Rankings Retrospective

Many college coaches dislike recruiting analysts more than Sunday morning quarterbacks and deride their rankings as the mere musings of misguided amateurs with a football fetish and a curious fascination with stars.

That they deride is no surprise since some like to believe evaluating football talent is tougher than calculating launch coordinates for a mission to the outer moons of Saturn. Deep down most of those coaches know better. Figuring out who has the talent to play at a high level is not that complex. Knowing how that talent will translate and mature is another matter. It's rather like trying to predict an individual's success based largely on results of an IQ test.

It's understandable coaches try to put the best possible spin on what might be a questionable crop of prospects. No one could expect them to say we're disappointed in the players we signed. Although expecting a few to say we're disappointed by the players we didn't sign is not unreasonable. It won't happen because nobody wants to be held accountable for a class that has yet to fail.

Conversely, when they sign highly ranked classes they tend to downplay the acquisitions in order to rein in the expectations of an ecstatic fan base already counting down the days to the next national title game.

This dance of deception goes on in some variation just about everywhere college football is played. Coaches are always thinking about job security, compensation and competition. Recruiting is the key to all three, but recruiting services and the rankings they produce cause an instant reaction from fans and the media that puts coaches on the defensive. The best way to neutralize the impact of recruiting rankings is by equating them to psychic hotlines.

Granted some might fall into that category, but to dismiss all with a critical quip is to be in a state of denial if not outright deceit. Sure there are five-star prospects that flop just like there are two-star prospects that will become All-Americans. However those are the exceptions. On average over the last decade as combines, camps, the proliferation of video and network technology have helped refine the process, recruiting ratings and rankings have become a reliable meter of future success.

Take a look at the last four national champions and it's easy to see a strong correlation between high recruiting rankings and superior win-loss records. All of these rankings were compiled by Scout.com recruiting analysts, which says a lot about their degree of competency.

USC's 2004 national title followed recruiting campaigns ranked No. 10 in 2001, No. 12 in 2002, No. 1 in 2003 and No. 1 in 2004. The Trojans finished runner-up to Texas in 2005 after adding a recruiting class ranked No. 6 in the nation that year. USC averaged a No. 6 recruiting class during that four-year span (2001-2004), while its average between 2002 to 2005 was No. 5.

• TEXAS captured the coveted crown in 2005 by upsetting USC in the Rose Bowl. The Longhorns senior class, along with redshirt juniors i.e. Vince Young, which spearheaded the successful title chase came in ranked No. 1 in 2002. It was followed by signing classes ranked No. 14 in 2003, No. 10 in 2004 and No. 13 in 2005 for a four-year average ranking of No. 9.

• FLORIDA, 2006, added its second national title in a decade with a title game victory over Ohio State. The Gators had classes ranked No. 4, No. 8, No. 11 and No. 2 in 2006. Two of those classes were signed by Ron Zook. The four-year average was No. 6.

LSU, 2007, took its second title in six years, despite a pair of SEC losses to Kentucky and Arkansas, and with a talent level less than the Tigers had the year before when 2007 No. 1 NFL Draft choice LaMarcus Russell was QB. Scout.com ranked LSU No. 2 in recruiting in 2004, No. 19 in 2005, No. 7 in 2006 and No. 5 in 2007. That's an average of No. 8 nationally.

Admittedly this is a small sampling but it is recent and largely parallels major changes in the recruiting service industry, which included networking and adapting to the Internet.

What each of these national champion programs have in common are classes that average in the top nine nationally over a four-year span with at least one class ranked No. 1 or No. 2. They also all had experienced quarterbacks, plus strong contributions from true freshmen in their title seasons.

Certainly there's no guarantee high-profile recruiting classes will translate to on-the-field success. And there's no better example of that fact over the last eight years than Tennessee. The Vols' signing classes of 2000 was ranked No. 2 while the classes of 2001, 2002 and 2003 were ranked No. 8, No. 5 and No. 7 by Scout.com for an average class of No. 5 or No. 6. That average was higher than all of the aforementioned champions except USC which was No. 5. Yet in 2003 UT went 10-3 with an ugly loss to Clemson in the Peach Bowl.

Between 2002 and 2005 the Vols signed classes that ranked No. 5, No. 7, No. 9 and No. 1, respectively. And yet Tennessee finished with a 5-6 record including 3-5 in the SEC.

Going into the 2007 season Tennessee had four prior signing classes that were ranked No. 9 on average, led by the No. 1 Class of 2005 and the No. 4 Class of 2007, and they finished 10-4.

Going into the 2008 season, The Vols average drops to a No. 16 ranking with classes ranked No. 1 in 2005, No. 24 in 2006, No. 4 in 2007 and No. 35 in 2008. Moreover they have only one QB with game experience and that's Jonathan Crompton with one career start. The Vols would require another No. 1 ranking in recruiting next February just to raise their average to No. 16 again going into the 2009 season.

That's why 2009 is shaping up as a critical year for the program and why Tennessee fans are antsy about the future.

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