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How Important Are Returning Starters in College Football?

Most people who bet on football don’t take it very seriously. They just enjoy the challenge of trying to predict what’s going to happen in games each week. Having a few bucks at stake makes watching football games more exciting, and the chance of winning some extra money is obviously appealing.

The reality is that these people DON’T typically win any money. Not in the long run anyway. They’ll win some of their wagers of course, but not enough to make an overall profit. And this doesn’t tend to bother them too much. Football is just a form of entertainment for them, which is why they’re known as “recreational bettors”. They’re perfectly content to lose some money so long as they’re having fun.

Now, this doesn’t mean that these recreational bettors don’t WANT to win money. Of course they do. Many of them are quite capable of doing so too, as they have enough football knowledge to give them a chance of beating the bookmakers consistently. If they were just prepared to also learn some football betting strategy, and take their betting a little more seriously, they’d probably see an instant improvement in their results. So what’s stopping them?

It’s usually the fact that football betting strategy can seem very confusing. And it is, to some extent. There are plenty of simple strategies that are very easy to learn, but there are also aspects that are more complex and difficult to understand. This is especially the case with college football betting strategy, as several of the factors we need to take into account when betting on college football are hard to properly analyze. With some factors, it’s not even entirely clear how much of an impact they have.

Returning starters are a prime example of this. Many serious college football handicappers will tell you that you MUST analyze returning starters when trying to assess college teams. They’ll argue that returning starters can make a huge difference to a team’s chances of success, and will directly affect their ability to win games. They’ll point to the fact that most major media outlets assess returning starter numbers before the start of a college season as proof of their importance.

However, there are plenty of handicappers who believe that the number of returning starters on a team is a vastly overrated betting factor. They’ll argue that we can’t read too much into it all, and that there are lots of other more useful factors that we should be focusing our attention on.

So which view is right? Well, neither of them really. But they’re not wrong either. As with most football handicapping factors, it’s impossible to definitively state just how useful analyzing returning starters actually is. It’s ultimately up to you to decide how much weight you want to give this factor when handicapping college football teams.

In this article we’re going to help you make that decision. We look at some key points that should allow you to determine just how valuable returning starters are to a college team. We also offer some tips for analyzing the impact of returning starters.

Experience Matters

There’s a reason why NFL teams often keep veteran players on their rosters even after they’re past their prime. And there’s a reason why NFL teams typically introduce rookies slowly, rather than putting them straight into the starting lineup. The reason is simply that experience matters on a football field. There can be absolutely no doubt about that, and no-one that understands the sport would argue otherwise.

How MUCH does experience matter though?

That’s the question we need to answer if we want to understand the true value of returning starters. More specifically, we need to know how much experience matters at the college level. The benefit of experience in the professional game is clear, but it’s not quite so obvious how much difference it makes to college players.

This is because it could be argued that ALL college players are reasonably inexperienced. Even those in their final season will have played at this level for a maximum of three years, so the average difference in experience between players is not that great. Is a player with two years’ experience really much better equipped than a player with just one year’s experience?

We think that they are. Not in every single case of course, as some players learn quicker than others. But we firmly believe that, on the whole, college players benefit significantly from the experience they gain. Their entire college playing career is one big learning curve, and being further along that learning curve is a distinct advantage.

On that basis alone, the number of returning starters on a college team is definitely worth considering from a betting perspective. Having plenty of experienced players is very likely to help a team, while a notable lack of experience can be harmful.

Familiarity Matters Too

We’ve established that the experience of returning starters can benefit a team. It’s not just their overall experience that makes a difference though, it’s the fact that they’re familiar with the team. They’ve had time to get comfortable in the setup and their surroundings, and that’s good for both the individual players and the team as a whole. When players are familiar with their teammates, they tend to perform better. Better performing players obviously leads to a team performing better collectively.

Returning starters basically help to ensure continuity for a team.

