College football teams’ returning production for 2022 season

It’s that time of year again. With the 2022 college football signing class in the books, we have the components we need to put together this season’s initial SP+ projections.

As always, the projections stem from three primary questions: How good has your team been recently? How well has it recruited? And perhaps most importantly,: Who returns from last year’s roster?

Full SP+ projections will come out Wednesday, but for now our focus is on that last question. For decades, we have used returning starters as a proxy for measuring experience, mainly because we haven’t had anything better to use. But for a few years now, I’ve been attempting to expand how we measure returning production. The formula I have created shifts with each new year of data, but it’s based on what has the greatest impact on year-to-year improvement and regression.

First the data, then the explanation. Here are the returning production percentages and rankings for all 131 FBS teams:

As mentioned, the formula I use changes from year to year. Here’s the current weighting for determining the offensive percentages above:

Percent of returning WR/TE receiving yards: 37% of the overall number

Percent of returning QB passing yards: 29%

Percent of returning OL snaps: 28%

Percent of returning RB rushing yards: 6%

Broken out by position/player, you’re looking at approximately 29% for the quarterback, 9% for each of four wide receivers and/or tight ends and 6% for the running back and each offensive lineman.

(Note: Since FBS newcomer James Madison played at the FCS level in 2021, I didn’t have full snap count data for the Dukes. I used player starts as a substitute.)

It’s a bit trickier on defense — units aren’t quite as strictly defined, and the percentage of returning production is derived both from position units and types of stats (tackles, tackles for loss, sacks, passes defensed). Here’s the approximate layout:

Percent of returning tackles: 59%

Percent of returning passes defensed: 28%

Percent of returning tackles for loss: 8%

Percent of returning sacks: 5%

Perhaps surprisingly, turnover in the back of the defense causes far more of a shift in a team’s SP+ rating from year to year than turnover up front. By position, defensive backs make up about 51% of the defensive formula, while linebackers are at 32% and the defensive line is at 17%. (Remember: This is not based on my personal opinion of positional importance — it’s all about what impacts the numbers the most. That distribution surprises me too!)

A note about transfers

With the transfer portal taking on ever-increasing importance in a team’s roster construction, I attempt to account for transfers in both the returning production and recruiting pieces of the SP+ projections.

Returning production: Quite crudely, if a player transfers from one FBS school to another, I mash his production from his previous team into the numerator and denominator for his new team. So if your quarterback leaves, and you bring in a transfer who was starting somewhere else — a la USC, Ole Miss, Cincinnati and others — that dampens the overall blow significantly. Because the translation from lower levels to upper is extremely inconsistent, I don’t do this for players transferring up from FCS or Division II. I used to, but it didn’t produce predictive value.

Recruiting: As of 2022, I am now attempting to account for incoming transfers’ recruiting rankings in a team’s recruiting averages. It will not be a significant piece of the recruiting puzzle — anytime I do something new, I ease it in from a weighting perspective — but there will be at least a marginal impact here.

Obviously the portal never stops portaling, so it should be noted that the data above was derived according to players’ status in the portal as of Monday morning, Feb. 7.

What these numbers mean for your team

I have been collecting returning production data since 2014. Not including the 2021 season — for reasons I’ll address below — about 8% of teams (equivalent to about 11 of 131) return at least 80% of overall production each year. On average, they improve by about 5.8 adjusted points per game in the following season’s SP+ ratings. That’s pretty significant. If a team ranked 20th in SP+ last year, adding 5.8 points to its rating would have bumped it to seventh. If a team ranked 40th, it would have jumped to 15th.

On the other end, about 11% of teams (roughly 14 per season) return less than 50% of their production in a given season. That results in an average drop of about 6.3 adjusted points in SP+. If a team was 10th last year, losing 6.3 points would drop it to 27th. If it was 40th, it would fall to 67th.

The 2021 season made this data awfully weird. While the national average for returning production from 2014-20 was 63%, it leaped to 76% in 2021 thanks to the extra year of eligibility athletes received due to COVID-19. Whereas only six teams from 2014-20 returned more than 85% of their production (per the updated formula) and improved by an average of 11.2 adjusted points per game, a whopping 26 teams hit that mark for returning production last season. Average improvement: just 3.9 PPG. Teams such as UTSA, Fresno State, Minnesota and UCLA all improved by quite a bit while returning truckloads of 2020’s production, but a few other teams — Miami, Troy, Iowa State — regressed. When nearly everyone returns a good deal of production, the benefits obviously aren’t going to be as strong.

If you didn’t return much of your production last year, you were just about sunk. Northwestern ranked last in returning production at 39% and saw its SP+ rating fall by 21.1 points. No other team fell below 50% in returning production, but those below 62% fell by an average of 5.7 points, 7.3 if you take out first-year coaching success stories at South Carolina and Tennessee.

This season, as scholarship limits regress back toward the norm, returning production numbers are sinking in kind. Compiling rosters and determining which of last year’s seniors are staying or going has been awfully difficult this winter and will become a lot clearer once every school has posted updated official rosters. But as far as I can tell, the current national average for 2022 is around 66% — higher than normal, but down significantly from last season’s explosion.

