College football: Analyzing returning production, coaching stability

appalachian state-2018 mississippi state-2019 college football handicapping

The intersection of returning production and coaching stability matters in college football.

Just look at 2018 Mississippi State. The Bulldogs featured three NFL first-round picks on defense, one of the SEC’s best-ever rushing QBs in Nick Fitzgerald, a very good offensive line and returned almost every skill-position player.

Mississippi State entered the season ranked No. 18 in the AP Top 25 and the Coaches Poll, not to mention No. 4 in Athlon Sports’ preseason magazine and No. 16 in ESPN’s FPI.

Phil Steele (No. 5) and Bill Connelly (No. 8) called last year’s Bulldogs one of the 10 most experienced teams in college football.

Connelly’s S&P+ college football analytics system projected Mississippi State as a betting favorite in nine regular-season games. His numbers labeled two others as toss-ups, in which the Bulldogs had at least a 40 percent chance of winning.

With a 10-win season a distinct possibility, there were even whispers among Mississippi State fans that the Bulldogs could challenge Alabama in the SEC West.

The only problem? Mississippi State had to replace head coach Dan Mullen, arguably the best in team history, with Penn State offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead.

For a bad team, change can be good. It worked at Florida as the Gators (unranked in the preseason) improved from 4-7 to 10-3 and a spot in the AP Top 10 thanks to Mullen and his staff.

But for a team like Mississippi State, which appeared ready to capitalize on its best championship opportunity in decades, change came at the worst time.

The Bulldogs scored a combined 16 points in four SEC losses. Mississippi State finished unranked with an 8-5 overall record following its 27-22 loss to Iowa in the Outback Bowl.

Every coaching staff, team, and situation is different. Nevertheless, there might be lessons we can learn from the disappointment Mississippi State suffered in 2018, or the quick turnaround at Florida.

Let’s take a closer look at some of the coaching changes across college football, and what level of experience returns. The tables below reference statistics found in the CFB Winning Edge Returning Production Database, Phil Steele’s 2019 NCAA Experience Chart (via the annual preseason magazine and updated later on his blog), and Connelly’s 2019 Returning Production list published in January.

FBS college football teams with a new head coach, offensive coordinator and defensive coordinator:

SchoolPass Yds.Rush Yds.Rec. Yds.Tackles
Appalachian State100%85.9%83.9%63.9%
Bowling Green6.3%96.2%47.0%44.0%
Central Michigan100%97.7%62.5%34.8%
East Carolina100%76.7%55.9%61.8%
Georgia Tech17.4%59.1%31.7%47.9%
Kansas State71.5%21.7%73.6%74.9%
North Carolina15.5%74.7%66.7%52.8%
Northern Illinois99.8%96.1%44.5%79.3%
Texas State54.3%69.4%62.2%94.7%
Texas Tech92.4%73.0%40.1%58.8%
Utah State100%46.3%25.7%57.3%
West Virginia8.4%95.4%25.6%54.4%
SchoolStarters (Off.)Starters (Def.)SteeleBill C.
Appalachian State106922
Bowling Green7511798
Central Michigan838976
East Carolina774883
Georgia Tech54122119
Kansas State682331
North Carolina7710335
Northern Illinois671237
Texas State91023
Texas Tech762478
Utah State27124104
West Virginia34119105

Using the Mississippi State and Florida examples from last season as our guides, we should take a closer look at two Sun Belt Conference squads (Appalachian State and Texas State).

The Mountaineers are favorites to repeat as conference champions under new head coach Eli Drinkwitz, but it’s worth noting the former N.C. State offensive coordinator has never been a college head coach.

Drinkwitz and the Mountaineers have an easier schedule to navigate than Moorhead and Mississippi State did last year, and Appalachian State is an established titan in the league. Still, similarities exist – especially on offense.

The Texas State Bobcats also turn to an offensive coordinator turned first-time head coach, though Jake Spavital will lean on former Colorado School of Mines and Montana head coach (and offensive coaching folk hero) Bob Stitt to call the plays (#StittHappens).

Texas State is second only to Oregon on Steele’s list, while Connelly’s methodology found only Western Michigan and Tennessee as teams returning more production.

