How Does Recruiting Influence Winning?

Jan. 12 -- If you've ever wondered how UCLA stacks up against the recruiting profile of a typical championship-level team, we've got you covered...

One of the biggest foundational aspects of our business is the idea that recruiting talented players is the lifeblood of college football programs, and it certainly seems self-evident that a school needs to recruit at a certain level to win a proportionate amount of games. To win at a championship level, that thinking would go, a team needs to recruit at a championship level.

But what is that level?

We’ve spent some time charting the final four teams from each of the last nine years in college football (obviously, the playoffs didn’t exist prior to this year, so we’ve instead used the top four from the final BCS rankings for each year previous to this one). For each team that finished in the final four, we’ve collected the Scout class ranking for each of their previous five recruiting classes, effectively accounting for the vast majority of each team’s roster (excluding transfers and 6th year seniors). With that same data, we’ve calculated the average class ranking of the five classes contributing to each final four team, the median of those classes, and the average of the two classes that should form the foundation of the program (the classes that should comprise the 4th and 5th year players on each team). The goal, obviously, is to see what common linkages there are between recruiting and getting into the playoffs, and, in our specific case, to see where UCLA’s teams under Jim Mora have fallen on that spectrum.

First, here's a quick glossary of terms we'll be using:

Average class ranking= average ranking of the five recruiting classes in the final Scout team rankings that make up each football team.
Median class ranking=median ranking of the five recruiting classes in the final Scout team rankings that make up each football team.
Foundational class average ranking=average ranking of the two recruiting classes contributing 4th and 5th year players to each team (for 2014 Alabama, this would be the 2010 and 2011 classes)

Here’s what we discovered about the 36 final four teams from the last nine years:

The average class ranking for the five classes comprising a final four team was 17.92.
The median class ranking for the five classes comprising a final four team was 12.
The average class ranking for the two foundational classes for each final four team was 19.04.
The median class ranking for the two foundational classes for each final four team was 13.

The median is substantially lower than the average because there were some significant outliers in the group of 36 teams. While recruiting powerhouses like Alabama (6 final fours), LSU (3 final fours), and Ohio State (4 final fours) have obviously been well-represented in the final four over the last nine years, schools like TCU (2 final fours), Stanford (2 final fours), Michigan State, and Cincinnati have also been involved, and their recruiting has been a substantially different beast. TCU’s two final four teams had an average class ranking of 75.6 and 75.4. Stanford’s two teams had average class rankings of 30 and 33. Michigan State’s final four team last year had an average class ranking of 35.8. And Anger McRedface’s Cincinnati team from 2009 had an average class ranking of 63.9.



72% of final four teams had an average recruiting ranking for their five classes at least as high as 15.2. A full 80.5% of final four teams from the last nine years had an average recruiting ranking of 25 or better. The teams that did not were Michigan State (2013, 35.8 average, Mike Dantonio), Oklahoma State (2011, 29.2, Mike Gundy), Stanford (2011, 30, David Shaw), TCU (2010, 75.6, Gary Patterson), Stanford (2010, 33, Jim Harbaugh), Cincinnati (2009, 63.6, Anger McRedface), and TCU (2009, 75.4, Patterson). We list the coaches here to give a general idea of what the quality of coaching was like for teams that made the final four but did not recruit at the level of a typical final four team. Four of the six coaches mentioned are acknowledged to be among the best in the game (Dantonio, Patterson, Harbaugh, and McRedface), Gundy is, at least, a good coach with an 84-44 record , and Shaw has a 42-12 record as a head coach.

So, while there are indeed outliers, the final four teams as a general rule recruit at a very high level. The two teams that have dominated the last nine years — Alabama and Ohio State with 10 total representatives in the final four — have a combined average class ranking for their final four teams of 8.48, with a median ranking of 6. Even Oregon, which can credit its scheme, culture, and coaching for a vast amount of its success, has averaged a class ranking of 18.9 for its three final four teams, with a median ranking of 15. In other words, even in a scheme as dynamic as Oregon’s, a certain amount of highly-rated talent is critical. Excluding those seven outliers above, 23 of the remaining 29 teams who have finished in the top four have had at least one top-five class contributing to their team, and 18 teams have had at least two top-five classes.

In terms of the foundational players, if you throw out those seven outlier teams we talked about above, the average ranking for each team’s two foundational classes (again, meaning the classes that comprised the 4th and 5th year players for each program) was 11.18, and the median ranking was 8.

So, here’s what the average profile looks like for a playoff team (excluding the 7 outliers):

Average Class Ranking: 10.43
Median Class Ranking: 8
Average Foundational Class Ranking: 11.18
Median Foundational Class Ranking: 8

To draw some quick conclusions from the data we’ve compiled: unless you are coached by an elite coach at a mid-major (Gary Patterson at TCU in 2010 and 2009, Brian Kelly at Cincinnati, which was in the terrible Big East in 2009) OR you have a very specific system that very few teams in college football run anymore (Shaw at Stanford in 2011, Harbaugh at Stanford in 2010), you almost certainly need to recruit at a top-15 level or above with consistency to be a viable threat for a playoff spot.



