In an ideal world, college football recruiting rankings wouldn't need to come out until every player had been thoroughly evaluated. But in a fast-paced market, fans can learn to make the most of early rankings.
As an industry, college football recruiting continues to grow. Rivals and Scout appear steady, ESPN is constantly expanding its coverage and 247sports has also emerged on the scene. More evaluators means fewer chances for a quality recruit to be overlooked. And there are many more opportunities for kids to be seen now than there were just a few years ago, with seven-on-seven teams, summer camps and combines. More chances to see recruits and more evaluators should make for more accurate recruiting rankings.
But there's reason to be wary of early recruiting rankings.
It used to be that ranking services would release their first rankings in early summer. That gave them time to evaluate prospects and form a coherent list. Now? The lists come out in early January. Granted, college football's recruiting timetable has sped up appreciably in recent years, with more offers going out earlier and earlier. But it hasn't increased by that much.
Ranking kids a full year before they will sign with a college is not going to be very accurate. But it's done anyway. Why?
Because subscribers demand it. Fans need something to digest in the off-season, and early recruiting rankings help to fill the void between National Signing Day and the start of spring practice.
Releasing the rankings in January allows producers to keep the fans satisfied by publishing five or six updates before the rankings could most accurately be published. Each update means fans of the teams to which the rising prospects are committed get happy and fans of a team whose prospects fall in the rankings get mad. It generates news and traffic.
Most readers do not care that by demanding earlier and earlier rankings, they are getting less accurate information than they would if they waited until August. And why should they? Readers soak up information because they trust its accuracy. Publishers give them what they want, even if doing so on such an accelerated timetable makes producing an accurate, comprehensive list an impossibility. And it might be that readers would rather have somewhat speculative info than no info at all.
And unlike preseason polls, this practice doesn't hurt anyone.
There are a few reasons why ranking players this early produces inaccuracies. First is simply a lack of staffing. While the number of evaluators employed by the services has increased, it has not done so to the extent that it can make up for six fewer months of evaluation time. The process is rushed and kids are missed. Still, most customers don't seem to mind.
But even if the recruiting services had a million employees, the rushed process would still be seriously flawed because many kids do not even have film available from their junior seasons at that point in time. Kids at schools without a lot of resources are often quite delayed in getting their film out to colleges and services. This is especially true for kids in rural areas, at schools that traditionally do not have top prospects and thus lack experience in handling the recruitment of a top kid and for kids who rely on a head coach who is either lazy, disinterested or lacking in the technical savvy to produce a highlight film.
In their haste to produce these early rankings and increase profit margins, the kids without film from their most recent year are marginalized by having an evaluation done of their sophomore film, or simply ignored altogether. Kids who have breakout junior seasons and don't get their film out immediately after the season are often off the radar of these services.
Additionally, many of the services piggyback on the evaluations done by college coaches. But college coaches can only give out offers as they evaluate a kid. And that means the coaches need to have the information on the player, and they need to have his film. Pushing the release date of the college football recruiting rankings up to January means the services do not have the luxury of knowing, for the most part, which offers a prospect holds, because the offers are still being given out.
So what do the services use to make the calls? In-person evaluations, film, hype and name recognition. The first two are solid scouting methods. The latter two, however, are where trouble can happen. If a kid has been a good player since his sophomore year, he's going to end up ranked very high simply because he's been a known commodity for a while, even if he regressed substantially during his junior year. The reason, of course, is that they're known quantities at that point in the year.
At this point, you might be thinking "this doesn't matter because they update the rankings. You said so yourself." This is true. But the updates, while frequent, are sometimes not substantial enough to overcome the mistakes made in the hurried initial release. Why? Confirmation bias. Wikipedia explains confirmation bias as follows:
Confirmation bias (also called confirmatory bias, myside bias or verification bias) is a tendency of people to favor information that confirms their beliefs or hypotheses. People display this bias when they gather or remember information selectively, or when they interpret it in a biased way. The effect is stronger for emotionally charged issues and for deeply entrenched beliefs.
For example, in reading about gun control, people usually prefer sources that affirm their existing attitudes. They also tend to interpret ambiguous evidence as supporting their existing position. Biased search, interpretation and memory have been invoked to explain attitude polarization (when a disagreement becomes more extreme even though the different parties are exposed to the same evidence), belief perseverance (when beliefs persist after the evidence for them is shown to be false), the irrational primacy effect (a greater reliance on information encountered early in a series) and illusory correlation (when people falsely perceive an association between two events or situations).
Confirmation bias is a major problem plaguing college football polls, as voters want to believe they were correct in their pre-season notions and will keep a lesser team ranked highly to start the year above a team that was better on the field but ranked poorly at the beginning of the season.
The same issue applies to the rankings. Major changes are rare. Yes, final rankings are much better than initial lists, but they could be so much better if the release of the initial list was delayed until the early summer.
If the services were able to slow down on releasing their rankings, they'd allow for more accurate lists to be published. But they're in business to make money, and subscribers demand early rankings.
What can fans do, then, to get the best possible recruiting information?
Take early rankings with a grain of salt. Watch the tape for yourself, look at a player's combine results, pay attention to what season (freshman, sophomore or junior) is being shown on the tape and pay special attention to the offers claimed by a recruit. And increase your faith in the ranking systems as the pages on the calendar turn, because at the end of the year, even with the confirmation bias issue, the rankings are very good.