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Delusional Optimism is Returning Its Starters

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Does returning starters translate into wins?

Coming back to haunt some nightmares
Coming back to haunt some nightmares
Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports

There's a lot of optimism regarding this year's LSU team, and not just from the Delusional Optimism headquarters. One of the major factors fueling this optimism is the large number of starters that will return this fall.

According to Phil Steele, LSU will return 18 starters, 9 on each side of the football. This doesn't just rank first in the SEC, it ranks first in the entire nation. So it stands to reason that a good team from last season that returns a boatload of starters will therefore be even better next season. This is the sort of received wisdom we take for granted each offseason. Analyze last year's team, look at who comes back, make a projection based on that. This is Prognostication 101.

The question then is, of course, does returning a bunch of starters really mean anything? We intuitively believe that returning a bunch of starters is a good thing, but just because it seems true doesn't mean that it actually is. Is this one of those times that common sense betrays us, leading us to a false conclusion? Is this optimism justified?

The best way to determine whether returning more starters leads to improvement in the standings is to look at recent history. The SEC expanded to fourteen teams in 2012, so treating 2012 as Year 0, we have three years of data to look at how returning starters relates to a team's record.

Now, we're going to look at win differential not raw wins, to account for program quality. It doesn't matter how many starters Vanderbilt returns, they aren't going to contend in the East, but they could still see an improvement in their win total. Additionally, I only looked at conference record so a team couldn't pad the win total by playing a weak OOC schedule.

Let's look at whether teams improved or declined based upon their number of starters returning:

Returning

Improve

None

Decline

18

2

1

0

17

0

0

0

16

3

0

0

15

7

0

1

14

1

1

2

13

2

1

5

12

2

1

4

11

0

1

2

10

2

0

2

9

0

1

1

15-18

12

1

1

9-14

7

5

16

It's clear at first glance that returning a bunch of starters nearly always leads to some improvement. Only one teams that returned at least 15 starters since the SEC expanded has failed to improve its conference win total, 2014 Texas A&M. And even the Aggies only declined from 4 wins to 3. The only other team to fail to improve was 2013 Ole Miss, who held steady at 3 wins.

Now, this does not mean that failing to return 15 starters dooms a team to failure. Alabama has won 7 SEC games each of the past four seasons, so they end up accounting for 3 of the 5 teams that neither improved or declined when returning less than 15 starters.*

*In case you're wondering: 13 starters in 2013, 12 in 2014, and 11 in 2015. Bama again only returns 11 starters this season.

The other team that seems to defy the odds makes a lot less sense. Bama can afford almost any personnel losses due to the fact that churn out #1 recruiting classes with depressing regularity. The backups are just as good as the guys they are losing. However, this is not the case at Missouri.

In 2013, Mizzou returned just 12 starters, but they improved from 2 wins to 7. Not to be outdone, the 2014 Mizzou squad returned just 9 starters, the lowest total since the recent round of expansion. And that 2014 team won 7 games again. The walls came crashing in last season, despite Mizzou returning a relatively robust 13 starters. The declined from seven wins to just one.

However, this only partly answers the question. LSU won 5 SEC games last year, and it usually takes 7 wins to make it to Atlanta. LSU doesn't just need improvement, LSU needs significant improvement. One game either way could just be a fluke of scheduling. So let's look at the same chart, only pushing the threshold to +/- 2 wins:

Returning

2+ wins

+/- 1 win

-2 wins

18

2

1

0

17

0

0

0

16

2

1

0

15

4

4

0

14

0

2

2

13

0

6

2

12

1

4

2

11

0

1

2

10

1

1

2

9

0

1

1

15-18

8

6

0

9-14

2

15

11

15 returning starters still seems like the important benchmark, but the numbers slightly change. Now, no team that returns 15 starters has seen a significant decline, but just over half have seen significant improvement.

Of the 14 teams that returned at least 15 starters, only three did not return its quarterback. One of them, 2014 Texas A&M, was the only team with 15 returning starters to see its win total decline. The other two teams, 2015 Ole Miss and 2014 Georgia, both saw only a one-game improvement in their SEC win totals.

Another commonality in the teams that experienced a significant increase in wins is not just returning starters, but returning defensive starters. In that group of eight teams with 15 returning starters that improved by at least two wins, every one of them save one returned at least 8 defensive starters. The one outlier was 2015 Arkansas, who improved from 2 wins to 5 thanks to returning pretty much their entire backfield and four members of the offensive line.

Ten teams in the past three seasons have improved by two wins or more, which includes just two teams that did not return 15 starters. Only five have improved by three or more and because nothing makes sense, that includes both teams returning less than 15 starters. The two-win improvement group includes three of the four 7-win seasons achieved by teams other than Alabama in the past three seasons. Here's a look at the group of ten plus their returning starters.

TEAM

YEAR

TOTAL

OFF

DEF

Wins

Prior Year

Diff

Auburn

2013

15

6

9

7

0

7

Missouri

2013

12

6

6

7

2

5

Mississippi St

2014

16

8

8

6

3

3

Arkansas

2015

15

9

6

5

2

3

Florida

2015

10

4

6

7

4

3

Tennessee

2015

18

10

8

5

3

2

Vanderbilt

2015

18

9

9

2

0

2

Kentucky

2014

16

8

8

2

0

2

Arkansas

2014

15

7

8

2

0

2

Ole Miss

2014

15

6

9

5

3

2

It is important to note that every single one of these teams returned their starting quarterback. Returning a quarterback in and of itself doesn't mean a whole lot, but a returning quarterback with a bunch of other starters is usually a recipe for success.

To make some sense of Mizzou and Florida, they did each return their starting quarterback and six starters on defense. It's not the 8 returning defensive starters that seemed to be the reliable benchmark for the group with at least 15 starters returning, but it still is over half of the defensive starters returning. If you're going to buck the odds and have a massive win improvement without 15 returning starters, you better return at least 6 defensive starters plus your quarterback.

What does that mean for this year?

As we can see, returning a bunch of starters doesn't guarantee success, but it sure as heck makes it more likely. Returning 15 starters has been a benchmark for reliable improvement, and if you also return your quarterback and 8 defensive starters, you could be looking at an improvement of two wins or more.

Only three teams return 15 starters in the SEC this year: LSU (18), Tennessee (17), and Vanderbilt (15). Both LSU and Tennessee return their starting quarterback and at least 8 defensive starters. They also each won 5 SEC games last year, leaving themselves room to improve. Vanderbilt returns just 7 defensive starters, but at just 2 wins last season, they are a decent bet to at least hold their win total steady.

It appears that the conventional wisdom is on a solid foundation. Returning starters is a reliable indicator of improvement, particularly if a team returns its quarterback. There's plenty of optimism regarding LSU this season... and not all of it is delusional.