Success in college football, perhaps as much as or more so than any other human endeavor, is path-dependent. College football is path-dependent in the sense that for the vast majority of teams (your Alabamas and Clemsons aside), success is borne of a cyclical process of development. When a coach takes a job, he begins implementing his recruiting strategy, targeting the type of talent he needs, and raising the overall talent level of his team. As players from the old regime phase out, the new unit raises the tide of the entire team, and building off each year's incremental success, most programs reach a plateau when a mass of the newly imported talent become upperclassmen.
For example, in 2017, Matt Rhule (now the coach of the Carolina Panthers) came into a Baylor situation that was tenuous, to say the least. After a sudden necessary dismissal of a disgraced-yet-successful prior coach and a fill-in year of Jim Grobe, Rhule came in and committed to playing underclassmen and building them up from the ground floor. Fresh off a 7-6 season that ended in an 0-6 skid, Rhule's first year at Baylor involved a lot of character-building en route to a 1-11 record. Then, in 2018, his players got better in the offseason, he brought in more talent, and they improved to 7-6. In Rhule's last year, boasting a team of full of the very same players who had gone 1-11 but were now juniors and seniors, Rhule took the Bears to an 11-3 record, beating every Big 12 team but Oklahoma and earning a Sugar Bowl berth.
Baylor's ascent from the gutter to the Sugar Bowl embodies the path to contention for most college football teams. Aside from the established few who control most of the top tier of incoming freshman talent, college teams looking to string successful seasons together have to ride the waves of development, each time capitalizing on their peak while reloading a little better than they have the year before. While Clemson and Alabama are certainly examples of that—the Crimson Tide won six or fewer games in three of four seasons before hiring Nick Saban and the Tigers had not surpassed nine wins in two decades before hiring Dabo Swinney—there are other emerging teams following similar strategies: Northwestern, North Carolina, Iowa State, and Texas A&M at the Power 5 level and BYU, Cincinnati, and Louisiana at the Group of 5 level (among others). Among those teams vying for the long shot at the college football playoff or at least one of those fancy New Year's Six bids, one axiom holds true: a prime driver of college football success is returning talent and development of that talent over the course of multiple offseasons.
Let's look at the 2021 season in light of the path-dependent nature of college football success, using something I'll introduce as the FBS Returning Talent Index.
The Returning Talent Index
Bill Connelly, the college football stats guru for nerds like you and me (and former FO writer), has relied for a couple of years on his returning production statistic. Bill uses a weighted average of the returning stats, not players, from year to year as an indicator of who might be more successful in the upcoming season. I'm going to tweak and build on the idea of returning production, focusing on talent instead of stats and exploiting new data from the college football transfer portal.
The Returning Talent Index is simple: the index is your team's talent composite weighted by returning production, plus net transfer ratings, plus incoming recruiting ratings, normalized to a mean of 0 and a standard deviation of 1. A returning talent index of 1.5 means your team improved by 1.5 standard deviations relative to average, and a returning talent index of -0.25 means your team got worse by a quarter of a standard deviation relative to average.
I begin by looking at the "raw" data based on the entire Power 5, and then will add in conference adjustment ratings to get a final score for each team, identifying who got the biggest bump from transfers along the way. At the end, I'll highlight the Group of 5 teams to identify who might make a playoff push, or at least a New Year's Six run. I use the team composite rating from 247 Sports, which aggregates the recruiting stars and ratings currently on a team's roster, as well as recruiting data on incoming freshmen and the transfer portal, all readily available on the 247 websites. Returning production is calculated from play-by-play data from the NCAA's website.
College Football's Most Improved Teams
LSU, Oregon, and Miami are officially the teams to watch this fall. The Tigers, after finishing 5-5 and 70th in the nation in EPA/play margin, are poised for a better 2021. This number might even be deflated given the vast opt-outs the team saw, but the Tigers return passer Max Brennan (15th nationally in with 0.15 EPA/attempt and 15th in passing first-down rate). LSU will return almost 80% of a defense that struggled at times (85th in EPA/play allowed), but has plenty of room to grow and will be bolstered by Clemson transfer Mike Jones.
In the Pacific Northwest, the Oregon Ducks look to repeat as conference champions. (I know, I know, it was a weird season.) They'll bring back five experienced linemen on offense, and plenty of weapons—running back Travis Dye averaged 6-plus yards per carry last season with a 32% first-down rate, and USC transfer receiver Devon Williams will return as the Ducks' top target. Oregon's quarterback situation, though, exposes the beauty of the Returning Talent Index. In just looking at returning production, one would see Oregon losing quarterback Tyler Shough (0.24 EPA/attempt, 47.1% success rate, and 39% first-down rate in the passing game) and see a vacuum. Shough transferred to Texas Tech (58th in the RTI) in part because Oregon is bringing in four-star Ty Thompson, who should have the starting job when camp breaks.
