Whit Watson Blog: Pulling Rank

Whit Watson talks recruiting in his latest Blog for Sun Sports.

Did some research over the last week on the subject of the ranking of college football recruiting classes. This was in preparation for a future Sun Sports project, the details of which I'm not at liberty to discuss. I could tell you, but I'd have to kill you.

Scout.com archives their final class rankings as far back as 2002, so that's where I started. High school athletes who signed that spring would have been seniors in the fall of 2005, or, if redshirted, juniors. Either way, we're well within the window of time that most college coaches suggest we need before passing judgment on a recruiting class.

Scout's top ten recruiting classes, as ranked in the spring of 2002:

1. Texas
2. Oklahoma
3. Ohio State
4. Miami
5. Tennessee
6. Florida State
8. Texas A&M
9. Georgia
10. Virginia

Among the current stars who were members of that 2002 recruiting class: Vince Young at Texas, A.J. Hawk and Santonio Holmes at Ohio State, Gerald Riggs at Tennessee, Drew Olson at UCLA, Max Jean-Gilles and Leonard Pope at Georgia, and Ahmad Brooks, Wali Lundy, and D'Brickashaw Ferguson at UVA. 2002 was also the year that Maurice Clarett signed with the Buckeyes, by the way.

Miami got Brandon Meriweather, Eric Winston, Devin Hester, Greg Threat, Ryan Moore, Baraka Atkins, and Sinorice Moss in 2002. Florida's 2002 class, ranked 20th by Scout.com, included Channing Crowder (with just one solitary star by his name), DeShawn Wynn, Gavin Dickey, Reggie Lewis, Ray McDonald, and Ciatrick Fason, among others.

What correlation exists between a recruiting class ranking and eventual production? Well, the 2002 Texas class, led by Young, did indeed produce a national championship four years later, proving that the Scout guys weren't just making this stuff up. Furthermore, Georgia's 9th-ranked class, with Pope, Jean-Gilles, and the soon-to-be immortal Joe Tereshinski, claimed the SEC title in '05, their second in four years. And Florida State's '02 class, which featured Chauncey Stovall, Kamerion Wimbley, Lorenzo Booker, Leon Washington, Broderick Bunkley, A.J. Nicholson, and yes, Wyatt Sexton, claimed an ACC Championship Game victory in 2005.

Of course, nothing is guaranteed. Four teams ranked in the Scout.com top ten among 2002 recruiting classes - Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas A&M, and Virginia - combined to lose 21 games this season, and two of them finished with losing records.

Two comments from this year's recruiting bonanza have stuck with me. Last week, as we devoted an entire hour of Sports Talk Live to recapping the recruiting classes of Florida's so-called (by me) "Big Five," Josh Newberg of USFNation.com commented that Jim Leavitt and his Bulls staff "go after players they want," regardless of how they're ranked. In other words, they're trying to fit a system, one that they believe in, and their confidence in that system overrides the number of stars next to a player's name.

On that same show, UCF head coach George O'Leary said more or less the same thing, claiming that he paid no attention whatsoever to how athletes or classes are ranked. You've heard that sentiment, in one form or another, from just about every coach in America, including Urban Meyer, Bobby Bowden, and Larry Coker.

Recruiting has become a year-round spectator sport, and that's fine. It gives football fans something to do and something to look forward to - two of my mom's Three Essentials For Life - but it's obviously an inexact science. No matter how many stars are attached to a player's name, we have no idea how he'll adjust to being away from home, how he'll buddy up with his new teammates, how he'll react to a new head coach - who may or may not be there by the time the kid's eligibility is up - or how he'll deliver on the field, where it matters. It's fun, but it's the equivalent of a pregame show. We all get to argue and brag, but once the game starts, everybody shuts up and watches.

Recruiting, as Brady Ackerman likes to remind me, is the lifeblood of college football, but fans shouldn't get too excited about a highly touted class, nor should they worry too much about a class considered "weak." At some point, all of those kids have to strap on the pads and actually play football - and that's all that really matters.

This spring, Scout calls Florida's class the best in the nation. At last check, Florida State is at number 12, Miami at 14, South Florida at number 56, and UCF is ranked 87th. Check again in the fall of 2010.

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