It’s not as bad as it looks
The basics of preseason prognostication is pretty simple. You look at a team’s returning production, the talent they lost and the talent they added, maybe look at how lucky or unlucky they were last season, and presto! You make a pick.
The problem with this method right now is that the last two seasons are of dubious predictive value. 2020 was almost complete garbage, as teams fielded rotating lineups of whoever was available in front of empty stadiums. 2021 promised some degree of normality, but it was only a normal year in comparison to the ad hoc nature of 2020.
This isn’t to say the last two years didn’t count. Of course they did. They played games, they haded out trophies, and we studiously marked down the records. But the COVID seasons were still massive outliers, much like the seasons played during the world wars, in which one of the biggest factors in fielding a quality team was your ROTC program.
Anyway, the Returning Production metric by Bill Connelly makes things look pretty bleak for LSU. LSU ranks 82nd in the nation in returning production from a team that finished below .500. Now, the team was so ravaged by attrition that it was down to 39 scholarship players for its bowl game, in which LSU was forced to start a wide receiver under center.
Considering that LSU lost its starting quarterback before the season even began in a freak boating accident that didn’t take place on water (let that roll around in your head for a while, I don’t think we’ve ever truly faced how bizarre last season was), “returning production” is of limited applicability anyway, as Myles Brennan will be coming back after taking 2021 off.
Still, 82nd in the nation is 82nd. That’s bad. LSU returns 62% of its production from last season. But let’s at least put that in the context of the SEC.
And that’s where things get interesting.
Five SEC teams, fully a third of the league, return 65% of their production. And I gotta say, there ain’t much difference between 65 and 62 percent. The cluster of 65% teams cluster right around the middle of the league in the ordinal rankings.
It gets even more revealing when you look at how tightly clustered the league actually is. Arkansas and LSU both return 62% of their production, tied for tenth in the SEC. However, ten teams in the SEC are within 3 percent of Arkansas and LSU. The range of 59-65% of returning production covers every team in the SEC, save the top four.
So, essentially, the only teams that have any real advantage in the SEC with returning talent are Vanderbilt (69%), South Carolina (73%), Tennessee (74%), and Mississippi St. (78%). Everyone else is on the same basic level of returning production, even lowly 82nd LSU.
It’s more revealing when we drill down into the league leaders.
Six SEC running backs rushed for 1000 yards or more last year. Only two return (Christopher Rodriguez of Kentucky and Tank Bigsby of Auburn). Just four of the top ten and five of the top ten runners return.
Seven SEC receivers had a 1000 or more yards last year. Just one returns (Cedric Tillman of Tennessee). Only two of the top ten return, though Kayshon Boutte does make his return, and he didn’t make the top ten due to injuries.
Quarterback is the one glamor position in which the top players return. There just wasn’t that much star talent at the position last year. Only three SEC QB’s threw for 3000 yards and yes, two of them return (Bryce Young of Bama and Will Rogers of Mississippi St).
Yeah, none of those players are at LSU, but Brennan did average 370 yards per game back in 2020. Still, it doesn’t look like anyone is returning a bunch of established elite talent except for …. Checks notes… oh, look, Alabama. Would you look at that?
There are plenty of reasons why LSU may not bounce back into a contender this year, but the lack of returning talent is not one of them.