The great Dr. Martin Luther King once said, “the line of progress is never straight.” That quote applies to football just as it does to other aspects of life. Just because your favorite football team is returning starters doesn’t inherently mean those starters will be better next year than they were before.
In fact, it could mean quite the opposite. Sometimes players take a step back. Maybe an offseason of film work is exactly what opposing coaches needed to crack the code. Maybe injuries take their toll. Maybe a player’s offseason workouts do more harm than good. Maybe those players simply weren’t very good to begin with.
Moral of the story — returning production isn’t always a good thing.
I think it is in this specific case, though.
You might have seen the headline recently. According to our good friend Bill Connelly, the Tigers are top 10 in the country in returning production. What does that mean? To put it plainly, Missouri is bringing back the vast majority of the players who produced for the Tigers on the field in 2022. To break it down further, Missouri is returning 78 percent of the “production” from 2022; that production includes passing yards, rushing yards, receiving yards, offensive line snaps, tackles, passes defended, tackles for loss and sacks. For Missouri, 77 percent of the offensive production (25th nationally) and 80 percent of the defensive production (9th nationally) is slated to return in 2023.
For comparison's sake, Missouri was 68th last year with 65 percent of its production returning overall. Just over half of the offensive production (52 percent — 105th nationally) and 78 percent of the defensive production (30th nationally) returned from the 2021 season.
So, Missouri is bringing back more than it did last season. That’s good! But how much does it matter? Does returning production alone portend a significant improvement for Mizzou?
According to Bill Connelly, it tends to mean exactly that!
From Bill Connelly: On average, teams returning at least 80% of production improve by about 5.8 adjusted points per game in the following season’s SP+ ratings. That’s a pretty significant bump! For a team ranked 25th in SP+ last year, adding 5.8 points to its rating would have bumped it to 10th. And in the past two seasons that weren’t majorly impacted by a pandemic (2019 and 2022), the average improvement for teams at 80% or higher is 6.8 points.
Okay, so the average team in Missouri’s situation has improved by approximately six points in SP+ rankings. That’s pretty significant! To put it context, Missouri was 40th nationally last season in SP+ rankings with a 9.4 rating. Adding 5.8 points to that rating would boost the Tigers to a 15.2 rating, good for roughly 20th nationally in SP+. Teams in that range included the likes of Ole Miss (8-5), Oregon State (10-3), Oklahoma (6-7), Illinois (8-5), UCLA (9-4), Iowa (8-5) and South Carolina (8-5).
I don’t know about you, but I would hit a button right now to lock in a top 20 end-of-season SP+ ranking and a season that results in the Tigers winning ~8 games. The last time Missouri had a season rated similarly by SP+ was 2018. If not for a monsoon and a horrendous defensive pass interference call, that team should have won 10 games. Could’ve, should’ve, would’ve. I get it. But if you’re saying that’s possible in 2023, yeah, SIGN ME UP.
Returning production can be tricky. It matters until it doesn’t. Progress, as they say, is not linear. Ultimately, the production that truly matters is at the quarterback position, and that position remains in flux for the Tigers. But if we are to use history as our guide, we could see the offense take the kind of step in 2023 that the defense took in 2022. That would certainly portend positive results for the Tigers.