Auburn fans were getting nervous. It was National Signing Day 2012, and if you listened to talk radio, read blogs or followed Twitter around lunchtime that day, you could have been excused for thinking the sky had fallen in Auburn.
The Tigers kept swinging for the fences on recruits. And too often, they kept whiffing while bitter rival Alabama coasted to another mythical recruiting national championship.
A Rivals.com national analyst went on the radio in Birmingham and labeled Auburn one of the nation’s biggest disappointments. An analyst from the Auburn Rivals website took to the air and used words like “disappointment” and “shock and awe” to describe the Tigers’ class.
This wasn’t supposed to happen to Auburn, the 2010 national champion. Programs typically get the biggest bounce from a national title a full year later. Of the nine BCS champions that preceded Auburn, five improved their recruiting ranking by Rivals a year later, and two stayed the same compared to the class they signed a month after winning the title.
But Signing Day 2012 was still young for Auburn and, in the minds of recruiting analysts, Gene Chizik and his staff righted themselves. The Tigers finished 2012 ranked 10th by Rivals, only slightly behind their No. 7 spot in 2011.
How good is their latest class? Who knows? Check back in three years or so.
But in the around-the-clock world of college football recruiting, there are winners and there are losers. And they get declared now. Rivals, Scout, ESPN and 247Sports all take turns ranking players and teams in a lucrative business that makes recruiting a 365-days-a-year obsession for some fans.
Recruiting rankings matter. Until they don’t.
Five-star players are great. Unless they’re not.
Nothing matters more in college football than recruiting. Hire the best coach and it usually doesn’t mean a thing without exceptional players. Yet on the flip side, teams can have exceptional talent and underachieve without proper coaching and discipline.
How good are recruiting rankings at predicting future college football success? That’s the difficult question Athlon Sports set out to answer by reevaluating past rankings — all by Rivals, for consistency purposes — and seeing how those results played out on the field.
If you talk to coaches, they’re all pleased every single year by their recruiting class. The next coach to stand up on Signing Day and declare, “We did poorly, my bad,” will be the first. Yet privately, coaches know there are winners and losers in recruiting, even if it may take several years for that to become evident.
Eight of the past 10 teams with a No. 1 recruiting class by Rivals played for the BCS championship within three years, and seven won the title. The only Rivals No. 1 not to play for a national title within three years was 2006 USC, which would have played for the BCS championship in the 2006 season if the Trojans had not lost on the final weekend. The other No. 1 class not to play for the title within three years is 2010 USC, whose clock is still ticking.
Between 2007 and 2011, Alabama produced the best average ranking from Rivals. Nick Saban’s stockpiling of elite talent translated into two national championships in the past three years, plus four straight 10-win seasons.
But recruiting rankings aren’t the end-all, be-all, either. If they were, why have Texas, Florida, Florida State, Notre Dame and Georgia all experienced relatively poor seasons recently despite being among the 10 highest-ranked classes over the past five years? Or, the question needs to be asked, were those classes also misevaluated by the analysts from the beginning?
Either way, whenever talented classes add up, the pressure increases on coaches to deliver. It’s in part why Mark Richt faced a make-or-break year last season at Georgia before reaching the SEC Championship Game. It’s in part why Ole Miss (20th by Rivals in recruiting from 2007 to 2011), UCLA (21st) and Texas A&M (22nd) all fired their coaches after disappointing 2011 seasons.
The theory goes that compiling an average top-25 recruiting ranking over five years should make a team pretty good by that fifth year. Right? Not necessarily. Twelve teams that averaged a top-25 recruiting class from 2007 to 2011 lost five games or more in 2011. Take a bow, Florida, Tennessee, Texas, Auburn, Notre Dame, Ohio State, North Carolina, Miami, California, UCLA, Texas A&M and Ole Miss.
Teams with elite recruiting classes can experience declines on the field for all kinds of reasons. The NCAA is investigating or sanctioning the program. The stud quarterback isn’t a stud as projected or doesn’t stick around. Players become ineligible or transfer or get arrested. Coaches leave for other jobs or don’t get enough out of their teams.
Ole Miss may be the best example of how recruiting rankings only go so far. The Rebels’ classes were rated 27th, 29th, 18th, 18th and 19th from 2007 to 2011. On the field, Ole Miss went 27–35 during that period, winning nine games each in 2008 and 2009 but then going 4–8 and 2–10 in the final two years of Houston Nutt’s coaching tenure.
