[Ed. Note: Trevon Griffin is a former USF football player from 2011-2014, and has contributed in the past to The Daily Stampede]
It was once stated that recruiting is the lifeblood of any college football program, and the truth of this statement has never been more evident at any point than right now. Every season schools spend a huge amount of capital—financial or otherwise—to differentiate themselves to influence teenagers and their parents to trust them over another program with such an important decision.
The recruiting process has changed massively since I graduated high school in 2010, with more and more prep players being elevated to celebrity status before they ever step foot on a college campus. Recruiting publications such as Rivals and 24/7 Sports have helped to cultivate this image of the superstar recruit, complete with a literal “star” system that categorizes players based on their physical attributes, as well as performances in games and off-season camps. As a former player and now high school coach, I have heard, and have directed some criticism myself towards this ranking system.
Specifically, people have been critical of how it seems to overlook smaller players who may be considered undersized or players who play for smaller or lesser known schools. People have also claimed that it’s biased towards players who have more exposure to camps and perform well in combine or 7 on 7 settings, which may or may not translate to Friday nights. However, the success of the teams that consistently sign multiple 4/5 recruits every year is well documented and cannot be disputed. It is my intention to actually look at data to discover how important recruiting stars really are, and what the answer to this question could mean for USF.
In order to determine how important recruiting stars and ratings really are, I first set out to determine how dependent teams are on recruiting results for their success.
I analyzed every team in FBS football (besides Coastal Carolina and UAB, as neither was actually an FBS program for all of the six years I looked at), collecting data from 24/7 sports and the Massey college football ratings from 2015-2020, with 2015 being the first year 24/7 rolled out its team talent rankings. 24/7’s Team Talent Composite Ratings gives teams a score and ranks them based on the prep evaluations of the players on their current roster. This ranking gives an accurate picture of the talent base of the full team, and not just the freshman classes who usually play sparingly, if at all. The Massey ratings are also a composite rating system, factoring in variables such as a team’s ranking in various polls, strength of schedule, and offensive/defensive performance. All things considered, I strongly believe the Massey ratings system is the most accurate and unbiased for ranking teams at season’s end. I calculated the average rank on each of those two lists for all 128 teams, and then found the difference between the two numbers to see how close the two numbers were. For simplicity’s sake, we will call this new stat “Rank Over Talent”. Here is the result:
These two charts demonstrate that, at least from a macro standpoint, recruiting talent cannot be viewed as an accurate predictor of team success. There are many teams whose Massey ranking and team talent ranking averages are fairly close, but even more who seem to have either underachieved or overachieved significantly. Something of note is that on average, Group of Five teams tended to do better than predicted, and Power 5 teams tended to do much worse. Obviously we know that the higher expectations are, the harder it becomes to consistently meet or exceed them. For example, Alabama has a 1.6 for team talent ranking, so they literally can’t do better. Also, some of the teams with the biggest improvements (notably the service academies, but I will discuss them later ) were mostly because they were ranked very low for team talent to begin with. For example, Buffalo’s Massey ranking was only 92.8, which is still 25 spots higher than the team talent ranking of 117.8. Pair this with the fact recruiting evaluations are much less thorough when teams are mostly comprised of 1-star and 2-star players, and some players that have not been evaluated by 24/7 at all, and these accomplishments must be taken with a grain of salt.
Top of the Food Chain
In order to get more focused and closer to finding the answer I’m really looking for, I decided to take the top 50 teams from each season when it comes to Massey ranking, and see how many were actually top 50 in team talent before the season. In other words, how well do you have to recruit to be at least a decent team? From 2015-2020, the average percentage of top 50 teams that were also top 50 in talent was 75%, with a low of 70% in 2016 and 2018, and a high of 84% in 2020. Over this time span, only three teams outside the top 50 in team talent cracked the top 15 in the Massey rankings: UCF at #12 in 2017, and Iowa State and Indiana in 2020 (#7 and #15 respectively).
This chart shows the lowest rank, and perhaps more relevant, the average rank of national champions, playoff participants, and Power 5 conference champions over the six years. As you can see, to have a realistic shot at the playoff or a conference championship, it is almost mandatory to not only have one great/elite recruiting class, but multiple in succession. This is the reality of college football at the top. It is an exclusive club. Sure teams can overachieve if they have excellent coaching, an upperclassmen heavy roster, and a scheme that fits their personnel. Navy ended 2015 ranked 33rd while being 121st in team talent! However, cracking the top 15 or so is a monumental feat nearly exclusively reserved for the teams with the most talent.
