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Do returning snaps always mean returning strength?

What can recent history tell us about whether experience equals success for Missouri football?

NCAA Football: SEC Media Days
Returning experience at linebacker has meant good things for Missouri’s defense in the recent past. That puts some weight on the shoulders of Eric Beisel and Co.
Adam Hagy-USA TODAY Sports

It’s a pretty strong assumption to make. Phil Steele even devotes precious space in his increasingly gigantic college football preview magazine to it each year.

Returning experience is important. Whether it be starters, key reserves or role players, the more guys who saw the field for any stretch of time the year prior that are still on the roster once the next season rolls around, the better off your team will probably be.

At its surface level, this narrative leads to statements such as, “Missouri returns 10 starters on offense for 2017. Therefore, the Tigers should be bomb.” And, “Missouri returns only four starters on defense for 2017. Therefore, the Tigers should struggle.”

But if a team returns most of its starters from an offense that wasn’t very good, is it really a safe assumption to expect the offense to be better? And if a team returns just a couple starters from a defense that wasn’t very good, is it really a safe assumption to expect the defense to regress meaningfully?

Or would we rather nuance our statements into phrasing such as “Missouri returns 10 starters from an explosive 2016 offense this year. Therefore, the Tigers should be bomb.” And, “Missouri returns only four starters from a pretty bad 2016 defense. Therefore...maybe it’s not that bad of a thing?”

Are there positions in which continuity has been more important than others for the Tigers in the recent past?

To try and answer this question, we looked at snaps from the 2013-15 seasons to see what all was coming back the next year by position group, then compared it to the production of the offense and defense for the following season.

It’s a small sample size, sure. But it’s also kind of an interesting window into the fact that returning experience doesn’t always equal returning success.

First, the offense:

Net Inverse Correlation

Running Back: The year with the fewest returning snaps coming back was the Tigers’ most successful in the backfield. Last year, with only Ish Witter returning from 2015, it cleared the way for a breakout performer like Damarea Crockett to take the reins. In 2015, with the highest proportion of running back snaps returning (and also thanks to a lingering Russell Hansbrough ankle injury), the Tigers had their worst year rushing.

Offensive Line: 2015 and 2016. Nuff said. The 2015 team returned 76 percent of its line snaps and struggled the entire season. The 2016 team returned less than nine percent of the snaps off of that line and was among the nation’s leaders in several important categories.

Net Positive Correlation

Quarterback: Kind of. Missouri only returned a third of its quarterback snaps in 2014, and the play got worse. It returned all of its snaps for 2015 and the play got much worse. Though Maty Mauk’s issues had a little something to do with that. Then the Tigers returned about two-thirds of their snaps for 2016 and the play improved significantly with Drew Lock.

Wide Receiver/Tight End: Missouri lost 70 percent of its receiver snaps going into 2014 and suffered a step back in play, one that would’ve been even more stark if not for some hero ball from Bud Sasser and (at the end of the season) Jimmie Hunt. The Tigers lost another 64 percent after that year and the play in 2015 got even worse. Then, with a larger measure of stability in 2016 (76 percent of the snaps back), the receiver play got much better.

What Does This Mean for 2017?

Just get a load of what all Missouri has coming back off that record-breaking 2016 offense. Nearly 90 percent of its overall snaps, more than 91 percent at quarterback and running back, all but 24 snaps on the line and a paltry 75 percent at receiver. Recent history might tell us that means quarterback and receiver play will take a step forward this year, while line and running back play might take a step back. I think Missouri fans would go for that.

Now, the defense:

Net Positive Correlation

Defensive Line: Kind of. The 2016 line returned the most snaps of the three years polled and was the worst. But both the 2014 and 2015 lines followed form. The 2014 line returned an above-average amount of snaps and ended up actually being a little more destructive than the 2013 line. The 2015 line only returned 36 percent of the snaps and took a step back.

Linebacker: That year the Tigers returned 91 percent of their linebacker snaps? Yeah, 2015 was a banner year for the three guys in the middle, with Kentrell Brothers, Michael Scherer and Donavin Newsom. The 2014 team bucked the trend a bit by getting better with not that many snaps returning (thanks in large part to Brothers and Scherer), while the 2016 team suffered greatly from the loss of Brothers. Then, subsequently, from the loss of Scherer.

Defensive Backs: The year in which the Tigers had the most returning to their defensive backfield, 2015, was also the Missouri secondary’s best season of the bunch. 2014 and 2016 were about equal, with the 2016 team being more lenient but also snagging a higher rate of interceptions. Their returning snaps percentages were within eight points of each other.

What Does This Mean for 2017?

While none of these are perfect correlations, the trend line seems to be a little bit stronger on defense than offense: when the Tigers return more they tend to be more successful. Return less, tend to be less successful. That means, conceivably, good news for the secondary and bad news for the first two levels of the defense in 2017. So it’ll be imperative for seasoned upperclassmen such as Marcell Frazier, Terry Beckner, A.J. Logan and Eric Beisel to try and elevate the level of play over losses such as Charles Harris, Josh Augusta, Rickey Hatley and Scherer.