Photo credit: Jesse Johnson / US Presswire
When last place might not matter: Here’s why college football’s National Signing Day’s rankings matter and where they might be wrong
1. On Jan. 25, a high school senior named Nate Andrews from Fairhope, Ala., decided to attend Florida State University, where he would also play Division I football. Previously, he verbally committed to Minnesota, but as teenagers are wont to do, he changed his mind. Andrews hadn’t put ink to paper and even if he had, that might not have mattered. One teenage recruit this year tattooed the Auburn logo on his forearm, before ultimately deciding to rescind his commitment to attend Alabama.
It happens. According to the Andrews’s high school football coach, Andrews decided to pick Tallahassee because it was a bit closer to home and he also struck up a good relationship with FSU’s defensive coordinator, who had previously coached defensive backs at Alabama. Good enough reasons – not to mention that Florida State has a more prestigious football program than Minnesota. The change was met with frustration from the Twitter feeds and message boards relevant to Minnesota college football, but many expected Andrews to switch schools, particularly after he attracted some late interest from Alabama.
Two themes emerged from Florida State and Minnesota fans though. Gopher fans bemoaned the idea that their coach couldn’t bring in talented recruits; Florida State fans cried that their coach was bringing in too many untalented recruits. Mr. Andrews was, at the exact same time, seen as either the one who got away or the one who shouldn’t have been invited.
College football recruiting can be kind of stupid at times.
2. Meanwhile, as Mr. Andrews made his collegiate decision, another teenager named Reggie Spearman debated what school would be best for his future. In August, the linebacker prospect picked Illinois, but as he continued to visit other schools, he wasn’t so sure anymore about attending school in Champaign, Ill. Schools started swarming. Iowa offered him a scholarship, as did Minnesota, Purdue, Syracuse, Indiana and seven other schools.
When asked about his recruitment, Spearman once said, “I’m still committed to Illinois but Iowa really opened up things and I am really just undecided.” He visited a few of the schools, each place jockeying position on Rivals’s recruiting pages.
When it came time to make a decision, Spearman took out a Syracuse hat, but then dropped it and picked up an Iowa Hawkeyes cap and put it on his head. Again, that’s pretty standard in recruiting. That isn’t the disgusting part. That came from Spearman’s Twitter feed, when he retweeted the messages he received from adult men trying to convince him to attend their favorite university.
A sampling of the messages he received after choosing Iowa (everything sic):
- “lmao this dude pathetic. you are a goddamn joke son.”
- “LOL..U picked 3 losers…good luck with that.”
- “HAHAHA.. Are you delusional? Good luck. You can’t even beat Iowa State.”
There are pages more of similar stuff, although most of it is congratulatory by now.
Keep in mind, Mr. Andrews and Mr. Spearman are three-star recruits; that is, they are not considered to be among the top tier, five-star players who command the most attention. That’s when the crazy gets turned up to 11. Five-star defensive end recruit Chris Jones of Houston received death threats from fans of Ole Miss and Mississippi State when he was rumored to be picking between the schools.
Again, grown men are harassing 17 and 18-year-olds over the Internet about what college the teens should attend – to the point where they are threatening bodily harm. If reading that doesn’t give make your eyebrows and nose scrunch together – and it should – try this. Take the phrase “17-year-old boy” out of the above sentence and place “17-year-old girl” in its place.
Several writers – Spencer Hall and Adam Kramer, for example — have written about the inherent creepiness of college football recruiting, but it’s worth repeating. SB Nation’s Black Heart Gold Pants even labels all recruiting posts “Caring Is Creepy.”
Again, 17- and 18-year-olds are being hounded by grown men who they have never met in person or even talked to on the phone. They are being repeatedly told that they should attend STATE U and when these teens decide a school that isn’t Johnny Crazyperson’s favorite, the crazies let their freak flag fly.
I bristle when people compare professional sports to slavery, but I’ve much more troubled when I overhear people brashly yelling about college football recruiting like this: “Yeah, we got that boy coming to town! Locked him up!” This insanity is not evidence of how competitive college football is. It’s evidence of how many crazy people like college football.
College football recruiting is nearly always creepy.
3. In 2004, the Minnesota Gophers were coming off a 7-5 year, capped by a bowl win over a floundering Alabama squad. Yes, fortunes have changed since then.
