A Quick Look at Returning Starters: Preseason Value investing

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A Quick Look at Returning Starters: Preseason Value investing


High departure rates within the ranks of NCAA football teams creates an expensive problem for the casual bettor. The preseason information mills are inefficient and unreliable.The general media-darlings guess their way through closed camps and various regional pundits do their best to rate conferences that lie far beyond their comfort zone. The result is a Preseason Top 25 that is absolutely incorrect.

As an example: In 2008, Utah finshed #2 in the AP poll, but they were NOT in the Preseason Top 25. In similar fashion, #7 TCU was not mentioned in the first top 25 rankings of 2008. The same applied to #11 Boise State, #17 Cincinnati, and #18 Oregon State. Alabama finished at #6 but barely scratched the AP Top 25 at the beginning of the season, and they were joined by eventual #8 Penn State.

This failure rate is one of the prime reasons for the massive edge that Vegas commands in the first few months of the season. The media is ill informed; the player departure rates are dramatic; and the available information is sparse, or misleading. THE INFORMATION THAT YOU ARE BEING FED IS NOT RELIABLE IN THE FIRST FEW WEEKS OF THE SEASON. The best Mega-Indicator for this assertion are the foolish predictions of the AP Preseason Rankings.

Seriously folks!

Tennessee, one of the worst BCS offenses in recent memory, was ranked #18 in the 2008 AP Preseason Top 25. Their Western counterpart, Auburn, was ranked #10! Clearly, the smarter and more involved handicappers take complete advantage of this foolishness, but the larger part of the gambling marketplace follows the advice of these press-mavens, so the money falls into the wrong hands.

I have no interest offering a critique of today's sports writers, but I do have a vested interest in telling you that they do not write for you. They aren't constrained by the harsh reality of laying hard currency on their information. If they were, then the preseason Top 25 would look much different. Frankly speaking, all sports writers should also be gamblers. But, alas, they aren't.

With that in mind, let me tell you one way to beat the lack of data. I'll try to show you a way around the detached opinions of 25 year old beat writers and 50 year old hacks.


You can only invest in what you know.

When you look at Big 10 statistics you'll see the following:

In 2002 Penn State returned 8 starters on Offense and they averaged 424 yards per game and finished with a +14 turnover margin.

The following year (2003) Penn State returned 5 starters on offense and they averaged 313 yards per game and finished with a -6 turnover margin.

They returned 5 players on offense in 2006 and gained 350 yards.

They returned 9 players in 2008 and gained 450 yards.


Go up and down the rankings and you'll see that returning starters make a difference. There's also a "double-whammy" that pertains to teams like Florida. The Gators entire defense returns this year. They only trailed Albama and Tennessee with the 3rd rated defense in the SEC in 2008, so it stands to reason that they should advance to #1 or #2 this year. I've found that teams with highly ranked units that return 9 or more starters turn in repeat (or better) statistical performances in the following year. This is a "measurable" indicator! Let's look at the 2007 and 2008 Oklahoma offenses:

In 2007 Oklahoma Returned 8 offensive starters. They gained a monsterous 449 yards per game and were +8 in the turnover department.

In 2008 they returned 8 offensive starters (and only 5 on defense) and they averaged 548 yards per game and were +23 in total turnovers!

Florida returns 11 on a defense that had 34 sacks and a +22 turnover diferrential in 2008! What will we see in 2009? HMMMMM?


The trick is to think small

I hope I've made it clear that we have value in high player return for teams that had efficient units during the previous season. Most of this seems obvious, especially when I'm using perennial powerhouses to prove my point, but this can be applied to the smaller schools as well. Southern Mississippi is returning almost every player from a defense that became very good over the span of their last 5 games. They might actually do some damage this season as a slight dog in the early games (Virginia and Kansas). So we can take this concept down to the smaller schools, and really find the value in a few underdogs.


But BAD is still BAD no matter what!

