College football's best teams all have depth
August 15, 2017 3:00 AM
by Jim Feist
An area of college football handicapping dynamics that’s important to understand as the season commences 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. Large schools with a long tradition of winning football are usually heavy with depth.
Ohio State won the national title three years ago, but after that the Buckeyes lost a ton of top talent in the NFL draft. There were 12 drafted, an amazing haul from one school. Ohio State broke a draft record with 10 going in the first three rounds. So for the next season only three starters were back on offense. Did they take a huge step back? No, going 12-1, ending with a 44-28 bowl rout of Notre Dame.
The Buckeyes under Urban Meyer are no ordinary program, stockpiling talent and depth. When Meyer was at Florida one football scout was amazed at how many NFL-caliber talents the Gators had as freshmen and sophomores as backups. That is a huge key when starters get injured, or for 2017 when Meyer has to reload after losing so many talented players again.
Two years ago Notre Dame took on a Texas team in Week 1 and flogged the Longhorns from start to finish, 38-3.
Notre Dame even lost running back Tarean Folston, its top returning rusher from the previous season, tearing an ACL.
The Irish still had 527 yards, including 214 rushing. Folston’s injury made C.J. Prosise the Irish’s No. 1 running back and created playing time for freshmen Josh Adams and Dexter Williams.
When the season ended the Irish had 10 wins and Prosise ran for 1,032 yards, 6.6 per carry. Not much of a drop-off! Then they had to replace their starting QB who was injured in Week 2, but DeShone Kizer stepped in with 21 TDs and 10 picks.
The list of teams that have excellent depth would include Oklahoma, Notre Dame, Alabama and Ohio State. For the most part, these teams have little trouble recruiting a lot of talent and have athletic budgets and scholarships that allow them to stock their teams with depth.
This gives them an edge when players get hurt and they have a quality reserve to plug in. If a smaller school that likes to run the football has two talented offensive linemen that get hurt, limited depth could severely alter their offensive production.
This is something to keep in mind over the next month, because each September some lesser known schools may deceive with strong starts.
Three years ago Ohio State overcame injuries to quarterbacks Braxton Miller and J.T. Barrett on the way to winning the national championship. Cardale Jones was the No. 3 starter, but helped lead them to the title.
The team the Buckeyes beat in the opener two years ago, Virginia Tech, lost starting QB Mike Brewer, who played well against the eventual champs before getting hurt. He was replaced by Brenden Motley, a mobile quarterback who wasn’t nearly as polished a passer as Brewer.
Most schools don’t have the gridiron tradition to attract lots of talent, hence they often lack depth. In recent years, these schools include Duke, Indiana, Syracuse and Memphis, along with colleges from conferences like the MAC and C-USA.
What can happen is that in September small schools can give the appearance of being competitive, but as October and November roll around, they can begin to play much worse, straight up and against the spread.
Keep this in mind over the next few months if you think a team may be overrated. It could be that they are playing above their heads 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%. Schools lacking depth are at a big disadvantage as the talent level on the bench drops when compared to big-name schools. They can’t plug in equally effective players as the starters get banged up.
Depth has been a problem for Iowa State of the Big 12 the last five years. The Cyclones have often been decimated on defense and don’t have the replacements on the depth charts.
But early in the season, Iowa State has played its best football, including a pair of upsets of rival Iowa in 2012 and ‘14.
This is why injury reports are so important for analyzing and handicapping games. If a famous football school loses several players to injuries, they may have the depth to plug in and not miss a beat.
However, it’s not uncommon to see overvalued small schools with less depth go on a straight up and spread slide after a good start to the season.