Recruiting rankings

I'm excited about this year's Notre Dame recruiting class, but not because it's ranked by most major services in the top 5. Allow me to explain.

Trying to evaluate the relative merits of roughly 2000 high school football players, most of whom have never played against each other, is a task of frightening complexity. Moreover, the relative impact of some highly regarded recruits is usually exaggerated. Consider that last year, for example, Notre Dame "fell out" of Lemming's top 10 when Lorenzo Booker signed with F.S.U. Yet that same day Rhema McKnight committed to Notre Dame, a signing that was seen as being only small consolation for the Booker loss. Yet coaches in their common high school conference rated Booker an 8 out of 10 and McKnight a perfect 10. McKnight, of course, was one of two true freshman on the field for N.D. as the Irish scampered to a 34-10 lead on their way to convincing win in Tallahassee and Booker observed from his seat on the bench as a red shirt. So who's really the better player? Would N.D. really have been a better team if Booker had signed with the Irish and McKnight had gone elsewhere?

As hard as rating individual players is, at least it's a task with some discernable criteria. But trying to rate whole signing classes on a linear scale is another layer of complexity altogether. Moreover, the criteria for rating these classes are far from obvious and often apparently divorced from the ratings of individual players. Lemming this year, for example, rated L.S.U. #1 and N.D. #4. Yet N.D. had 8 of his top 100 players (actually 8 of his top 67) and L.S.U. had 3.

Probably not surprisingly, these class "rankings" have only a weak, at best, correlation to a team's performance.

I managed to find both Lemming's and Superprep's top 10 recruiting classes going back to 1992. Taking these, I assigned each team "recruiting points" starting with play in 1996 as follows. If a team was ranked in the top 10, I assigned it points based upon the ranking -- 10 for 1st, 9 for 2nd, down to one for 10th. So, for instance, in 1996, Superprep had N.D. 3rd and Lemming had N.D. 8th. So, 8 points for the Superprep ranking and 3 for the Lemming ranking. I then multiplied each point total by the year of the class. So a multiplier of 1 for a freshman class, 2 for a sophomore class up to 4 for the senior class. I also multiplied by 2 for the 5th year class, figuring that on average many teams had good number of 5th year players left on their rosters.

So, for instance, N.D.'s 1996 total is calculated as follows: 8 points for the SuperPrep and 3 points for the Lemming rating, 20 (2 times 10) points for the Superprep and 20 (2 times 10) for the Lemming rating in 1995 (N.D. was ranked first by both services that year), all the way up to a total of 165, which put N.D. second in recruiting points going into the 1996 season. This is a crude way of assessing the reality that seniors mean a lot more to a team's success than freshmen, and that the freshmen will mean more 3 years down the line. Now, of course, there are complications — transfers, players leaving early for the NFL, injuries, varying red shirt policies, etc.

But, all in all, this gives us a broad picture of the talent level on the team, at least according to Superprep and Lemming. Using two rankings has the virtue of balancing whatever biases each service might have. Superprep and Lemming also make for good choices because they've been around long enough to look at their and the teams' performances over the years.

I then ranked the top 10 teams for that upcoming year based upon the number of recruitment points. I then found the ESPN top 10 at the end of the year. The number in the parentheses after the team is the total number of recruitment points. If the team did not wind up in the top 10, I show its ranking (11 to 25) in the brackets afterwards, or "NR" for not ranked.

Next to the poll results, I show the team's total number of recruitment points if it did not make the top 10. So, for instance, in 1996, Nebraska finished 6th in the poll, but had only 20 recruitment points, which were not nearly enough to get it into the top 10, because the lowest total that year in the top 10 was Penn State's 58.

So, here are the results, with some comments afterwards.

