How many starters a college football team returns from the previous year generally is used as an evaluation tool of how good it might be in the forthcoming year.
Where it is less applicable or inconsequential is if you are a “program.” Last year at this time, Clemson and Alabama ranked near the bottom of returning starters on offense and defense with 12 and 11, respectively, but played for the national title a second straight year. Ohio State had the fewest returning starters in the nation (six), yet still advanced to the four-team College Football Playoff.
Teams rebuild. Programs reload.
Notre Dame was also near the bottom in 2016 with only 10 starters returning, and the result was a 4-8 outcome. That was partly because it still remains a team and is not a program.
This weekend, well noted college football analyst Phil Steele released his pre-spring experience chart for all 129 Football Bowl Subdivision teams, based on the number of starters returning on offense and defense.
Syracuse was No. 1 with 20 of a possible 22 starters returning, while Michigan was dead last with five (four on offense and one on defense). Notre Dame was tied with 23 others for 25th in most starters returning with 15 (eight on offense and seven on defense).
For the record, the eight on offense are running back Josh Adams, wide receivers Equanimeous St. Brown and C.J. Sanders, tight end Durham Smythe, and offensive linemen Mike McGlinchey, Quenton Nelson, Sam Mustipher and Alex Bars.
On defense the returning starters are linemen Jerry Tillery and Andrew Trumbetti, linebackers Nyles Morgan and Te’von Coney, safeties Drue Tranquill and Devin Studstill, and cornerback/nickel Julian Love.
Per the research done by Steele, here is the breakdown of starting experience returning among the 2017 Irish opposition, from most to least:
Georgia (Sept. 9) & North Carolina State (Oct. 28) — 17 apiece
This duo is tied for third nationally with most starters returning from 2016.
The Bulldogs, possibly the SEC East favorite, return seven on offense and 10 of the 11 on defense, and this promises to be a huge barometer of the Notre Dame season in game two.
Meanwhile, the Wolfpack welcome back nine starters on offense and eight on defense in a pivotal season for fifth-year head coach Dave Doeren, who is 25-26 (including a 10-3 victory versus Notre Dame last season) but only 9-23 in the ACC.
Notre Dame has never defeated Georgia (0-1) and North Carolina State (0-2).
Miami (Ohio) (Sept. 30) & at Stanford (Nov. 25) — 16 apiece
Former Notre Dame assistant Chuck Martin (2010-13) last year made the RedHawks the first team in NCAA annals to go from an 0-6 start to a 6-6 regular season finish. He will attempt to parlay that comeback with an even better 2017.
The Cardinal quietly went 10-3 last season while finishing No. 12, marking the sixth time in the last seven years it posted at least 10 wins (Stanford has 76 wins the past seven years, and is 5-2 versus the Irish during that time).
Both Miami (Ohio) and Stanford have eight starters back on offense and defense.
At Boston College (Sept. 16), Wake Forest (Nov. 4) and at Miami (Nov. 11) — 15 apiece
The Eagles (eight offense and seven defense) will be the first road trip for Notre Dame and they have usually been a tough out for the Irish.
Head coach Brian Kelly hired Wake Forest’s defensive coordinator Mike Elko and linebackers coach Clark Lea to upgrade that side of the ball. The Demon Deacons, who last year won their first bowl game and had their first above-.500 season (7-6) since 2008, return nine starters on offense and six on defense.
The Hurricanes lost star quarterback Brad Kaaya, but return seven other starters on offense and eight on defense for head coach Mark Richt, whose first season produced a 9-4 outcome and No. 20 finish in the Associated Press poll.
Navy (Nov. 18) — 13
While they aren’t an Alabama, Clemson or Ohio State from a wins or NFL prospects perspective, the Midshipmen are a “program” in their own right in that the system has proven over time to be greater than the sum of its parts.
Last year, Navy lost four-year starting quarterback and standout Keenan Reynolds and was second to Ohio State in fewest starters returning (eight) — yet it still defeated Notre Dame.
At North Carolina (Oct. 7) and USC (Oct. 21) — 12 apiece
Both return five starters on offense and seven on defense. The big difference is the Tar Heels lost potential first-round QB pick Mitch Trubisky to the NFL, while USC — considered a viable College Football Playoff contender — has Heisman candidate Sam Darnold back at the throttle.
Temple (Sept. 2) — 10
The biggest loss for the Owls was head coach Matt Rhule, who led the school’s first back-to-back 10-win seasons before accepting the Baylor post. Notre Dame’s season opening opponent returns only four starters on defense and six on offense.
At Michigan State (Sept. 23) — 9
A nightmare 3-9 campaign has been followed by a tumultuous offseason for the Spartans, who are 124th in starters returning (four on offense and five on defense).
Call this matchup with the Irish “The Redemption Bowl” for two of the four most disappointing teams in 2016. Oregon and Texas would probably be the others.
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