Talent trumps all.
There are very few absolutes in the world of college football, but that might be one of them. Teams can talk all they want about their program's unique culture or state-of-the-art facilities - and those factors certainly make an impact - but recruiting continues to predetermine a significant amount of success, year after year.
It definitely doesn't hurt to have some of the most talented people on your side, but, then again, where is the value in hauling in four- and five-star recruits if that talent can't stay on the field. That's where injury prevention can really come into play and it has become impossible to ignore it's impact on the game.
Enter Shannon Turley for the Stanford football program.
In his eighth season on the Farm, Turley has revolutionized Stanford football's strength and conditioning program, notably slashing injury rates by 87 percent from 2006 to 2012. In particular, Turley has changed perceptions of how to train for football and prevent injuries; he focuses less on raw strength numbers and places an emphasis on balance and flexibility, notably incorporating yoga and Pilates into workouts.
The results speak for themselves. Turley has received a tremendous amount of media attention - including a profile in the New York Times - for his work and won the 2013 College Strength and Conditioning Coach of the Year Award.
With Stanford set to take on the cut-blocking, triple-option scheme of Army on Saturday, there will be a heightened concern over injuries. Last season, the Cardinal lost starting defensive end Henry Anderson for six games due to a leg injury suffered against the Black Knights.
With injury prevention undoubtedly being a focus ahead of Stanford's matchup with Army, I thought it would be interesting to explore how the Cardinal stacks up against other programs in that department. There's no question Turley helped take Stanford to new heights by slicing a shockingly-high injury rate prior to 2007, but where does Stanford rank amongst other major college football programs when it comes to injury prevention in the starting lineup? Does the Cardinal do a better job at keeping its talent on the field?
To look into this question, I looked at the injury data compiled by philsteele.com, which keeps track of the number of "starts lost" per game for each of the last three seasons, 2011-2013. "Starts lost" counts the number of starting positions on offense and defense where a starter was unable to play. For example, Anderson counted as a start lost for Stanford in each of the six games he missed. As a result, this metric does a decent job of also gauging the severity of injuries and places value on recovery time.
Moreover, this system does not include cases where a starter is replaced (such as Kevin Hogan over Josh Nunes in 2012) or suspended (Devon Carrington over Ed Reynolds against Washington State last season). There are a few gray areas - David Yankey counted as a start lost when he missed a game following the death of his father - but overall this data provides a decent way to examine which teams do the best job of keeping their starters healthy.
Looking at all of the teams in the Power 5 conferences with complete data available, here are the ten teams with the lowest average of starts lost due to injury from 2011 to 2013:
|Team||Avg Starts Lost Due to Injury (2011-2013)|
|2. West Virginia||9.67|
|T6. Georgia Tech||13|
Clearly, this measure is not a great predictor of success on its own: the Kansas Jayhawks have won a total of 6 games in the past three seasons and yet boast the best average. However, there still might be value in looking at this table when considering that it includes Stanford and Alabama, the only two schools to appear in a BCS bowl in all three years. Clemson (twice), Baylor and West Virginia all also made BCS bowl games during this stretch.
To understand this discrepancy in win percentage, I think you have to go back to the power of recruiting. Kansas has never brought in a top-30 recruiting class in at least the last six seasons while Alabama is a regular in the top 10 and Stanford has made great strides in recent years. It helps to protect your starters. It helps even more when those starters are some of the best players in the country.
What makes the appearance of Stanford and Alabama on that table even more impressive is the fact that both teams employ physical, run-first offenses. Using the same dataset, Dave Bartoo of CFBMatrix found evidence that teams with slower, ground-and-pound offenses tend to have more injuries.
Despite this correlation, Stanford only had three offensive starts lost in 2013, which was almost 1.5 standard deviations below the Pac-12 average. Alabama finished with 8 offensive starts lost in 2013, below the SEC average of 11.9.
In fact, Stanford had fewer offensive injuries in 2013 than any other Power 5 team that ran fewer than 70 plays per game.
One final fact might be pretty gimmicky, but it might also speak to the job that Turley has done. Last season, Turley pointed out that Yankey, a former All-American offensive lineman, could barely bench his body weight, but that was by design - the focus of the program was not only on building strength, but also flexibility and mobility. In total, the Cardinal have had an average of only 4.67 starts lost on the offensive side of the ball in the last three years and being "Turley trained"-having the right preparation to run a physical, run-first offense-might have a lot to do with it.
Injuries are one of the most unpredictable elements in sports. Cal only had 3 total starts lost in 2011 before the sky came crashing down with 51 last season, tied with Florida for the most amongst the Power 5. Stanford, remarkably, has maintained a pretty steady trajectory.
It's hard to say precisely just how much of an impact Turley has had and how much of it is pure fortune. Stanford has also had a string of serious injuries, from Nunes to Ben Gardner to Ikenna Nwafor that aren't fully accounted for in this data.
But the bottom line is that the Cardinal has been able to keep its talent on the field and, in college football, talent trumps all.