In one of the more interesting mile markers of the early college football offseason, ESPN’s Bill Connelly released the SP+’s returning production metric on Tuesday, rankings that slot that Texas Longhorns at No. 19 nationally at 74 percent ahead of next week’s release of the full SP+ projections.
For a Texas program heavy on offseason hype over the 13 years and notably light on any actual on-field accomplishments beyond playing for the 2018 Big 12 Championship and then winning the Sugar Bowl, it may be tempting to dismiss the returning production metric as more of the same.
But compared to predictions like the Longhorns playing for this year’s Big 12 title and competing for a spot in the College Football Playoff, there’s a bit more substance behind the SP+ returning production rankings. Or, perhaps more accurately, metrics like returning production help provide some justification for those lofty offseason predictions.
On offense, Texas ranks third nationally thanks to returning starters at every position except for running back, which loses the 351 carries, 2,134 rushing yards, 23 rushing touchdowns, 33 receptions, 442 receiving yards, and three receiving touchdowns provided by Bijan Robinson and Roschon Johnson.
And while those counting numbers are huge — 74.7 percent of the carries, 87.2 percent of the rushing yards, and 79.3 percent of the rushing touchdowns — it’s important to understand that after years of tweaking the formula, Connelly weights offensive returning production as follows:
Percent of returning WR/TE receiving yards: 24% of the overall number
Percent of returning QB passing yards: 23%
Percent of returning OL snaps: 47%
Percent of returning RB rushing yards: 6%
So returning offensive line snaps are weighted much more heavily than returning rushing yards and the Longhorns have ideal continuity along the offensive line with all five starters returning — as Connelly notes, the share of returning offensive line snaps is increasing with each year of added data.
Projecting how things will actually play out on the field, the losses of Robinson and Johnson are impossible to quantify based simply on rushing yards given the number of forced missed tackles by both players, an important example that exposes limitations in these type of projections. But with the quality of offensive line coach Kyle Flood and the potential of the Texas running backs still on campus, the combination of improvement and continuity along the offensive line and with the skill set in Tashard Choice’s position room should mitigate the dropoff.
Furthermore, the returns of quarterback Quinn Ewers, tight ends Ja’Tavion Sanders, and wide receivers Xavier Worthy and Jordan Whittington combined with the additions of Georgia wide receiver Adonai Mitchell and several highly-ranked wide receivers in the 2023 recruiting class provide further optimism that head coach Steve Sarkisian can improve on the nation’s No. 28 offense in SP+ in 2022.
That offense, after all, started two freshmen offensive linemen and had serious limitations at wide receiver without even discussing the struggles of Ewers, who had to battle through a shoulder injury and adjust to his first extended playing time since his junior year of high school.
Defensively, the No. 15-ranked group in 2022 returns 63 percent of its production, good for No. 68 nationally — there are some concerns on coordinator Pete Kwiakowski’s side of the ball with the loss of the second-leading tackler, fifth-leading tackler, and sixth-leading tackler in addition to the departure of 38 tackles for loss, 43.7 percent of the team’s total.
Here’s the weighting on the defensive side:
Percent of returning tackles: 70%
Percent of returning passes defensed: 14%
Percent of returning tackles for loss: 12%
Percent of returning sacks: 4%
Without an addition from the NCAA transfer portal, there’s significant pressure on No. 2 linebacker Anthony Hill Jr., an early enrollee, to replace the production of DeMarvion Overshown. Along the defensive line, Texas is losing more than 100 tackles and 18 tackles for loss, a situation more concerning at the edge position than inside with the return of defensive tackle T’Vondre Sweat.
Here’s how Connelly sums things up for the Longhorns as one of eight teams most likely to improve:
Texas (seventh in SP+ in 2022, 19th in returning production in 2023)
One good thing about the Florida State hype: It might distract us from the Texas hype! The Longhorns went just 8-5 in 2022, but they wooed virtually every computer ranking with a combination of close losses (their five defeats were all by a touchdown or less) and random displays of brilliance (they beat five bowl teams by an average of 43-18 and won at Big 12 champ Kansas State). Game management might still be an issue in 2023, but experience won’t be: They lose star back Bijan Robinson but return virtually everyone else on offense, including quarterback Quinn Ewers. A majority of the defense is back, too.
Something else to consider? The schedule should be much easier with Kansas ranking as the only Big 12 team with more returning production and three of the five programs considered the most likely to regress all set to face Texas in 2023 — Alabama, Kansas State, and TCU.
Texas isn’t back until it proves it on the field, but close observers of the program have long circled the 2023 season as one during which the roster talent will peak at some key positions. The returning production metrics support that long-held belief, and combined with an extremely manageable schedule will put some significant pressure on Sarkisian to make major strides in his third season.