We’ve all done it at one time or another: you sit down and try to figure out just how good a college football team is going to be next year, counting all the returning starters to see if your team has a chance to improve or not. It’s not a bad way of doing things — starters tend to be your best players, after all — but the game has evolved to the point where starters don’t really count for much anymore.
For example: going into the 2019 season, Missouri fans were curious as to whether Larry Rountree III would be able to handle “starting” reps with the surprise loss of Damarea Crockett to an early NFL Draft entrance. But both Crockett and Rountree played a lot in 2018, so who was the starter? In name it was Crockett, as he was listed as the #1 starting running back and was on the field at the first snap of the first possession of every game. But he only had 147 rushes over his 228 snaps participated in, whereas Rountree had 209 rushes over 241 snaps participated in. So was Rountree the starter all along?
Enter returning production: instead of just looking at which guys are coming back and how much experience they have, returning production simply looks at the percentage of your production coming back - and weighting certain aspects heavier than others - to give you a more holistic view of what you saw in a previous year that is coming back for the following year.
The Godfather Bill Connelly puts it the best:
My returning production formula looks at the most predictive key personnel stats — the numbers that have the most impact on improvement or regression from season to season. What percentage of your QBs’ combined passing yardage is returning? Your offensive line snaps? Your defensive tackles for loss? Returning production is weighted based on what correlates most strongly with year-to-year changes in SP+.
Given that the 2021 season is all sorts of weird with returning super seniors, an incredibly active transfer portal, and opt-out players coming back, leaving for elsewhere, or undecided at this point, Bill C’s returning production number might not be 100% accurate. However, it’s what we have right now and he’s done better, more thorough work than anyone else out there. Here’s how his formula projects Missouri:
- Overall Returning Production: 72% - 56th
- Offensive Returning Production: 82% - 27th
- Defensive Returning Production: 62% - 89th
In “normal” years the average overall returning production is somewhere between 62-63%; for 2021 the average is currently 67% and climbing as transfers and opt-outs find new homes.
Take Missouri’s 72% overall returning production: if this was going into the 2018 football season, that would have ranked 35th in the country; now it’s 56th. In fact, three teams (Louisiana, UCLA, Miami-FL) have returning production numbers over 90% and the top 26 teams all return over 80% of their 2020 production. Needless to say, there’s going to be a lot of experienced rosters in the 2021 season.
That doesn’t mean that every team is going to improve, mind you: experience does correlate to success but somebody has to lose games and I guarantee you there’s going to be plenty of 80%+ returning production teams that have their guys walking out on Senior Day thinking, “I came back to go 4-8?”. That’s just how it works.
Here’s Missouri’s end-of-season two-deep based off of production and snap counts. The gaps are players that were on the 2020 roster that won’t be on the 2021 roster:
Today let’s break down Missouri’s returning offensive production! On offense, returning production looks at the following metrics and is given the following weights:
- Returning Quarterback Passing Yards: 29%
- Returning Running Back Rushing Yards: 5%
- Returning Wide Receiver/Tight End Receiving Yards: 34%
- Returning Offensive Line Snaps: 33%
Bill C has said it countless times and I’ve echoed it: experience in the passing game matters the most. But offensive line snaps are also super important, too. Let’s break down what’s coming back and from whom (italicized players are not on the 2021 roster).
Quarterback Passing Yards - 29% weight - 100% returning production
Good news! Every quarterback who contributed to the passing game returns! Of course, that’s mostly just Connor Bazelak. And while Shawn Robinson is still on the team, he is no longer a quarterback. So, this is a little misleading but STILL, 100% is good, particularly since it accounts for almost a third of overall offensive production weight. How Tyler Macon plays into the quarterback room is still a mystery, but the Tigers have experience at the position that accounts the most.
Running Back Rushing Yards - 5% Weight - 26% Returning Production
On the flip side, the metric that has the least correlation to future success - and therefore is weighted the least - also happens to be the metric where Missouri is returning the least amount of production. Larry Rountree III accounted for 74% of the Tigers’ rushing yards, 77% of their rushing attempts, and 78% of Tiger rushing touchdowns accrued by running backs, and he’ll be spending next year on an NFL roster (hopefully). That leaves Tyler Badie, Elijah Young, Jerney Jones, and Dawson Downing to pick up the slack while Taj Butts and B.J. Harris get acclimated to the SEC. You don’t need experience to be good at running back — Arizona State featured the best rushing attack in the country spearheaded by a freshman and a JUCO transfer that hadn’t been on the team the year before — so take solace in the fact that the Tigers’ ground game could be just as effective, even without Larry Threesticks running it 20 times per game.
Receiver/Tight End Receiving Yards - 34% Weight - 79% Returning Production
The passing game is the most important aspect of the modern college football offense and Missouri’s approach was headlined by five receivers: Keke Chism, Damon Hazelton, Tauskie Dovie, Jalen Knox, and Barrett Banister. Of those five, only Hazelton is gone, and of the entire receiving corps that caught at least one pass last year, Dominic Gicinto is the only other pass catcher not returning in 2021. Here’s the interesting thing, though— the target data shows a clear cut hierarchy, but the yardage is nothing spectacular as no one eclipsed 500 yards on the year. For comparison’s sake, Alabama had three guys eclipse 500 yards on the year. Not a fair comparison? Well, both South Carolina and Vanderbilt had at least one receiver go over 500 yards on the year. It was definitely a “sum of its parts” passing attack rather than a key cog approach at Missouri, helped by the fact that Knox was hot early and cooled late while Chism didn’t get going until the back half of the schedule (and missed the LSU game). Regardless, there’s opportunity for the vets to grow and certainly room for the new guys to find some playing time as long as they can run-block like crazy and not drop the targets they get. The development of Tauskie Dove is a key offseason item to monitor.
Offensive Line Snaps - 33% Weight - 80% Returning Production
11 offensive linemen saw the field in 2020, but thanks to snap counts, we can see that Marcus Johnson only really trusted a nine-man rotation, even with the injury and COVID-related losses. Larry Borom and Dylan Spencer represented 20% of the total snaps offensive linemen took, which isn’t a huge amount, but Borom was absolutely Missouri’s best lineman. There are a couple of things to take note of here: first, Hyrin White is not counted as returning production because he didn’t play in 2020. He did, however, start at right tackle for every game (except Georgia) in 2019, so there is a “fifth starter” that isn’t getting counted. In addition, E.J. Ndoma-Ogar will be joining the rotation as well, and while he only had spot duty in four games for Oklahoma in 2019, is a talented enough prospect that he should carve out a roll somewhere in the rotation quickly. How deep Coach Johnson lets the line play and what guys earn the most snaps will be a big indicator of the quality of this line. I’m not sure how good any of these guys are on an individual basis, especially considering how ineffective they were without Borom in the lineup, but you have to hope the experience helps make them just a little better as a unit and improve in quality for 2021.
Missouri returns a ton of production where it counts the most and is starting over where it counts the least. Having the 27th most offensive experience doesn’t mean the Tigers will magically become a Top 25 unit (they were 88th at the conclusion of 2020) but it’s better than starting over with brand new faces. A full offseason under the Drinkwitz regime and a ten-game experience with the new system should help the offense be more comfortable in 2021. How that translates on the field against the SEC will be a question to ponder over the next six months.