Minnesota’s in-state recruiting class included a three-star linebacker from the town of Hamel, Minn., who played at Wayzata High School. He had committed early on to the Gophers and coach Glen Mason, but eventually broke off his commitment once Ohio State and Jim Tressel came calling.
James Laurinaitis — son of “Animal” from wrestling’s “Road Warriors” and later “Legion of Doom” — would go on to become a three-time consensus All-American, two-time Jack Lambert award winner and two-time Dick Butkus award winner as the nation’s top linebacker, and also the Bronko Nagurski winner as 2006’s best defensive player in college football.
ThatLaurinaitis spurned Mason was not lost on either the fans or the media. It gave additional ammunition to the idea that Mason could not keep Minnesota’s top prospects at home, whether or not that label was truly deserved. In two years, Mason was out, replaced by a former tight ends coach who had never been a coordinator at any level of collegiate or professional football. While the new coach was certainly lacking on-field accomplishments, he boasted supposed big-time recruiting success at North Carolina and Texas.
A proven coach who had built a program up from a laughingstock to a fringe bowl team was now looking for work, while a former used car salesman who had never called a play outside of the high school level was now running a Big Ten program due to perceived weaknesses and strengths in the area of recruiting.
The directive was and is gin-clear: Recruiting matters.
4. I love looking at old newspaper front pages, particularly from historic events. It’s interesting to see how different newspapers play different events, how large of a headline is used, which photos are chosen, everything down the line. This archive from Newseum.org allows you to look at different front pages from historic events, such as the Terrorist Attacks on 9/11, the Inauguration of the First Black President and the death of Osama Bin Laden.
No matter the scope of the event, newspapers will traditionally never use an exclamation point in a headline. In college, one teacher told us an exclamation point in a headline should be used only in cases “like that of Jesus’s Resurrection, but even then, strongly think twice about it.”) As you see in those historic events mentioned, no exclamation points were used.
But on Feb. 7, 2008, the second-most read newspaper in Alabama printed “Tide No. 1 in recruiting!” on the front page, A1, above the fold. It’s important to note that the recruiting headline dwarfs that of the picture below, “Twisters leave 55 dead in south.”
Recruiting is about hype. That hype almost always either inflates or deflates the excitement of a fan base. Tim Brewster brought a 17th-ranked class to Dinkytown in 2008 – people (briefly) thought he maybe wasn’t quite so crazy for bringing a square of Rose Bowl turf to practice. Again, that was short lived. Illinois’s five-year talent last year ranked sixth in the conference, yet the finished in last place on the field.
This year, Jerry Kill brought a class ranked 12th in the conference and people are ready to declare that the Gophers will never be able to compete in the Big Ten. But the manic depressive bipolarity of message boards and Twitter ramblings aren’t the best way to understand recruiting.
As I’ve written before, recruiting at the fringe bowl level and below can be a crapshoot. It’s hard to tell which players will become J.J. Watt and Eric Decker, just as it’s hard to see how players like Bryce Brown and Dillon Baxter won’t become instant program changers.
But recruiting rankings aren’t meaningless, they should just be seen as more fluid, more speculative than they are. People seem to understand that Baseball America’s Top 100 Prospects are going to be filled with high school pitchers who flame out and college third basemen who strike out too much against upper-tier pitching. Recruiting rankings should be looked at the same way.
We all want to know if our team is going to be worth a damn during the coming year. We want to know if the Gophers are going to be able to stop a run up the middle. We look to recruiting to tell us that, which isn’t completely off-base. Stars do matter. We should take into account that it’s only one data point though and also, stars are different than the team rankings.
College football recruiting is kind of stupid. It’s definitely almost always creepy. Yet it is important and it definitely matters. That said, most fans are probably looking at it incorrectly.
5. I recently computed the five-year recruiting ranking average for all 124 Football Bowl Subdivision teams. This shows us what teams should have had the best talent in 2012. To do so, I averaged each team’s ranking from 2008 through 2012 on both Rivals and Scout recruiting services. Then I sorted those five year averages from Rivals and Scout, averaged those two rankings with each other. I did this to see if we can use recruiting rankings, on their own, as a predictive model for a team’s success.
Let’s take a look at two teams in the same conference.
• The five-year talent ranked 65th among all teams in 2012, tied with Washington State. In three of the five years, Scout ranked this team’s classes 85th, 99th and 112th.
• In 2009, the team hired a new coach, who had actually retired from the school a few years prior.
