For a couple of years now, I have incorporated recruiting rankings, in one form or another, into my portion of the preseason projections for the Football Outsiders Almanac. There is a very specific reason for this: while we often manage to overstate the importance of recruiting, the simple fact is that strong recruiting rankings tend to correlate quite strongly with strong performance on the field. The Mathlete at MGoBlog did a lovely job of reaffirming this last week. The takeaway:
Recruiting rankings have a huge correlation to future team success, especially on defense. Great teams can come from average talent, but more talent typically means more success. On defense it is virtually impossible to build an elite defense without elite recruits, and its equally true across all defensive positions. On offense dreams of 5 star skill position players are fun, but coaching, player development, system and luck play a much bigger role in future success than they do on defense.
The differentiation between the impact of star ratings on offense and defense was quite interesting, but for the most part this confirmed what we already knew. But it would probably be interesting to add a certain amount of subjective analysis to this, to add some names to the numbers. To do this, we're simply going to ask one question and flash back four years. The question: What truly is the difference between, say, the No. 1 class in the country and the No. 10, 25 or 40 class?
Of course, we'll start with a few more numbers first. Over the last four years, classes with those rankings take shape at the top as follows (using ratings from Rivals.com).
(Note: Rivals breaks recruits with certain star ratings into tiers -- a four-star recruit can have a sub-rating of either 5.8, 5.9 or 6.0 rating, a three-star recruit can be 5.5, 5.6 or 5.7, etc. And as you will see, Rivals places a lot of weight on the highest-rated recruits, so if you sign a couple of five-star players, you are probably going to rank quite high no matter how the rest of your class takes shape.)
|4 Stars (6.0)||2.8||2.0||0.3||0.0|
|4 Stars (5.9)||4.8||3.0||1.5||1.3|
|4 Stars (5.8)||7.3||5.5||3.5||1.0|
The top classes typically end up stockpiling a vast majority of the resources. The No. 1 class typically brings in more five-star and high-four-star athletes than the No. 10, 25 and 40 classes combined.
Over the years, college football recruiting truly has become its own sport. There is just enough of an occasional disconnect between the highest-rated recruits and the best players that we treat recruiting as its own beast to an extent. In the end, names almost don't matter to fans during the recruiting process; just stock up the numbers and figure out who's good later. So let's go back and attach some names to the numbers.
Almost four years have passed since the 2008 recruiting season wrapped up. Using the same breakout as above -- No. 1 vs. No. 10 vs. No. 25 vs. No. 40 -- let's take a look at how recruiting hauls ended up playing on the field.
No. 1: Alabama
Alabama paid Nick Saban a rather ridiculous sum of money to leave the NFL for Tuscaloosa. After a mediocre 2007 season that saw the Tide finish 7-6, lose to UL-Monroe and rank 40th in F/+, Saban began to earn his monstrous salary with a ridiculous recruiting haul in his first full class. Four years later, we know that this class was absolutely incredible, even if the stars were slightly different than we would have anticipated.
- Five Stars: WR Julio Jones, OL Tyler Love, ATH Burton Scott
- Four Stars (6.0): OL Barrett Jones, DT Kerry Murphy, LB Jerrell Harris, DB Alonzo Lawrence, ATH Mark Barron
- Four Stars (5.9): QB Star Jackson, WR Melvin Ray, DE Michael Williams, LB Courtney Upshaw
- Four Stars (5.8): WR Destin Hood, OL John Michael Boswell, DE Brandon Lewis, DE Glenn Harbin, LB Dont'a Hightower, DB Robby Green, DB Robert Lester, ATH Mark Ingram, ATH Chris Jordan, ATH Devonta Bolton
- Three Stars (5.7): RB Ivan Matchett, RB Jermaine Preyear, DE Undra Billingsley, DT Marcel Dareus, DT Damion Square
- Three Stars (5.6): WR Chris Jackson, DT Terrence Cody
- Three Stars (5.5): QB Brad Smelley
- Two Stars (5.4): DB Wesley Neighbors, K Corey Smith
This class simultaneously proves and almost disproves the notion that recruiting rankings are accurate enough to use for predictive purposes. This was, for all intents and purposes, an incredible class. It produced eight All-Americans (Barron, Cody, Dareus, Hightower, Ingram, B. Jones, J. Jones, Upshaw), a Heisman Trophy (Ingram), three first-round draft picks so far (Dareus, J. Jones, Ingram), a second-round pick (Cody), three more likely first-round picks (Barron, Upshaw, Hightower), four other starters (Harris, Lester, Square, Williams), and, of course, two national titles. If re-ranking all classes according to on-field production, it is difficult to imagine this class not still ranking No. 1.
At the same time, however, the highest-rated recruits really did not achieve at a higher level than some of the lowest. Two of the three five-star players failed to make much noise (Love is a backup, and Scott is gone), and of the class's eight All-Americans, four were given a 5.8 sub-rating or lower. There is still an aspect of development and program fit involved in recruiting, and while recruits like Dareus and Cody were only seen as good recruits, they obviously produced at more than a good level. Ingram, meanwhile, was barely a four-star recruit but a five-star performer.
Still, that is picking nits to an extent. This was viewed as the best class in the country, and it ended up performing like it. When you dream of No. 1 classes, you dream of this. Other No. 1 classes haven't been quite as amazing (of the top players involved with USC's 2010 class, only Robert Woods has produced much), but this one more than lived up to its billing.
Other recent No. 1 classes: 2009 Alabama (Trent Richardson, D.J. Fluker, Nico Johnson, Dre Kirkpatrick, Tana Patrick), 2010 USC (Dillon Baxter, Robert Woods, Kyle Prater, Markeith Ambles, Xavier Grimble), 2011 Alabama (Demetrius Hart, Cyrus Kouandjio, Hasean Clinton-Dix, Jesse Williams, Brent Calloway).