The Bobcats are in worse shape as a program than Florida was in 2018, and Spavital isn’t a proven winner as a head coach like Mullen was. But it’s worth noting how experienced the roster is in San Marcos, particularly on defense, where Spavital’s brother Zac takes over.

There are also three head coaching changes in which the new leader opted to keep at least one coordinator.

Jamey Chadwell and Ryan Day were promoted from offensive coordinator to head coach at Coastal Carolina and Ohio State, respectively. Chadwell was interim head coach of the Chanticleers in 2017 and led the team to a 3-9 record while filling in for Joe Mogila. He’ll continue to work with defensive coordinator Marvin Sanders after taking over for Mogila, who moved to an off-field role in the administration.

Day famously acted as interim head coach of the Buckeyes for three games last season during Urban Meyer’s suspension, and he stepped into the full-time role when Meyer announced his retirement. Though Day will work with new defensive coordinator Greg Mattison, he retained co-OC Kevin Wilson.

Finally, Western Kentucky hired former Tennessee offensive coordinator Tyson Helton as its new head coach, and Helton brought Bryan White along as his new OC. However, Helton kept Mike Sanford’s defensive coordinator, Clayton White, on staff.

FBS college football teams with a new head coach, but the same offensive or defensive coordinator:

School (returns)Pass Yds.Rush Yds.Rec. Yds.Tackles
Coastal Carolina (DC)53.1%52.1%62.1%66.9%
Ohio State (co-OC)0%48.2%49.5%85.4%
Western Kentucky (DC)74.0%79.6%80.0%53.7%
SchoolStarters (Off.)Starters (Def.)SteeleBill C.
Coastal Carolina785740
Ohio State499462
Western Kentucky1062914

Elsewhere, seven returning head coaches were forced to fill both coordinator slots ahead of the 2019 college football season.

Some openings were created by coordinators leaving for head coaching opportunities, such as at Boston College (OC Scot Loeffler became Bowling Green’s head coach) and Georgia (DC Mel Tucker became Colorado’s head coach). Other coordinators were shown the door due to poor performance (looking at you, UConn).

FBS college football teams with new the same head coach, but new offensive and defensive coordinators:

SchoolPass Yds.Rush Yds.Rec. Yds.Tackles
Boston College100%92.7%62.5%45.4%
New Mexico87.5%46.7%54.5%28.2%
Ole Miss5.6%76.1%24.7%75.1%
SchoolStarters (Off.)Starters (Def.)SteeleBill C.
Boston College6396110
New Mexico8291115
Ole Miss310106116

The Memphis Tigers are two-time defending AAC West champions and are considered a 2019 conference title contender. However, despite the experienced roster, it’s worth watching the transitions on both sides of the ball.

On the flip side, despite its experience, it might be difficult for Indiana to climb a rung or two up the Big Ten East ladder and reach bowl eligibility because the Hoosiers also replaced both coordinators during the offseason.

Alabama head coach Nick Saban was forced to hire new coordinators on both sides of the football for a third consecutive season, but he promoted 2018 co-defensive coordinator Pete Golding to the full-time role for 2019. There have also been plenty of whispers that Golding took over defensive play-calling duties late in the season, so we won’t include him on the list above.

Instead, Alabama is one of 15 schools with consistency at head coach and on the defensive coaching staff that also hired new offensive play-callers:

SchoolPass Yds.Rush Yds.Rec. Yds.Tackles
Arkansas State5.8%37.6%67.1%68.7%
Florida State15.7%54.8%71.0%75.0%
Fresno State3.0%77.1%43.2%43.6%
Georgia State86.0%86.3%70.4%78.1%
Iowa State71.8%38.6%41.8%71.4%
Michigan State100%85.2%69.1%61.2%
North Texas98.7%89.4%70.4%52.3%
Oklahoma State0%34.7%70.5%59.6%
Southern Miss100%87.9%90.1%60.0%
SchoolStarters (Off.)Starters (Def.)SteeleBill C.
Arkansas State678056
Florida State886013
Fresno State36129129
Georgia State772228
Iowa State881680
Michigan State98848
North Texas856659
Oklahoma State755374
Southern Miss10664

Bluebloods Alabama, Florida State, Michigan and USC stand out here. While the Crimson Tide hope to maintain the excellence that made Tua Tagovailoa the runner-up for the Heisman Trophy, the other three are hoping new play-callers can jumpstart talented, underachieving units. None is especially experienced, considering the significant personnel changes at FSU after Connelly’s list was published (most importantly the dismissal of quarterback Deandre Francois).

