The Real Value of Recruiting in College Football

As college football’s national signing day approaches next week, college football fan bases are filling the winter void with everything recruiting. Official visits, greyshirts, blueshirts, commitments, flips, and counting stars. Instead of measuring wins and losses, fans are looking at touting their team’s recruiting rankings. On the flip say, the nay-sayers and contrarians downplay the importance of recruiting and the rankings. They point to coaching, schemes, and player development and player execution. So how important is recruiting to a college program? And what should we – or not – make of recruiting rankings and national signing day activity? Are they of any value?  Let’s take a closer look.

In short, recruiting probably plays a bigger role in the development of a college football program than you might think – but probably not in the ways you might think.

Is there a correlation between recruiting success and the ultimate arbiter of success, wins and losses? Yes, but to a lesser degree than we might like to believe. College football is replete with examples so let’s look at a few.

In the SEC I looked at recruiting rankings over the past five seasons (2010-2014 recruiting classes) and on-field performance for the last three seasons (2012-2014). The logic here is based on those five recruiting seasons having the most direct impact on program composition for those years. A five year recruiting span starting in the 2010 recruiting class will cover virtually everyone on the 2014 team, 85% of those on the previous year’s team, and about 70-75% on the 2012 team, due to redshirting, natural program attrition, coach’s decisions, and NFL early enrollees the five-year recruiting class to three-year performance makes the most statistical sense. In some cases – Alabama and Georgia most notably, there seemed to be support for the importance of recruiting success.

Alabama’s average national recruiting ranking (using 247sports.com) from the 2010-2014 recruiting classes was 1.8 (they were ranked first in every year except 2010, in which they were ranked fifth), which puts it first in the SEC (and nationally). The Crimson Tide’s average SEC finish in the past three years was 1.3 in the SEC West, with two division titles, two conference championships and a national championship in that span.

Georgia’s average national recruiting ranking over the same period was ninth (Only fifth-best in the SEC, second in SEC East). In the same three year span, they averaged a second-place finish in the SEC East with one division championship and 75.0% winning percentage, tops in the SEC East.

The flip side of this analysis is Missouri, Mississippi State, LSU, and Florida. Missouri’s average national recruiting ranking over the same period was 38.4, which places it 13th in the SEC, beating only Vanderbilt. However, the Tigers are the two-time defending SEC East champions and own a 66.6% conference win percentage in that period. Mississippi State’s average national rank was 29.8, sixth in the SEC West and turned in an average finish of 3.6 over the last three years. Florida and LSU’s average national rankings were 5.8 and 7.6, respectively, ranking them second and third within the conference. Their average divisional finish was 3.3 for both teams. That means they averaged a little worse than a third place finish in their seven team divisions over the period from 2012-2014, almost exactly the same as Mississippi State and far lower than Missouri, even with having an Top Ten average recruiting class over five years. Those results have a clear impact on the importance of recruiting rankings.

 

Team               2010-14 Avg Recruit Rank(National)         AVG SEC Div Finish and SEC W%

Florida                                 5.8 (1st, SEC E)                               3.3 (t3rd, SEC E)          58.3%

Georgia (1x DIVCMP)      9.0 (2nd, SEC E)                              2.0 (1st, SEC E)            75.0%

Tennessee                          14.8 (3rd, SEC E)                             5.3 (6th, SEC E)            25.0%

South Carolina                   19.2 (4th, SEC E)                              3.3 (t3rd, SEC E)         62.5%

Kentucky                            38.0 (5th, SEC E)                             6.6 (7th, SEC E)            08.3%

Missouri (2x DIVCMP)    38.4 (6th, SEC E)                              2.3 (2nd, SEC E)          66.6%

Vanderbilt                          44.8 (7th, SEC E)                              5.0 (5th, SEC E)           37.5%

 

Alabama (2x DIVCMP)      1.8 (1st, SEC W)                              1.3 (1st, SEC W)           87.5%

LSU                                        7.6 (2nd, SEC W)                            3.3 (3rd, SEC W)         62.5%

Auburn (1x DIVCMP)         8.2 (3rd, SEC W)                            3.0 (2nd, SEC W)         45.8%

Texas A&M                         16.8 (4th, SEC W)                            4.3 (5th, SEC W)          54.1%

Mississippi                           22.6 (5th, SEC W)                           4.6 (6th, SEC W)          45.8%

Mississippi St.                     29.8 (6th, SEC W)                           3.6 (4th, SEC W)          54.1%

Arkansas                             30.4 (7th, SEC W)                            6.6 (7th, SEC W)          16.6%

Of the 14 conference schools, six had a one standard deviation or more difference between their average recruiting ranking from 2010-2014 and their average placement in their division between 2012-2014. Clearly there is a weak correlation at best.

