In college football, returning production is a controversial stat. On one hand, you have experienced playmakers returning and continuity in the locker room. On the other hand, you might have a group of bad players coming back. Returning production isn’t a metric that should be ignored. When used in the right context, it can be strong tool.
Let’s look at teams returning the most production. What does it mean for each and how can you apply it to betting markets for the 2022 college football season? Scroll to the bottom for a full table of returning production rankings.
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What is returning production?
The stat itself is pretty self-explanatory: how much of your yardage, tackles, snaps, etc. is returning for the coming season? Teams that return a lot of production typically have continuity with their quarterback, running back, or both. However, this works on both sides, with tackles and sacks and turnovers also being taken into account. It’s a stat that ESPN’s Bill Connelly painstakingly collects and provides to subscribers.
It’s pretty clear why returning production is important to a team and their success in the coming season. But is all production good production? Does it directly correlate to more or less wins?
Contextualizing the metric is imperative. For example, Kansas is a team that returns 82% of production (tied for sixth nationally), but that production produced a two-win Jayhawks team that’s 97th in FPI and sportsbooks have their win total at over wins this coming season. Conversely, Texas A&M returns just 56% (96th) but they’re 14th in FPI and are lined at over wins this coming season.
The primary difference (aside from historical stigma on these two programs) is roster talent and incoming roster talent (plus coaching, yadda, yadda, yadda).
How to use returning production
In the event of a team like Northern Illinois, who is 110th in FPI in their early-season tilt against Tulsa (92nd), continuity is important. The Huskies return quarterback Rocky Lombardi along with 83% of last year’s roster that won the MAC Championship. Tulsa returns 57% of their roster that doesn’t include first-round offensive tackle Tyler Smith nor 1,000-yard rusher Shamari Brooks. Especially early on in the season, NIU may get a nod even on the road since they bring back a largely successful team.
On the opposite side, UMass returns 79% of their production from a season ago, but because that team finished near the bottom of the FPI, they’re not going to get a nod over Toledo, who returns 67% of theirs.
Understand where this returning production is coming from, too. Minnesota brings back 69% of their production (44th), but loses four of their five offensive line starters from a year ago. If all of the returners are on one side of the ball, or if a particular unit doesn’t bring back anybody, that may not be a recipe for success.
College Football Returning Production To Beware
Bowling Green Falcons (92%)
Win total: under 3.5 (-125)
FPI: -17.5 (128th)
Nobody returns more production than BGSU this coming season. In the MAC, that’s a very encouraging figure that alludes to the Falcons building on their four wins from last year. Defensively, they took a massive step forward and even pulled off an incredible 14-10 victory at Minnesota. However, Bowling Green is 128th in FPI and finished 112th in points scored per drive. Quarterback Matt McDonald is one of the least inspiring QBs in the nation, posting a paltry 3.8 air yards per attempt in 2020 and 6.3 air yards per attempt last year.
- Forecast: Returning McDonald for a fourth season is one of those returning starters you wish didn’t. Returning production is a good handicapping tool for early-season games, but this is enough for me to fade my Falcons and not really take that 92% returning production into consideration outside of their defense.
Michigan State Spartans (73%)
Win total: under
FPI: 12.4 (16th)
Michigan State is one of the teams projected to see the biggest regression from a season ago. After finishing 2021 with 11 wins, they’re looking at a win total this coming season. Why is there concern for regression surrounding an 11-win team returning nearly three-fourths of their production from last year? They return their entire secondary– a secondary that was 103rd in dropback EPA a season ago. Even if these players take a step forward, it’s not a reason to get excited having that kind of liability on the backend.
- Forecast: When the ball was taken out of Kenneth Walker III’s hands last season, it spelled disaster for Michigan State. Peyton Thorne returns, who was often the reason why the Spartans were unable to score without Walker, and he doesn’t have his top target Jalen Nailor. When you’re not excited about a returning QB or returning secondary, there’s reason to be passive about using returning production in early-season handicapping.
College football teams with strong returning production
NC State Wolfpack (82%)
Win total: over
FPI: 9.7 (26th)
The two biggest losses to NC State’s roster this past offseason were tackle Ikem Ekwonu and leading receiver Emeka Emezie. Virtually everyone else returns, including all three interior offensive linemen. They also return quarterback Devin Leary, who threw for over 3,400 yards in 2021. Most importantly, they return everyone on defense with zero newcomers– a defense that ranked 15th in points per drive allowed and first in points per drive allowed on long drives.
- Forecast: Two words: Devin Leary. Couple him with most of his weapons from last year and a terrific defense, and you have a good looking team for 2022. This is the kind of returning production setup you want to see.
Fresno State Bulldogs (78%)
Win total: over
FPI: -1.1 (69th)
Fresno State returns 78% of their player production and zero coaching staff. The Bulldogs finished off their third ten-win season since 2017 and retained quarterback Jake Haener, despite him initially exploring the transfer portal. However, don’t be fooled by their coaching turnover– successful coach Jeff Tedford returns to Fresno after resigning in 2019 for health reasons. He was responsible for their last two 10-win seasons.
- Forecast: QBs weigh so heavily in returning production because the ball hits their hands every offensive play. However, I also weigh the return of Haener more than in just numbers. He’s a terrific QB and landed favorably on Adam Hale’s quarterback tiers list. The Bulldogs could be returning 50% of production and I’d still be pretty excited for them this year.