Jim Harbaugh has restored Michigan’s place in the upper ranks of the college-football hierarchy with two straight 10-win seasons. As the team kicks off its 2017 campaign on Saturday against the 17th-ranked Florida Gators in Arlington, Texas, the Wolverines will bring a new sense of optimism and Harbaugh-infused intensity. There’s one thing they won’t bring, though: Many of last year’s players.
Michigan, which is ranked 11th to start the season, is perhaps the hardest team in college football to get a read on — and not just because Harbaugh refused to release his team’s official roster until Wednesday. The team was one of the best in the nation last season but sustained heavy personnel losses in the offseason, saying goodbye to seven starters on offense and a staggering 10 on defense. According to college football information guru Phil Steele’s team experience rankings, Michigan ranks 127th out of 130 teams this year. As you might expect, teams who lose numerous starters tend to take a step back the following season — no matter how good the incoming recruits are.
With only five starters coming back, Michigan is returning less of its lineup than any other team in the country. And indeed, among Power Five schools since 2001, only Arkansas in 20041 brought back a less experienced lineup than the Wolverines, according to data we obtained from Steele. It’s no coincidence that those Razorbacks finished with a losing record after winning nine games the year before, because there’s a pretty clear relationship between how much talent returns to a team and how well it does that season. Using Steele’s data,2 I ran a regression and found that every additional starter lost on offense shaves about one-fifth of a win off of a team’s record3 — and that’s if none of those starters played quarterback. Losing a starting QB costs a team about three-fifths of a win per season.
Here’s how the number of starters lost would be expected to affect an average FBS team (according to ESPN’s team efficiency ratings, which grade a team on each side of the ball on a 0 to 100 scale, with 50 as average):
For a team like Michigan, which notched a (well-above-average) offensive rating of 73.7 last season, the loss of seven offensive starters projects to drop their offensive rating to 63.0 — only about as good as Mississippi State or Colorado State was last season and 7.2 points lower than it would have been if Michigan had the FBS’s average number of non-quarterback starters coming back.4
That alone would figure to cost the Wolverines a half-win this season relative to average, but the losses on defense could be even more damaging. In Steele’s data set, only one other Power Five team — the 2010 Minnesota Gophers — lost 10 of 11 defensive starters between seasons, and that team’s defensive rating dropped from 58.9 to 22.2. Not every team with defensive losses sees quite so steep a drop-off, but here’s how the number of departing starters tends to affect a defense:
Michigan’s defense carried an 87.4 rating last season, third-best in the FBS, but my model predicts that they’ll drop to 62.8 — basically the same as last year’s Texas A&M and Penn State outfits — after turning over nearly the entire starting corps. (Only linebacker Mike McCray is back from last year’s starting lineup on D.) Even accounting for the fact that the typical defense loses about 4.5 starters per season, the Wolverines figure to be down 0.9 more wins than average because of their many defensive departures.
Add it up, and Michigan’s inexperience has unquestionably caused it to lose ground relative to the rest of the country.
But fear not, Ann Arbor. This doesn’t mean that Michigan will immediately plummet back to the depths it reached under Rich Rodriguez and Brady Hoke after briefly coming up for air with Harbaugh. The Wolverines have some important factors working in their favor, according to the model.
Although losing a bunch of players hurts, the single most damaging starter a team can wave goodbye to is its starting quarterback — and Michigan’s incumbent QB, Wilton Speight, is still around this season. (He may not start, but even that might be a positive sign if Harbaugh has another QB on hand that he believes is as good as a returning starter.) Returning a QB can boost a team’s offensive efficiency rating by about 8 points, which is enough to offset the loss of about 3.5 non-QB starters by itself.
Another important factor is playing in a Power Five conference. Because a top conference such as the Big Ten perennially dominates the recruiting rolls, its schools always have a deep talent base, which in turn makes them much better equipped than smaller programs to weather a mass exodus of players. When I combined efficiency ratings on both sides of the ball, I found that a Power Five team can expect to win about one more game (against a neutral schedule) than a school not in a Power Five conference, even after controlling for starters lost. Considering how good Michigan’s recruiting has been under Harbaugh, the Wolverines’ next crop of starters should help them survive the loss of the previous one.
And, finally, there’s Harbaugh himself. According to my model, teams that bring back a head coach tend to gain nearly a half-win on teams that break in a new one, after controlling for all of the other factors mentioned. Continuity is huge in a sport like college football, in which the status quo reigns supreme — as long as nothing upsets the apple cart too much. Having a consistent system can help player development, for instance, as recruits have the benefit of learning the playbook over the course of multiple seasons. And Harbaugh has to rank among the better coaches in the sport today, having turned around Stanford and Michigan from a combined 6-18 record in the seasons before he arrived to a combined 22-4 in his most recent campaigns with each school. (Not to mention bringing the San Francisco 49ers one first-and-goal touchdown away from a Vince Lombardi trophy.)
Harbaugh is a bit of an, um, eccentric coach, and — including his stint in the NFL — he has a tendency to burn his teams out after several seasons of rapid improvement. But for now, he still has Michigan in the ascending phase. In other words, the odds are still high that the Wolverines take a step backward this season, but the drop might not be as steep as it could have been.