No. 10: Michigan
Like Saban, Rodriguez was just getting his sea legs in Ann Arbor in February 2008. He had only been in town for a few weeks, but he managed to lock up a rather strong overall class, at least on paper. The production did not match the billing.
- Five Stars: none.
- Four Stars (6.0): WR Darryl Stonum, OL Dann O'Neill, DB Boubacar Cissoko
- Four Stars (5.9): RB Michael Shaw, TE Kevin Koger, LB J.B. Fitzgerald, DB Brandon Smith
- Four Stars (5.8): RB Sam McGuffie, RB Terrence Robinson, WR Roy Roundtree, TE Brandon Moore, OL Ricky Barnum, OL Elliot Mealer, DT Mike Martin, LB Kenny Demens, LB Taylor Hill, LB Marcus Witherspoon
- Three Stars (5.7): RB Mike Cox, WR Martavious Odoms, OL Rocko Khoury, ATH Justin Feagin
- Three Stars (5.6): OL Kurt Wermers
- Three Stars (5.5): ATH J.T. Floyd
- Two Stars (5.1): DE Patrick Omameh
Thus far, this class has produced a couple of second-team all-conference performers (Martin, Roundtree), and a few honorable mention all-conference nods (Demens, Floyd, Koger), but it is remembered mostly for wasted potential. Of the 17 four-star players Michigan signed in this class, only five became steady contributors at some point (Demens, Fitzgerald, Koger, Martin, Roundtree). All three 6.0 players failed to some degree -- Stonum was dismissed after legal troubles (though he did well on the field in 2010), Cissoko was also dismissed, and O'Neill transferred. Six others either transferred or were kicked off, as well. Poor depth, inconsistency and character concerns were problems, both for this class, and for Rodriguez's tenure as a whole.
Other recent No. 10 classes: 2009 Tennessee (Bryce Brown, Janzen Jackson, Nu'Keese Richardson, Jerod Askew, Marion Walls), 2010 Florida State (Christian Jones, Lamarcus Joyner, Jeff Luc, Kenny Shaw, Christian Green), 2011 Notre Dame (Ishaq Williams, Stephon Tuitt, Aaron Lynch, Ben Kovack, Matthew Hegarty).
No. 25 Missouri
- Five Stars: QB Blaine Gabbert
- Four Stars (6.0): none.
- Four Stars (5.9): none.
- Four Stars (5.8): TE Andrew Jones, OL Dan Hoch.
- Three Stars (5.7): RB Drew Temple, WR Wes Kemp, WR Rolandis Woodland, DE Aldon Smith, LB George White, DB Zaviar Gooden, DB Kenji Jackson
- Three Stars (5.6): RB Gahn McGaffie, OL Travis Ruth, DB Kip Edwards, DB Robert Steeples
- Three Stars (5.5): OL Taylor Davis, OL Daniel Jenkins, OL Brad Madison, DE Jacquies Smith, LB Will Ebner
- Two Stars (5.4): DE Marcus Malbrough, DT Jimmy Burge
- Two Stars (5.3): WR Michael Egnew
- NR: DE Brian Coulter
No. 40 Kansas
- Five Stars: none.
- Four Stars (6.0): none.
- Four Stars (5.9): RB Jocques Crawford.
- Four Stars (5.8): OL Nathan D'Cunha
- Three Stars (5.7): WR Daymond Patterson, TE Tim Biere, TE Tanner Hawkinson, OL John Williams
- Three Stars (5.6): QB Kale Pick, WR Rod Harris, DE Duane Zlatnick, DE D.J. Marshall, DB Greg Brown, DB Lubbock Smith
- Three Stars (5.5): OL Ben Lueken, OL Trevor Marrongelli, DE Nicholas Plato, DT Darius Parish, DB Corrigan Powell, LB Josh Richardson, ATH Sean Ransburg, K Alonso Rojas
Both the No. 25 and No. 40 classes on Rivals' list were coming off a breakthrough season on the field. Missouri went 12-2, finished fourth in the country, and beat Kansas in what was (almost by default) the biggest game in the rivalry's football history. Kansas, meanwhile, went 12-1 and beat Virginia Tech in the Orange Bowl. Each program's success was almost unheard of; both programs rode explosive spread offenses and opportunistic defenses to great success, and the 2008 recruiting class represented an opportunity for both schools to fortify their gains with better, deeper talent. One program succeeded to a degree; the other failed miserably.
For Missouri, the 2008 class did not make them a consistent top-10 program by any means, but it produced 13 starters for a program that won 36 games in four years, and it produced two top-10 draft picks in Gabbert and Aldon Smith. At the very least, the class helped the Tigers sustain themselves as a top-25 program. Kansas, meanwhile, failed to capitalize.
While it was certainly understandable for Turner Gill to be fired after two feckless years in Lawrence, he wasn't really left with much talent. Kansas signed two four-star recruits following their 2007 breakthrough, and neither made much noise. Crawford was a junior college running back who rushed for 232 yards in 2008 before transferring. D'Cunha, meanwhile, was an Australian project who never saw the field. The rest of the class did produce a few starters and two honorable mention all-conference performers (Biere, Zlatnick) in 2011, but to say the least, this class did not produce at even a top-40 level.
Other recent No. 25 classes: 2009 Mississippi State (Pernell McPhee, Chad Bumphis, Fletcher Fox, Tyler Russell, Chris Smith), 2010 Ohio State (Roderick Smith, Christian Bryant, Andrew Norwell, Corey Brown, Carlos Hyde), 2011 Virginia (Clifton Richardson, Demetrious Nicholson, Brandon Phelps, Darius Jennings, Dominique Terrell).