1996

Recruitment Points

1. Florida St. (196)
2. Notre Dame (165) [21]
3. Michigan (153) [20]
4. Tennessee (130)
5. Miami (90) [14]
6. Florida (75)
7. Alabama (72) [NR]
8. Southern Cal. (64) [NR]
9. Ohio State (59)
10. Penn State (58)

USA Today/CNN Poll

1. Florida
2. Ohio St.
3. Florida St.
4. Arizona St. [0]
5. Brigham Young [0]
6. Nebraska [20]
7. Penn St.
8. Colorado [38]
9. Tennessee
10. North Carolina [0]

1997

Recruitment Points

1. Florida St. (203)
2. Tennessee (144)
3. Notre Dame (143) [NR]
4. Michigan (135)
5. Penn State (111) [17]
6. Southern Cal. (99) [NR]
7. Alabama (73) [NR]
8. Ohio St. (67) [12]
9. Florida (61)
10. Texas A&M (48) [21]

ESPN Poll

1. Nebraska [15]
2. Michigan
3. Florida St.
4. North Carolina [7]
5. UCLA [0]
6. Florida
7. Kansas St. [0]
8. Tennessee
9. Washington St [0].
10. Georgia [2]

1998

Recruitment Points

1. Florida St. (197)
2. Notre Dame (145) [22] 3. Penn St. (143) [15]
4. Michigan (127) [12]
5. Tennessee (102)
6. Florida (94)
7. Southern Cal. (93) [NR]
8. Ohio St. (73)
9. Texas A&M (54) [13]
10. Auburn (52) [NR]

ESPN Poll

1. Tennessee
2. Ohio St.
3. Florida St.
4. Arizona [0]
5. Wisconsin [0]
6. Florida
7. Tulane [0]
8. UCLA [19]
9. Kansas St. [0]
10. Air Force [0]

1999

Recruitment Points

1. Florida St. (178)
2. Penn St. (146) [11]
3. Notre Dame (136) [NR]
4. Michigan (123)
5. Florida (112) [14]
6. Tennessee (79)
7. Southern Cal. (75) [NR]
8. Texas (50) [23]
8. LSU (50) [NR]
10. Alabama (48)

ESPN Poll

1. Florida St.
2. Nebraska [26]
3. Virginia Tech [0]
4. Wisconsin [0]
5. Michigan
6. Kansas St. [0]
7. Michigan St. [0]
8. Alabama
9. Tennessee
10. Marshall [0]

2000

Recruitment Points

1. Florida St. (148)
> 2. Michigan (141) [11]
3. Florida (135)
4. Penn St. (109) [NR]
5. Notre Dame (107) [15]
6. Texas (98) [12]
7. Alabama (90) [NR]
7. Tennessee (90) [NR]
9. UCLA (65) [NR]
10. Georgia (50) [NR]

ESPN Poll

1. Oklahoma [0]
2. Miami [2]
3. Washington [0]
4. Oregon St. [0]
5. Florida St.
6. Virginia Tech [0]
7. Oregon [0]
8. Nebraska [12]
9. Kansas St. [0]
10. Florida

2001

Recruitment Points

1. Michigan (149) [20]
2. Florida St. (139) [15]
3. Texas (128)
4. Alabama (120) [NR]
5. Florida (116)
6. Notre Dame (109) [NR]
7. UCLA (105) [NR]
8. Ohio St. (60) [NR]
9. Penn St. (54) [NR]
10. Tennessee (50)

ESPN Poll

1. Miami [7]
2. Oregon [0]
3. Florida
4. Tennessee
5. Texas
6. Oklahoma [10]
7. Nebraska [4]
8. LSU [49]
9. Colorado [8]
10. Maryland [0]

2002

Recruiting Points

1. Texas (145)
2. Florida St. (125) [23]
3. Alabama (117) [11]
4. Michigan (114)
5. Ohio St. (100)
6. Florida (98) [24]
7. Notre Dame (89) [17]
8. UCLA (86) [NR]
9. Tennessee (77) [NR]
10.. LSU (66) [NR]
10.. Georgia (66)

ESPN Poll

Ohio St
Miami [31]
Georgia
U.S.C. [12]
Oklahoma [25]
Kansas St [0]
Texas
Iowa [0]
Michigan
Washington St. [0]

On average, the "recruitment points" top 10 only produces about 4 of the year-end top 10. This is certainly better than a random guess (with 117 teams, if you drew 10 names out of a hat, on average you'd get about one that would finish in the top 10). On the other hand, you'd do just as well projecting that next year's top 10 will be last year's, because about 4 teams out of 10 make it back.

