Recruiting: An inexact science for an inexact sport

“As a dog returneth to his vomit, so a fool returneth to his folly.”

-Proverbs 26:11

Sorry, I don’t normally go Biblical until at least the second paragraph. Still, avid college football fans (or anyone who watched ESPN for 30 seconds this week) know that Wednesday is National Signing Day. Every year signing day gets bigger and bigger, with more and more focus being poured onto the actions of high school seniors scribbling onto pieces of paper. And every year, we hear about how a few teams have crushingly good recruiting classes that will lead to inevitable greatness in a few years. And then we forget about all that coverage and wind up in the same place the next year, which is sad because we should look up and say, “Wait a minute…[school name here] turned their Top 10 recruiting class from 4 years ago into a 7-5 season. Maybe we shouldn’t put so much emphasis and sink so much time into staring at recruiting numbers.” But no, we choose to fall into the trap again and again and again.

For those of you who typed “recruiting science” into google and decided to go to the very last result, allow me to explain: National Signing Day is the day on which top recruits, having been promised fame and fortune if they go and play football at various universities, can finally sign a letter of intent to play football for one of those schools. Mind you, the name is sort of misleading, since a player can choose to sign days or weeks after signing day. But Wednesday, February 2 is the day on which most of the top recruits in the nation will sign a legally binding contract and shackle themselves to a given college for at least one academic year.

Recruiting, however, is so rife with filthy policies and outright lies told by coaches and boosters, that glorifying it for the better part of a month is the equivalent of praising a tapeworm inside the stomach of a woman you love. Just because the packaging is attractive doesn’t make it a good thing. Furthermore, ranking recruiting classes is such a crap shoot that you might as well just make a dart board with the top 50 teams in the country and start chucking.

There are dozens of examples I could use, but since you don’t want to read 7 pages of frankly repetitive bile, I’ll try and keep it short. Let’s start with a look at one conference, the ACC. I know, I know, not a power football conference, but you’re reading a post by a guy from North Carolina. Geography trumps all, and this is ACC country. Any hoo, ESPN’s ACC football blogger Heather Dinich did most of my job for me by posting this article about how many of the Top 150 recruits were landed by ACC teams. The list goes back to 2006. The team that’s easily landed the most “high brow” recruits in that time, Miami, has gone to precisely 0 ACC Championship games. They haven’t even won their division in that time span. Folks, if you land top recruits year in and year out and can’t win the 2nd worst AQ conference, then either your coaching sucks or recruiting rankings are off.

Looking more closely at the ACC stats reveals further disturbing numbers: Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech have had a combined 9 “top recruits” come to their schools, yet they are the only representatives that the Coastal Division has had since the ACC Championship Game came into existence. Now, you can credit coaching consistency at Virginia Tech, but Georgia Tech has had two different head coaches running two completely different offensive styles, yet they’ve had two more championship appearances than the much more “loaded” Miami Hurricanes. Rivals.com’s recruiting class database goes all the way back to 2002. They rank Miami’s recruiting class in the Top 10 five times between 2002 and 2010. Miami finished in the top 20 class rankings every single year during that time span, but they finished in the top 20 in the rankings only 5 times. There’s a disconnect there, and it’s high time that someone recognized that recruiting doesn’t need to be as highly touted as it is.

Some might accuse me of Miami bashing. I am, but that doesn’t mean I’m not right. Still, let’s look at a team I have no real bias for or against: the Notre Dame Fighting Irish. Notre Dame had top 10 recruiting classes in 2006, 2007, and 2008. Most of their starters in 2009 and 2010 would have come from those highly ranked classes. Yet in 2009 and 2010, Notre Dame went a combined 14-11, with one win over a ranked team.

Perhaps the most extreme example is this: The USC Trojans had the #1 overall class from 2004-2006 according to Rivals. Both Rivals and ESPN say that Southern Cal had a Top 10 class from 2006-present. Yet last season, stocked to the gills with Top 10 recruits, they went 9-4. This year, ineligible for postseason play due to the Reggie Bush affair, they went 8-5. All ye disciples of recruiting, explain this!

So why all the inaccuracies? Well, there’s a number of factors that make accurate recruiting numbers a virtual impossibility. First off, recruiting class rankings basically entail trying to predict the future 3-4 years in advance, which is how long it will take for most recruits to see decent playing time. Sloppy did a good piece on the accuracy of preseason predictions. If the experts were wrong about the best teams 4 months ago, why place so much stock in what they say will happen in 4 years?

Secondly, the recruits we’re talking about are overwhelmingly high school seniors. High school is nothing like college (no matter what Degrassi tells you). And high school seniors, as a rule, are unpredictable. Most 18 year olds are! A high school senior who seemed to be a rock solid, straight A student might discover Professor Jim Beam in his first week of school. Then your 5-star recruit becomes a walking hangover who gets cut from the team. Or that five-star recruit might turn into a whiny little so-and-so who demands play time. Or, he might get arrested and transfer out. It’s not the fault of recruiting prognosticators for not seeing these events coming, but it is our fault for pretending like a #1 recruit tag means a Heisman in 4 years. Sometimes it means a mediocre, injury-riddled career. And if your coach says he will take control and keep the players in line, then he’s probably wrong. Urban Meyer, with 2 national titles under his belt, thought he could. It didn’t work well.

The final reason (at least that I see) that recruiting predictions are pure bunk is this: According to the diverse and wildly varying stats I got in a google search, there’s somewhere in the neighborhood of 26,000 public high schools in the US, with about 10,000 more private ones. Now, I know many of those schools don’t have football programs, but even if you cut those numbers into 1/3rd, that’s still around 12,000 football programs. Far, far too many to hope to analyze successfully with the relatively small staffs available to recruiting websites. Even if you cut that number in half, or into quarters, you’re still looking at far too many players for recruiters to analyze. Tell me, how many times have you heard the phrase “former walk-on” when watching college football? Any time you hear that, you’re hearing about a player who was good enough to play college football at the highest of levels, yet “bad” enough in high school that he did not merit a recruit ranking.

Put another way, there are dozens of lists out there ranking draft busts in the NFL. (Look it up yourself, pro football isn’t the purpose of this site.) Those “busts” are the missed predictions of only 32 teams picking up just a few hundred players total. How much more inaccurate will the rankings of 120 teams pulling in thousands of players be? And yet every year fans decide to compare and drool over their recruiting classes, eagerly awaiting that National Championship in 4 years.

Look, I’m not going to lie: Recruiting is important. Necessary, even. Most of the teams in the national title hunt each have had at least one top 10 recruiting class. It’s impossible to win without talent. Bear Bryant in his prime could not take the talent at Western Carolina University and win a national title. However, we must not place too much emphasis on recruiting, because it’s a woefully inexact science. Claiming that a top 10 class means anything before the players hit the field is sheer folly. Drooling over recruits before they produce results is a one-way ticket to Disappointmentville. So don’t get worked up about the recruiting bonanza. If your team is in the Top 50 or so, they’ll be fine. And whatever you do, do not watch the 10 hours of recruiting on ESPNU. Unless, of course, you want a pile of vomit to return to…

(Pre-posting edit: Sometimes a guy just gets a gift. Mitch Mustain, mentioned above as a “whiny little so-and-so,” got arrested on suspicion of selling prescription drugs. Take note that the article you just got linked to says that Mustain was one of the most sought after high school players in history. Goodness, I’m glad he turned out to be worth the effort.)

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