Athlon Sports analyzes how big-time college football rosters stack up nationally.
Preseason prognosticators like Athlon Sports — the most accurate college football preview magazine on newsstands — use many things to predict what the coming football season will look like. Returning starters, scheduling, historic trends, coaching, pending off-the-field issues and, of course, recruiting rankings all help Athlon editors predict the future of college football.
Recruiting rankings have their detractors. Yes, evaluating 16- and 17-year-old kids is an inexact science. No, star rankings aren’t the only thing that matters. Yes, leadership (e.g., Nick Saban) is more important than national recruiting rankings (See Auburn).
But using national team recruiting rankings to attempt to pinpoint how “talented” any given roster is an interesting and illuminating practice.
For the sake of this discussion, the 2013 conference alignment was used to calculate, rank and organize teams and leagues. Rivals.com national team rankings over a five-year span (2008-12) were used for the sake of consistency. And the 72 “BCS” conference teams as well as Notre Dame, Boise State and BYU were used to form the 75-team ranking.
So what did we learn about under- and over-achieving?
Shockingly, the SEC dominates
Alabama has the best roster in America and has won three of the last four national titles. Additionally, four of the top seven, five of the top 10 and eight of the top 19 rosters in the nation reside in the SEC. Within the SEC, the rankings go chalk. Bama has the best players and has won the most games. Florida ranks No. 2 in talent and is No. 2 in wins. LSU is third in both and Georgia is fourth in both. But after that is where things get interesting…
Bigger they are, heavier they fall
Despite the SEC dominance on the field, the SEC also features some of the largest disappointments as well. Tennessee is ranked ahead of Oregon, Stanford, Oklahoma State, Nebraska and Virginia Tech in terms of talent, but is the first team in the rankings with a losing overall record (28-34). Auburn is the first team in the rankings with a losing conference record (17-23) and claims a top 10 roster nationally. There is a reason these two programs have combined for seven head coaches in the last four seasons. Ole Miss also features top 25 talent but has a hideous 13-27 SEC record in the last five years. National Championship or not, expectations are high in Knoxville and Auburn for a reason.
Concerning struggles for major powers
USC, the second-most talented roster, has lost an average of three Pac-12 games per year over the last five seasons. Texas (No. 3) has averaged more than three losses per season over that span — and that includes a 15-1 mark in 2008-09. The ACC’s two most talented teams, Florida State (No. 5) and Miami (No. 13), have a combined 31 conference losses and one ACC title between them over the last five seasons. And Georgia’s (No. 7) record isn’t all that pretty either (27-13), although it is skewed by one really bad season in 2009 (6-7, 3-5). Lane Kiffin, Mack Brown and Jimbo Fisher need to show improvement, growth and stability and do so quickly.
The little guy has some growing up to do
UCF, Memphis and Houston should all be able to recruit and subsequently compete at a comparable level in the Big East rather quickly. Pitt (ACC), Maryland and Rutgers (Big Ten) are all making semi-parallel moves and should be fine. But TCU, Utah and Boise State will all have to prove they can increase their ability to recruit in order to win with the big boys. The Broncos have the best record of any of the 75 teams in this study but are 68th in talent. TCU and Utah have impressive win-loss records — prior to entering the Big 12 and Pac-12. All three will have to take the next step on the recruiting trail to continue long-term big-time success.
Bill Snyder, Pat Fitzgerald, Bret Bielema and Butch Jones have done the most with the least of any coaches in the nation. Each of their rosters rank outside of the top 50 nationally in terms of talent and the group has a combined seven conference championships and their four teams have made 17 bowl appearances (in 20 potential tries). There is a reason that the Badgers and Bearcats had to find new coaches when the SEC came calling in Madison and Cincinnati. Mike Riley, Paul Johnson, Jim Grobe and James Franklin have all proven that their teams win more than their talent indicates as well.
Who has the biggest upside?
Oklahoma State, Washington and Penn State are three extremely intriguing programs. All are unique programs with unique histories and unique hurdles to overcome, but all are poised to enter the upper echelon of college football. Mike Gundy and the Pokes have an elite record and are increasing their ability to recruit with Texas and Oklahoma. Penn State has an equally impressive win-loss record and appears to have locked-up a good one in Bill O’Brien. Washington’s rebuild has been slow but with near-top 25 talent, an excellent set of assistant coaches and a new stadium, the Huskies' upward mobility should have fans in Seattle excited about the near future. Others with new and intriguing upside are Maryland, Rutgers and West Virginia.
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