What about USF
I calculated the average team talent ranking for American Athletic Conference winners from 2015-2020. The average Bulls fan may be surprised to hear this, especially after the years of Coach Strong, but USF’s team talent almost matches this number exactly over that time frame, and is just barely lower than UCF, the conference’s best team over this time (63.7 for USF, 62.8 for the conference champions, and 61.1 for UCF). That 63.7 average team talent ranking is also good for 3rd in the conference behind Houston and UCF. What this means is that a lack of talent is not the only reason for our relative lack of success over this time, and we have actually underachieved quite a bit based on the talent on the roster (average Massey ranking of 73.7).
Coach Buy-In and Program Stability
This is obviously not scientific at all, but do you know what I notice about teams like Memphis in 2015, Minnesota in 2019, Iowa State in 2020, and Clemson for the better part of the last decade? These teams all had coaches who were ecstatic about going to coach at the school they were at, to the point where you could feel their enthusiasm whenever you saw them and listened to them speak, but more importantly, when you watched their teams play.
The one time I felt that kind of excitement and buy-in from USF players was the one season Tom Allen spent as our defensive coordinator in 2015. It was a year after I was gone from the team, but I wanted to come back just to be able to play for that guy. The defense played with so much passion, it was beautiful to watch. And coach Allen has since gone on to turn Indiana’s program around, finishing at #15 last season. That’s not a coincidence. From what I’ve seen, Coach Scott has brought some of that excitement from Clemson to USF, and he seems to be confident in his ability to take our program to the next level. So I believe our best plan of action would be to truly allow him the space and time to make this program into what he has envisioned.
Navy and Air Force have had the same head coach for over a decade, and Army has had theirs for 8 years. That continuity makes installing their concepts and establishing the culture of their program so much easier and more seamless. I know it is hard to keep an unsuccessful coach, but once the coaching carousel picks up some momentum, it becomes difficult to stop it. No program wants to be in that situation.
This seems obvious, but somehow I feel like USF has either not emphasized this as much as we should have, or have just been terribly unlucky. Everyone knows quarterback is the most important position on the field, but I believe the true importance is still understated at times. Many of the Power 5 teams that have underachieved the most, schools like Tennessee, Miami, Florida State, Kentucky, and South Carolina among others, have really struggled to consistently field a capable QB. It is no coincidence that our more successful years as a program since 2010 were when the schools most productive player in history was running the show. Great quarterback play can hide many of a team’s weaknesses, and poor QB play magnifies them. If your QB isn’t a threat, your offense will become predictable and defenses will play aggressively to stop the run. If you can’t score or even move the ball and stay on the field, your own defense will suffer greatly. I understand that recruiting and evaluating QBs is a rather inexact science, but your guy doesn’t have to be a great passer to be an effective college quarterback. Our last great one was not a great passer, but he was put in position to use his outrageous physical gifts to lead us to wins. Which leads directly to my final takeaway.
Scheme around your athletes
As mentioned earlier, coaching at a service academy is a crazy tough job. It is very difficult to recruit; the school’s academic standards are extremely high and trying to convince a 16 or 17 year old to give up the freedom of college for the structure of the military is just a tough sell. Not to mention that some of them will leave for reasons that have nothing to do with football or with your program once they actually realize what they are getting into (speaking from experience).
For the icing on top of this cake, service academies have a size requirement, meaning you won’t see any 6’5” 320 lbs linemen walking around campus. For this reason, these coaches have to be smart about getting the most out of the athletes they have, and putting them in the best position to be successful on game day. They don’t have their undersized lineman trying to blow people off the ball or pass protect 30+ times a game, they don’t ask their QB’s to make complex reads or throw into tight windows, and they don’t ask their receivers to regularly beat coverage against better athletes. They use their players’ exceptional teamwork, execution, discipline, and attention to detail to run an offense that the rest of college football has all but given up on. This way, they are able to control the ball, rest their defense, and have much more success than they should have. When USF was at its best in 2016, we ran a simpler offense that was solely focused on getting the speedy athletes we had the ball in open space, where they could make something happen. This is how we ended up scoring 35+ points every game for the whole season.
So to answer the question, do stars matter? When it comes to team performance, it seems that the answer is generally yes when comparing top teams, but the stars and ratings seem to get more insignificant as the talent level gets lower, which leaves room for teams to outperform expectations. There is certainly not a direct correlation between recruited talent and team performance.
But what about individual players? How well do stars and ratings predict their personal success? That’s a question for another day.