August 8, 2011
By Christian Alexander
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Returning Starters - Focus on Defense
Anyone who has followed my handicapping of college football on Vegas Insider over the years knows that one of my favorite angles to use during the first couple of weeks of the season is returning starters. (access my 2011 returning starters chart here)The logic behind this angle is fairly straightforward: The team with a greater number of returning starters should have an advantage in the early part of the season over its opponent, who have more players still learning to deal with the pressure, expectations, and performance that comes with being a starter in Division 1-A (or FBS) college football.
But even a theory this simple can be misleading at times unless you really dig into the numbers and understand what you are dealing with. For instance, on paper, both Boise State and Utah State have 14 returning starters and so if these two teams were to face each other in the first few weeks of the season (they don't), one would assume neither has an advantage when it comes to returning experience. However, take a look at the composition of those 14 returning starters and you'll notice that Boise brings back seven starters on defense, a unit which finished #2 in total defense in the nation last year, allowing just over 12 points a game. Compare that to the five starters the Aggies return on defense, a unit which finished 100th in total defense in 2010. Clearly, the Broncos have an edge over Utah State with the experience they return on the defensive side of the ball.
Over the next few weeks, I'll perform this type of analysis, looking at returning starters on defense, offense, and the all important quarterback position. In this piece, I'll breakdown the defensive units returning the most starters, the least starters, and the ones who should have the most talent in 2011.
Defensive Units with the Most Returning Starters in 2011
San Jose State: Returning starters on defense - 11. During Dick Tomey's tenure at San Jose (2005-09), the Spartans were known to be pretty stingy on defense. That hasn't been the case under Coach Mike MacIntyre, who enters his second season at San Jose State in 2011. This unit was awful in 2010 - 117th in the nation in total defense to be exact. Often times, returning a lot of starters from a bad unit can just mean more of the same the next season. However, at least part of the poor performance last year can be attributed to a system change with the new coach. There is talent here and obviously all the starters are back. I look for San Jose to be much stronger on defense in 2011.
Virginia: Returning starters on defense - 10. Under Al Groh, Virginia ran a 3-4 defense, a scheme he used with much success in the NFL but one that is not seen much on the college level. When Mike London took over the program in 2010, one of his first moves was to replace the 3-4 with the more traditional collegiate defensive formation, the 4-3. After two consecutive years of 11 total returning starters, the Cavaliers will return nearly that many on the defensive side alone. That fact, with the comfort of a year under London, should pay big dividends for this unit. After allowing over 28 points a game in 2010 - their most in years - look for that number to shrink dramatically as Virginia returns its top five tacklers, and many others, in 2011.
Alabama: Returning starters on defense - 10. A quick glance at the preseason USA Today coaches' poll and it's clear there are high expectation for Bama. But while Oklahoma got the nod as the #1 team in that preseason poll, there is really no dispute who has the best defense heading into this season. The totals should be pretty low all season for games involving the Crimson Tide. The top seven tacklers return from 2010, including ball hawking SS Mark Barron. Points will come at a premium against Nick Saban's crew.
Kentucky: Returning starters on defense - 10. After a couple of decent years on defense in 2008 & 2009, the Wildcats regressed last season under new Coach Joker Phillips. Kentucky allowed 11 opponents to score at least 20 points in 2010 and while they do return their top 11 tacklers from last season, the fact that this unit will start to weave in a 3-4 look in certain situations, going back to the 4-3 in others, makes me think Kentucky fans might see a repeat of 2010
or worse. This much is sure, Wildcats LB Danny Trevathan is a tackling machine and will be in the middle of most plays.
Cincinnati: Returning starters on defense - 10. Cincy returns their top 11 tacklers from 2010 but that is from a unit that was their worst defense in five seasons. The D-line and linebacking groups should be improved but unless the secondary can take a step - make that two or three steps - in the right direction, the Bearcats might again be relying on their offense to win games. Cincy was 88th against the pass in 2010 and will need to be ready fairly quickly as they visit Tennessee, with QB Tyler Bray, on Sept. 10.
Defensive Units with the Least Returning Starters in 2011
Buffalo: Returning starters on defense - 3. Only two of the top ten tacklers from 2010 return but on the plus side this will be the second year running the 3-4 defense so overall this unit should step forward this year. The Bulls will definitely be tested with visits to Pittsburgh and Tennessee in the first half of the season.
Middle Tennessee: Returning starters on defense - 3. The Blue Raiders were a little softer on defense in 2010 than in years past, allowing over 28 points a game. From that perspective, it might not be such a bad thing that only three of the top ten tacklers return. However, considering that Coach Rick Stockstill decided to switch defensive coordinators, my gut says 2011 will be a learning year for this unit. Translation: any success Middle Tennessee has this year will likely stem from its offense. Take the over.
Navy: Returning starters on defense - 3. Throw out the 2007 in which Navy surrendered points in record setting fashion, and this hasn't been a bad unit in years past. Typically, disciplined teams who are well coached - and Navy is surely that - have less trouble replacing starters than other teams. The Middies will have to hope that is the case as they look to replace seven of their top ten tacklers. A red flag is that the Navy secondary - traditionally their weakest spot - will return only one starter meaning teams will again look to air it out against the Middies.
Auburn: Returning starters on defense - 3. Make no mistake, Auburn didn't win the national championship behind the strength of their defense in 2010. From that perspective, returning only one of their top seven tacklers from last year won't hurt that much. (the loss of starters on offense and particularly at the quarterback position will be much more significant) They do lose a monster presence along the D-line as Nick Fairley moves on the NFL but the real question is whether this unit will have the knack for the big stops in key situations - as was certainly the case last season. Even with only three starters returning, this unit won't be any worse in 2011.
Northern Illinois: Returning starters on defense - 2. No team in the FBS returns fewer starters on defense than the Huskies. Making matters worse is that No. Ill will be operating under a new coach as Dave Doeren takes over the program. This has been a very stout unit over the past three years but with fresh faces and a new coach, I look for a "learning year" (translation: lots of points) in 2011.
Top Defensive Units in 2011
#1 Alabama: Returning starters on defense - 10. See above. Will be awfully tough to dent.
#2 Florida State: Returning starters on defense - 8. Could the Noles be returning to the form that marked this program during a dominating run in the 90's? This FSU defensive line will not surrender yards easily.
#3 Boise State: Returning starters on defense - 7. Losing three of their top six tacklers from 2010, this unit will have a hard time replicating the suffocating defense from a year ago but make no mistake, the Boise program is clearly at a level now where they simply reload. Accordingly, look for the Broncos defense to again be one of the best this season.
#4 Penn State: Returning starters on defense - 7. Joe Pa will miss 2010 top tackler Chris Colasanti, but the top five behind him all return. I look for this unit to make dramatic improvements over the 2010 edition, which uncharacteristically allowed nearly 24 points a game.
#5 Nebraska: Returning starters on defense - 7. This might be a little reach but I have a feeling the move to the Big 10 is going to suit Bo Pelini's quite well. The "Blackshirts" defense should be very strong along the defensive line which will play nicely in a conference that prefers the run over the pass. They lose four of their top seven tacklers from 2010 but have a crop of youngsters who have quality in-game experience ready to step up.