The calendar has turned to February and another NFL season is at an end, which for football fans can mean only one thing: It's time again to congregate at the altar of national signing day, the holy hour of the recruiting-industrial complex, the appointed moment for thousands of high school seniors to convert their coveted, hard-won verbal commitments into binding signatures that lock them into the system for the foreseeable future. For a certain subculture, recruiting is a year-round obsession. For the rest of us, today belongs to largely anonymous but promising 18-year-olds in gyms and libraries, enjoying what may be their first brush with fame outside of a handful of websites, and maybe their last.
And yet, in all the hours of coverage, of all the questions asked and stories written to herald the arrival of the next generation, the hardest to answer may be the most fundamental: Do the recruiting rankings reinforcing this annual exercise in hyperbole actually matter? You know, do they work? At times, the insular world of recruiting and the emerging media machine that helped create it can seem like ends unto themselves – rankings and analysis for their own sake, disconnected and unaccountable to future returns on the field. With the anticipation of the blue-chip signature that will make or break a class in the eyes of the big recruiting sites comes an implicit, longstanding suspicion that signing day is a well-packaged production of sound and fury, signifying nothing.
Anecdotally, it's easy to reach that conclusion. We're coming off a season in which three of five finalists for the Heisman Trophy – including the 2012 winner, Johnny Manziel – began their careers as two- or three-star afterthoughts according to the scouts. Michigan State, never a recruiting power in the Big Ten, claimed the conference championship, the Rose Bowl and a No. 3 ranking in the final polls. In the past five years, BCS bowls have featured such non-entities on the recruiting trail as Boise State, Cincinnati, Connecticut, Northern Illinois and Central Florida. Arguably the most prized quarterback in April’s NFL Draft, Blake Bortles, arrived at UCF as an obscure, three-star prospect with competing offers from Colorado State, Purdue and Tulane. The winning quarterback in Sunday’s Super Bowl, Russell Wilson, arrived at N.C. State in 2007 as a lowly two-star. Ryan Perrilloux, Bryce Brown, the USC Trojans: Recent history is littered with once-touted flops, all of them hovering ominously over the proceedings like the ghosts of signing days past.
That's one way to look at it. Frankly, if you enjoy needling "experts" and other arbiters of pretension, it's the fun way. It's also shortsighted: Beyond the vagaries, the hype and the busts, the annual recruiting rankings still represent the most reliable system at our disposal for making initial assumptions about teams and players alike. Taken as a whole, the numbers actually do work – as long as you're willing to use all of the numbers.
Not to take all the fun out of it, but in practice, drawing conclusions from recruiting rankings is the rough equivalent of selling health insurance. Both industries are in the business of predicting the future on a large scale – of making bets, essentially – and both have sound, proven criteria for guaranteeing they bet right more often than they bet wrong. Occasionally, of course, certain individuals will defy that criteria: A lifelong smoker who eats fast food every day may live to be 90 years old. A vegetarian who exercises every day may suddenly drop dead at fifty. But when you're dealing with large groups of individuals, say, 1,000 smokers vs. 600 vegetarians, then the results become very, very predictable.
Recruiting operates on the same question, with measures for size and speed standing in for health risks. On a player-by-player or even team-by-team level, guessing who specifically will or will not live up to the hype, or will thrive despite a lack of hype, is almost always a fool's errand. But the foundation underlying those predictions remains remarkably stable. The key is to think in terms of groups, not individuals.
ASSESSING TEAM RANKINGS. To do that, we have to start by creating a way to measure what the rankings project for each team. Using the "star" scale in a slightly different capacity, I classified all 72 teams residing in one of the "Big Six" BCS conferences in 2013 (the ACC, American, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC) along with Boise State, Notre Dame and BYU into one of five "classes," based on each team's accumulated recruiting rankings over the last four years, from 2010 to 2013. In the name of comprehensiveness, I'm using the composite team rankings compiled by 247Sports, an average of rankings from multiple services.
The designations are based strictly on the combined scores of the rankings alone, with no attempt to account for injuries, transfers, academic casualties, arrests or any other routine form of attrition:
'Big Six' Conference Teams by Recruiting Class
• FIVE-STAR: Alabama, Auburn, Florida, Florida State, Georgia, LSU, Michigan, Notre Dame, Ohio State, Oklahoma, Texas.
Note that, since 2003, the eleven teams in the "five-star" group have combined for 21 appearances in the BCS Championship game, compared to one appearance by any of the 64 teams listed below. (The lone exception in that span, Oregon, just barely missed the cut for five-star status.) The only "five-star" teams that never played for a title in the BCS era are Georgia and Michigan; among the rest, only Notre Dame failed to make a repeat trip.
• FOUR-STAR: Arkansas, California, Clemson, Miami, Nebraska, North Carolina, Ole Miss, Oregon, Penn State, South Carolina, Stanford, Tennessee, Texas A&M, UCLA, Virginia Tech, Washington.
• THREE-STAR: Arizona, Arizona State, Baylor, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisville, Maryland, Michigan State, Mississippi State, Missouri, Oklahoma State, Oregon State, Pittsburgh, Rutgers, TCU, Texas Tech, Vanderbilt, Virginia, West Virginia.
• TWO-STAR: BYU, Cincinnati, Colorado, Georgia Tech, Houston, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Minnesota, N.C. State, Northwestern, Purdue, South Florida, Utah, Washington State, Wisconsin.
• ONE-STAR: Boise State, Boston College, Central Florida, Connecticut, Duke, Iowa State, Kansas State, Memphis, SMU, Syracuse, Temple, Wake Forest.
