This is going to be a harder year than ever before to judge returning talent. More talent than ever will be returning to campuses this fall, largely because of an NCAA decision to grant an extra year of eligibility to 2020-2021 fall athletes. While teams still have attrition, either due to players deciding to move on from football, go pro, or transfer, it’s clear this decision had a major impact. ESPN’s Bill Connelly reports that from 2014-2019 your average college team returned 62.6% of production, this year that figure is 75.8%.
Let’s start by defining what “returning production” means. The figure is Connelly’s attempt to account for the obvious fact that while more returning starters are better than fewer, experience matters more at certain positions on the field than others.
Generally speaking, experience pays off most in the passing game on each side of the ball. Returning QB and WR/TE production each account for about a third of the offensive returning production stats, with OL starts and RB rushing yardage returning bringing up the rear. What does that mean for Clemson? Well, it’s not ideal to have lost a great QB and a pair of receivers in the draft. But we know that DJU is no ordinary backup QB, and the Tigers receiving corps is always deep. The loss of Etienne may be relatively replaceable on the ground, but his ability to break big plays and catch balls out of the backfield may not be. It doesn’t appear to be enough to expect the offensive line to get better from experience alone, but adding new talent may not cost the team as much as you’d expect.
On the defensive side of the ball experience in the linebacker corps and secondary makes up the majority of returning production. In addition, while tackles returning are useful, disruption (tackles for loss, sacks, passes defended etc.) are much harder to replace. What does that mean for a Tigers defense that returns just about everybody?
Well, it’s a mixed bag at corner, where the returning Booth Jr proved disruptive last season (4 PBU) but the loss of Derion Kendrick (6 PBU) may be felt. The return of Bresee and Miles along the defensive line is exciting. National analysts seem to be underrating Baylon Spector, who isn’t getting his hands on a lot of passes but is a force behind the line of scrimmage. Nolan Turner, despite his deficiencies as a man defender, remains valuable for his ability to produce turnovers in zone. There is also the obvious benefit of returning leadership in the form of Skalski, Turner, etc.
Looking at the numbers nationally we find Clemson is only 100th in Bill C’s returning production statistic, bringing back 69% of their 2020 production. Generally speaking, power conference teams (which have more draft prospects) are seeing less production return than non-powers. This is the shallowest draft pool in modern history in large part because many players who would typically run out of eligibility didn’t. Of the teams the Tigers face, none are in the top quartile of the FBS. Some (Georgia, USC) rank comfortably below Clemson while most settle in somewhere between 80th and 50th. Given the Tigers' talent advantage against almost every team on the schedule, it’s hard to see that slim a margin in returning production flipping any games.
Over at Football Outsiders they have a slightly different spin on how to interpret returning production. Parker Fleming devised a formula that takes, “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.”
When you take recruiting rankings into account, the Tigers returning production looks much better. How much better? Well, they jump from 100th in Bill C’s projections to fourth overall. That’s good for second best in the ACC. Unfortunately, Georgia also jumps up to 6th. Miami, top in the ACC and rated third overall, appears to be a hell of a threat to make the conference championship game. South Carolina is still near dead last though so that’s nice.