Continuity is a key factor when assessing the importance of returning starters in college football. This is why we talk about the NUMBER of returning starters. If a team has just one or two of its best players coming back, and the rest of the starting line-up is made up of new players, then there isn’t that much continuity at all. The value of those returning starters is diminished, because they still have a lot of new teammates to get used to.

Equally, the value of returning starters diminishes once they get above a certain number. For example, a team with eight returning starters definitely has the advantage of more continuity than a team with no returning starters at all. But a team with 16 returning starters is not necessarily much better off than a team with 14. Both teams are reasonably settled, so it’s questionable whether those extra two returning starters will actually make much of a difference.

Continuity is relevant in ALL areas of a team.

The continuity of a team is not affected solely by the number of returning starters. We must also consider continuity of the coaching staff, the style of play and the tactics. If a team has employed a whole new coaching staff, who plan to adopt a completely different style of play, then there isn’t going to be much continuity regardless of how many returning starters there are. Even if the entire roster was coming back, the players would have to get used to new coaching methods, a new way of playing and a new playbook.

The value of those returning starters would therefore be diminished. A settled coaching staff, on the other hand, would likely INCREASE the value of returning starters. Unless they were looking to suddenly change their methods and try to play a different way, there would be significantly more continuity.

So returning starters benefit a team not just because of the experience they bring, but also because of their familiarity with the team and the continuity they can help to ensure. However, the value of returning starters is affected by how many of them there are and how much continuity there is in other areas of a team.

Talent versus Experience

We’ve looked at how teams and players benefit from experience, familiarity and continuity. But what about talent? Surely the actual quality of players matters too?

Of course it does. That’s not up for debate. Teams with plenty of talent throughout their roster are obviously expected to do better than teams who have less talented players. However, when it comes to assessing the importance of returning starters, we have to ask ourselves a big question.

Does talent trump experience?

The answer to this question is not immediately obvious. Let’s take a look at some hypothetical situations to demonstrate.

Scenario 1

Two college teams are meeting early on in the season. They played against each other the previous year, and there wasn’t much between them. The game was relatively even, and “Team A” won by a small margin. “Team B” actually had the slightly better season overall though.

  • Team A is made up mostly of returning starters this year.
  • Team B has lost most of it’s starters, but has recruited well. The players coming in have improved their roster all, and they now appear to have the more talented group.

If we were handicapping this game, we’d give a clear advantage to Team A. Yes, Team B looks to have improved the talent in their roster. But there’s very little experience in the team, and not much continuity.

Scenario 2

Another two college teams are meeting early on in the season. They didn’t play each other the previous year, but “Team C” had a significantly better season than “Team D”. Their roster appeared to contain a lot more talent.

  • Team C has a few returning starters, but has also lost a few good players. They appear to have recruited at about the same level.
  • Team D has a lot of returning starters, and only lost a couple of their better players. Their recruitment hasn’t been great though, with not a lot of talent coming in.

Here we’d give the advantage to Team C. Team D has more experience and continuity, but Team C is clearly ahead in terms of overall quality.

Scenario 3

Team E and Team F are about to play against each other, in the mid-season. They played at a similar stage in the previous season, and Team E won quite comfortably. They were only slightly better than Team F across the whole season though.

  • Team E has retained all but one of its best players. Their recruitment was average, they’ve been performing better overall than last season.
  • Team F has undergone a major overhaul. They lost most of their players, and only had a few returning starters. They recruited exceptionally well though, and brought in some of the most talented players they’ve ever had. They started this season slowly, but have been steadily improving.

This is a tough game to call. Team E has the advantage of experience and continuity, and appears to have benefitted from that by improving on last season’s performances. Seeing as they beat Team F last year, and have gotten even better, it seems logical that they have the advantage here.

However, Team F has brought a lot of new talent in and significantly improved the overall quality of their roster. They may not have the experience and continuity of Team E, but they’ve overtaken them in terms of the talent they can boast.

