Looking at the numbers, 2021 preseason: returning starters in the SoCon

Other preseason posts from July:

One of the major storylines for the upcoming football season is the large number of experienced gridders who are returning to college this fall. The “free year” that was the F20/S21 school year has led to a glut of so-called “superseniors”, players in their sixth years (or fifth-year players who haven’t redshirted).

As a result of the extra year being granted, Clemson has at least two players (linebacker James Skalski and punter Will Spiers) who could conceivably play in 70 games during their college careers. That is just a ludicrous number of games for a college football player, but we live in ludicrous times.

Illinois has 22 superseniors, most in the country (the Illini also have 18 “regular” seniors). In February, the AP reported that over 1,000 superseniors were on FBS rosters, a number that has probably declined since then, but still obviously significant.

Information on FCS programs is sketchier, but there was a recent report confirming that Southern Illinois has 16 superseniors, which has to be close to the most in the subdivision, if not the most. Between Illinois and SIU, there are a lot of veteran pigskin collegians in the Land of Lincoln.

Incidentally, one of Southern Illinois’ superseniors is former Western Carolina running back Donnavan Spencer, who transferred from Cullowhee to Carbondale for the fall 2021 campaign.

All of this is reflected in sizeable “returning starters” lists among a lot of teams throughout the sport, including both the FBS and FCS. As an example, here are some numbers from the ACC and SEC, per Phil Steele’s 2021 College Football Preview:

  • Wake Forest: 20 returning starters (but with tough injury news over the last week)
  • North Carolina State: 19
  • Miami: 19 (and only lost 9 out of 70 lettermen)
  • Syracuse: 19
  • Arkansas: 19
  • North Carolina: 18
  • LSU: 18 (hopefully some of them will play pass defense this season)
  • Florida State: 17 (joined by a bunch of D-1 transfers)
  • Boston College: 17
  • Georgia Tech: 17
  • Vanderbilt: 17 (possibly not a positive)
  • Mississippi: 17

The team in those two leagues with the fewest returning starters is Alabama, with 11. Of course, the Tide had six players from last season’s squad picked in the first round of the NFL draft, so a bit of turnover in Tuscaloosa was inevitable. I suspect Nick Saban isn’t too worried about replacing them.

The returning production totals are unprecedented at the FBS level.

The top 10 includes several very interesting teams, including Louisiana-Lafayette, Arizona State, Nevada, and UCLA. It is somewhat incredible that Coastal Carolina has a returning production rate of 89% and doesn’t even crack the top 15.

Some of the teams at the bottom of this ranking are national powers that reload every year. Alabama was already mentioned, but the same is true for Ohio State, Notre Dame, and Florida.

BYU and Northwestern also had outstanding seasons last year (and combined for three first-round draft picks). The story wasn’t the same for Duke and South Carolina, however.

Okay, now time to talk about the SoCon. Who in the league is coming back this fall? An easier question to answer would be: who isn’t?

SoCon returning starters, Fall 2021

The spreadsheet linked above has 12 categories. A quick explanation of each:

  • F20/S21 Games Played: total number of games played by a team during the 2020-21 school year, both in the fall (F20) and the spring (S21)
  • F20/S21 Participants: the number of players who suited up during 2020-21
  • F20/S21 Starters: the number of different starters during 2020-21
  • F20/S21 Returning Participants: the number of returnees who played during 2020-21
  • F20/S21 Returning Starters: the number of returning starters from 2020-21
  • F20/S21 Returning Starters 2+: the number of returnees from 2020-21 who started at least two games
  • Spring 2021: total number of games played by a team in the spring (all conference games, except for VMI’s playoff matchup)
  • Spring 2021 Participants: the number of players who took the field during the spring
  • Spring 2021 Starters: the number of different starters during the spring
  • Spring Returning Participants: the number of returnees who played in the spring
  • Spring Returning Starters: the number of returning starters from the spring
  • Spring Returning Starters 2+: the number of returnees who started at least two games during the spring

Most of that needs no explanation. The idea of including a category for multiple starts was inspired by Chattanooga’s game against Mercer, when the Mocs fielded what was essentially a “B” team. UTC had 19 players who started that game, but did not start in any of Chattanooga’s other three spring contests.

There are a few players who started one game in the spring, but also started at least one game in the fall. They are listed as having started multiple games for F20/S21, of course, but not for the spring.

The list of starters does not include special teams players. Some programs list specialists as starters, but they generally are not treated as such from a statistical point of view, and for the sake of consistency I am only listing offensive and defensive starters.

Returnee stats are based on each school’s online football roster as of July 26 (the league’s Media Day). 

Players on current rosters who did not start in F20/S21, but who did start games in 2019, are not included as returning starters. There are two players from The Citadel who fit this description; undoubtedly there are a few others in the conference.

I also did not count any incoming transfers with prior starting experience. That is simply another piece to a team’s roster puzzle.

There is no doubt that transfers will have a major impact on the fall 2021 season. For example, Western Carolina has 15 players on its roster who arrived from junior colleges or other four-year schools following the spring 2021 campaign (the Catamounts have 26 transfers in all).

Five of the nine SoCon schools did not play in the fall. Thus, their overall numbers are the same as their spring totals (and are noted as such on the spreadsheet).

As I’ve said before, when it comes to the veracity of the game summaries, I think the athletic media relations folks at the SoCon schools did quite well for the most part, especially when considering how difficult staffing must have been at times during the spring. There were a few miscues, and in terms of data input, the participation charts seemed to cause the most problems.

