Hot Reads: An Early Look at Returning Production in the Big Ten West
Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

Hot Reads: An Early Look at Returning Production in the Big Ten West

January 08, 2020

This question wasn't originally directed at me, but after a call for entries (so to speak), I'm jumping in.

So let's talk returning production in the Big Ten West. Yes, it's preliminary. The numbers that follow remove graduating seniors, players that have already declared for the draft and players listed in the transfer portal here. Obviously rosters are in flux throughout the entire offseason, so things will continue to change but as an early look these numbers should do fine.

They are based off Bill Connelly's method of calculating returning production. Rather than counting up starters returning, we'll look at returning rushing, passing and receiving yards on offense and returning tackles, tackles for loss and passes defended on defense. It offers a broader but more detailed view of just what teams bring back for next season.

These percentages, unlike Connelly's numbers, are unweighted, but his research has shown that receiving and passing yards have a stronger correlation to winning the following season than rushing yards. On defense, tackles and passes defended have a higher correlation than tackles for loss. (Seriously, if you haven't read Connelly's work on this before, do so. It's pretty fascinating.)

With all of that out of the way, let's look at the percentages, starting with offense.

Illinois 34.1% 6 100% T1 82.9% 3 75.4% 4
Iowa 99.7% 1 0.8% 7 95.9% 1 60.4% 7
Minnesota 33.4% 7 100% T1 56.7% 7 66.6% 6
Nebraska 86.9% 4 99.5% 4 77.4% 6 88.0% 2
Northwestern 98.7% 2 95.6% 5 87.3% 2 94.6% 1
Purdue 95.3% 3 73.7% 6 77.7% 5 78.0% 3
Wisconsin 34.9% 5 100% T1 81.5% 4 70.2% 5

Scott Frost began mentioning last summer that the Huskers had the potential to return almost everything on offense in 2020, and here they are. The departure of Maurice Washington is the biggest dent here, though one Nebraska's used to living with after he missed the final five games of 2019. Washington was the Huskers' fourth-leading rusher and fifth-leading receiver. The departure of Kanawai Noa hurts a little more in the receiving category, but overall these are good numbers for Nebraska. Anything over 80% is pretty strong and the Huskers are one of two West Division teams (along with Northwestern) with 80-plus percent of its total yards returning. (Note: I didn't include Andrew Bunch as returning for NU––though he could––so the Huskers' passing number isn't 100%.)

We all kind of knew that instinctively and the original question was how does this compare to division rivals, Iowa and Wisconsin. The Hawkeyes would be in great shape on offense if 99% of their passing yards weren't walking out the door with Nate Stanley. Iowa returns the greatest share of its rushing and receiving yards in the division, but the Hawkeyes' run game lagged for the third straight year and with Stanley graduating the question of the offseason in Iowa City will be who distributes the ball to all of that skill-position talent. Despite having virtually all of its rushing and receiving production back, losing Stanley drops Iowa to seventh in returning production on offense in the West.

Wisconsin, meanwhile, loses the amazing Jonathan Taylor at running back but is in great shape in the passing and receiving categories. Does anyone think the Badgers will have trouble finding someone to run the ball behind a big, burly offensive line? Me either. On offense, Wisconsin should be just fine.

On to the defense.

Illinois 69.0% 5 70.4% 3 79.1% 3 69.5% 5
Iowa 70.7% 4 75.4% 2 74.1% 5 71.3% 4
Minnesota 51.0% 7 39.5% 7 57.1% 6 50.6% 7
Nebraska 61.6% 6 56.2% 6 55.4% 7 60.8% 6
Northwestern 82.7% 1 58.7% 5 77.4% 4 80.5% 1
Purdue 76.1% 3 88.2% 1 90.7% 1 77.8% 2
Wisconsin 76.4% 2 61.4% 4 89.6% 2 76.0% 3

This is the other side of the coin for the Huskers. Nebraska ranks second-to-last or last in the West in all three categories. That's not a surprise for the numbers that are dominated by the front seven (tackles, TFLs), but it is in the secondary where Nebraska basically returns three starters in Dicaprio Bootle, Marquel Dismuke and Cam Taylor-Britt. (Deontai Williams, had he remained healthy, likely would've been a fourth.) That's the impact of Lamar Jackson's 15 passes defended (three interceptions, 12 pass breakups). I think the Huskers are well stocked in the secondary with experience and young talent, but Jackson does leave a big hole in terms of returning production in the defensive categories. Add in the losses in the front seven and only Minnesota loses more on defense in 2020. The Huskers are going to need some young players to be ready to go and ready to play well on defense this season. (A boatload of points on offense would do the trick, too, but that's often a risky bet in the Big Ten.)

As with offense, Iowa and Wisconsin are pretty similar in terms of the numbers. Slight edge to the Badgers for returning more of its passes defended, but my general takeaway here is that I wouldn't project a significant drop-off for either based on returning production alone. Also, note that Purdue has the second-highest returning production in the West (and the best passes defended number). New defensive coordinator Bob Diaco should have plenty to work with, particularly on the defensive line, which will be . . . interesting.

There's a lot more detail that we could go into here, and I probably will in later posts, but for now let's just pull it all together into an overall ranking.

Illinois 74.6% 4
Iowa 61.6% 7
Minnesota 65.2% 6
Nebraska 85.0% 2
Northwestern 92.5% 1
Purdue 78.0% 3
Wisconsin 70.7% 5

Even with the losses on defense, Nebraska has the second-most returning production in the West. Northwestern took its lumps in 2019, but the Wildcats should be poised for a bounce-back season. Iowa, due almost solely to losings its QB, ranks seventh but Minnesota is battling for the bottom of the standings, too. Add in some coaching turnover and the Gophers have an interesting challenge ahead trying to follow up an 11-win season.

So it goes. Minnesota had the most returning production in the Big Ten entering 2019. Worked out pretty well for the Gophers, didn't it?

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