Penn State returns a ton of starters from last season. Okay, that sounds great. But does it really matter when trying to gauge the 2011 Nittany Lions?
To be curt: yes. It's not to say everything depends on the headcount of returning starters each year. But if you're looking for a very reliable jumping-off point on which to base a season prediction, the number of returning starters is the best place to start.
What counts as a returning starter...
Position Changes: (a) If a starter returns, but changes positions on the same side of the ball (example: LB to DE, TE to WR) he counts as a returning starter. (b) If a starter returns, but changes to the opposite side of the ball (example: LB to RB, WR to CB) he does NOT count as a returning starter.
Games Started: (a) If a player started 3 or more games from one year (ex. 1999), and returns for the next year (ex. 2000), meeting the criteria above, he counts as a returning starter. (b) If a player starts 2 or fewer games from one year to the next, he does not count as a returning starter.
Years Skipped: (a) If a player meets both criteria to be a returning starter, but skips a year between starting (ex. 1-yr position change, injury, etc.) count him as a returning starter for the current year under analysis. (b) If a player skips more than one year between qualifying as a starter, he does not count as a starter for the current year under analysis.
This is why you will see in the chart below numbers of returning starters that aren't likely (20-21) or physically possible (23-24) in any given season. It's because when you look at returning starters, it's not just looking at who started at that exact position the year before. Rather, it's to examine which players have had considerable recent experience starting in that position coming into the current season.
A prettier version (click image to enlarge, or click here to download .pdf)
The 3-4 year "Paterno Cycle" is very evident, with spikes in win percentage at regular intervals. They coincide with the numbers of returning starters, but not necessarily how you'd think. Some years (1989, 1996, 1999) there are a ton of returning starters, but the results weren't exactly on par with the kind of experience returning to the team. Then you have other seasons (1978, 1982, 1994, 2009) where there aren't as many returning starters as you'd assume there would be in relation to the win percentage. However, most of the time, you can accurately predict a ball-park rate of success for Penn State, based on how many starters are returning in any given season.
To explain why some years don't match up, look at what starters were lost the previous season (starting QB? most of the DL? shuffling the OL? Don't underestimate that last one), as well as looking at how young or old the teams were in relative terms. An example of that is 1991, which was a very, very experienced team having played together for 3 years. At the same rate, the team could be just plain untalented, like in 2003; 2004 was bad too, but only on offense; still, those teams were just plain lacking in raw talent, despite returning a bunch of starters each year.
Examples to (kinda) Prove the Point
Here are a couple examples of when returning starters directly correlated to the success or failure in the ensuing football season. With them are examples of when the numbers played tricks on people who didn't remember that nothing is carved in stone, and there are always variable that must be taken into consideration before chalking 100 percent of your prediction on returning starters.
On the money: 1977. Was the 1977 team actually better than the following 1978 team? It's possible, in that there were more returning starters.
Look deeper: 1978. The quality of those starters retained for 1978 allowed Penn State to lose 6 starters from '77 to '78 but not lose that much production on offense or defense.
On the money: 1981. Losing only 3 starters from the very good 1980 team, a vocal minority around the nation said this PSU team was the best in the country, despite losing 2 games.
Look deeper: 1982. PSU only returned 12 starters, but they were key components like Todd Blackledge, Curt Warner, Walker Lee Ashley and others.
On the money: 1985, 1986. Over two years, this team returned nearly intact for two straight seasons. If PSU didn't win the title in 1986, this would have been the most disappointing run to date in Paterno's tenure.
On the money: 1988. The title team was pretty much gone at this point, then the team was struck with a terrible rash of injuries. Combine that with so few starters returning the season before ('87) and there wasn't much in the cupboard for '88.
Look deeper: 1994: Like '82, all the right people returned, especially on an offense that would cover up the defensive and specialists issues on this team. Only 4 defensive starters (0 specialists) returned from '93.
Check out the offensive starters chart (click to enlarge, or click here to download .pdf):
Look deeper: 1995: The opposite of '94, this team returned nearly everything from the undefeated team a year before, but lacked the very key components, losing Ki-Jana Carter and Kerry Collins.
On the money: 1999. But barely. This team should have been actually more dominant than the 1994 team was, considering it returned the most experienced starters in Joe Paterno's career at PSU. It did reach No. 2, but it should have stayed there. This is one of the most enigmatic teams in PSU history.
On the money: 2000. When you lose the '99 defense, it's going to hurt. But geez, this much? The '00 team was extremely young in too many key areas, combined with an overall lower level of talent.
