Welcome to CFB on Paper, the weekly college football analytics newsletter from CFB Winning Edge. Each week, we offer free analysis on a selection of national college football topics, in addition to news, notes and updates pertaining to CFB Winning Edge.
In addition to the free CFB on Paper newsletter, we will offer more in-depth commentary and examination for Patreon supporters using our in-depth study utilizing a wide range of metrics.
Basic Analysis of Phil Steele’s Experience Chart
Last week, we briefly discussed experience and returning production in college football. One of the simplest and most readily available sources of information returning the experience returning for every FBS program in a given year is the Experience Chart inside the annual Phil Steele College Football Preview.
Steele is a titan of the college football preview industry. His annual guides are jam-packed with stats, schedules and historical information, and though the writing has gotten very repetitive over the years, the magazine remains a valuable tool. Perhaps most importantly, Steele’s work has influenced many college football thinkers and writers – CFB Winning Edge included.
But how useful is the information Steele has included in his Experience Chart?
We compiled a database (Excel file attached below) that includes the figures from every chart dating back to 2010 (the 2018 chart can be found on page 29 of the magazine, with an in-depth explainer on page 28). Though it’s not a huge sample (1,134 teams are listed over that nine-year period) we have nearly a decade’s worth of returning experience data, which includes the number of seniors listed on each team’s starting and two-deep depth charts, the percentages of lettermen, offensive yardage and tackles returning to each team, and the career starts made by offensive linemen.
Experience Chart Categories & Description
- Total Points: Point value system developed by Steele – see page 28 of 2018 magazine for details
- Senior Starters: The number of seniors listed as a starter on the preview depth chart
- Seniors in 2-Deep Depth Chart: The number of seniors listed as a top backup on the preview depth chart
- Senior Experience Points: Point value system developed by Steele based on the number of senior starters and backups
- Percentage of Letterwinners Returning: Based on each team’s individual requirements for lettering
- Percentage of Offensive Yardage Returning: Includes passing, rushing and receiving yardage
- Percentage of Total Tackles Returning: Includes total tackles recorded the previous season
- Career Starts by Returning Offensive Linemen: Combined for all offensive linemen on each roster
In an attempt to add context to the data, we included the win-loss record and winning percentage for each team during the previous year, as well as the win-loss record and winning percentage for the year to follow. We then charted the increase or decrease in wins (Win +/-) and winning percentage (Win% +/-) from one season to the next. For example, the No. 1 team in 2018 – Kansas – recorded a 1-11 overall record (.083) in 2017, and improved to 3-9 (.250). The Jayhawks won two more games and improved their winning percentage by .167 percentage points.
And, to put things into perspective, we found the FBS average, high and low for each category over the course of the database:
FBS Averages, 2010-18
- Total Points: 60.7
- Senior Starters: 8.64
- Seniors in 2-Deep Depth Chart: 3.93
- Senior Experience Points: 65.12
- Percentage of Letterwinners Returning: 69.32%
- Percentage of Offensive Yardage Returning: 64.68%
- Percentage of Total Tackles Returning: 63.87%
- Career Starts by Returning Offensive Linemen: 65.28
FBS High, 2010-2018
- Total Points: 94.67, UTSA (2014)
- Senior Starters: 19, UTSA (2014)
- Seniors in 2-Deep Depth Chart: 13, Army (2014)
- Senior Experience Points: 99, Air Force (2016)
- Percentage of Letterwinners Returning: 91.7%, Boise State (2010)
- Percentage of Offensive Yardage Returning: 99.8%, Louisville (2016)
- Percentage of Total Tackles Returning: 98.41%, San Jose State (2011)
- Career Starts by Returning Offensive Linemen: 158, SMU (2011)
FBS Low, 2010-2018
- Total Points: 16.2, UAB (2017) – 25.4, Auburn (2011)
- Senior Starters: 2, 5 Teams Tied
- Seniors in 2-Deep Depth Chart: 0, 23 Teams Tied
- Senior Experience Points: 34, Wake Forest, 2015
- Percentage of Letterwinners Returning: 11.2%, UAB (2017) – 45.1%, Georgia Southern (2017), Wyoming (2015)
- Percentage of Offensive Yardage Returning: 0%, UAB (2017) -- 12.7%, North Carolina (2017)
- Percentage of Total Tackles Returning: 17.9%, UAB (2017) -- 25%, Air Force (2017)
- Career Starts by Returning Offensive Linemen: 0, FAU (2010)
We then took a look at Steele’s Total Points tallies, as well as the average totals for a breakout team - the top five percent of teams over the nine-year period in terms of increased wins and winning percentage – and a team that suffered a total collapse – the bottom five percent. Roughly 120 teams fell into either the breakout or collapse categories (~60 each).
Total Points (+/- Wins, +/- Win%)
- 75+ Points: +1.22 Wins, +.084 Win Pct.
- 70-75: +1.22, +.087
- 65-70: +.68, +.046
- 60-65: +.07, +.006
- 55-60: -.03, -.001
- 50-55: -.99, -.069
- 45-50: -1.36, -.097
- 40-45: -1.17, .092
- 0-45: -1.41, -.128
- Over 60: +.66, +.086
- Under 60: -.74, -.065
- Under 50: 1.31, -.100
Breakout Teams: Increase by 5 Wins and/or .353 Win Percentage (Including 2017 UAB)
- Total Points: 64.7 (+4.0 compared to the FBS average)
- Senior Starters: 8.55 (-0.09)
- Seniors in 2-Deep Depth Chart: 3.98 (+0.05)
- Senior Experience Points: 65.82 (+0.7)
- Percentage of Letterwinners Returning: 70.28% (+0.96)
- Percentage of Offensive Yardage Returning: 71.31% (+6.63)
- Percentage of Total Tackles Returning: 69.6% (+5.73)
- Career Starts by Returning Offensive Linemen: 65.09 (-0.19)
Note: the 2017 UAB squad was the most inexperienced ever according to the chart, though because the Blazers fielded a team for the first time after the program was shut down years earlier.
