The saying has been variously attributed to many an author, but regardless of who said it there truly are three kinds of lies: lies, damn lies, and statistics.
As more statistical analysis has crept into college football it has become easier as writers and fans to find stats to support both one’s preconceived opinions and one’s future aspirations. In the end the college football Gods often laugh at our number-crunching, and send the little oblong ball careening in unexpected directions.
That being said, there is one statistic regarding the 2021 Georgia Bulldog offense which I think should catch your eye. I know it has mine.
Assuming no additional transfers or other attrition, the Red and Black offense returns 94.5% of its receiving yards from 2020.
Why is that significant? Longtime friend of the site and statistical bon vivant Bill Connelly discussed how he views this number before the 2020 season, and as usual, Bill’s reasoning is that the results on the field empirically support it. Teams who return their starting quarterback and most of their receiving yards produce significantly more points than those making major changes.
Why might this be the case? I have some ideas. One is that the passing game in college football is now more complex than ever before. Continuity of personnel and scheme smooths the execution of a lot of the pre-snap and post-snap reads that offenses are using to stay one step ahead of mobile defenses.
Alabama’s hellish offense worked so well this season in part because of its deep stable of veteran receivers executing perfectly in the RPO package that served as the core of Steve Sarkisian’s offense. Mac Jones made a lot of pre-snap reads and checks, and frankly if he’d been doing it with a bunch of freshmen on the outside it’s likely some of those would have resulted in confusion and interceptions.
Another reason that may be overlooked is that veteran receivers also help in the run game. They’re physically mature blockers. Gone are the days when you’d see the X and Y receivers half-heartedly try to cut off the corners on a fullback dive. The modern run game requires those players to be engaged and execute blocks on fast defenders. Even when the call is a simple, James Coley-esque zone read into the middle, the receivers are the ones blocking at the second and third level to break the big plays.
I also think this is one reason veteran presence among tailbacks appears less correlated with improvement. Any football fan will tell you the reason freshman tailbacks see fewer snaps is not that they can’t run the ball, it’s that they are a liability in blocking situations, especially pass protection. That’s the trope.
But as college offenses have evolved away from the traditional play action pass that takes longer to set up and toward an air raid attack that gets the ball out in under two seconds on most passing plays (often sending the lone back out as the fifth receiver in the pattern), that has become less of a concern.
In fairness, there may also be a bit of survivorship bias in this number as well. It’s rare in this day and age to see a legitimate all conference senior tailback. Most are in the NFL. That’s one reason Georgia returning a full stable of tailbacks in 2021 along with almost its entire receiving production is very nearly uncharted statistical waters. These levels of returning production across a unit at an elite college football program just do not happen in the current era.
By the by, the Bulldogs also bring back 94.7% of their receiving touchdowns from 2020 (all but Tre McKitty’s lone score) and 95.5% of receptions. Obviously returning quarterback production looks a little lower, but only because JT Daniels played less than half his team’s 2020 games, rendering those numbers much less useful in raw terms. Daniels will still have more college snaps and more snaps in the offense than his coevals at Florida, Clemson, Tennessee, and Alabama.
Point being, the latter half of 2020 was in some ways the spring practice and fall camp Todd Monken did not get last season. Georgia will need to replace a ton in the defensive secondary and there’s every reason to think the ‘Dawgs could give up a ton of points to Clemson in the opener. But there is every reason to believe that Georgia will average over 40.0 points per game in 2021. Winning? Maybe. Exciting? Definitely.