Check out the defensive starters chart (click to enlarge, or click here to download .pdf):
Look deeper: 2004. The offense was simply horrid, with no running game, or receivers who could catch. While the defense was great, it couldn't carry all the water this team needed for a winning season.
On the money: 2005. Even though inexperienced players (Fab 4, M-Rob) took over and blossomed, the foundation for this team was laid over the previous two seasons, with tons of players starting multiple years.
Look deeper: 2010. With quite a few returning on both sides of the ball, this team was killed by super-green quarterbacks, and an unexplainable rash of injuries to key positions. But looking back, when PSU loses such a good QB, it's rarely going to exceed expectations.
So...What About 2011?
Indeed, what about 2011? Using a delicate mix of raw numbers and detailed nuance, it's a fine bet to say Penn State has all the parts for a very successful season in 2011. That does not mean the Nittany Lions are going to automatically go 11-1 because 23 starters return from last year's team. But it does give Penn State a much, much better outlook on this season than it would with fewer players returning. That's my impression of Captain Obvious.
Last year the team had to deal with losing the most important single position on the field: quarterback. Not only was the loss significant because Daryll Clark was an experienced winner, but he was a two-time All-Big Ten player. That meant the flaws in the 2009 Nittany Lions were masked by Clark's superior skill and knowledge. But many of the same flaws in 2009--sketchy defensive line play at the top of that list--was not resolved in 2010, mostly due to the ghastly number of injuries to the unit. That, combined with losing Clark, was a deadly cocktail for a team that was expected to suffer a reloading season anyway.
The big difference between this upcoming season and past seasons with a significant number of returning starters, is the huge volume of players who started more than 3 games last year due to other players' injuries. Malcolm Willis wouldn't be considered a returning starter this year, had Nick Sukay not gone down for the season in week 6. The defensive line loses two (Obgu to graduation, Massaro to ACL) starters going into this year, but still returns four (Crawford, Latimore, Hill, Still) who started at least three games in 2010.
|2011||10||12||1||23||?||?||?||QB Rob Bolden, QB Matt McGloin, RB Joe Suhey, WR Justin Brown, WR Devon Smith, WR Derek Moye, TE Kevin Haplea, OL Quinn Barham, OL Johnnie Trouman, OL Chima Okoli||DL Jordan Hill, DL Devon Still, DE Jack Crawford, DE Eric Latimore, LB Michael Mauti, LB Nate Stupar, CB Chaz Powell, CB Stephon Morris, CB D'Anton Lynn, S Drew Astorino, S Malcolm Willis, S Nick Sukay, P Anthony Fera|
The 2010 season and the injuries sustained by the team really were unprecedented in Penn State football history. Garry Gilliam, Lou Eliades, Nick Sukay out for the season, allowing Kevin Haplea, Chima Okoli and Malcolm Willis to all get starting time they wouldn't have otherwise. Then there were the short-term injuries and suspensions. Derrick Thomas and Sean Stanley were out, giving Chaz Powell and Jordan Hill starts. Eric Latimore and Jack Crawford were out as well.
All that considered, it's amazing to think this team eked out seven wins at all. But what it does for this team in 2011 is exponentially increase the amount of starting experience for the Nittany Lions on both sides of the ball. The biggest knock on the team last year was youth and inexperience. Most of both problems in 2010 have been resolved for 2011, with the massive amount of experienced starters returning looking like the biggest single improvement.
Looking back at the main starters vs. win percentage chart you can see there was only one period between 1971 and 2010 when Penn State saw a pattern of under-performing based on returning starters. You guessed it. That period came during the "dark years," when the overall talent level in the program was way below the standard for Penn State. Other than that, seasons like 1984, 1992 and 1995 were outliers that we looked at in the Examples section, where outside factors contributed to Penn State not living up to the high number of returning starters in those seasons. Again, remember that every season is different, no matter how many starters return.
Something like a conclusion
Penn State returns 23 players who started three or more games in 2010. You simply don't see that every year, or even every decade. Most of the previews you'll read only account for the "assumed" starters, though they won't refer to them that way. Even in Phil Steele's magazine this year, he lists only 15 returning starters. To illustrate how that's not a very accurate picture of what Penn State returns this year, Steele does not even list Michael Mauti, Matt McGloin or Malcolm Willis (among others) as returning starters.
Even if the quarterback play isn't great--regardless, it will be greatly improved over 2010--with a much-improved offensive line and talent bursting from the skill positions, combined with a defense that actually returns more talent this year than it had last season, Penn State only has to "play smart" football to succeed. Unless the Nittany Lions suffer through another ridiculous rash of injuries (knock on wood), there's no reason to believe this team won't have the talent and experience to be a serious contender for the Big Ten East/Leaders division in 2011.