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College football’s biggest 2017 overachievers and underachievers, based on recruited talent

Let’s play with recruiting rankings and advanced stats.

NCAA Football: South Carolina at Tennessee Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

College football’s predictable to a point. The same few teams are the only ones in the national title chase every year, and some are always bad. But every year includes a few who are drastically better or worse than they should be based on their talent.

We can cross-check a four-year average of annual recruiting rankings on the 247Sports Composite — designed to be a measure of a team’s talent, with some early exits balancing out redshirt seniors who aren’t included — against final rankings in S&P+, our advanced stat that tries to measure true quality. Plus, we’ve got final records, and we can use our eyes to make judgments along with the numbers.

Let’s do the bad news first. Here are the teams that most egregiously underperformed their recruiting rankings in 2017.

You already know who’s first, because you a) saw the picture on top of this post, and b) did not spend the last five months living under a rock at the bottom of the sea.

  1. Tennessee (8th in recruiting, 107th in S&P+, 4-8). The Vols were terrible and fired Butch Jones with two games left in the season, despite Jones signing national championship-caliber talent. It takes something special to be as bad as Tennessee was after spending almost half a decade recruiting with the big dogs.
  2. Florida (11th in recruiting, 86th in S&P+, 4-7). The Gators were also terrible, but at least they beat the Vols on an inexplicable Hail Mary. UF’s offense being bad is nothing new, but the Gators’ previously bodacious defense finished 73rd in yards allowed per play.
  3. Florida State (T-2nd in recruiting, 43rd in S&P+, 7-6). The preseason No. 3 team needed to beat UL-Monroe to achieve dubious eligibility for the Independence Bowl. FSU could rank higher on this list on the grounds that its season was over after a few weeks.
  4. Nebraska (27th in recruiting, 103rd in S&P+, 4-8). The Huskers aren’t what they used to be, but they still should’ve been a lot better than this. They agreed, firing Mike Riley immediately after the season and convincing Scott Frost to come home and save them. At least the 2017 team didn’t die in vain.
  5. Baylor (34th in recruiting, 106th in S&P+, 1-11). Baylor’s roster wasn’t really that good because the Bears had a lot of defections after Art Briles’ scandal-driven firing. Going 1-11 with a home loss to FCS Liberty and no wins against anyone except Kansas is still best avoided, when possible.
  6. Maryland (37th in recruiting, 114th in S&P+, 4-8). Maryland’s quarterbacks all evaporated into thin air, like usual, and the Terps had to play a walk-on at points. But going from a road win at Texas in Week 1 to a 4-8 finish is nonetheless bad. Maryland’s 77-spot difference between four-year recruiting rank and S&P+ finish is second only to Tennessee’s 99-spot gulf. (I went to Maryland, and no, I’m not disappointed. Why?)
  7. Oregon State (56th in recruiting, 127th in S&P+, 1-11). The Beavers figured to be a Pac-12 bottom-feeder. They didn’t figure to be one of the five worst teams in the whole country by both record and performance, or to be so bad that their coach would quit in the middle of the season and leave $12 million on the table to do it.

Bonus Group of 5 team: ECU (78th in recruiting, 123rd in S&P+, 3-9). The power conferences offer the most chances to underachieve, because they’ve got all the top recruiting teams. But the Pirates had a roster that should’ve verged on competitive in the AAC, and they wound up being one of the country’s worst teams.

Arkansas, North Carolina, UCLA, and Illinois all had ugly recruiting/results splits, too.

Now, the good news: These teams were delightful overachievers.

(This list should obviously include UAB, which returned from a two-year hiatus to go 8-5 under weird circumstances. I regret not sticking UAB in here immediately. They’re in a league of their own.)

  1. UCF (64th in recruiting, 7th in S&P+, 13-0). The Knights lost zero games. My industry sources are telling me that’s the fewest games you can lose.
  2. Troy (113th in recruiting, 31st in S&P+, 11-2). The Trojans set a program wins record for the second year in a row. Whipping LSU in Baton Rouge should’ve put to rest any doubts about how legit they were, but they followed that up by running through the Sun Belt despite a middling recruiting rank for that league. They were great (and fun).
  3. FAU (81st in recruiting, 11th in S&P+, 11-3). Meet Lane Kiffin’s best coaching job yet. The Owls had a dynamic offense and played more than enough defense to steamroll mid-major opposition. Kiffin signed an extension after the year and should keep fielding good teams because of his recruiting, including on the transfer market.
  4. Army (122nd in recruiting, 59th in S&P+, 10-3). Service academies don’t build their rosters or their schemes like other programs, but Army’s found a formula that works. Jeff Monken’s team beat Navy, won the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy for the first time since 1996, and had three wins in which it did not complete a pass.
  5. Fresno State (80th in recruiting, 23rd in S&P+, 10-4). Jeff Tedford did an incredible job in his Year 1 in Fresno. The Bulldogs came a whisker from the Mountain West title and went from one win to 10. They’d have gotten more attention if UCF weren’t completing a two-year pivot from 0-12 to 13-0.
  6. New Mexico State (127th in recruiting, 72nd in S&P+, 7-6). The Aggies had gone between 1-11 and 3-9 for five years running. Recruiting to Las Cruces is exceptionally hard, and they had one of the least touted rosters in the sport. They qualified in their last regular season game for their first bowl since 1960, then beat Utah State in it.
  7. Wisconsin (33rd in recruiting, 6th in S&P+, 13-1, and came a Big Ten Championship touchdown away from the Playoff). It’s not news anymore that Wisconsin does this. The Badgers have figured out how to repeat this act every year. That the Badgers overachieve all the time doesn’t mean they’re not overachievers.