohio State’s? However, what this does provide is a potential ceiling (for lack of a better description) for a team based on its experience/existing talent to go along with its program goals. In other words, for a developmental program like Indiana, that much returning experience means its hopes of returning to a bowl game appear realistic. However, a more dynamic recruiting program like Penn State may have too many holes to fill to win the rugged East Division. Translation: Penn State is more talented than Indiana, but the Hoosiers appear to be better positioned to reach their goals.

By comparison, here was the Big Ten’s returning production rankings heading in the 2018 season:

  1. Michigan State (92%), 2) Michigan (78%), 3) Rutgers (71%), 4) Minnesota (68%), 5) Nebraska/Northwestern (64%), 7) Illinois (63%), 8) Ohio State (62%), 9) Iowa/Maryland (61%), 11) Wisconsin (60%), 12) Purdue (59%), 13) Penn State (52%), 14) Indiana (51%)

While this metric wasn’t precise, it still provided a decent baseline for how the league eventually played out. Michigan was a major factor in the conference race despite a disappointing 2017. Wisconsin ended up not living up to its preseason top five ranking in the AP Poll. Penn State and Indiana took steps back as well.

Returning Production of Marquee Big Ten Non-Conference Opponents

Finally, here’s how much productivity is returning for the top non-conference opponents for Big Ten teams in 2019, according to Connelly’s numbers.

Cincinnati 71% (Ohio State)

South Florida 69% (Wisconsin)

Colorado 67% (Nebraska)

Arizona State 66% (Michigan State)

Army 66% (Michigan)

Pittsburgh 64% (Penn State)

Syracuse 63% (Maryland)

Iowa State 61% (Iowa)

TCU 60% (Purdue)

Notre Dame 56% (Michigan)

Stanford 54% (Northwestern)

Boston College 53% (Rutgers)

Fresno State 38% (Minnesota)