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Each year you read about the various college football teams number of returning starters. All the football annuals and handicapping publications refer to how many starters are returning on defense and how many on offense. But is this important handicapping information? Or just fluff to take up space?
Well, to be honest, in some cases it's very relevant, and in other cases, it's useless information. Learning when to use returning starters as part of the handicapping process can pay off big time, particularly during the first half of a college football season.
Don't assume that a team returning more starters than it's opponent, the more "veteran" of the two teams, has any kind of an edge based on that alone. For example, suppose a team was 0-12 last year, but this year, they are returning all of their starters on both sides of the ball. Remember, they were terrible last year.
Simply having another year under their belts isn't going to make them all stars. Chances are, this team is going to be terrible once again this year. In this particular situation, you may find some value going AGAINST the bad team returning all of their starters. More than likely the media will have latched on to a team like this and pumped them up with high expectations or at least a major improvement based on all of their lousy starters returning.
One of the most profitable situations concerning returning starters, is to find teams within the same conference that play every year and are familiar with each other. There are plenty of times where you'll find two teams, returning the bulk of their important starters on both sides of the ball, that played a dead even game the prior year. Perhaps a game that was decided by a last minute field goal. Yet one team is a prohibitive favorite, or at least a little larger of a favorite than expected, based on the way each team started the current year.
Perhaps the team that's the dog laid a couple of early season eggs. Or perhaps the team that's favored got off to a fast start and blew a couple of teams off the field. But the fact remains, that these two, pretty much identical teams as the year before, played a dead even game last year and both teams know it. In this scenario, there's some great value with the dog. Hell, the dog may even win the game straight up.
Naturally, you have to pay attention to which starters are returning. If a team is returning 8 starters on offense, but the 3 missing players from last year are the QB and two running backs, you'll want to make a note of that.
It's also very important to consider the team itself before making any decisions based on returning starters. With traditional powerhouses like USC and Florida for example, they are two or three deep at every position. Their back ups at every position would not only start, but would probably be stars at 75% of the other schools out there. The fact that a team like that only returns 3 starters on offense or defense may or may not be relevant.
On the other hand, teams that aren't always good, don't really recruit well, yet have been coming on lately, are worth noting. This may be their one big chance for years to come to make their mark. Say for example, a team has been knocking on the door for the last 3 years. Maybe two years ago they had a .500 year but pulled off a big upset along the way. Maybe last year they were 7-5, a little better than the year before, and pulled another couple of upsets. This year they return just about the entire team from last year. Circle that team on your schedule and look for opportunities to play them when the price is right. Odds are, they'll have a huge year.
They've been playing together for a few years. They've been thru the wars together. Each year doing a little more then the previous year. This year, they have a chance to do things perhaps no other previous versions of this particular team have ever done. Teams like Rutgers and Wake Forest from a year ago are good examples of this type of a team. If you recognized the potential of both of those squads heading into last year, you cashed more than a couple of nice tickets.
Once you get past the mid way point of a college football season, the number of returning starters becomes less and less of a handicapping factor. Once you reach that point, teams have established their identities and there are generally no surprises. No one is going to sneak up on you once you reach that point.
There's no one magic formula for handicapping college football. Early season college football is much different than later in the year. Stats are good, but you need more than stats to come out ahead in the long run. Returning starters is just one example of an area you can pay closer attention to early in the year to help find potential plays.