Be careful. We need to take returning starters that actually did well. MTSU has 10 offensive starters returning on an ineffective unit. The Blue Raiders averaged 3.1 yards per carry last season and they were #84 in points per game. You need to put a lot of lipstick on that pig, so avoid giving them any relevance unless they prove something. Sometimes, returning the whole squad is not so impressive.

You still have to do the follow-up research; check for injuries; and look for any changes in the lineups due to competition, but here is a list of the teams that appear to be returning the bulk of certain units for 2009. Some of them are good and some of them, like the Arkansas defense, finished at the bottom last year. You must also look for changing systems. Tennessee's defense is usually rock solid, but they've installed a Tampa Cover-2 methodology that relies on reading "keys" and filling "gaps". The Tennessee players may, or may not, fully grasp the system's finer points until mid-season. Eight returning starters on a NEW defense is not the same as 8 starters on a defense that they've had for 3 years.


Here's a list of teams with at least 8 returning starters (injury and attrition are not configured


Florida returns 11 starters on defense.

Bama returns 9 starters on defense.

Vandy returns 9 starters on defense. (not a good one)

Arkansas returns 10 starters on defense (not a good one)


Big 10

Minnesota returns 9 on offense

Illinois returns 8 on offense


Big 12

Texas returns 9 on offense

Oklahoma returns 9 on defense

Texas A&M returns 10 on offense

Colorado returns 9 on offense

Iowa State returns 9 on offense



Wake returns 9 on offense

Virginia Tech returns 8 on offense (-1 for RB injury)

Georgia Tech returns 10 on offense

North Carolina returns 9 on defense


Pac 10

USC returns 9 on offense

UCLA returns 9 on offense

Stanford returns 9 on offense

Washington returns 10 on defense



Rice returns 9 on defense

Southern Miss returns 10 on offense and 9 on defense.

ECU returns 9 on offense

UCF returns 9 on offense

UAB returns 11 on offense



Louisiana Tech and Utah State return 9 on offense.



Toledo, Eastern Mich, and Akron all retunr 9 on offense.

Central Mich returns 10 on defense.

Temple returns 9 on defense.


Sun Belt Conference

MTSU and FIU return 10 starters on offense.

UL-Monroe returns 9 starters on defense.


Remember: These numbers will be affected by injury and attrition, so make sure you do the follow-up work. Also remember that 10 returning starters on a bad unit is still 10 returning starters on a BAD unit! Although you can still use their bad history as a guide for your wagers. Knowing is half the battle.

Also: If you see that a team on the list has 9 returning starters, but 2 are injured, and 1 was beaten out, then you just have to research the injury replacements and see if there might be a dropoff in terms of talent. The player that was beaten out should be an upgrade.

I hope this helps.




  • Capping is really two different seasons: early, it is predicting how good teams will be; later, it is judging how good teams have been.

  • Petrino is an offensive guy...which actually brings us back to Utah State! He coached there in 1996 (469 yards per game!)

    Willy Robinson (The DC) is a Dennis Erikson prodegy. He's a master in Secondary development and he turned the Rams secondary into a monster unit.

    It's a standard 4-3 pro set, probably working off Cover 2 "shells" on the secondary.

    He needs that speed that you quoted, since size is not as important for the LB's in Robinson's scheme...speed and smarts are the key.

    I bet the Hog defense will start to look a lot younger as the season progresses.....

    They will be good next year...

  • No worries about the starter count, just something I noticed.

    Not sure what type of D scheme Petrino uses, but he has big time speed coming in on the defensive side; buncha 4.4 DBs and 4.5 LBs.  They're gonna be competitive next season.

  • Thanks Chad. I feel the same about Tennessee. The Tampa Cover-2 requires a certain set of body types, so it may be a weird year in Knoxville on Defense (I hope not, but it looks bad so far in practice)....Petrino needs speed doesn't he? I remember some of his defenses and they all seemed to fly around.

