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National Signing Day 2012: How Will Recruiting Momentum Affect The Upcoming Season?

How quickly does a recruiting class begin to have an impact in college football? And which teams saw their stock rise or fall the most, as it pertains to immediate on-the-field product, on National Signing Day?

COLUMBUS, OH - NOVEMBER 28:  Urban Meyer speaks to the media after being introduced as the new head coach of Ohio State football on November 28, 2011 in Columbus, Ohio. (Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)
COLUMBUS, OH - NOVEMBER 28: Urban Meyer speaks to the media after being introduced as the new head coach of Ohio State football on November 28, 2011 in Columbus, Ohio. (Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)
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Most of us fall into two camps on the day after National Signing Day: either the "Our Recruiting Class Was Great/Terrible This Year, Therefore We Are Going To Be Great/Terrible This Fall" camp, or the "Whatever, Most Of These Kids Will Redshirt, And You Cannot Judge A Recruiting Class For Four Years Anyway" camp. I tend to lean toward the latter, but the reality is that both camps are half-right: most of the kids your team just signed probably will redshirt, but recent recruiting classes can still make a significant impact on your team this fall. It all depends on how we look at the recruiting rankings themselves.

For the last few years, we have incorporated recruiting rankings into our Football Outsiders Almanac projections. I have begun to realize over the last few months, however, that we may have been going about it all wrong. For the most part, we have used a weighted, five-year average of recruiting rankings, using the logic that most of your starters will have been recruited two, three, four or even five years ago, therefore their rankings are what matter the most. However, it appears that isn't necessarily the case. In general, recruiting rankings are indeed predictive, but they have a shelf life. By the time a class is four years old, their performance has trumped their potential. Classes from a while ago, therefore, should be judged by on-field performance; older recruiting rankings are no longer valid.

For instance, the fact that Florida quarterback John Brantley was a high-four-star recruit in 2007 no longer mattered by the time he was a senior in 2011. The only thing that mattered was the potential he had actually shown on the field (which was, to put it as politely as possible, not that of a high-four-star prospect).

The rankings that are valid, however, are of those who have not yet played major roles, but will soon. I've been tinkering with correlations recently, and it appears that use of recruiting rankings becomes quite a bit more accurate and helpful when only looking at the past two classes. After that, the on-field product takes over.

Alright, so recent recruiting rankings are more predictive than I thought. What does that mean exactly? It means that, using a weighted ranking of the last two classes (with heavier weight put on last year's class), and comparing it to the same weighted rankings they were looking at 12 months ago following Signing Day 2011, we can begin to figure out which teams might be quite a bit more talented (in terms of potential and recruiting rankings) than they were a year or two ago. (In essence, then, we are indirectly comparing a team's 2010 class to its 2012 class.)

Recruiting Stock Improving

These are the teams who have upgraded their recent recruiting rankings by a considerable amount.

Keep this in mind: I am using only rankings for this study. The best approach would be an amalgamation of all major services -- Rivals, Scout, ESPN, 247 -- but that will take a while to set up. I have been using Rivals for years, and that's what I will continue to use for these purposes, but long-term, there will probably be more of a shift toward consensus rankings.

While we're at it, keep this in mind, too: Because Rivals now only publishes its Top 50 teams with point totals, I have to make estimates, based on the makeup of teams' classes (i.e. the star ratings), to give rankings to all 120 teams. In early September, Rivals will release its "Enrolled" class rankings, based on who did and didn't qualify (and who may have signed well after Signing Day), and when that data is released, it trumps the full-class data used at first; but even that data is incomplete, for some strange and inconvenient reason.

Regardless, even using estimations in certain areas, the correlations are strong enough to trust this data to a certain degree.

Here are the 10 teams who have upgraded their recruiting averages the most in the last 12 months (i.e. the teams whose weighted 2011-12 averages are quite a bit better than their weighted 2010-11 averages, while accounting for the size and number of signees in these two classes).