Did Mercer start a game with no offensive linemen? Uh, no. Was a backup quarterback a defensive starter for Chattanooga? Nope. In three different contests, did Furman take the field after the opening kickoff with only 10 players? It did not.

There was also a scattering of double-counted players, usually a result of misspellings or changes in jersey numbers. Hey, it happens.

Ultimately, I am fairly confident in the general accuracy of the numbers in the spreadsheet linked above, particularly the categories for starters. The totals for participants should also be largely correct, although I will say that it is harder to find (and correct) errors in online participation charts for participants than it is starters. That is because the players who tend to be occasionally omitted from the charts are special teams performers and backup offensive linemen — in other words, non-starters who do not accumulate standard statistics.

According to the SoCon’s fall prospectus, 553 of the 636 players who lettered in F20/S21 are playing this fall (86.9%). That tracks with my numbers, with 83.2% of all participants returning (573 of 689). I did find one player listed as a returnee in the prospectus who is not on his school’s online roster; it is possible there are one or two more such cases.

Samford had by far the most participants, with 95 (in seven contests). Of that group, however, 24 only appeared in one game during the spring. The number of multiple-game participants for SU is more in line with some of the other spring-only teams, such as Furman; the Paladins also played seven games, with 71 participants, 64 of whom played in at least two games.

Having said that, kudos to Samford for being able to maintain a roster that large this spring. That is a credit to its coaching and support staff.

Mercer, which played three games in the fall and eight in the spring, has the most returnees that started multiple games, with 37. There are 25 Bears who are returning after making at least two spring starts.

The Citadel has the most players returning who had 2+ starts in the spring, with 28. Wofford has the fewest (19), not a huge surprise given the Terriers only played in five games.

Chattanooga and East Tennessee State combine to return 122 out of 128 players who participated in the spring season. Those returnees include 75 players who started at least one spring game.

Conference teams average 30.44 returning starters from the spring. No squad has fewer than 25.

For the SoCon, I’m not really capable of fully replicating the formula Bill Connelly uses for his FBS returning production rates; I lack access to some of the necessary data. Therefore, I am just going to list some of the (very limited) spots throughout the conference in which teams will have to replace key performers from the spring. I realize that is more anecdotal in nature than the rest of this post.

  • Furman must replace three starters on its offensive line, including the versatile Reed Kroeber (41 career starts for the Paladins). FU also loses first-team all-SoCon free safety Darius Kearse.
  • Wofford has to replace its second-leading rusher from the spring (Ryan Lovelace), and players who accounted for 61% of the Terriers’ receiving production.
  • VMI loses three defensive stalwarts who were second-team all-conference selections; one of them, lineman Jordan Ward, will be a graduate transfer at Ball State this fall.
  • The Keydets will also miss Reece Udinski, who transferred to Maryland (as was announced before the spring campaign even began). However, Seth Morgan certainly filled in at QB with aplomb after Udinski suffered a season-ending injury.
  • Mercer must replace leading rusher Deondre Johnson, a second-team all-league pick.
  • Samford placekicker Mitchell Fineran, an all-SoCon performer who led the conference in scoring, graduated and transferred to Purdue. He is the only regular placekicker or punter in the conference from the spring not to return for the fall.
  • I mentioned earlier that Western Carolina running back Donnavan Spencer (a first-team all-conference choice) transferred to Southern Illinois. The Catamounts also lost another first-team all-league player, center Isaiah Helms, a sophomore who transferred to Appalachian State. That has to sting a bit in Cullowhee. 
  • WCU’s starting quarterback last spring, Ryan Glover, transferred to California (his third school; he started his collegiate career at Penn). Glover and VMI’s Udinski are the only league players to start multiple games at quarterback this spring who are not returning this fall.
  • Western Carolina defensive tackle Roman Johnson is listed on the Catamounts’ online roster, but also reportedly entered the transfer portal (for a second time) in mid-July. I am including him as a returning starter for now, but there is clearly a lot of uncertainty as to his status.
  • The Citadel must replace starting right tackle Thomas Crawford (the only spring starter for the Bulldogs who is not returning).
  • A few players who appeared in fall 2020 action but not in the spring eventually found their way to FBS-land. Chattanooga wide receiver Bryce Nunnelly, a two-time first team all-SoCon selection during his time with the Mocs, will play at Western Michigan this season. Mercer wideout Steven Peterson, who originally matriculated at Coastal Carolina before moving to Macon, is now at Georgia. Strong safety Sean-Thomas Faulkner of The Citadel will wear the mean green of North Texas this fall.

Odds and ends:

  • Of the 51 players on the media’s all-SoCon teams (first and second), 42 will return this fall. 
  • One of those returnees is ETSU linebacker Jared Folks, who will be an eighth-year collegian this season (the only one in D-1). Folks started his college career at Temple in 2014 — the same year in which Patrick Mahomes debuted for Texas Tech.
  • Robert Riddle, the former Mercer quarterback who did not appear in F20/S21, is now at Chattanooga. Riddle made nine starts for the Bears over two seasons, but his time in the program was ravaged by injuries.
  • Chris Oladokun, who started Samford’s spring opener at QB, transferred to South Dakota State. Oladokun began his college days at South Florida before moving to Birmingham, where he started eight games for SU in 2019. His brother Jordan will be a freshman defensive back at Samford this fall.

So, to sum up: every team has lots of players back, which means (almost) every team’s fans expects the upcoming season for their respective squads to be truly outstanding. College football games this year will all take place in Lake Wobegon, because everyone will be above average.

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