• The five-year talent of Team B ranked second overall. In three of the five years, Scout ranked this team first overall and then third overall, twice.
• Team B’s coach entered his 15th year at the school in 2012 – we know that coaching stability is often linked the long-term success of a program.
But what happened when these two teams played each other? Team A beat Team B by 18 points. It wasn’t a fluke, either. Team A was ranked No. 2 at one point in the year and finished ranked No. 5 in the BCS. Football Outsiders ranked Team A fifth overall. Team B finished the year ranked No. 19, by both the Associated Press and Football Outsiders.
Team A was Kansas State. Team B was Texas. By nearly every metric, Texas had better talent and better resources. But why didn’t that translate on the field?
Listing why Texas underperformed in 2012 gets us away from our topic at hand, but that example shows that recruiting rankings shouldn’t be considered foolproof indicators of future success. There are certain coaches who can identify talent that often slips through. For example, Collin Klein was a three-star, pro-style quarterback recruit coming out of high school. Considering that Klein was moved to wide receiver during his freshman year and that Kansas State runs a run-heavy offense, that “pro-style” bit could be a typo. But, picking Texas and Kansas State for this example also ignores a lot of other things that the Rivals/Scout recruiting average got right. Recruiting rankings also don’t quantify Bill Snyder’s “Coach of the Century” genius.
Alabama, which ranked first in five-year recruiting average, won the National Championship in decisive fashion. Ohio State finished the season ranked third in the final Associated Press Top 25 poll; the Buckeyes’ five-year recruiting average ranked third in the country as well. Georgia was ranked fifth in the final AP Poll, the Bulldogs’s five-year talent average ranked 10th. Generally, if you rank near the top of the five-year talent average and your team isn’t coached by Lane Kiffin, your team is going to perform pretty well.
If you take the Big Ten recruiting average from 2008-2012, eight teams ended up playing worse than that ranking, as compared to Football Outsiders’ 2012 Rankings. (Pictured in the box below.)
Instead, let’s rank the conference’s classes against each other and then project them against last year’s Big Ten standings. To break ties, I used the Big Ten’s divisional tiebreaker system. (In this case, it essentially went head-to-head with two teams tied, and if that didn’t settle the tie, AP and or BCS rankings were used. In the case of Penn State, Football Outsiders’s 2012 rankings were used.)
When the national numerical rankings were removed, we find a bit more accuracy. Three times, the recruiting rankings hit exactly the right position. Three times were near misses. Three other times, the ranking averages missed by two places and two times — in the case of Illinois and Northwestern – the recruiting rankings were badly off the mark, missing by six places in the standings each. So half of the time, the recruiting rankings were fairly indicative of eventual performance.
For comparison, I made game-by-game picks at the beginning of 2012. My picks had one hit (Purdue) and six teams off by one position in the standings. Two picks missed the actual results by two spots and three were bad misses, I picked Iowa to be four spots better than they ended up, while I picked two teams wrong by five standing spots each. (I picked Penn State to completely fold and Wisconsin to walk over its division.)
A lot more goes into a team’s success than recruiting, but if a team generally ranks highly in recruiting, they often do so in college football’s polls, as well. However, comparing Football Outsiders’s yearly team-by-team rankings with five-year recruiting averages shows that smaller schools and non-traditional football powers typically have recruiting rankings that are lower than their performance rating. For example, Northern Illinois had a five-year recruiting ranking of 105th in 2012, but finished the year ranked 34th nationally by Football Outsiders.
This occurs for a few reasons, most obvious is that few five-star, cant-miss prospects decide to enroll at schools like Kent State University, particularly when Nick Saban dangles an offer to play at Alabama. Statistically speaking, it’s easier to bet a player to succeed who is already the size of a collegiate athlete.But another reason for this is that fewer resources are available for the companies who analyze, chart and evaluate prospects at these, well, “less than” schools. Those letter known prospects are also attending fewer all-star camps, where many prospects first become well-known.
Consider that from 2008 to 2012, neither Rivals or Scout ranked a single Northern Illinois recruiting class better than 75th. Both services ranked only two classes during that period above 90th. Jerry Kill and his staff were adept at finding players who fit their system and also had slipped past the radar of other schools and largely, the recruiting services.
