Obviously you'd rather have a five-star prospect over a three-star since those ratings are influenced largely by the schools extending offers and how early the offers are extended. There is also dialogue and sharing of information between recruiting services and college coaches that helps establish ratings criteria.
Ratings are a fluid process and subject to change as game film, combines, summer camps and senior seasons are taken into account. Even then the ratings just represents a projection of potential.
However the Class of 2004 strongly suggests that not all five-star or three-star athletes are created equal, and provides hope that a class more ordinary can produce extraordinary results.
The headliners that year were a pair of five-star California JUCO linemen — Jesse Mahelona and Albert Toenia. Both earned starting positions in their first year. Mahelona was an anchor at the interior of the D-line, and Toenia was an imposing physical presence on the O-line, who suffered from nagging injuries and inconsistency. Mahelona didn't have as good a senior season as he did as a junior and Toenia spent as much time in the dog house as he did the trenches.
The four-star prospects that year consisted of some solid talent including: Antonio Reynolds, Xavier Mitchell, Robert Ayers, Demonte Bolden, Brent Schaeffer and Ja' Kouri Williams. All but Williams became a starter or second unit contributor. Schaeffer transferred after his freshman season although he earned four starts in 2004.
However the real stars that year came from the three-star prospects along with a couple of two-star surprises. That underrated group consisted of Arian Foster, Erik Ainge, Jerod Mayo, Anthony Parker, Chris Brown, Ramon Foster, Jonathan Hefney, Ellix Wilson and David Holbert. The two-star surprises were cornerback Inky Johnson and linebacker Ryan Karl. That group includes seven of the 22 starters for the 2007 UT squad and three All-SEC players.
Of course not all the three-star prospects from UT's 2004 recruiting class have fared as well. Lineman Ell Ash left school after a year. Cameron Mayo and Sinclair Cannon are still on the team but haven't made any major breakthroughs. Two-star prospect James Turner was a special teams regular for a couple of seasons before leaving school after his sophomore season.
So does this mean that ratings and rankings don't matter? Hardly. Instead it teaches us that, unless you're USC, the strength of any given class will largely be determined by the three-star prospects you sign because that's what most classes are comprised of.
In 2004 Tennessee finished No. 9 in Scout.com's national recruiting rankings behind USC, LSU, Miami, Florida State, Michigan, Georgia, Oklahoma and Florida. This divine nine cream of the crop signed a collective 89 three-star prospects. FSU had the most with 13 and Tennessee had 12. All the others had at least 10 with the exception of USC which had only five.
The Vols currently have a solid three-star base on which to build, but needs to add a few impact players of the four- and five-star variety. Here's why: Alabama has committed 14 four-star and two five-star prospects, Georgia has 11 four-star and three five-star prospects. LSU has 10 four-star and one five-star prospects and Florida has six four-star and three five-star prospects. Even Arkansas, Mississippi and Kentucky have more four-star commitments than Tennessee does.
There's no better way for football fans to fall to sleep during recruiting season than counting four- and five-star prospects.