The list always provides a great talking point. But it also tells an inexact story. Bringing back a large number of returning starters, after all, doesn’t mean much if those starters have never managed to perform or are less talented than the players that might replace them. So it might be wise to look at this number as a jumping-off point for evaluation rather than taking it at face value.
Thus we’ve calculated a new figure that takes into account several key variables to determine a value that evaluates the quality of returning starters rather than just the quantity. (You can see the methodology on the final slide along with a full ranking of FBS teams.)
Click ahead to see which 10 teams will field the highest quality of returning starters in 2017.
Jan 2, 2017; Tampa , FL, USA; Florida Gators offensive lineman Tyler Jordan (64) during the second quarter at Raymond James Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
Florida will once again be in contention in the SEC East thanks to a team that returns nine starters on offense. That includes Luke Del Rio, the Purdue transfer who started 2016 as the Gators’ quarterback but only managed to play in six of Florida’s games. The question is now whether this unit can be more consistent in producing points after ranking outside the top 100 in scoring offense last year.
The offense will definitely have to pull its weight, as a dominant defense loses more than half of its 2016 starters. Guys like Jalen Tabor and Jarrad Davis are going to be drawing NFL paychecks next season. New blood will need to step it up quickly, especially when the other team has the ball, unless the offense morphs into a unit that can win shootouts.
Jan 2, 2017; Pasadena, CA, USA; USC Trojans quarterback Sam Darnold (14) throws a pass against the Penn State Nittany Lions during the 103rd Rose Bowl at Rose Bowl. USC defeated Penn State 52-49 in the highest scoring game in Rose Bowl history. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
USC impressed everyone in the Rose Bowl victory against Penn State, and they couldn’t have done it without Sam Darnold. The freshman quarterback set a new record for the Granddaddy of ’em All when racked up 473 all-purpose yards on the Nittany Lions. He will be back for at least two more seasons with the Trojans, which should make head coach Clay Helton very happy indeed.
The quarterback will have to find a new supporting cast, especially with guys like receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster declaring for the NFL Draft. The Trojans have just five returning starters on offense, including Darnold. The defense is in better shape, with seven more players back for another year and hoping to start again. The question is whether the Rose Bowl is a stepping stone or an aberration will be seen quickly in Los Angeles.
December 31, 2016; Glendale, AZ, USA; Clemson Tigers defensive lineman Christian Wilkins (42) against the Ohio State Buckeyes in the 2016 CFP semifinal at University of Phoenix Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
Clemson is coming off beating Alabama for the 2016-2017 College Football Playoff national championship. Unfortunately for Dabo Swinney, he will have to try to mount a title defense without his start quarterback. Deshaun Watson is off to the NFL, leaving a hole at the most important position on offense. Along with Watson, the defending champs lose more than half their returning starters on offense.
But the defense should be just fine. Beginning up front with guys like Christian Wilkins, the Tigers return seven of their 11 starters on that side of the ball. While scoring might drop off a bit with a new starter at QB, Clemson could be even better at shutting down opponents from rolling up the scoreboard thanks to a dominant defenseive unit.
Dec 30, 2016; Memphis, TN, USA; Georgia Bulldogs quarterback Jacob Eason (10) passes the ball while being pressured by TCU Horned Frogs defensive end Mat Boesen (9) during the first half at Liberty Bowl. Mandatory Credit: Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports
It bears remembering that Jacob Eason was just a freshman last year, because the highly hyped quarterback went through growing pains last year but could be even better in 2017. With a half-dozen other players returning on offense, Eason has the tools at his disposal continue his maturation at the college level.
Where Georgia looks like the favorite in the SEC East, however, is not on offense but on defense. The Bulldogs return all but one of their starters from a unit that ranked 16th nationally in yards allowed last season. A skilled group could give opposing offenses even bigger fits this year, and that could be critical as the team enters year two of the Kirby Smart era if they hope to compete for the division and conference titles.