Michigan State is an interesting case because Spartans head coach Mark Dantonio kept his offensive staff together but promoted veteran quarterbacks coach Brad Salem to play-caller.

If there’s one team that could be poised for a breakthrough, it’s Southern Miss. The Golden Eagles are one of the most experienced offenses in the nation (and return the most offensive production among all 130 FBS teams according to Connelly’s numbers). Leading receiver Quez Watkins’ eligibility is in doubt, but new offensive coordinator Buster Faulkner has plenty of experience with which to work.

A couple of head coaches will be taking over the play-calling duties on their respective sides of the football. Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn returns to his roots following the departure of offensive coordinator Chip Lindsay to Troy, and while Malzahn hired Memphis OC Kenny Dillingham and gave him the co-OC title alongside Kodi Burns, the head coach will lead the offense in 2019.

Moorhead, who like Malzahn earned his reputation as an offensive coordinator, is also set to re-take the reins of his offense following Luke Getsy’s one season calling the plays in Starkville.

Other FBS teams are in the opposite situation, having maintained consistency at head coach and offensive coordinator, but shaking things up on defense. And similar to Malzahn and Moorhead, Lovie Smith has added the defensive coordinator role to his Illinois head coaching duties.

FBS college football teams with a new defensive coordinator only:

SchoolPass Yds.Rush Yds.Rec. Yds.Tackles
Boise State2.0%30.0%45.5%69.2%
Florida Atlantic89.2%11.7%60.6%57.0%
Louisiana Tech100%80.4%67.3%57.6%
Old Dominion14.9%66.6%21.2%54.1%
Wake Forest100%74.4%44.1%65.6%
SchoolStarters (Off.)Starters (Def.)SteeleBill C.
Boise State678188
Florida Atlantic766796
Louisiana Tech652830
Old Dominion45128111
Wake Forest753361

The Oregon offense should improve with its wealth of experience at quarterback, running back and offensive line. The Ducks made a change at defensive coordinator, but the defensive staff around former Boise State DC Andy Avalos remains. There’s also, finally, maybe, hope for Rutgers since offensive coordinator John McNulty is the first OC to return for a second season in a decade.

Finally, a total of 58 schools welcome back the same head coach, offensive coordinator and defensive coordinator from 2018. Among those, seven squads rank among the top 30 in both Steele’s Experience Chart and Connelly’s rankings:

SchoolPass Yds.Rush Rds.Rec. Yds.Tackles
Ball State35.4%47.0%76.1%84.8%
Kent State100%68.1%76.8%64.1%
Oregon State62.5%100%76.7%85.5%
Western Michigan100%69.7%53.8%90.7%
SchoolStarters (Off.)Starters (Def.)SteeleBill C.
Ball State891318
Kent State96188
Oregon State79723
Western Michigan710101

Ball State’s spot on both lists is misleading since the Cardinals must replace quarterback Riley Neal and running back James Gilbert, who left as grad transfers to Vanderbilt and Kansas State, respectively. Western Michigan lost its leading receiver, Jayden Reed, to transfer following Connelly’s list.

Hawaii returns a wealth of production and 18 total starters, but scheduled three teams from Power 5 conferences in 2019 after playing none in its 8-6 season in 2018. The Rainbow Warriors also draw Boise State as a cross-division matchup in Mountain West play, and host Army as well.

An experienced squad with coaching stability doesn’t always equal success. After all, Michigan State ranked No. 1 in returning production for 2018, according to Connelly, and Wisconsin was No. 3 on Steele’s chart a year ago. Though ranked No. 11 and No. 4 in the preseason by the Associated Press, respectively, neither perceived Big Ten title contender finished in the Top 25.

Just like Mississippi State.

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