Also, on average, 4 of the year-end top 10 teams have ZERO recruitment points, meaning that none of their previous 5 classes showed up on either Lemming's or Superprep's top 10. The most striking year was the 2000 season when 6 of the top 10 had zero recruitment points, including national champion Oklahoma. Runner-up Miami had 2 points, and the top 9 — excluding FSU — had a grand total of 14 between them.

To consider Miami for a moment, from 2000 through 2002 the Hurricanes lost a grand total of 2 games and never finished lower than second. After the 2000 and 2001 seasons they produced 9 first-round draft choices and in 2002 had two players as Heisman finalists. Yet, they never really came close to making the recruiting rankings top 10 over that stretch. It's only now that their recruiting classes are getting attention (in 2003 their classes were ranked 5th and 6th and in 2002 they were ranked 2nd and 3rd) and for the first time next year will crack the recruiting points top 10.

Other teams have consistently defied the rankings. Kansas State, for example, has five times finished in the top 10 at the end of the season, but has yet to earn its first recruiting "point." And before everyone races for the "JUCO" explanation, consider that the recruiting ratings have for the last several years included JUCOs. Nebraska (at least when Osborne was identifying the recruits) had two national championships and a berth in the championship game without ever seriously threatening the recruiting ranking top 10. Oklahoma won the national championship in 2000 without any recruiting points and has finished in the top 6 every year since, but like Miami will crack the recruiting points top 10 for the first time this year. As with Miami, high rankings of Oklahoma's classes followed, not preceded, success on the field. Since winning the 2000 national championship, no OU recruiting class has been ranked lower than 6th by either service except for Lemming's ranking of their 2002 class.

The other side of the coin, unfortunately, has been Notre Dame. The Irish have never been lower than seventh in recruitment points, but have yet to place a team in the year-end top 10. This year's 10-3 squad was the only one to be in the national championship picture after September (in fact, they were in the picture until the second half of the U.S.C. game), yet it was the team over this stretch with the lowest number of recruitment points.

Of the seven national champions, only four have come out of the recruitment points top 10. It would have been five if I'd picked the AP poll (which made Michigan the national champ after the 1997 season), but, in any event, that's clearly better than a random result. If you picked 10 teams at random at the beginning of each year, you'd be fortunate to draw the national champion once in a seven-year span.

In case you're interested, he's the recruiting points top 10 (well, top 11) for 2003:

Texas (166)
Florida St. (132)
Tennessee (108)
Florida (106)
Ohio St. (90)
Michigan (85)
Alabama (80)
L.S.U. (76)
Miami (65)
Oklahoma (53)
Notre Dame (47)

Notre Dame is just ahead of U.S.C., U.C.L.A. and Penn State, which are all between 46 and 44 points. N.D. dropped out of the top 10 for the first time in recent history because the 2002 class did not make either top 10 (it just missed in both, winding up in the 11 to 15 range) and the 2001 class (juniors to be) did not make either top 10. The 2000 class (seniors to be) made Lemming's top 10 at #8 but did not make Superprep's top 10 and the 1999 class (5th years) were 8th in Superprep's and 3rd in Lemming's rankings.

Now, if you've been paying attention thus far, the fact that N.D. has fallen out of the recruiting points top 10 shouldn't worry you much.

Of course, this doesn't mean that recruiting is irrelevant, far from it. What it means is that overall "class rankings" don't really have much to do with performance on the field.

In the end, there's just no substitute for good coaching. Part of good coaching is being able to identify talent that will play effectively in your system. The reason to be excited about this year's class (and last year's) is that we finally have good coaching and N.D. has returned to form in the sense of being able to convert on a very high percentage of its recruiting targets. That's the good news, not that the recruiting services rank the Irish class highly.


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