The importance of returning starters

Michigan, led by QB Denard Robinson, is returning starters at key positions. Robin Alam/Icon SMI

Only one team in the 2011 AP preseason poll had fewer than eight wins last season: the Georgia Bulldogs, owners of a disappointing 6-7 record in 2010.

Which begs a question: Why all the love for the Dawgs? After all, not only did they have a losing record, but they also won't return their best player from 2010 in wide receiver A.J. Green, and have also watched a pair of impact defenders, Akeem Dent and Justin Houston, head to the NFL.

Success over the past decade and a recruiting class earning a "Dream Team" moniker might have something to do with it, but the fact Georgia has a solid group of returning starters might also be playing into the Bulldogs' preseason expectations. And as it turns out, the data shows that Georgia does qualify as a potential breakthrough candidate based on its returning experience. But the reason is not as black-and-white as the usual "returning starters" numbers. Allow us to explain:

An initial look at the numbers reveals that the importance of returning starters may be less than previously thought. Since 2004, FBS teams have averaged approximately 12.97 returning starters per season. Teams with 13 or more starters returning from the previous season won a combined 53 percent of their games during that time period. Teams with 12 or fewer starters won about 50 percent of their games since 2004 -- hardly a huge disparity.

Even smaller is the difference between experienced squads. Teams with 16 or more returning starters have won about 54 percent of their games since 2004.

But a deeper dive into the numbers shows us two key things:

1. When it comes to teams making significant jumps in the standings (translation: going from a midlevel team one season to a league title contender the next), large returning starters numbers do come into play.
2. Certain positions matter more than others when it comes to the correlation between returning starters and next-year success in college football.

And when looking at both of these factors, we can identify some teams that, like Georgia, have the chance to break through with big win jumps in 2011.