Over the same four-year span, those 75 teams played head-to-head 1,488 times. Here are the results of those games, with winning records in black and losing records in red:
To describe those results as "compelling" would be selling them short. It's a landslide. On the final count, the higher-ranked team according to the recruiting rankings won roughly two-thirds of the time, and every "class" as a whole had a winning record against every class ranked below it every single year. (The only exception came last year, when "three-star" teams came up short in head-to-head meetings with "one-star" teams. Otherwise, the hierarchy held across every line.) The gap on the field also widened with the gap in the recruiting scores: While "one-star" recruiting teams fared slightly better against blue-chip opponents than "two-star" teams, both groups combined managed a grand total of 19 wins over "five-star" opponents in 112 tries. Broadly speaking, the final results on the field broke along a straight line demarcated on signing day.
Which is, again, about as reliable as we can realistically expect from a system designed to predict the future.
OUTLIERS. If head-to-head is the standard, then programs that are able to consistently defy their signing-day projections by beating more talented opponents are few and far between. Most upstarts are the result of a specific opportunity – a fleeting breakthrough by an overlooked talent, or a schedule mostly devoid of blue-chip competition*. Sustained, head-to-head success against opponents that fared better in the recruiting rankings is much rarer. In the window we’re working with, 2010-13, we can count the number of legitimate overachievers by that standard on one hand:
1. Kansas State. I mean, obviously. As far as recruitniks are concerned, K-State should be the most overmatched outfit in the Big 12, ranking just behind Iowa State for the worst signing-day grades in the league. Instead, as a "one-star" team, the Wildcats have winning records since 2010 against three-star (10–7), four-star (4–3) and five-star (5–3) opponents, and a conference championship to show for it after beating both Oklahoma and Texas in 2012.
2. South Carolina. Although South Carolina falls into the "four-star" category nationally, it’s a middle-of-the-pack recruiter by SEC standards, ranking well behind Alabama, Florida, LSU, Georgia, Auburn and Tennessee in our four-year window. On the field, though, the Gamecocks are 10–7 against that group in the same window, and 32–4 against everyone else.
3. Michigan State. After a down year in 2012, Michigan State cemented its overachieving rep under Mark Dantonio with 2013 wins over Michigan, Nebraska, Ohio State and Stanford – all of whom have ostensibly out-recruited the Spartans – en route to a Big Ten title and its best finish in the polls since 1966. MSU is an ordinary three-star outfit in recruiting terms, but has still managed to go 10–8 against four- and five-star opponents since 2010; exclude the 2012 regression, and that improves to 10–4.
4. Boise State. It’s hard to rank the Broncos higher because they’ve had so few opportunities to play above their heads in the WAC and Mountain West. (So much so that I was reluctant to include them in this sample at all.) Given the chance, though, Boise was 6–2 against three-, four- and five-star opponents from 2010-13, which doesn’t even encompass its earlier BCS upsets over Oklahoma and TCU or back-to-back wins over Oregon in 2008-09. At no point in that span did Chris Petersen clearly out-recruit his mid-major peers – not according to the recruiting sites, anyway – all the more reason his exit for Washington feels like the window slamming shut on Boise’s bid for upward mobility.
5. Clemson. Yes, the Tigers are a blue-chip outfit by ACC standards, and yes, they have an overblown reputation for flopping on big stages. (An ongoing, four-year losing streak to South Carolina has only stoked that meme.) Aside from the Gamecocks, though, Clemson is 10–2 against four- and five-star opponents over the last three years – that is, the Tajh Boyd/Sammy Watkins era – including wins over Florida State, Auburn (twice), LSU, Georgia and Ohio State; there was also the ACC Championship blowout over Virginia Tech in 2011. The only other teams to remain in the AP poll for the entirety of that span are Alabama, LSU, Oklahoma, Oregon, Stanford and, of course, South Carolina.
* For example, you’re probably wondering where Wisconsin is on this list: Initially, I was, too. After all, the Badgers defied their two-star status in the recruiting rankings to play in four consecutive Jan. 1 bowls in the 2010-13 window, including three Rose Bowls. Trophy case notwithstanding, though, they were actually very ordinary in that span against blue-chip competition, putting up losing records against five-star (2–3), four-star (3–6) and even three-star (5–6) opponents. Much of Wisconsin’s success is based on thorough, consistent dominance of its two-star peers in the Big Ten – Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota, Northwestern, Purdue – against whom the Badgers have won 17 in a row. But they’ve hardly made a habit of playing over their heads.
SO WHAT? The evidence is overwhelming: Despite some obvious, anecdotal exceptions, on the whole recruiting rankings clearly are useful for creating a realistic baseline for expectations. But the narrower your focus, the less useful they will become.
The massively hyped, five-star recruit headlining your team's next recruiting class may be an irredeemable bust; he is also many times more likely than a scrappy three-star to pan out as an All-American and move on to the next level. Somewhere, an under-scouted afterthought with a chip on his shoulder will almost certainly go on to defy the odds, become a star and maybe win the Heisman Trophy. But that doesn't change the odds, which are against him becoming anything more than an obscure role player, at best. Inevitably, a team full of afterthoughts at the bottom of the rankings will defy the odds, catch fire, pull a few upsets and storm its way into a BCS bowl. But that doesn't change the odds, which are in favor of the same team dwindling on the edge of bowl eligibility. And just as inevitably, the eventual national champion will emerge from the ranks of the handful of teams that consistently come on signing day.
The exceptions prove the rule: Overwhelmingly, setting aside every other conceivable factor that determines success and failure – injuries, academics, even coaching – individual players and teams tend to perform within the very narrow range their initial recruiting rankings suggest. Some percentage of both groups will not. But when it comes to forming expectations, it should go without saying that you never want to count on being one of the anomalies.