A lot gets made of returning experience in college football, but that can be a mixed bag. All teams are forced to transition, and given that the best players stick around for just three years, the only constant for elite teams is change. But even returning starters aren’t a guarantee of production. Another year of below-average talent certainly isn’t better than an inexperienced phenom.
But the confluence of returning, productive talent all on the same side of the ball? That’s easy to get excited about, and for two ACC teams, that’s exactly what 2016 brings.
Phil Steele released his annual ranking of returning offensive line starts earlier this week, with a number of ACC teams faring well. Add that with production at the skill positions, however, and two teams truly stand out.
In fact, look around the entire country, and only two Power 5 programs return a QB who threw for 2,000 yards, a running back who topped 1,000 yards, a receiver with at least 500 yards and 60 or more starts on the offensive line. Those two teams: Pittsburgh and Miami.
(*Note: Among Group of 5 teams, Nevada, Boise State, Temple, Southern Miss and Western Michigan also fit the bill.)
So, what does that mean for the Panthers and Canes? If we look back at last year’s numbers, the narrative looks encouraging.
In 2015, there were five Power 5 programs that returned a 2,000-yard passer, 1,000-yard rusher, 500-yard receiver and 60 or more starts on the line and four more in the Group of 5. Of those nine teams, seven improved their win-loss record from 2014, one remained the same and one — Ohio State — finished 12-1 (which amounted to two fewer wins than 2014’s national title team). Combined, the group went from 61-54 in 2014 (a .530 winning percentage) to 77-40 in 2015 (.658 win percentage).
The oddity here, however, is that, while each team got better (or remained as good), it wasn’t always that the offense took a big leap forward. As a group, there was overall improvement in both yards-per-play (up 4 percent) and points-per-drive (up 3.1 percent), but both were minimal. Individually, seven of the nine saw an increase in yards per play, but five of those were increases of less than half-a-yard per play.
On average, the defenses actually took a bigger step forward, with the group seeing a 20-percent reduction in yards per play, but those gains weren’t spread evenly among the individual teams.
And of the five Power 5 teams included, two — Pitt and Texas Tech — changed QBs despite returning a starter, and two — Pitt and Arkansas — lost their leading rushers from 2014 to injury early in 2015.
So what does it all mean?
Perhaps the best explanation is that returning experienced productive players is a big luxury. It doesn’t guarantee that your offense will take a big leap forward, but it does provide some consistency as often younger defenses play catch up. And it doesn’t promise those returning starters will blossom into bigger stars, but it does likely mean that, if another player beats them out (as with Nathan Peterman and Patrick Mahomes last season), they earned the job.
And the overall trend is pretty clear: Miami and Pitt may not set the world on fire offensively in 2016, but both are well positioned to make an overall improvement — which would put either team in the vicinity of 10 wins and, potentially, a division title.