Do Recruiting Rankings Really Matter?

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Do the recruiting rankings really matter? As National Signing Day came and went this past week, there are many who love to gloat about the haul they brought in, while others cringe at the lack of blue chippers their alma mater secured. But, is the percieved quality of a recruiting class a predictor of seasons to come?

Here is how Scout ranks the Pac-12 for the 2012 recruiting class just signed this week:

National RankTeam5 star4 star3 starAveragePts
6Stanford4293.593731
11UCLA4163.143516
15Oregon2193.483241
19USC51103.802869
22Washington1132.962731
29Colorado0012.662433
32Utah0032.752403
38California1143.122241
43Arizona State0032.872118
44Oregon State1102.752094
46Arizona0012.712065
53Washington State0012.581778

Those numbers look really good across the board and it seems like the Pac-12 did quite well for itself this year. But, does that mean that the Pac-12 will have five teams ranked in the Top-25 teams in the next couple of years?

When debating the value of national recruiting rankings, of course people realize that there are huge differences between the types of players USC, Alabama, or Texas bring in and those heading to Idaho or Louisiana-Lafayette. But, what about within one of the big BCS conferences? Are the differences between those players rated “3-stars” and “4-stars” enough to make the difference between being a powerhouse and a mediocre team? Are the differences between players rated “2-stars” and “3-stars” the difference between a bowl appearance and staying home after a losing season?

Many people debate whether the recruiting services really have the ability to rank players and recruiting classes at all. I mean, how do you “rank” a person based simply on their physical attibutes and the subjectivity of watching them from the stands while they play in different parts of the country against vastly different levels of competition?

I, for one, have often been skeptical of just how important the recruiting rankings are when I see teams like Oregon State or Boise State have very successful years despite constantly mediocre recruiting rankings, while a consistently Top 10 rated team like Texas team can end up having a losing season.

So, I decided to run the numbers within the Pac-10 over the last 5 years to see how it all stacks up. I went over to Scout and took a look at their national recruiting rankings for the classes of 2007-2011. After compiling the data for “national ranking”, “points”, and “average star rating” for each of those seasons, I sorted the data to rank the Pac-10 teams over that time period. Then, I compared that data to how they have performed in conference play for the 2008-2011 seasons.

First let’s examine the average national ranking of the recruiting classes over this 5 year time period.

Nat’l RankAverage
1USC5.8
2Oregon16.4
3UCLA22.8
4California24.2
5Washington28.4
6Stanford29.6
7Arizona State36.2
8Arizona48.8
9Colorado50.2
10Oregon State51.8
11Washington State53.6
12Utah55.2

As you can see above, USC has averaged a national ranking of 5.8th. This means, that on average, you might have expected USC to be a Top 10 team in the country over the past 4 years. Although they had a nice season last year, Top 10 they were not and have not been since Pete Carroll left. Based on the data above, you would also expect that UCLA should be a Top 25 team, yet they have struggled to play even .500 football the last couple of seasons.

Another metric to use is the “points” system that recruiting sites use to take into account not just the #stars for the players they bring in, but also the quantity of the players they sign. This is important because one team could sign 15 4-star recruits, while another team could also sign 15 four-star recruits and 10 others which would bring down their overall average star rating.

Total Points ’07-11Average
1USC4109.0
2Oregon3107.4
3UCLA3014.2
4California2714.8
5Washington2678.6
6Stanford2498.2
7Arizona State2277.8
8Arizona1735.4
9Colorado1732.0
10Oregon State1612.2
11Washington State1564.8
12Utah1512.6

As you can see in the table above, USC and Oregon rank very highly. But, there is also UCLA sitting at #3 in the conference, like it was on the national rankings. Below you will see a table looking at the average star rating of all of the recruits a school has signed over the last 5 years. Five Pac-10 schools have an average above 3 stars per player and USC almost averages 4-stars per player.

Average StarsAverage
1USC3.94
2UCLA3.39
3California3.28
4Oregon3.26
5Stanford3.17
6Washington2.96
7Arizona State2.92
8Arizona2.77
9Colorado2.69
10Utah2.65
11Washington State2.53
12Oregon State2.52

But, the key question is, how does this data compare to actual results on the field? I took a look at how the conference win totals matched up for the past four seasons from 2008-2011. These four season emcompass the recruiting classes of 2007 onward. I only looked at the conference games because that is something all of the teams share in common. Non-conference schedules can vary widely in difficulty of competition, so it is somewhat difficult to compare wins between two teams and consider them to count equally.

Conference WinsTotalWinning%
1Oregon3288.9%
2Stanford2672.2%
3USC2569.4%
4Oregon State2055.6%
5California1850.0%
6Arizona1747.2%
7Washington1438.9%
8Arizona State1438.9%
9UCLA1336.1%
10Washington State411.1%
11Utah4
12Colorado2

Is one team beating each year Notre Dame equal to another team beating SW Missouri State or Northern Arizona? But, since all Pac-10 teams played 9 conference games and with the exception of 2011, it was a round robin schedule, this allows a direct comparison of recruiting rankings to results on the field.

As you can see on the chart above, the trendline does show that average conference wins per season over the past four years does decline with weaker recruiting classes. But, the trend is not dramatic and clearly there are outliers. For instance, Oregon, Stanford, and Oregon State have far outperformed their recruiting rankings on the field. UCLA and Washington State have woefully underperformed expectations. Washington, Arizona State, and California have slightly underperformed, while Arizona slightly overperformed.

This graph above shows that there are wild variations in total conference wins when compared to average national rankings. But, the trend is still toward lower recruiting classes earn fewer victories. The graph below shows a similar pattern in total points.

Ultimately, what all of this analysis says is what you the fans already know. The quality of the incoming players does not win football games alone. Coaching has a great deal to do with success as well. Coaches like Chip Kelly, Jim Harbaugh/David Shaw, and Mike Riley have shown what they can do with the talent they get. While Chip Kelly gets good talent and makes for a great team, Mike Riley takes lower level talents and turns it into a team of relevance.

Then, you have UCLA, a school who has been scooping up recruits like crazy over the past few years, yet struggles to even win half their games. They have all of the advantages of a warm sunny location, in the 2nd largest TV market in the country, a beautiful campus, beaches nearby, and one of the best academic institutions in the country. But, even with all of that, they still can’t win games. That goes to show you what shoddy coaching can wreak on a program. But, we already know about that don’t we?

Somehow Ty Willingham would consistently haul in Top 25 recruiting classes, yet he somehow managed to lead the Huskies to an 0-12 season. So, the big question will be whether Steve Sarkisian can turn Top 25 recruiting classes into a Top 25 program. Can the replacement of the defensive staff and a new offensive coordinator improve the performance on the field of the talented players they bring in? Only time will tell. But, ultimately, getting the top recruits is only the first step to success. Next you have to teach them how to play like a team.