Returning starters is one of the first things I look for each off season as I begin to take a look at Iowa’s upcoming schedule.

There isn’t a guaranteed correlation between a team’s upcoming success or lack there of related to returning starters, but more often than not it can prove to be a fairly reliable litmus test.

According to Phil Steele, Iowa returned the second fewest starters of any team in the FBS last year, a stat I cited several times throughout the season. The team was inconsistent throughout the season, which fits the profile of a team playing a lot of new faces.

The 2011 Wisconsin team overcame this stat, as they were 113 of 120 on Steele’s list, but with one huge asterisk. Steele’s numbers were published prior to Russell Wilson’s transfer to the Badgers. Had that not happened, I am convinced Wisconsin would have been more in the line for 7 or 8 wins in 2011 compared to what they wound up being, which was the Big Ten champion.

In 2011, Michigan was #2 in the nation in returning starters and they made it back to a BCS Bowl game. Purdue was 13th in the nation and they were +3 in wins over their 2010 total. Penn State was 39th and they were +2 in wins. Nebraska was 109th and they were -1. Ohio State was 90th and won six games after being in the BCS the year before.

Not all returning starters are equal and having your starting quarterback coming back is typically a boost to the program.

Here is what Steele has put together for this year as it relates to the Big Ten, with the FBS rank represented by the number on the far left, out of 123 schools.

The columns from left to right: National rank for returning starters, the school, offensive starters returning, defensive starters returning, kicking specialists returning and the total number of starters returning. The asterisk by a school’s offensive number indicates their quarterback is returning.

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You can see Steele’s returning starter data for all FBS teams at this link

Indiana had a decent number of returning starters in 2011 yet it did not translate into a boost. This year, they return even more after playing so many young players in a coaching transition season. They also return QB Tre Roberson, who was a freshman last year and played well…at least he played well against Iowa. 17 position starters back? That’s a very, very high number and look for Indiana to be +3 or more in wins this year over their one win from last year.

Ohio State is next on the list and should also be +2 or more in the win column despite being ineligible for a bowl game in 2011. They found a quarterback in Braxton Miller and he should improve a great deal playing in Urban Meyer’s system.

Michigan ranks high in this compilation once again, but lower than they have in a few years. They have some defensive line losses that will challenge that side of the ball but they are in good hands with Greg Mattison as the DC. Denard Robinson is back for one more year on offense and Maize and Blue fans hope he will improve as a passer. They won 11 games last year, 10 in the regular season but I am not sure they will match that. I haven’t taken a serious look at their schedule just yet.

Nebraska’s biggest opportunity for growth resides on the defensive side of the ball, where they were a disappointment last season. At this point, I wouldn’t pick them to win more than their nine from one year ago because of their one dimensional quarterback. Then again, Rex Burkhead is back for them at running back and he was a beast in 2011. Plus, their schedule is very favorable, so that factor may offset everything else. It’s them and Michigan for the division title in my opinion and they host the Wolverines.

Purdue brings back the third highest total of returning position starters of any team in the league. They won six in the regular season last year and could do better than that this year.

Illinois is in the midst of a coaching change and that program is a huge question mark; the started last year 6-0 and finished 0-7. Nathan Scheelhaase is an exciting quarterback and the Illini have some good young RB’s in the stable, but they struggled late on defense and lost more key players.

Michigan State is tied with Wisconsin for the fewest returning offensive starters as well as losing some huge (literally) players on the defensive side of the ball. Kirk Cousins is gone and replacing him will be a big challenge. The Spartans have won 11 games in each of the last two seasons, but I see them -3 or more this season in the win column.

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Penn State is tied for the fewest returning position starters. Yes, they return two starting quarterbacks but neither is all that great. They won 9 last year and I don’t see them getting there in 2012.

Wisconsin returns 10 starters, four on offense and lost the best football transfer in the history of NCAA football, arguably. As my friend Steve Deace likes to say, you can’t hide your quarterback in college football and Wisconsin is going to have issues at this position. A running game is a quarterback’s best friend and Wisconsin always has that, however they will not approach last year’s win totals.

As for Iowa, they are in the lower 25% in the nation in returning starters for the second year in a row. They lost their leading rusher, their all time leading receiver and three of their best four defensive linemen with the fourth recovering from a late season ACL injury.

I think Iowa’s 2011 win total of 7 games is in the range for what Iowa will accomplish in 2012.

What are your thoughts?