Signs of the Times

Quick quiz: Which is the more predictable postmortem on national signing day, college head coaches heading off unbridled expectations after landing a top 10 class, or college head coaches touting the virtues of a class that ranks with the also-rans?

Either reaction is a case of you have to spin to win, but that's where the similarities end. The act of reining in fan expectations is a never-ending task for coaches. But to actually inflate expectations of a disgruntled fan base is an act of survival.

These predictable patterns of posturing share one common component — the ridicule of prospect rating and recruiting services. And every critic can quickly cite examples of five-star prospects that went bust vs. two-star prospects that became All-Americans. Invalidate the process and you can void the results.

Clearly, the process of ranking prospects and signing classes isn't an exact science, but neither is it a case of reading tea leaves. In fact, the task of rating high school players has improved immensely over the years. It used to be conducted largely with a prospect list, stat sheets and a telephone.

Now there are camps, combines and clinics. There's game tape, DVDs and streaming video as aids for evaluating prospects. College coaches themselves shape rankings by the intensity and volume in which they pursue a prospect. In other words, if 50 schools offer a prospect by April, and it checks out with impressions of recruiting analysts, there's a good chance said prospect will get rave reviews and high rankings.

That's no guarantee said prospect will become a college star. There are mitigating circumstances that impact progress i.e. injury, academics, immaturity and an inability to adjust to the demands of the next level. Some kids are late bloomers while others flame out early and fade away.

NFL scouts routinely make mistakes with fewer players to grade and far greater access. Plus, they don't have to worry about growth potential, failed romances or missed English Lit classes.

Four players were taken before LaDainian Tomlinson in 2001 while five wide receivers went ahead of Reggie Wayne that same year. Dan Marino was the fifth QB taken in the 1983 NFL Draft and Ryan Leaf was drafted No. 3 in 1998.

With the advantage of hindsight you can find examples from every draft that seem absurd. The problem is that trying to discredit recruiting rankings by offering some examples of inaccuracy is like trying to pick a winner in football by comparing scores.

A far better gauge is to look at the teams that routinely finish high in recruiting rankings and compare that to their results on the field and in the NFL Draft. Take a look at the SEC rankings in 2007 and you'll discover why the conference is widely regarded as the best in America.

This year the conference has five of the NCAA's top seven ranked teams with No. 1 Florida, No. 4 Tennessee, No. 5 LSU, No. 6 Auburn and No. 7 South Carolina. Georgia checks in at No. 17 and Alabama at No. 21 for seven of the top 21 signing classes. Even the also-rans scored well. Mississippi State finished No. 27, and Ole Miss No. 31. Arkansas had a disappointing campaign at No. 34, but finished ahead of such stalwarts as Florida State, UCLA, Iowa, Wisconsin and Louisville. Even a basketball school like No. 57 Kentucky finished just one spot behind Boise State and ahead of N.C. State, Minnesota, Wake Forest and Purdue. Vanderbilt staggered in at No. 87 but that's a program built more on developing talent than recruiting it.

Furthermore, eight SEC schools combined to sign 34 of the top 100 players nationally. Six SEC schools — Florida, LSU, UT, S.C., Auburn and Georgia — combined to sign 21 five-star and a remarkable 69 four-star prospects. It's no coincidence the SEC produces more NFL players than any conference in America.

That might not constitute proof that recruiting rankings have value beyond mere fan amusement, but it's a mighty convincing correlation.


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