When it comes to the NFL, you don't hear much about how many starters are back on a team in a new season. But in college, you read about it in every preview. How valuable is the number of returning starters when placing college football bets?
Graduation, Draft Thin NCAA Ranks
Obviously, in the NFL there's a lot less turnover than in college football because professional players don't graduate, get suspended or transfer for academic reasons. Sure, NFL teams lose free agents or release guys, but the best NFL teams usually return the vast majority of their starters. Well, unless you win a Super Bowl and then other teams come and poach your guys. Just ask the Denver Broncos heading into this season as they lost a handful of key guys in free agency as well as Peyton Manning to retirement.
Obviously, in college, guys can only play four years (there are medical exceptions, etc.). Many top programs will redshirt true freshmen because they have veteran starters ahead of them and there's no need to waste a year of eligibility for the freshmen until they are ready to play. But the best of the best college players sometimes play just two seasons. That's because the NFL allows players to turn pro three years after their class graduated from high school. Thus not until after a player's junior year if he played as a true freshman. Or after a player's redshirt sophomore season.
Do I think returning starters is an important number? I do. But it's somewhat overrated at the top of the food chain at times.
Draft Deadline Important For Futures Bets
The 2015-16 college football season ended the night of Monday, Jan. 11, when Alabama won its fourth national title in the past seven years with a 45-40 victory over Clemson in the national championship game outside Phoenix. But it was one week later that was a hugely important date for teams regarding the 2016 season. That's because Jan. 18 was the deadline for underclassmen to declare for the NFL Draft.
A record 107 players did so. And two excellent Alabama players were among them, Heisman Trophy-winning running back Derrick Henry and defensive tackle A'Shawn Robinson. It could have been worse for the Tide as stellar tight end O.J. Howard opted to return to school despite a huge showing in the national title game with five catches for 208 yards and two touchdowns that really raised his stock. Alabama also got good news on defense with the likes of lineman Jonathan Allen and safety Eddie Jackson choosing to stay in school.
No team took a bigger hit in underclassmen leaving than Ohio State, the winner of the first College Football Playoff. The Buckeyes saw nine of them declare, led by defensive end Joey Bosa, the No. 3 overall pick to San Diego and running back Ezekiel Elliott, who went No. 4 overall to Dallas.
So, looking at projected returning starters, Kent State, Louisville, Wyoming and LSU lead the way nationally with 18. However, last weekend one LSU defensive starter was lost to a season-ending injury: senior lineman Christian LaCouture injured his knee in a non-contact drill. LaCouture, a three-year starter, actually had thought about entering this year's draft.
It's obviously important to check on those injuries when analyzing returning starters. They seem to happen to nearly every team in camp. The team with the fewest starters back this year? To no surprise after last year's exodus, it's Ohio State with just six.
The unquestioned expert when it comes to returning starters is Phil Steele. He smartly added a new wrinkle recently in that he would put an asterisk next to offensive returning starters for each team if the quarterback was back. And that's clearly the most important position to analyze. While Ohio State has just three guys back on offense, it does bring back probably the Big Ten's best QB in J.T. Barrett. He's a top Heisman candidate at +1200 on college football odds. If I'm ranking positions where having a returning starter is most important, it's 1) QB, 2) offensive line, 3) defensive line, 4) secondary. Running backs and receivers can step in rather easily and star as freshmen.
On the flip side, Alabama lost its starting quarterback in Jake Coker, who graduated, and has only 11 starters back overall. Yet the Tide are +550 favorites on college football picks to repeat. Why? Because at the elite programs like an Alabama or Ohio State, there are heralded five-star recruits ready to step in everywhere. Also consider that last year, the Tide were returning 10 starters and not their quarterback. Then look what happened.
Returning starters are important, but more so outside the elite programs. For example, Kent State and its 18 returning starters hosts fellow MAC school Akron on Oct. 1 and the Zips return just eight. So returning starters should only be a starting point in your homework.