Published on February 25th, 2014 | by Red Cup Rebellion0
Yes, Recruiting Matters
Earlier this week we watched the Rebels sign another top-25 class in Hugh Freeze’s short tenure as the Ole Miss Head Coach. This type of recruiting success, unparalleled in recent Ole Miss history, is something about which we Rebel fans are naturally very excited. But, in these days, weeks, and months which immediately follow National Signing Day, a common set of arguments will be heard coming from many of the college football faithful, particularly those whose favorite teams did not fare so well in recruiting.
“Recruiting doesn’t matter to a winning program. Stars and player rankings don’t matter in their successes. What matters are player development/program management/personalities, and focusing on recruiting is simply paying attention to what the increasingly frenzied college football media wants you to.”
This is not true. Or, rather, it is a set of half-truths. Of course it is true that courting the most highly ranked players and assembling the most highly ranked classes is not the end-all be-all to college football success. A team’s recruiting is an imperfect metric of a team’s potential success, and the astronumerical rankings players receive as college prospects are far from scientific. However, to ignore the importance of the pursuit that is recruiting is fairly ignorant of a very strong set of correlations which demonstrate that, generally speaking, teams which recruit well are more likely to perform well.
Consider this: since 2002, when recruiting service Rivals.com began ranking incoming college football classes, nine of the ten programs that have appeared most frequently in their National Signing Day top-10 have won BCS titles. The SEC’s most recent champion, the Auburn Tigers, have finished with a top-10 class seven times over that time period. Their predecessors, Alabama, have accomplished this feat eight times. The same goes for Florida and LSU, the SEC’s other recent football national champions. The one non-national championship holder over that period, Georgia, has still been a steadily successful enough program in a way that few division one programs can match.
So, if we are just going by recruiting rankings, there is a pretty strong relationship between successful recruiting classes and successful football programs.
As with anything subjective, this correlation is far from perfect. Oregon and Stanford have only appeared finished with a top-10 class once in that time span, and they rule the roost in a Pac 12 which, per such a metric, should be dominated by Southern Cal and UCLA. Michigan State beat both Ohio State and Michigan on their way to a Rose Bowl berth this past year, despite both programs putting together better recruiting classes than the Spartans. The Missouri Tigers have never finished near the top in these rankings, and yet they won the SEC East over Georgia, Florida, Tennessee, and South Carolina programs, which all have on multiple occasions.
Still, when it was all said and done this season, Florida State, a team whose recruiting successes over the past decade can only compare to Southern Cal’s, hoisted the crystal football high.
Of course, there is then the idea that a player’s individual rank or “star count” is not a reliable indicator of how well he will play at the college level. Again, this is largely the same argument as before, but focused on an individual level. For Ole Miss fans pre-Freeze, the refrain was often something like “Patrick Willis and Dexter McCluster were two- and three-star recruits, not five-star guys. We need more Patrick Willises and Dexter McClusters.”
I agree, we need some more Willises and McClusters, but that is not reason enough to pursue two-star linebackers from 1A high schools in rural Tennessee in the off chance that maybe we find another Patrick Willis. Sure, those guys were surely underrated, but did Michael Oher not deserve his fifth star? What about Robert Nkemdiche or Laquon Treadwell? Donte Moncrief was definitely worth his four stars and then some, as was Peria Jerry.
It’s true that a lot of not-so-highly recruited players turn out to be phenomenal. UCF’s Blake Bortles, who nobody recruited out of high school, will have a huge NFL salary as a rookie this fall, but so will Alabama’s A.J. McCarron who was one of the top quarterbacks of his high school class. Along those same lines, many highly recruited players fail to live up to expectations, something we know well at Ole Miss. But while Enrique Davis was a five star halfback, so was Trent Richardson. While Brent Schaeffer might have been a five star quarterback, so were Jamies Winston and Tim Tebow.
All of this is of course to say that recruiting is not a science. It is not a predictor of the future, nor is it a guarantee. This also is not to say or even suggest that recruiting is the only thing that matters to a football team’s success. Program management, player development, in-game strategy, and a myriad of intangibles related to the personalities of the players and coaches involved in college football contribute to a team’s successes and failures. All of this is true. But just because guys like Nick Saban and Jimbo Fisher manage their programs well, call smart plays, and motivate their players to rigorously practice and prepare does not mean that all of these positive coaching attributes are not bolstered by the presence of elite talent.
So, in short, recruiting does matter. If this were not the case, coaches would hardly bother with the year-round pursuit of high school football talent, and people would hardly notice a player’s high school accolades were they not a good indicator of college potential. Yes, college football recruiting has become a bit of an obscene media show and, yes, it is hardly scientific, but it matters a lot.
This article originally appeared in The Local Voice #197, published February 6, 2014. To download the PDF of TLV #197, click HERE.