In the last five recruiting cycles, UCLA has recruited, by most measures, pretty well. There’s one mediocre outlier class, the 2011 class, which finished 56th in the country, but aside from that, the Bruins have finished 20th, 3rd, 12th, and 14th in 2014, 2013, 2012, and 2010 respectively. Those five classes, which averaged a class ranking of 21, made up the vast majority of UCLA’s 2014 football team. In context of the 36 teams that have finished in the final four over the last nine years, though, UCLA would be behind 27 of them in average recruiting class ranking and, besides the seven outliers we discussed above, ahead of just 2007 Virginia Tech (24.2 average) and 2010 Oregon (24.6 average).

The foundational classes (again, the two classes that contributed 4th and 5th year players) for UCLA last year were the 56th-ranked 2011 class and the 14th-ranked 2010 class. The foundational class average ranking for UCLA was 35, which would have ranked the Bruins firmly among the outliers and behind 31 of the 36 final four teams. Only 2011 Stanford (43.5 foundational class average ranking), 2010 TCU (73 foundational class average ranking), 2010 Stanford (40.5 foundational class average ranking), 2009 Cincinnati (70 foundational class average ranking), and 2009 TCU (68 foundational class average ranking) would rank behind UCLA.

Here’s how 2014, 2013, and 2012 UCLA broke down statistically:

2014 UCLA (10-3)
Average recruiting class ranking: 21, Median Ranking: 14, Foundational class average ranking: 35

2013 UCLA (10-3)
Average recruiting class ranking: 19, Median ranking: 12, Foundational class average ranking: 12

2012 UCLA (9-5)
Average recruiting class ranking: 21, Median ranking: 13, Foundational class average: 11.5

Interestingly, both the 2012 and 2013 versions of UCLA fit the profile of a final four team much better than the 2014 version (at least according to the parameters we’ve laid out), with foundational class averages right in line with a typical final four team, and median class rankings well within shouting distance of the norm. The 2014 team, without those strong 2008 and 2009 foundational classes, would have been much more firmly grouped among the outliers if it had managed to get into the playoffs, with average class ranking, median class ranking, and foundational class average ranking all well outside the norm. So, strictly from a recruiting perspective, it may have been a little far-fetched to consider UCLA a legitimate playoff contender this past year.

Since we’re BRO, we’re now going to muck up this delightful statistical assessment with some rampant speculation. In the 2015 recruiting cycle that wraps up this February, UCLA is almost assuredly going to have a top 10 class, and if we had to project it right now, we’d guess it ends up somewhere between No. 5 and No. 7. For the sake of conservatism, we’ll just say it ends up at No. 7. If that ends up being the case, that’ll mean that the 2015 UCLA team is made up of the No. 7, No. 20, No. 3, No. 12, and No. 56 classes in the country over the previous five years. Here’s what the profile for that team would look like:

2015 UCLA (SPECULATION VERSION)
Average recruiting class ranking: 19.6, Median ranking: 12, Foundational class average: 34

So…a little underwhelming, yeah? That team would, again, fall well short of the average profile for a final four team, with a foundational average among the outlier group and an average class ranking well below the norm. The median class ranking, though, would be roughly in-line with the typical final four team, so there’s that. By the same token that this year’s team was probably a little far-fetched as a potential playoff contender, though, next year’s team would probably be as well.

The interesting thing will be to see what happens when that really mediocre 2011 class comes off the books in 2016. It’d be ridiculous for us to speculate about what that 2016 class could look like two cycles in advance, so let’s just say, as a placeholder, it will end up ranked 20th, like the underwhelming 2014 class. In that scenario, the 2016 UCLA football team will be made up of the No. 20, No. 7, No. 20, No. 3, and No. 12 recruiting classes, which would give the team a profile that looks like this:

2016 UCLA (WILD SPECULATION VERSION)
Average recruiting class ranking: 12.4, Median Ranking: 12, Foundational class average: 7.5

And…suddenly, we’re cooking. With that awful 2011 class off the books, the foundational 4th years (2013 class) and 5th years (2012 class) making up UCLA’s team will come from two classes with an average rank of 7.5 — significantly better than the foundational class average of a typical final four team. The average and median rankings for the team as a whole will be well within shouting distance of a typical playoff team.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that UCLA’s 2016 class is going to definitely be a playoff team. College football every year is littered with teams that massively underperform respective to their talent. But based on the typical profile of a final four team, 2016 may be the first year where the talent level on UCLA’s roster truly is at that elite level.

Below, you can check out the data for each final four team from the last nine years. Again, we’ve used each of the previous five class rankings for each team, so, for example, in the case of 2014 Alabama, we’ve used the 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, and 2010 class rankings.

TeamAvg. Class Rank.Median Class Rank.Foundational Class Rank. Avg.
2014Alabama3.645.5
 Oregon14.21313
 Florida State7.884.5
 Ohio State7513
2013Florida State11.21114
 Auburn8.289
 Alabama3.843
 Michigan State35.83734
2012Alabama3.221.5
 Oregon181524.5
 Ohio State6.842.5
 Notre Dame13.61612.5
2011LSU676
 Alabama7.2411.5
 Oklahoma State29.22432
 Stanford302443.5
2010Auburn10.297.5
 TCU75.67373
 Oregon24.62330.5
 Stanford333840.5
2009Alabama11.81617
 Texas8.268
 Cincinnati63.67070
 TCU75.47368
2008Oklahoma1276
 Florida6.489.5
 Texas91011.5
 Alabama15.21817.5
2007Ohio State14.41318
 LSU752
 Virginia Tech24.22523.5
 Oklahoma10.475
2006Ohio State11.81114
 Florida9812
 Michigan8.6813.5
 LSU978.5

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