Top Ten Major Conference Teams According To Change In Weighted Two-Year Recruiting Averages
1. Rutgers
2. Virginia
3. Arkansas
4. Vanderbilt
5. Indiana
6. Washington State
7. Louisville
8. Ohio State
9. Cincinnati
10. North Carolina

Recruiting Stock Regressing

At the same time, certain teams have gone in the opposite direction.

Bottom Ten Major Conference Teams According To Change In Weighted Two-Year Recruiting Averages
1. N.C. State
2. West Virginia
3. Penn State
4. Pittsburgh
5. Minnesota
6. Missouri
7. Purdue
8. Connecticut
9. Arizona
10. Maryland

Of the teams on this list, only N.C. State and West Virginia have seen their averages plummet by more than 12 spots or so in the rankings, so keep that in mind. Plus, teams like Penn State (34 signees in two years), Missouri (34) and Pittsburgh (36) have each inked back-to-back small classes for one reason or another, which obviously has an effect as well when we are looking at teams ranked by overall recruiting points.

So if you're looking for teams whose depth may have improved or regressed with this class, this is a good place to start. However, there is another factor that has a stark, direct impact on a team's prospects for the coming season: experience.

Even looking at the most basic, rudimentary measure of experience -- returning starters -- the impact of experience on performance is pretty easy to see.

The Impact Of Experience On
F/+ Rankings, 2011
Returning Starters
(Offense + Defense)
Avg. Change In
F/+ Rating
7 -26.7%
8 -12.9%
9 -6.6%
10 -2.5%
11 -1.0%
12 -4.0%
13 +1.4%
14 +1.2%
15 +1.3%
16 +0.0%
17 +6.9%
18 +7.9%
19 +8.2%

So if you return fewer than 10 or more than 16 starters, your performance will likely be impacted no matter what recruiting rankings tell us.

So who are the teams setting up shop in both extremes? Thanks to Phil Steele, we can take an early look. Things will obviously change as players transfer, get kicked off the team, get hurt, etc. But here is where things stand according to Mr. Steele's data.

Teams Returning 17 Or More Starters

  • 20: Tennessee, Texas Tech
  • 19: Boston College, Bowling Green, Florida International, Indiana
  • 18: Auburn, Central Michigan, Colorado State, Eastern Michigan, Florida, Kansas State, Miami (Ohio), North Texas, Ohio State, South Florida, Utah, Vanderbilt
  • 17: BYU, Connecticut, Georgia Tech, Maryland, Oklahoma, Ole Miss, Texas, Tulane, USC

You'll notice three teams in bold above. Indiana, Ohio State (to the delight of Bret Bielema) and Vanderbilt all find themselves on the "Recruiting Stock Improving" list and return a ton of starters in 2012. One can rather justifiably expect solid improvement from all three of them, along with two teams -- Tennessee and Texas Tech -- who return virtually everybody from last year's disappointing teams. It is difficult to ascertain just how much of their stock you should be buying (both missed bowls, and both face rough schedules in the fall), but either or both the Vols and Red Raiders will probably be better than most of us assume.

Teams Returning Nine Or Fewer Starters

  • 6: Boise State
  • 7: Air Force
  • 9: Temple, Toledo

This list is minimal, though it does emphasize just how much talent Chris Peterson and Boise State must replace this offseason. They had quite a few young, high-upside players on the two-deep last year, but the odds of them avoiding at least temporary regression are minimal.

There are no teams on both the "Recruiting Stock Regressing" list who also return fewer than 10 starters. The closest teams: Arizona and Penn State, who each return just 12.

Generally speaking, the 2012 recruiting class will not have an overt impact on the 2012 football season. But certain classes can help push a team over the top, in either a good or bad way. Most of the top classes belonged to teams that were already really good -- Alabama, Florida State, Michigan, Oklahoma, Stanford and USC were all in the Top 12 of both 2011 F/+ rankings and 2012 Rivals recruiting class rankings, while others like Georgia, Oregon and LSU were relatively close. But for some, recruiting has improved enough in the last couple of years that they can expect to see quite a bit of improvement on the field in the 2012-13 window. How much? We'll see.