An area of college football dynamics that’s important to understand is depth.
This doesn’t refer to how many star players a team has, but whether a team is stocked or thin with above-average players at a lot of positions. Naturally, the most important of these is quarterback — rated just above other key skill positions such as running back and wide receiver.
In college the large schools, such as Tennessee, Ohio State, Georgia, USC and Texas, have little trouble recruiting a lot of talent. The large athletic budgets and scholarships allow these elite programs to stockpile depth.
The added depth provides an edge when players get hurt since there is usually a quality reserve to plug in. If a smaller school that likes to run the ball has two talented offensive linemen go down with injuries, the limited depth could severely alter the offensive production in future games.
Other times, coaches can fail to do an effective recruiting job, which can hinder overall talent and depth. This is evident at Mississippi State, where first-year coach Sylvester Croom has inherited a program with little talent.
After the Bulldogs had an emotional 28-7 win over Tulane in Croom’s first game, Mississippi State was blasted (43-14) by SEC power Auburn and got stung (9-7) by Division 1-AA Maine at home! This is a program being rebuilt from scratch.
You’ve heard football analysts say, "This team is not rebuilding, they’re reloading." That refers to programs that are so well known that they rarely have to start over each season. Instead, they regularly attract top-notch talent to keep the program successful even after key players graduate.
Most schools, however, don’t have the gridiron tradition to stockpile talent and can lack depth. In recent years, the victims include Duke, Northwestern, Kansas, Vanderbilt, Indiana and Temple. In September, small schools can give the appearance of being competitive. When October and November roll around, they can begin to play much worse, both straight up and against the spread.
It’s partly because everyone is healthy in September, but football is such a violent, physical game. Players get banged up with injuries and either miss playing time or are not 100 percent. Schools lacking depth are at a big disadvantage as the talent level on the bench drops significantly when compared to big-name schools.
Stanford has slipped considerably since coach Tyrone Willingham took the Notre Dame job. Under Buddy Teevans this season and last, Stanford got off to 2-0 starts, beating San Jose State and BYU each time. But the lack of depth and skill position talent is evident. As the schedule got tougher in 2003, the Cardinal went 2-9 in its final nine games.
With smaller schools, one or two talented players can make a huge difference on a team’s performance. Houston had a terrific offense last season behind freshman QB Kevin Kolb and speedy WR Brandon Middleton. The Cougars went 7-4-2 ATS and played in the Hawaii Bowl. However, Middleton left for the NFL and Houston’s offense has not yet had the same pop, struggling to score against Rice and even Army during its 1-2 SU, 0-3 ATS start.
Of all the key positions in football, none is bigger than QB. Miami of Ohio lost QB Ben Roethlisberger to the NFL. Notice the Redhawks’ 0-2 ATS start, scoring 10 points at Michigan and 26 against Cincinnati. Miami dropped 42 on Cincy a year ago with Big Ben.
A few seasons back, Indiana had a talented quarterback in Atwaan Randle-El. The Hoosiers lacked overall depth and ended up with a losing record, but with Randle-El they beat Wisconsin 63-32 (as a +14 dog) and Michigan State 37-28 (as +7). With no one to step in for Randle El, Indiana went a combined 5-19 SU, 8-14 ATS the next two seasons.
Michigan was picked by many to defend its Big 10 crown. The selection was based largely on the strength of so many returning players, especially wide receiver depth. The Wolverines had an abundance of skill players back, but were lacking a skilled QB. John Navarre was off to the NFL and replacements Chad Henne and Clayton Richard have played poorly.
Notice Michigan was a double-digit favorite in its first three games and started 1-2 ATS, averaging less than 300 total yards per game.