Stars do matter, but if you’re at Northern Illinois, Kansas State two years ago or Minnesota, the path to success isn’t going to come first from a top ranked recruiting class. Mid and lower-tier schools are going to become successful by recruiting players who can grow into becoming five-star type players. They aren’t going to see many finished products, so to speak.
On National Signing Day, Gopher Illustrated’s Zach Johnson appeared on 1500ESPN and talked about this. The classes at the top of the recruiting world are easier to separate, Johnson said, whereas the middle of the pack and lower schools can be fairly interchangeable.
Winning the National Signing Day rankings if you’re a marginal program only increases excitement beyond realistic expectations. See: The Tim Brewster Era or Ed Orgeron’s brief tenure at Mississippi. Or what will happen to Tim Beckman at Illinois if the Fighting Illini stumble again this year.
6. If you read the newspaper, listened to the radio, watched TV or looked online, one message was clear: the Gophers recruiting class was ranked dead last in the Big Ten Conference. But waiving around an arbitrary ranking – one that we’ve proved isn’t etched in granite – is kind of a misinformed way to report on recruiting.
Yes, the Gophers were 12th in the Big Ten, according to Rivals and Scout. Reporting that isn’t incorrect. But it is kind of missing the forest through the trees.
As MV of The Daily Gopher has said on Twitter, looking at the rank alone maybe isn’t the best way to gauge the potential of a recruiting class. For example, classes are limited by the amount of players they can bring in. (SEC teams, of course, can strike that last part.) The Gophers brought in 19 recruits, with an average Rivals ranking per recruit of 5.53. That is the same number as No. 7 ranked Illinois, which brought in 25 recruits and also No. 8 Iowa, which brought in 21 recruits. For teams at the lower levels, the team ranking isn’t necessarily the number people should be hyping.
In addition to the player average, people should look at attrition. Ideally, teams recruit good players and keep them on campus. As MV noted, the 2012 Gophers had the worst attrition rate in the conference. Northwestern, a team that surprised many expectations, kept the largest percentage of their players on campus from the last five years.
Instead, we should look at these type of numbers, in addition to what players are being brought in. Did a school fill immediate needs? In the case of these recruits, did they have other offers from BCS-level teams?
When looking at the Gophers, they had an immediate need at inside linebacker, along with smaller holes in the depth chart at running back and wide receiver. The Gophers will also need to replace two starting cornerbacks in 2013. For the most part, Kill and his coaching staff found players who can theoretically fill those gaps.
Included in the 2013 class who could play this year:
• Junior college linebacker Damien Wilson, who was named the national junior college player of the year, will immediately be given the chance to start at inside linebacker and has already enrolled,
• Running back Berekley Edwards, who brings a level of speed the Gophers have been lacking during the past few years and had offers from Iowa and California;
• Quarterback and possible receiver Donovahn Jones, who spurned Missouri shortly before National Signing Day and who also had interest from Arkansas and South Florida, among a handful of other schools,
• Junior college linebacker De’Vondre Campbell, who switched his commitment from Kansas State and also had offers from Texas and Tennessee.
For an entire rundown of the class, GopherSports.com has videos and bio information on each of the recruits.
So what does the Gophers’ 2009-2013 recruiting average look like? It’s not great. The Gophers have the 63rd ranked class, good for last in the Big Ten. In 2012, Northwestern and Indiana tied for the last place in the conference’s five-year recruiting rank. On the field, Northwestern finished fifth in the conference and Indiana – which tied with Minnesota and Iowa, who they beat – finished with two conference wins.
Let’s take two teams again:
• Ranked 39th in our five-year recruiting ranking average,
• Played in the Big Ten and had a first-year head coach.
• Ranked 105th in our five-year talent average,
• Played in the MAC and had a second-year head coach.
One of these teams ended up ranked 108th by Football Outsiders.One of these teams played in the Orange Bowl and was ranked 33rd nationally by Football Outsiders.
Team A? Illinois. Team B? Northern Illinois, a team put together by the coaching staff now at Minnesota.
This doesn’t mean the Gophers suddenly have a recruiting class that should be ranked more highly. It simply means that the Gophers are well positioned to modestly surprise some teams and fans who aren’t paying close attention. Yes, recruiting matters. But it’s also worth noting that Jerry Kill prides himself on finding players the bigger schools have ignored.
Recruiting matters, but for programs like the Gophers, the building blocks of rebuilding aren’t going to come from a National Signing Day ranking.