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Recruiting rankings are alive and well
Richard Linde, 22 January 2009

Not only can avid college football fans feed on a steady diet of games during the season, but they can follow their favorite teams' progress in corralling their next generation of talent by following the recruiting services on the Internet in the offseason. These services, such as scout.com, rivals.com, and realdawg.com, provide all kinds of data relating to student athletes at the high school and junior college levels.

One set of data compares each school in the country with the others, showing their relative ranking in signing student athletes to letters of intent for their next football classes. To provide these rankings, each prospective student athlete is ranked qualitatively (given one to five stars) and quantitatively (ranked numerically by position).

How well the current class meets the school's needs is factored into a school's ranking. Also, teams must have balanced classes because of susceptibility to injury. Because of need and balance, a team with a 2.54 average star rating, say, might be ranked ahead of a team with a 2.75 average star rating.

Obviously, these relative rankings are not the whole enchilada when it comes to predicting how well a given team will do.

That said, however, the final USA Today poll of the nation's 12 top teams in 2008 correlates strongly with the teams' recruiting rankings over the last five years. (Data taken from scout.com). Note that all of the BCS teams in the top 11 had at least one single-digit recruiting class over that period. See the table below:

Rank Team Record 2004 2005 2006 2007 2008 Avg.
1 Florida 13-1 8 11 2 1 12 6.8
2 USC 12-1 1 6 1 2 9 3.8
3 Texas 12-1 10 13 3 3 16 9
4 Utah 13-0 68 71 60 66 65 66
5 Oklahoma 12-2 7 5 7 30 13 12.4
6 Alabama 12-2 19 16 18 22 1 15.2
7 TCU 11-2 70 63 73 73 114 78.6
8 Penn State 11-2 12 28 6 19 41 21.2
9 Oregon 10-3 15 30 52 9 23 25.8
10 Georgia 10-3 6 4 4 17 5 7.2
11 Ohio State 10-3 11 7 13 16 4 10.2
12 Texas Tech 11-2 17 36 17 44 59 34.6

The two glaring anomalies, Utah (66) and TCU (78.6), are non-BCS schools that play much weaker schedules than those in the BCS, and summarily are tossed out of the discussion, their fans kicking and screaming, upsets notwithstanding -- like in on any given day.

Similarly, Texas Tech (34.6), somewhat of a BCS anomaly, played the likes of Eastern Washington, Nevada, Southern Methodist, and Massachusetts in OOC games. Ty Willingham, formerly of Washington, might have been 6-7 this season if he'd played that OOC schedule in lieu of his own. This scenario assumes he had beaten Stanford in a game that wunderkind Jake Locker was injured in and had beaten WSU in double overtime. Willingham ended up 0-12 and was fired. He lost out-of-conference games to BYU, Oklahoma and Notre Dame. The BYU game was lost on a fluke decision that should prompt an NCAA rules' change.

Other factors affecting a team's won/loss record are strength of schedule, weather, home-field advantage, coaching stability, injuries, early attrition, luck, APRs, character issues and NCAA probationary periods and sanctions.

Hopefully, those five-star players who don't pan out are offset by those who do. Every team has a sleeper or two, so a coach can't bank on them.

The coach must swear his quarterback to an oath that says he will execute his game plan faithfully. ;-)

Almost too trite to say, a coach must develop the talent he has in place and be a good tactician on game day. The way the system is set up, a coach can take a group of inferior athletes, at least according to the rankings, and convert them into overachievers and winners.

This is because college football teams don't play enough games over the course of a season to determine the "best teams." That's true in professional baseball, as well, according to a study I ran across.

Because of the 85-scholarship rule, any FBS team can beat any other on a given day most likely. That's a given. Playing a limited number of games provides a chance for the best teams to fall flat on their faces and gives the poorer teams a chance to pull off shocking upsets under the watch of the media -- whose members are always looking for controversy and a chance to go bonkers over an upset. If teams played more games over the course of a season, upsets would be more prosaic and, as a consequence, would be downplayed by the media in a relative sense. 

The subjective recruiting rankings are just one measure of progress that a coach is making. The best coaches recruit better players. The more game-breakers and playmakers a coach has the better his chance of winning. That's not to say Pete Carroll will win all of his games or that the rankings themselves are infallible.


A benchmark for Steve Sarkisian:

I’m giving Sark five to bring the Dawgs alive – that is, to "faithfully" execute Mike Stoops’ 5-year benchmark set at Arizona. Stoops turned the 2003 corpse (2-10) he inherited at Arizona into a zombie, and now it’s human again and walking about. Stoops’ first class (2004) was ranked 64th by scout.com. Two top 20 recruiting classes later on propelled the Wildcats into a winner this year. Add offensive coordinator Sonny Dykes here, who added 130 yards to the Wildcats’ offense in 2007.  Link to the Stoops benchmark.

An interesting note: all of the BCS teams that were ranked from 1 to 11 in the final USA Today poll had at least one single-digit class during the last 5 recruiting seasons (2004-2008). USC, Cal, and Oregon are the only Pac-10 teams to bring in single-digit classes during that period of time.

Richard Linde can be reached at malamute@4malamute.com

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