So what conclusions can we draw from all this? Well, the main point we’re trying to make is that the question of whether talent trumps experience is not an easy one to answer. In the first game, we put more importance on experience. Although Team B had the edge in terms of talent, we felt that the vastly more experienced Team A had the overall edge. In the second game, we put more importance on talent. Team D had the edge in terms of experience, but we felt that the significantly more talented Team C had the overall edge.

In the third game, we didn’t really know what to do. Team E had a clear advantage in terms of experience, but Team F had the clear advantage in terms of talent. Which team had the overall edge was not all clear.

It’s basically impossible to state whether talent trumps experience or not. In a broad sense, anyway. There will be times when it’s right to favor the more experienced team, and times when it’s right to favor the more talented team. There will also be times when it’s difficult to know which team to favor.

This simply tells us that experience and talent are BOTH important.

That’s what you need to take away from this really. It doesn’t actually matter whether talent trumps experience overall, or vice versa. Yes, there will be times when you need to decide whether experience or talent is likely to be the deciding factor in a game. But, either way, you still need to take both things into account.

Tips for Analyzing Returning Starters

In the introduction to this article we told you that some handicappers place a lot of importance on returning starters in college football. We also told you that some handicappers have a different view, and don’t consider returning starters to be important at all. The purpose of this article is primarily to help you decide for yourself how important returning starters are.

In our opinion, you should definitely place SOME importance on returning starters. How much is up to you, but we firmly believe that it would be foolish to ignore returning starters completely. Experience is definitely a benefit at the college level, and returning starters obviously bring experience to their team. They help with continuity and familiarity too, which can also be an advantage.

However, we don’t necessarily agree in placing a HUGE amount of importance on returning starters. Although the benefits of experience, familiarity and continuity are clear, it’s equally clear that they are not always the deciding factor in what makes one team better than another. In theory, it’s perfectly possible for a team with NO returning starters to be better than a team with ALL returning starters.

This means you’ve got to be smart when analyzing returning starters.

It’s rarely, if ever, right to just assume that lots of returning starters is a good thing, and that less returning starters is a bad thing. You can’t view things so simplistically. Always remember that the value of returning starters is not consistent.

As we stated earlier, their value diminishes when there are only very few of them. This is because they bring less continuity. Their value also diminishes when there are many of them. The difference between having 80% returning starters and 70% returning starters is not as significant as the difference between having 60% versus 50%.

The value of returning starters is also affected by factors such as continuity in other parts of the teams, and the talent that they have. Returning starters won’t benefit a team so much if the entire coaching staff has been replaced. And it’s not much of an advantage to have returning starters that are ultimately not very talented.

There are a few other things you should consider too. These are as follows.

  • The value of returning starters diminishes as a season progresses.
  • The positions of returning starters are relevant.
  • Bigger teams are typically affected less by the number of returning starters they have.

Teams without many returning starters are at a clear disadvantage early on in a season. As that season progresses, however, their players will gain experience and become more familiar with one another. So their lack of returning players will start to affect them much less. It’s important to remember this when handicapping games later in the season.

It’s also important to look beyond the overall number of returning starters, and look at which positions are affected. Experience and familiarity matter far more for some positions than for others. Quarterback is the best example of this, as quarterbacks benefit enormously from being used to the speed of college football and knowing the playbook inside out.

Another positional consideration is how many of each unit are returning. If a team has its whole offensive unit returning, for example, that’s probably better than having half its offensive unit and half its defensive unit returning.

The third point on the above list is a vital one. The bigger college teams tend to have the most resources and the best recruiting programs. And they’re also the most attractive to the better players. A top college team could lose most of its best players and still be in good shape the following season, while a lesser team would be affected far more.

We’re almost done now, but there’s just one final piece of advice we want to offer.

In-depth analysis can be VERY powerful.

The more you put into analyzing returning starters, the more you’ll get out of it. If you really dig into the detail, and look at different ways to value returning experience, you can learn a great deal about just how strong college football teams are. This can be time consuming, but the potential benefits are worth it. Looking beyond the obvious is invariably the best way to get an edge against the bookmakers.

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