Finally, Miami is a classic example of the year-over-year development one can expect from most functioning college football programs. The Hurricanes bring back almost everyone from an offense that was mostly flash with little substance (43rd in EPA/play, 66th in success rate). Quarterback D'Eriq King will lead the team (0.21 EPA/attempt, 30th in the nation in 2021), and despite losing top target Brevin Jordan to the draft, the Hurricanes will have Mark Pope, Mike Harley, and Cam'ron Harris alongside King. The line should improve with experience, and Manny Diaz brings in the 12th-ranked recruiting class in 2021. In an ACC full of possibilities, Miami has every right to be considered top-tier.
Other teams that stand out in the national picture: familiar favorites Clemson, Georgia, Oklahoma, and Alabama are all bolstered by their big recruiting classes, despite losing talent. North Carolina, Wisconsin, Michigan, UCLA, and Ole Miss are all looking to capitalize on the top of their development cycles with high returning production, while teams such as Penn State, Auburn, Mississippi State, and Nebraska look to bounce back from underwhelming campaigns.
Let's add in conference adjustments and divine how some of the Power Five races might shake out in 2021.
LSU clearly outpaces the conference at more than two standard deviations better than the SEC average. Loaded Georgia and Alabama round out the top class of the conference. The SEC's second tier could be interesting, though, as 2020 East division champion Florida got slightly worse on net, and upstart programs Ole Miss (with a Very Fun Offense), Mississippi State, and Arkansas all improve on promising seasons. Texas A&M, perhaps the best non-Alabama SEC team, loses a quarterback and some serious weapons, yet improves in 2021. They highlight another fun facet of the RTI: many teams are "a quarterback away," which we know in college football can be very far. The Aggies improved, but they'll have to fill Kellen Mond's shoes to compete.
South Carolina, Tennesse, and Vanderbilt all get new coaches, and turnover is to be expected, although it's worth noting that Shane Beamer has a lot of work to do. Missouri and Kentucky took a step backwards in talent, and they both may be a couple of cycles away from their peaks. All in all, the SEC is still Alabama's conference, although Georgia, LSU, and a few interesting Tier 2 teams look to challenge that this season.
In the ACC, Miami returns a lot of production and is bolstered by three high-profile transfers, but it's not like Clemson is going anywhere soon. In fact, given the promise presumed starter D.J. Uiagalelei showed in limited time last season, this index may be underrating the Tigers. North Carolina will be a hot pick for many analysts this fall—quarterback Sam Howell will have his real NFL audition season, and he has the context to threaten on the national level. Florida State benefits from UCF transfer quarterback McKenzie Milton to fix the country's No. 116 passing offense (-0.214 EPA/play), but also a host of other high-impact players coming in, especially to shore up a defense that allowed 0.153 EPA/play, 114th in the nation. Georgia Tech sits in a rebuild similar to what Rhule dealt with at Baylor, with the added twist of recovering not from a scandal, but from the triple option. Georgia Tech Quarterback Jeff Simms showed bright moments and the Yellow Jackets should continue making strides in their development with him at the helm.
I include Notre Dame with the ACC for context, and they are losing plenty of production. Transfer quarterback Jack Coan mitigates some of the potential drop-off, but the Irish may be a few degrees short of national contendership this fall. The bottom half of the ACC is yet again anyone's guess—a sneakily decent North Carolina State squad more or less treads water, while programs such as Boston College, Virginia, Louisville, and Virginia Tech will all be better than the Syracuse/Wake Forest/Duke tier, but their negative index indicates much uncertainty in how the middle class will shake out.
The Big Ten West looks to be the division with the biggest shake-up coming; reigning champion Northwestern loses almost all of their production, and recruiting stars has never really been Pat Fitzgerald's style. Wisconsin will improve, bolstered by the play of quarterback Graham Mertz and a host of returning players. Minnesota, whose offense was surprisingly efficient in 2020 (30th in success rate), slightly improves. Note that since star wideout Rashod Bateman did not play in 2020, his loss does nothing to the Gophers. Iowa remains consistent and should challenge for the West division title, while Nebraska, a team that has chronically underperformed, really needs to capitalize on thier potential this season.
