It’s always a bit of a challenge to take last year’s results and even make an educated guess as to what that means in light of returning players, but it is a useful guide.
Alabama as well as the teams they beat in the SEC and national championship games, respectively, had relatively few returning starters last year. Alabama and Clemson had 11 apiece, and Florida had 10.
On the other hand, it’s not hard to find disappointments among the teams who had relatively few returning starters. Many expected Auburn, for instance, to compete for championships. Their results were much less disappointing when you realize they only had 12 returning starters from an 8-5 team in 2014.
Georgia, which started last season in the top 10, had the same number. The Bulldogs finished outside the AP top 25 and barely made the final coaches’ top 25.
Mississippi St., which had one of the smallest numbers of returning starters (9), was less surprising but still went from 11 and 12 at the end of 2014 to unranked (in the national polls anyway) at the end of last year.
Oregon fell from #2 in the final poll in 2014 to about #20 at the end of last year after having 12 returning starters. Arizona was also a strong team out of the Pac-12 in 2014, finishing #10 in the CFP standings before the bowls. The Wildcats only had 12 returning starters and didn’t receive even a vote in either poll after last season.
Another team with very few returning starters was Boston College (9). They went from a bowl game in 2014 (and nearly a huge upset of then-undefeated Florida St. in late November of that season) to finishing 3-9 last season. Two of those three wins were over FCS opponents.
According to Phil Steele, other than the ones I mentioned at the beginning, no other teams with 11 or fewer returning starters posted improved records over the prior year. Of the 26 teams with 16 or more returning starters, 19 had improved records and only two had worse records.
So a program that traditionally has depth and does a good job recruiting can maintain the same basic level of play with 12 or fewer returning, but few very can improve, especially not substantially. For instance, no team with 12 or fewer returning starters finished in the top 10 last season after finishing outside the top 10 in 2014. Stanford, Iowa, Houston, and Oklahoma all had 13 though, so it doesn’t have to be among the highest numbers. All four returned their respective starting quarterbacks last year.
Going back to Alabama, I don’t normally do this with returning champions with 11 returning starters, but I consider them #1 until proven otherwise. It also doesn’t hurt that the Tide was in the top 4 after the regular season (including conference championship games) the last five years in a row. I hate when people say a team “reloads”; but if it ever fit a team, it fits them.
In the first of those seasons, there was an interesting situation wherein the Tide lost during the regular season and did not make the SEC championship game yet won the national title. There might just be a similar predicament this year since the 18 returning starters of LSU could do some damage in the SEC as well.
So that’s my top 2. Had LSU won maybe one more game and had Alabama not won the national championship, the two teams might have been reversed, but I’m more comfortable with Alabama anyway since they’ve obviously been more likely to win the key games toward the end in recent years. Also, I don’t think the Tide’s early-season nemesis Ole Miss is going to beat them again with their 10 returning starters. Also, I’ll probably get enough harassment from having LSU #2.
Apart from Alabama, I was skeptical of other teams with 11 or fewer returning starters, but those that were good enough to finish ranked last year I placed in the 18-25 range. Three teams that I really liked last year (Clemson, Iowa, and Stanford) had 12 returning starters apiece, so I put those in the top 10, but I’m not expecting those to make national semifinals.
I thought about putting Clemson higher, but they had a pretty close game with Florida St. last year. They were tied going into the fourth quarter, and I think part of the reason they won was better relative experience last year (they had the same number of returning starters, but most of the Seminoles’ returning starters were on a defense that wasn’t very good). When it’s 17 returning starters to 12, I think we can expect the script to flip.
There were a lot of teams who finished in the 20-32 range last year with substantial numbers of returning starters, but they have to prove more before I put them in the top 10, so that describes teams 11-17. It’s going to be interesting to see how 11-17 compares with 18-25 (except for Wisconsin) and with the three 12-returning-starter teams.
After the top 25, I list teams I left out by number of returning starters and last season’s adjusted rank. I’ll talk about this more later, but I decided to alter my formula slightly, and I looked at the adjusted ratings for last season when deciding the preseason rankings below. In short, it works the same basic way, I just gave a little more credit for quality wins, so when I start using computer ratings again (likely in early October), the teams you beat will be a little more important and the teams you lost to will be a little less important.
I’ll do my full rankings chart and mention the Week 1 match-ups later in the week.
1. Alabama 11
2. LSU 18
3. Florida St. 17
4. Oklahoma 13
5. Clemson 12
6. Michigan 13
7. Oklahoma St. 16
8. Utah 14
9. Iowa 12
10. Stanford 12
11. Tennessee 17
12. Georgia 14
13. North Carolina 14
14. Arkansas 14
15. USC 15
16. Washington St 14
17. Miss. St. 13
18. Houston 11
19. Florida 11
20. Michigan St. 10
21. Wisconsin 13
22. Oregon 11
23. Ole Miss 10
24. Ohio St. 6
25. TCU 10
18 returning starters (final adjusted 2015 rank)
16 returning starters (final adjusted 2015 rank)
15 returning starters (final adjusted 2015 rank)
13 returning starters (final adjusted 2015 rank)
Texas A&M (40)
Boise St. (53)
11 returning starters (final adjusted 2015 rank)
10 returning starters (final adjusted 2015 rank)
Notre Dame (17)
8 returning starters (final adjusted 2015 rank)