We've been doing the Rocky Top Tennessee annual magazine every year since 2009, and we have never, not once, done a Top 25. Why? Well, because it's a publication for Vols fans and we've only been doing it since 2009. Yeah, not a lot of interest in the Top 25 the past eight years.
But there's interest this year now that we've snuck into the party and starting rubbing shoulders with the special people, so the staff put our noggins together and spit out our own list of the best teams in the country. I'm not going to list our group Top 25, at least not right here and not right now, but I did want to mention a few points that came up as we were putting the thing together. Mostly, I wanted to talk about why I'm right and the rest of the guys are wrong.
The reasons for my divergence from the group generally come down to the same two things: a heavier (I think) reliance on returning experience and overall team talent. To get a feel for returning experience, I used Phil Steele's list of returning offensive and defensive starters along with the table of returning offensive and defensive production posted by SB Nation's Bill Connelly. The reason for looking at this is straightforward: How many and which of the players from last year's team return to the field this year is some indication of whether the team should be better or worse this year than last. We'll call this "Experience."
Second is what we've called in the magazine the past eight years the "four-year rolling recruiting rankings," which is just what it sounds like: a ranking of the cumulative recruiting rankings for each team for the past four years. (We switched from Rivals data to 247 Composite data this year.) The reason for looking at this is straightforward as well: Overall team talent matters a lot, and where a position loses experience to graduation, the NFL, or some other fate, filling that spot with better talent is better than filling it with lesser talent. We'll call this "Overall Team Talent." And if you're one of those who still pooh-pooh recruiting rankings, you need to read the article in the magazine (it's due out next Friday), but the biggest takeaway is this: Eight of the last 13 national champions were in the top four of the Overall Team Talent rankings, and 12 of the 13 were in the top eight. It's not perfect, but there's a definite correlation there.
So I put a lot of credence on Experience and Overall Team Talent, and doing so led me to ranking the following teams higher than the rest of our group:
I put LSU in my top spot, and my colleagues ranged from #4 to #10. Yeah, the Tigers had some trouble last year, especially in the passing game, but losing three games in the SEC -- to Alabama, Ole Miss, and Arkansas, no less -- isn't fire-me-mid-game bad even if that's what they almost did to Les Miles. And if you think Tennessee is set up well for 2016 because of the players returning, you should look at LSU. The Tigers return 18 starters from last year's team and are tied for #1 in Steele's list of returning starters and SBN's list of returning production. So they're #1 in Experience.
And in Overall Team Talent? They're #3. So yeah, I'm high on the Tigers.
I also think we underrated Georgia, which came in at #16 on our group ballot. I had them at #12. They're not at the top of the Experience tables (they're tied for 41st in Steele's list and at #29 in SBN's), but they're in pretty good shape with 14 guys back from last year's team. What we're forgetting, though, is Overall Team Talent, where they rank #7. That's a really talented roster down there, and apart from Alabama, this is the team that scares me the most heading into 2016. Yeah, they have a new head coach, but he's not Will Muschamp. He's Kirby Smart, and Smart hired Jim Chaney to run his offense. An offense that already has Nick Chubb and Sony Michel. Watch out for these guys. How they do in the SEC West may decide the SEC East.
There are other teams that I ranked higher than the rest of the group due to Experience and Overall Team Talent, including Florida and USC, and there were several teams I ranked lower than the group for the same reasons. Those teams included Houston, Washington, and Baylor. I'm wishing now that I would have ranked Alabama lower, but what they lack in Experience they more than make up for in Overall Team Talent.
My top five were LSU, Alabama, Florida State, Clemson, and Oklahoma.
Here's a list of teams with some of the data I've been referencing, sorted by Overall Team Talent.
|Final 2015 Ranking (Average of AP/Coaches/S&P+)||2016 RTT Rolling Recruiting Ranking||Returning Starters||2016 SB Nation Returning Production|