Jan 9, 2017; Tampa, FL, USA; Alabama Crimson Tide quarterback Jalen Hurts (2) throws the ball to wide receiver Gehrig Dieter (11) against the Clemson Tigers during the second quarter in the 2017 College Football Playoff National Championship Game at Raymond James Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
Alabama Crimson Tide
It almost comes as a shock to see Alabama this low in a ranking of any sort. But even after one loaded recruiting class after another, the Crimson Tide still return just half of their starters from last year’s College Football Playoff finalists. That does include freshman phenom Jalen Hurts, whose touchdown run was a second away from being the game winner in last year’s rematch against Clemson.
Nick Saban will once again have his work cut out for him as he retools a defense that is about to send plenty of players to NFL rosters. Six of last year’s starting defensive players are gone in 2017, including multi-year starters like Jonathan Allen, Tim Williams, Reuben Foster, and Ryan Anderson. Youngsters will have to step up their play in a hurry if Alabama is to maintain its usual defensive edge.
Jan 2, 2017; Pasadena, CA, USA; Penn State Nittany Lions running back Saquon Barkley (26) scores on a 79-yard touchdown run in the third quarter against the USC Trojans during the 103rd Rose Bowl at Rose Bowl. USC defeated Penn State 52-49 in the highest scoring game in Rose Bowl history. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
Penn State Nittany Lions
The defending Big Ten champions bring back plenty of tools to try to do it again, even against a tough division. Trace McSorley is back at quarterback. Saquon Barkley joins him in the backfield. In total there are nine returning starters on an offense that ranked 21st in scoring last season. After seeing how the Nittany Lions produced against USC at the Rose Bowl in January, a year of experience could make this one of the most explosive offenses in the nation.
Penn State’s defense should have no trouble keeping the team ahead in most games. Seven starters return from the 2016 roster, and the unit should allow fewer than the 25 points per game conceded last season. With an offense that could be otherworldly, the defense won’t have to do everything. They will be in College Football Playoff contention this year thanks to all the returning experience.
November 5, 2016; Stanford, CA, USA; Stanford Cardinal running back Bryce Love (20) scores a touchdown Oregon State Beavers cornerback Xavier Crawford (22) during the first quarter at Stanford Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports
Washington broke the streak of Pac-12 championships for Stanford, but the Cardinal should be right back in the thick of things in 2017. David Shaw’s team will lose all-purpose threat Christian McCaffrey to the NFL, but thanks to the return of Bryce Love the backfield should be just fine. Love is one of eight returning starters on offense for Stanford, which includes quarterbacks Ryan Burns and Keller Chryst.
Whichever gets the starting nod this year, he should benefit from another stout defense. The Cardinal conceded fewer than three touchdowns per game on average, and with eight players returning on that side of the ball they will remain a formidable test for every opponent on their schedule. While they will still be tested by Washington (and an Oregon team that returns more talent than any other Pac-12 team), Stanford has the talent back to contend for the Pac-12 North.
Dec 30, 2016; Miami Gardens, FL, USA; Florida State Seminoles quarterback Deondre Francois (12) looks to throw the ball in the second quarter against the Michigan Wolverines at Hard Rock Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Logan Bowles-USA TODAY Sports
Florida State Seminoles
Clemson has owned the ACC the past few years, and Lamar Jackson is back at Louisville, but the team to beat in the Atlantic Division is probably Florida State. The Seminoles will lose workhorse back Dalvin Cook, but they do return Deondre Francois at quarterback among the seven returning starters on offense. Their ceiling is far higher than the team that ranked outside the top 25 in most offensive categories last year.
The defense is what should really make Florida State a contender in 2017. The Seminoles allowed 10 fewer points per game than they scored in 2016, and with nine starters returning on defense that disparity will almost certainly be even greater. With Alabama on the schedule for the season opener in Atlanta, we will find out right away whether FSU is a contender or a pretender.
Jan 2, 2017; New Orleans , LA, USA; Oklahoma Sooners quarterback Baker Mayfield (6) throws on the run against the Auburn Tigers in the third quarter of the 2017 Sugar Bowl at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Mandatory Credit: John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports
Oklahoma loses both of its star running backs and top wideout Dede Westbrook, but with Baker Mayfield returning at quarterback the Sooners should remain one of the top offensive teams in the country. Mayfield will be joined by eight other returning starters on offense. Bob Stoops’ team could score even more than the 44 points per game they put up in 2016, which was already good enough to rank third nationally.