    My "returning starter" numbers may vary, based on what we call a "starter", so you kinda have to "give or take" with me.   :)

  • Nah, expect another subpar year there.  6-6, and IMO 7-5 would be successful.  They just don't have the personnel in place to run Petrino's system yet.  They did just have the great B2B recruiting years however, so it appears that there are many HS'ers that are eager to play for him.

    As far as UCF, they actually have 10 starters returning on offense (LT Pat Brown is the only departure), but they were still last in offense in Div 1-A last year.  They do have a new off. coordinator this season, but they still have a VERY young offensive team with only 1 senior starter and a handful of senior backups.  They should improve this year, but who knows by how much?

  • dfresh: They finished really strong last season, including a win over Hawaii and a NEAR win over Fresno State.

    Utah State will certainly run past that 3-9 record from last year, but I'm seeing a serious lack of respect being offered to their returning starters on that offense.

    The total offense numbers from the last few years are not good.

    Also: and this may help.....LEFT TACKLES...I'm seeing 285 pounds for the starter and then 263 pounds for the backup, then 265 for 3rd string and then 245 pounds for the 4th......

    Spencer Johnson (LT) is really tall, but he's always going to get smashed by the larger defenses. On top of that, he has a 245 pound TE supporting him on certain running plays so there's NO BULK... and they gave up 32 sacks last year with a mobile QB! That's a red flag.

    THEIR DEFENSE, which returns in good shape, allowed an average of 413 yards per game in 2008 and 450 the year before, so they should improve, but how much will they improve? Those numbers are horrible!

    The Aggie Defense had 12 total sacks in 2007.

    Then 18 in 2008.

    I think they might do well, but they were a big underdog in all but two games last year.....it's good to note that the two times they were favored????? They destroyed their opponent.

    Otherwise: It seems like they have to JUMP really far to make any real noise in Conference play.

    Being a Conference guy, I'd say you might know more than me on this Aggie team, but the data screams "be careful" on any high hopes.

    They always seems to give Fresno fits! Those are some tight games over the last few years!

  • Chad: I wonder if Petrino's system had more to do with the poor performances last year. Do you think they might make a bigger step than the usual lousy returning units? Maybe they finally got it?

  • Southern Miss is on my list...I'm trying to find "Predictables", so that we can estimate a few outcomes.

    If you "build" a league of teams...let's say 20 teams that return 75% of their units (or have quantifiable replacements), then you can get a quicker handle on them. MEMORIZE 20 teams. This way you can get to know their weaknesses, thier strengths, etc.

    It's easier than studying 100 teams that have questionable returning starters, new coaches, and different schemes.

    So I'm pulling up a "league" of teams that will serve as my basic gambling pool. As the season progresses, I'll expand the pool.

    I also took the "Rush Dominance" blueprint from my NFL work and applied it to NCAA (we'll see what happens there.)

    Here's a short list of Tentative teams that can be "quantified":


    Georgia Tech

    Southern Miss



    Arkansas (2nd year of a system, though)

    Michigan State


    That's all I have so far.....These are squads that return a ton of relevant pieces. So you can "forsee" their talent, or lack thereof.

    Also of note: LETTERMAN

    Florida is loaded with returns AND they have 53 letterman (which is huge)

    Michigan State is looking good BUT only 45 letterman.

    You get a primitive snapshot of depth with those letterman numbers. This is why teams like the Spartans fade every year, by the way.....

    When you try to make those futures bets it's important to see the depth, right?

  • Great read Kev.

    And Arkansas will only have 9 returning starters from that horrid squad last year as CB Isaac Madison tore his ACL this past Saturday.

  • Watch OUT for My Southern Miss Golden Eagles this YEAR!

  • KM, As a huge follower of Fresno St and the WAC in general, I think Utah State will be the surprise team in the conference.

  • This is the Kingmaker we love!

  • You can copy that list and then look up the conference/national statistics and pencil them into the list.

    An example: UAB returns 11 starters on offense:

    #86 in Points Per Game; #56 in Yards Per Game. Allowed 23 sacks (bad); Intact line.