In the east, Michigan fans may be asking, "If not now, when?" The Wolverines will have a void at quarterback—oft-injured but highly touted Texas Tech transfer Alan Bowman will provide some depth, but most of the Wolverines' season hinges on the ability of five-star recruit J.J. McCarthy, who will presumably take the starting job. Regardless of which quarterback works out (it will be McCarthy), the context into which that quarterback steps will be that of a championship contender. The Wolverines will return 80% of their offense, accounting for the transfer of 2020 starter Joe Milton, but not including transfer tackle Willie Allen from Louisiana Tech. On defense, the Wolverines will be stout, but of course this index does not account for the transition from long-time defensive coordinator Don Brown to Mike MacDonald. At any rate, the division hierarchy looks to be very similar to the past. Ohio State slightly improves off of an excellent season, while Penn State will almost certainly bounce back. The most interesting team in the Big Ten in 2021, though? The Maryland Terrapins. Maryland returns the entire foundation of their offense (37th in EPA/play in 2020), and quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa (66th in EPA/attempt, 48th in passing success rate) will have a full offseason to improve his boom-and-bust production into consistent downfield threats.
Filed under "news that shocks no one"—Oklahoma is still leaps and bounds ahead of its Big 12 peers. The Sooners return perhaps the best quarterback in the nation in Spencer Rattler (18th in EPA/attempt, 15th in passing success rate, ninth in passing first-down rate) and a whole host of offensive weapons, not to mention some offensive line depth. The Sooners are all but guaranteed a trip to Arlington for the conference championship game, a near-certainty for Oklahoma in recent history. Who they'll play, though, is yet again an open question. Iowa State as a repeat challenger will be the trendy pick, but every team outside of the Big 12 cellar improved this season. Texas loses a quarterback, a coach, and most of their receiving threats, but replaces that with a top-tier recruiting class and one of the game's best offensive minds. Oh, and the Longhorns have five experienced offensive linemen and one of the nation's most dangerous running backs in Bijan Robinson. West Virginia fielded one of the best defenses in FBS last season, 13th in EPA/play, but their offense struggled. The Mountaineers will have an entire offensive line return, as well as a lockdown defender in Tykee Smith, and with competent quarterback play could be a dark horse contender in the conference. TCU, Oklahoma State, and Baylor all had disappointing 2020 seasons to varying degrees, but all took steps forward in talent and will find themselves jockeying for position in the Big 12's middle class.
Is it too early to start talking about a one-loss Oregon team as a playoff contender? The Ducks continue making strides under Mario Cristobal, far outpacing the rest of the conference. UCLA may finally have the pieces Chip Kelly needs to string together a better-than-decent team, while Washington, USC, and Utah all should be at the top of the pack again this season. Arizona State had a better-than-it-seemed 2020, and quarterback Jayden Daniels will generate a lot of conversation. Stanford's 2020 offense ranked 28th in EPA/play thanks to a highly consistent performance from graduating quarterback Davis Mills. The Cardinal return only about half of their production, and their recruiting class ranked 50th in the nation. David Shaw and company seem to be starting 2021 at the bottom of a development cylce.
Group of 5
Among the Group of 5 contenders, BYU loses first-round draft pick Zach Wilson and a couple of high-quality offensive linemen, a loss that's almost hard to quantify. The Cougars, though, have a strong chain of development, so it's not like they'll be filling those missing spots with starry-eyed 19-year-olds. Cincinnati, Louisiana, and Liberty all bring back the core of their teams, along with some improved recruiting, and all three will be vying for that coveted New Year's Six spot. The Sun Belt and the American should be the conferences to watch this season, as Coastal Carolina improved after an unbelievable season, but their conference rivals Appalachian State and Louisiana did as well. The American will feature a horse race between Cincinnati's defense, Memphis's upside, and UCF's new look under Gus Malzahn.
Conclusion and Some Qualifiers
The Returning Talent Index is a nice broad-brush method to examine who improved over the offseason. With new and better data on the transfer portal, as well as the frequency of transfers in the portal era, we can begin to quantify which teams should take a step forward this season. Of course, this does little to address the complementary nature of some positions—a five-star running back and a five-star quarterback are rated the same, for instance—nor does it account for coaching changes. But, on its face, the RTI can give us some insight into which teams will define the college football landscape in 2021. Here's the entire Power 5 in one graph, just for fun. What I'm saying, is, put all your money on a Miami-LSU-Oregon-Oklahoma playoff. (Please don't do this.)
Click the following graphic to open it in a new window.