What could make Oklahoma a contender not just for the Big 12 but also to return to the College Football Playoff is a defense that returns seven starters. Ranked outside the top 50 in every relevant defensive category, the experience gained by this unit against a tough gauntlet of opposition could bear major fruit in 2017.
Sep 17, 2016; Norman, OK, USA; Ohio State Buckeyes quarterback J.T. Barrett (16) runs the ball past Oklahoma Sooners defensive end D.J. Ward (87) in the fourth quarter at Gaylord Family – Oklahoma Memorial Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports
Ohio State Buckeyes
The team that has not only a lot of returning starters but ultimately better returning starters than any other program is undoubtedly Urban Meyer’s program. The Buckeyes still reached the College Football Playoff in 2016 despite failing to win even their division, and they could be right back in the national conversation thanks to an experienced returning group. That all begins with quarterback J.T. Barrett, who will be joined by seven other familiar faces on the starting offense.
The defense should be at least as good as it was in 2016, when it ranked third nationally in points allowed. Seven starters return from that unit, and though they got smoked 31-0 in their last game of the season against Clemson that shouldn’t be a trend of things to come. After all, this team held four opponents to single digits on the scoreboard last year and should be right in the thick of the Big Ten East and CFP discussions this year thanks to its returning experience.
Oct 15, 2016; Syracuse, NY, USA; Syracuse Orange quarterback Eric Dungey (2) throws a pass during the first quarter in a game against the Virginia Tech Hokies at the Carrier Dome. Mandatory Credit: Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports
Full List of FBS Teams and Methodology
The calculations used to valuate the returning starters for each team is relatively simple. It all starts with Phil Steele’s annual list of returning starters. The number of returning starters is calculated by adding together the numbers for offense and defense and adding an additional half-point for returning quarterbacks.
That number is then manipulated further by multiplying against two percentages. The first is the five-year recruiting average that is calculated by Bill Connelly at SB Nation. (Any number of averages would work in this situation; Connelly’s is convenient in that it provides a percentage that can immediately be used for normalizing the relative talent on each roster.) The final number in the mix is the winning percentage of each team from 2016. This separates two teams with a similar number of returning starters who have had varying levels of success together on the field.
Here is the full list of all 129 full FBS members and the assessed quality of each team’s returning starters.
Here are a few more general thoughts about the teams below the top 10:
Syracuse returns 20 of their 22 starters from 2016, including all 11 starters on defense. No team returns more of its starters from last year than the Orange. But Dino Babers’ team ranks just 61st overall in terms of the quality of its returning starters, thanks both to low recruiting levels and the fact that they are coming off a 4-8 season.
Lane Kiffin will have plenty of experienced talent on his roster for his first season as the head coach at Florida Atlantic. Of course, he arrives at a C-USA school whose cupboards aren’t bare but which lack the same level of talent he enjoyed as Alabama’s offensive coordinator. But if the nine offensive and nine defensive starters can make a next leap forward, his transition back into head coaching could prove smoother than expected.
On the other end of the spectrum, Michigan might not have quite as hard a time replicating its 2016 success even though no team has fewer returning starters. The Wolverines lose 17 of their 22 starters from last season, but still rank 55th in the value of the few starters that do return. Jim Harbaugh will have his work cut out for him, but at least he still has quarterback Wilton Speight.
Likewise, West Virginia could take a big step back in the Big 12 this year since they will bring back just eight returning starters. Among the most significant losses for the Mountaineers are starting quarterback Skyler Howard and eight of the team’s 11 starters on defense. Dana Holgorsen could have a long season ahead in Morgantown.
No team has a greater disparity between the number of returnees on its respective units than defending Pac-12 South champion Colorado. The Buffaloes return nine starters on offense. While they lose starting quarterback Sefo Liufau, they do get back Steven Montez after he gained starting experience in Liufau’s absence. The defense, however, returns just three players and could be the reason why the Colorado will have a hard time repeating.