Breakout Teams: Increase by 5 Wins and/or .353 Win Percentage (Excluding 2017 UAB)
- Total Points: 65.8 (+5.1 compared to the FBS average)
- Senior Starters: 8.8 (+0.03)
- Seniors in 2-Deep Depth Chart: 4.05 (+0.13)
- Senior Experience Points: 66.07 (+0.95)
- Percentage of Letterwinners Returning: 71.37% (+2.03)
- Percentage of Offensive Yardage Returning: 73.24% (+8.56)
- Percentage of Total Tackles Returning: 70.01% (+6.23)
- Career Starts by Returning Offensive Linemen: 66.41 (+1.13)
Collapsed Teams: Bottom 5%, Decrease in Winning Percentage
- Total Points: 54.2 (-6.5 compared to the FBS average)
- Senior Starters: 8.49 (+0.15)
- Seniors in 2-Deep Depth Chart: 3.72 (-0.21)
- Senior Experience Points: 63.61 (-1.51)
- Percentage of Letterwinners Returning: 68.78% (-0.54)
- Percentage of Offensive Yardage Returning: 47.66% (-17.02)
- Percentage of Total Tackles Returning: 61.19% (-2.68)
- Career Starts by Returning Offensive Linemen: 65.62 (+0.34)
Experience matters – and Steele’s Experience Chart has Merit
Monday, we conducted an informal Twitter poll asking what has the biggest impact on college football on-field performance:
- Roster (Talent, depth, development)
- Coaching (Scheme, Xs & Os)
- Experience (Age, games played, games started)
- Culture (Motivation, rapport, and other intangibles)
As of 8:00 AM Eastern Tuesday, of the 33 votes we received, exactly zero chose Experience. It’s true experience isn’t the most important aspect of a team’s success from one year to the next. In fact, some of the most experienced teams in college football over the last decade have actually regressed in the win column. The most experienced team in the database – 2014 UTSA – fell from seven wins to four. The 2013 Texas Longhorns were also the No. 1 experienced team in the country according to Steele’s points system, but fell from 9-4 to 8-5. In 2011, No. 2 Northwestern and No. 3 Tulsa each saw their win totals drop.
Nevertheless, the combination of categories Steele uses, and his weights for each (whatever they may be), have worked. Over the nine years of data at our disposal, there is a very noticeable pattern of increased winning for more experienced teams, and losing for the least experienced. A team entering a new season with 75 or more total points is a good bet to improve its win total, while a team with fewer than 50 is likely to see its win total fall. Simply put, ole Phil is on to something with his points system.
Offensive Yardage is Most Important
At least in terms of breakout or collapse teams – especially collapsed teams - there is no more important Experience Chart factor than returning offensive yardage. Of the 61 teams that lost five or more games compared to the previous season, the average returning offensive yardage was 47.66 percent, a huge .170 percentage points lower than the FBS average in the database. That number is a huge outlier compared to the others in Steele’s Experience Chart.
Diving a little into the numbers, returning yardage has a pretty standard impact across the board. Teams that returned 90 percent of its previous year’s offensive yards total averaged 0.94 wins and added .066 percentage points, while teams with 80 percent or more added .87 wins and .062 percentage points. Conversely, teams that returned 35 percent or lower lost an average of 1.97 more games and saw their winning percentage fall an average of .147 points.
That’s good news for teams like Utah, Minnesota, Kent State and South Alabama, who rank among the national leaders in returning offensive yardage at this point in the offseason. And bad news for the likes of Ole Miss, Penn State, NC State and Boise State, who are currently on the other end of the spectrum.
Offensive Line Starts Don't Matter
Personally, this is the hardest thing for me to wrap my head around, but the data indicates returning experience among offensive linemen has no correlation to winning.
Teams that collapsed from one year to the next actually returned moreoffensive line starts than the FBS average. And, diving into the numbers, the 18 teams that returned an offensive line with 130 or more starts (or, another way of thinking about it, five linemen with 26 starts apiece – two full regular seasons and two bowl games) actually saw their win total drop by 1.07 wins and lost .063 points in win percentage. That’s obviously a very small sample, but the 112 teams that returned 100 starts or more still managed to lose more, dropping .04 wins and .006 percentage points on average.
Over a long enough timeline, offensive line experience could prove more valuable. In theory, an experienced O-Line group should be nothing but a bonus. But as of now, we shouldn’t weight offensive line career starts much, if at all, when projecting how a team will perform in the upcoming season.
More from CFB Winning Edge
Later this week we will turn our attention to the Big 12 with our updated 2019 FBS Profiles, and also our updated head coaching ratings for the 2019 season. In much the same way we released our SEC and Pac-12 info, our 2019 Big 12 Team Capsules will be available for all Patrons, and Big 12 Team Profiles will be available to Tier 2 Patrons, on or before Friday March 1.
Also, in preparation for Season 2 of CFB Winning Edge, we have updated our Patreon Tiers to provide more clarity – as well as more value – to our Patreon supporters. We do not rely on ads of any form (and hope keep all our content completely ad-free forever). As a result, in order to maintain our databases, including our player- and coach-based ratings projections model, and to make improvements to our website and its content, Patreon support is key to the health, well-being and future of CFB Winning Edge.
- Written by Nicholas Ian Allen, Managing Editor of CFB Winning Edge