How to explain Missouri and Mississippi State’s success relative to their recruiting fortunes? First and foremost, Gary Pinkel and Dan Mullen are darn good football coaches. But what about Will Muschamp and Les Miles? Are we to think that they are underperforming relative to their recruiting success? If recruiting were the most important variable in college football success, then clearly Alabama, with four straight top ranked recruiting classes, should have easily won the national championship this year. Some other variables include coaching changes that alter systems and schemes, levels of competition, injuries, and transfers/attrition.

These results are echoed nationally. Florida State (5.2 average recruiting ranking) and Ohio State (6.6 average recruiting ranking) are 2014 successes with a strong recruiting track record. But Oregon (15.4 average recruiting ranking), TCU (38.2 average recruiting ranking) and Baylor (33 average recruiting ranking) realized similar success in 2014 with less than stellar recruiting rankings. TCU and Baylor’s recent recruiting rankings would put them 12th and 13th in the SEC. Clearly there is more to success than recruiting. Oklahoma – at 11.8 – has the highest recent recruiting success in the Big 12 and has a three year record and winning percentage below Baylor.

So are we over-analyzing college football recruiting? Maybe not.

What we are missing is the real value of recruiting. Recruiting isn’t so much about a correlation to wins and losses, it’s more about building your program. The coaches that recruit well are those that build consistent programs. Examples of this include Nick Saban and Mark Richt. Both of those programs have maintained a high level of consistency over the past three years. You can see the same philosophy being built at Mississippi State, Arkansas and Tennessee.

Auburn and Florida are examples of teams with high recruiting rankings and inconsistent campaigns over the last three seasons. Auburn’s record over the last three seasons is 3-9 (2012), 12-2 with an SEC Title (2013), and 8-5 this season. They average a third place finish in the vaunted SEC West but have a three year winning percentage under 50%. Florida’s record over the same time period is 11-2, 4-8, and 7-5, again averaging a 3.3 place finish with a mediocre 58% winning percentage. One must conclude that the foundation of those programs is not healthy with these wildly inconsistent results.

Recruiting analysis ought to be more about adding the right people rather than the best people or the most people. Whether the right person is based on personality, capability, positional need, or something else is where the coaches must make critical personnel decisions. A good barometer for recruiting success for highly respected and effective recruiters is not the commonly used “star average” but rather looking at their target list and seeing how many of the target players they get. If a team’s target list averages out at three-and-a-half stars and they get 80% of that list, that’s a great recruiting class. It’s much better than a team that has a class average of four stars yet only got 25% of those they targeted. It’s the same old, time proven perspective that shows why a good team that has practiced and played together will be a hastily put together all-star team every time.

It’s more about the coaches targeting the right guys and getting the right pieces than it is about stars and team rankings.

While recruiting is important, it’s only one of the many variables that go into winning or losing on Saturdays in the fall. What is important about recruiting is building that solid program that allows teams to make championship runs regularly and survive a year of bad breaks.

In our current college football landscape, looking week-to-week and going straight from regular season to bowl season to recruiting to spring practice to fall practice and back to the regular season again, it might be worthwhile to apply the long-view of building a program to recruiting. That will help us understand the true value of recruiting in college football.

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  1. Great article Mike,

    Those statistics are very revealing. However the other variable is the fact that the SEC consistently loses the most players to the NFL draft as early defectors. This is a tough measure because the SEC has always been capable of reloading so quickly. LSU has basically been the Kentucky of football. Their one and done scenarios must wreak havoc with the coaching/recruiting at that school. Thank you for another great article !

    KC30

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