Most likely to improve in 2022

For a lot of schools, there will be a pendulum swing from one season to another. If a team had an extremely experienced roster last year, it’s probably going to see a lot of that experience depart this season, and vice versa. The 15 teams currently atop the list of returning production averaged a ranking of 87th in 2021. Meanwhile, the 15 teams at the bottom of this year’s list enjoyed an average ranking of 43rd last year, 31st if we remove two outliers in Navy and Duke, which are double-dipping in the attrition department.

Of those in the current returning production top 10, seven ranked 105th or worse in SP+ last season, and only one, BYU, ranked higher than 81st. While there could be fun turnaround stories to come from experienced teams such as Bowling Green, Stanford or USF, there’s natural intrigue looking at the schools that were good last year and return a lot.

Here are the teams that ranked in the SP+ top 50 last year and currently rank in the top 30 in returning production:

BYU (46th in SP+ in 2021, second in returning production in 2022). The Cougars ranked 117th in returning production last season but still foraged out a 10-3 record. Now they’ve got all the experience they didn’t have a year ago.

NC State (14th in SP+, 12th in returning production). ESPN colleague Mark Schlabach ranked Dave Doeren’s Wolfpack an aggressive eighth in his Way-Too-Early 2022 rankings last month. You can see why. They’re the only one of last year’s top 15 teams to return a top-15 level of production.

SMU (44th in SP+, 20th in returning production). Houston is well positioned to make a run in the AAC after last season’s 12-win campaign, but new SMU coach Rhett Lashlee might have the pieces to put up a solid fight.

Mississippi State (34th in SP+, 21st in returning production). Mike Leach’s Bulldogs return quite a bit, especially on a defense that slid late in 2021 but still finished a solid 34th in defensive SP+.

Fresno State (34th in SP+, 22nd in returning production). The Bulldogs lost head coach Kalen DeBoer to Washington but retained quite a few key pieces, including quarterback Jake Haener.

Ohio State (second in SP+, 25th in returning production). Of last year’s top seven teams, per SP+, the six not named Ohio State currently rank an average of 82nd in returning production. That the Buckeyes return a vast majority of last year’s talent might make them 2022’s early national title favorites.

Iowa (27th in SP+, 28th in returning production). The Big Ten West as a whole averages only about 64% returning production in 2022, and Iowa not only won the division last season but returns the most experience as well. That’s a good sign, though in the case of quarterback production, it would be an even better sign if they were returning quality stats.

Most likely to regress

Thanks in part to a massive number of players hitting the transfer portal, Nevada and Hawaii stand out from the pack in terms of returning production, and not in a good way. Nevada must replace its quarterback (Carson Strong), top four receiving targets, top four linebackers, five of six primary offensive linemen, three of five starting defensive backs and seven of their top nine defensive linemen. Not great. Hawaii, meanwhile, loses quarterback Chevan Cordeiro, his top three receiving targets and 11 of the 17 defenders who saw more than 200 snaps (including five of seven in the ever-important secondary).

There are a few teams with particularly high expectations, however, that will attempt to meet those expectations with a shell of last year’s two-deep. Here are the seven teams that made Schlabach’s Way-Too-Early top 25 but rank worse than 90th in returning production:

Ole Miss (23rd in Schlabach’s rankings, 98th in returning production). Coach Lane Kiffin briefly declared himself the “Portal King” this winter thanks to his heavy influx of transfer talent, but he had little choice in trying to offset losing quarterback Matt Corral and most of last year’s skill corps.

USC (22nd in Schlabach’s rankings, 94th in returning production). New coach Lincoln Riley hit the portal even harder, bringing in quarterback Caleb Williams and loads of help in the skill corps and on defense. And again, these new players’ stats factor into the returning production formula. But the Trojans are still experiencing massive turnover on a defense that could hold them back once again.

Cincinnati (19th in Schlabach’s rankings, 93rd in returning production). All four of last year’s CFP participants rank 65th or worse in returning production, and two are in the 90s. That’s not uncommon, but it certainly spells out the experience levels typically required to make a big run. The Bearcats aren’t starting over, but Luke Fickell obviously has quite a few big names to replace.

Baylor (16th in Schlabach’s rankings, 99th in returning production). There’s a lot to like about Dave Aranda’s Bears in 2022 — they return quarterback Gerry Bohanon, but more importantly, they should have quite easily the best offensive and defensive lines in the Big 12 and among the best in the country. But as outlined above, line experience doesn’t weigh highly in these formulas. Heavy turnover in both the secondary and receiving corps do, however, and those are both issues for Baylor this season.

Oklahoma State (ninth in Schlabach’s rankings, 118th in returning production). Mike Gundy’s Cowboys enjoyed one of their best seasons ever in 2021, but while the offense should remain reasonably experienced, a defense that broke through to fourth in defensive SP+ must replace coordinator Jim Knowles and 63% of last year’s production. That’s going to be awfully hard to overcome.

Notre Dame (sixth in Schlabach’s rankings, 105th in returning production). There’s a lot to like about what new coach Marcus Freeman inherits in South Bend, but in quarterback Jack Coan, running back Kyren Williams, three of last year’s top five receiving targets and two key offensive linemen, the offense has quite a few key players to replace.

Georgia (third in Schlabach’s rankings, 96th in returning production). I’m not even going to pretend Georgia is in any sort of danger zone this season — recent history and recruiting rankings are going to keep the Dawgs easily in the top three in the SP+ projections. But it’s worth noting that they rank 96th in returning production while last year’s two other top-three teams rank 65th (Alabama) and 25th (Ohio State).

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