It’s always interesting.

Every year that Bill Connelly releases his “percentage of returning production” numbers, I bookmark it immediately and circle back to it throughout the offseason.

It’s not that I treat as some exact barometer for future success. It’s just interesting to see the potential areas of need a team has. Returning starters doesn’t always tell the full story. A team that returns 9 starters might have to turn to a quarterback without any FBS snaps, which is reflected in percentage of returning production. Alternatively, a team with just 4 returning offensive starters might have its 4 biggest contributors back, which is also reflected in percentage of returning production.

Connelly broke down every FBS team with overall returning production, offensive returning production and defensive returning production.

Here’s what that looks like in the SEC:

Again, that’s just the overall percentage of returning production. Connelly has the breakdown by offense and defense, as well.

Let’s dig into some SEC takeaways from those numbers:

1. No excuses, Jimbo Fisher

To recap, Fisher has the highest percentage of returning production of any SEC team, which also was the preamble for when the Aggies had their 9-1 season in 2020. That’s the case for 2023 despite the fact that they lost the incredibly durable Devon Achane to the NFL Draft. In addition to Conner Weigman being Jimbo Fisher’s highest-rated quarterback recruit since Jameis Winston at FSU, you’ve got that entire starting offensive line back and Bobby Petrino now has the controls of the offense (allegedly). Fisher didn’t have a defensive coordinator bounce like he did the year before and one would think that blaming injuries shouldn’t fly after signing that historic 2022 class, some of which already hit the transfer portal and wasn’t really a big part of the “returning production.”

Consider that all a nice way of saying Fisher will have nobody but himself to blame if this year isn’t a drastic bounce-back year. Does it mean A&M will fork over $76 million to send him packing if 7-5 happens? Of course not. But any lingering notion that Fisher is still an elite coach in the sport should be gone if he can’t use that ridiculously high percentage of returning production to his advantage.

2. Heads up, LSU

Wait, what? Isn’t LSU in the top 1/4 nationally and No. 4 among SEC teams? Yep.

But I say “heads up,” because LSU’s season-opening foe, Florida State, is No. 1 in America with a ridiculous 87% of last year’s production set to return. That’s from a team that, like LSU, got significantly better as the season progressed. The Noles capped a 10-win season with a bowl victory in Orlando. Perhaps it’s only fitting that the 2 teams kick off 2023 back in Camping World Stadium.

Florida State is the Ultimate Good Vibes Team this offseason. With Jordan Travis back and a slew of dangerous offensive weapons — don’t forget FSU added Jaheim Bell from South Carolina — fresh off the program’s best season in 6 years, there’s reason to believe this could be a top-7 matchup. Getting humbled by a veteran, battle-tested team in a season-opener can quash offseason buzz in a unique way. It’ll take Brian Kelly being at his absolute best to avenge last year’s devastating opener in New Orleans.

3. In theory, all signs point to a “prove it” year for Eli Drinkwitz. In reality …

… a $20 million buyout lingers.

Yeah. Stunning. I still can’t believe that was the deal Drinkwitz got in the final month of Year 3. Say what you want about a base salary that’ll pay him north of $6 million in the SEC. That’s standard now. Of the 14 SEC head coaches, 12 make at least $6 million annually. The problem is that you can’t even really dig too deep into the fact that Mizzou is No. 9 in percentage of returning production. At least not to set expectations for Drinkwitz’s future.

The Tigers are No. 25 in FBS on the offensive returning production side with a returning starting quarterback, and they’re No. 9 on defense with Blake Baker back to run that side of the ball. Yet how can you project Mizzou to be anything better than 6th or maybe 5th in the SEC East? Drinkwitz did hire an offensive coordinator. Does Kirby Moore’s presence suddenly mean Mizzou should be an 8-4 team? Certainly not.

There’s a chance that Drinkwitz, who inherited a 6-6 team and is entering Year 4 having failed to produce a winning season, goes 6-6 with all of that returning production and we’re left wondering why that post-2023 buyout ever got negotiated to $20 million.

4. Perspective is needed for Georgia’s No. 80 ranking in percentage of returning production

Remember 2022? Like, when Georgia won a national title after it had 15 players selection in the NFL Draft? The Dawgs entered 2022 ranked No. 96 in percentage of returning production. After they had 8 defensive players selected in the NFL Draft, well, you saw what Kirby Smart’s defense did. It destroyed teams.

That’s why we shouldn’t overreact to Georgia being in the bottom half nationally in percentage of returning production. Georgia had 2 huge offensive additions in the transfer portal with Dominic Lovett and Rara Thomas, both of whom should get plenty of room to operate in Todd Monken’s offense. Smart kept both coordinators, and just as he did the 2 previous seasons, he has an obvious senior captain returning in Sedrick Van Pran, who’ll be a tremendous asset to a new starting quarterback.

If Georgia fails to become the first team to 3-peat since 1936 Minnesota, it won’t have anything to do with that percentage of returning production number.

5. Why this could be Nick Saban’s most impressive feat yet

So Alabama had:

  • A) Its best QB in program history leave for the NFL
  • B) Its best defensive player since Derrick Thomas leave for the NFL
  • C) Both coordinators leave in January
  • D) The nation’s No. 125 team in percentage of returning production
  • E) All the above

It’s “E.” It’s always “E.”

So combine that with the fact that Georgia is at the absolute peak of its powers and LSU is expected to start in the top 10 after beating Alabama en route to the SEC West title. Yes, if Alabama wins a title with so many unknowns, it would be a crowning achievement of the Saban era, and that’s saying something.

In case you were wondering, this year is at the bottom of the barrel in recent memory for Alabama teams in percentage of returning production:

  • 2017: No. 73 (won national title)
  • 2018: No. 103
  • 2019: No. 63
  • 2020: No. 88 (won national title)
  • 2021: No. 120
  • 2022: No. 65
  • 2023: No. 125

Go figure that in the 2 years that Alabama had its most returning production in that stretch, it missed out on the Playoff. Meanwhile, the 2 non-top 100 teams in that stat both made it to the title game, but came up short. Getting to a title game with such little returning production would be quite the feat.

Winning it all would be yet another immortal feather in Saban’s cap.