Look at last year’s final BCS standings: 1. LSU, 2. Alabama, 3. Oklahoma State, 4. Stanford, 5. Oregon, 6. Arkansas, 7. Boise State, 8. Kansas State, 9. South Carolina, 10. Wisconsin. Only two of those teams averaged a top-10 class over the previous five years: LSU and Alabama. They also happened to play for the BCS championship.
If not for a double-overtime loss to Iowa State last season, Oklahoma State would have played LSU for the national title. Yet Oklahoma State never had a top-25 class in the five years preceding the Cowboys’ 2011 season. Neither did Boise State, Kansas State or Wisconsin.
Stanford produced solid recruiting rankings of 20th, 26th and 22nd from 2009 to 2011. But the school was 50th in 2008 and not even in the top 50 in 2007.
Oregon had very solid recruiting classes from 2007 to 2011, including a top-10 finish last year. South Carolina had a top-25 class all five of those years, reaching as high as No. 6 in 2007. Arkansas had two top-25 classes in that five-year period and was ranked as high as 16th and as low as 49th.
Swooning over recruits is reminiscent of Jerry Seinfeld’s observation many years ago about free agency in professional sports. Given how frequently pro athletes change teams, Seinfeld quipped, cheering for our favorite franchise amounts to rooting for laundry.
Some fans aren’t rooting wildly for laundry. They’re rooting wildly for hormones.
They’re hoping hormones honor commitments. They’re hoping hormones don’t get in trouble. They’re hoping hormones live up to the hype at a time when teenagers typically aren’t physically or emotionally mature yet.
Coaches can justify immersing themselves in this perverse madness. Their livelihood depends on it. What’s the excuse for rabid fans who can’t get enough of recruiting rankings and the daily commitment tracker?
Two decades ago, fans reached into this niche recruiting industry through periodic magazines and newsletters. After that came the 1-900 phone numbers. Back then very few people could envision the interest there would be in recruiting.
Then came the Internet to provide more updated information, message-board chats between rabid fans and eventually streaming video for consumers to see the recruits perform for themselves. Jim Heckman, the former son-in-law of legendary Washington football coach Don James, started the first Rivals. He actually offered to build the model in 1995 for ESPN, which thought there would only be a couple thousand subscribers.
But the Internet giveth and taketh away. The original Rivals went bankrupt in 2001 during the dotcom bust. The thinking was the first Rivals failed by giving away content and relying on advertising, so the business model switched to paid subscriptions.
At one point, some key employees from Rivals and Scout.com worked together as one operation in the original Rivals. Heckman lost the brand name, technology and subscribers in the subsequent liquidation sale to a group led by Shannon Terry, Greg Gough and Bobby Burton.
Heckman started from scratch and co-founded Seattle-based Scout Media in 2001, taking with him a couple dozen Rivals employees. The tension between Rivals and Scout resulted in a series of lawsuits several years ago centered on tactics used to lure individual team site publishers after the original Rivals folded.
Fox purchased Scout for a reported $60 million in 2005. Two years later, Yahoo! bought Rivals for approximately $100 million. ESPN has since gotten into the recruiting ranking business but struggled developing individual school sites. Meanwhile, Burton and Terry have since left Rivals to start 247Sports.
All of these sites hire recruiting analysts and reporters to inform the public about which players are getting offers, where they’re taking visits, and how highly teams are ranked. The not-so-quiet secret is that some analysts are fans of the teams they cover, and most services rely on information from coaches, creating a unique relationship. The recruiting services need reliable information, but sometimes they don’t get it unless they rank a coach’s players high or talk them up.
Coaches may be leery of analysts. But at prominent football schools, especially in the South, they learn to play the recruiting ranking game. A coach may be perfectly content with the players he recruits. But he doesn’t want to get a reputation for never getting ranked by analysts.
Recruiting rankings have gotten better in recent years. There are more eyes watching around the country, more 7-on-7 events to evaluate, and more college coaches with a vested interest in the hype for the rankings not to have improved.
It’s just a small anecdote, but consider how some future Associated Press All-Americans have been evaluated before college. Thirty-six percent of the 2009 first-team All-Americans (not including kickers) were rated by Rivals among the top 10 at their positions entering college. Last year, that figure increased to 48 percent.
Every year there are always misses. That’s the nature of the beast, for whatever reason. Still, some of the misses are eye-opening in hindsight.
Oklahoma State All-American Justin Blackmon was the 91st-rated wide receiver out of high school in 2008. He wasn’t even considered the best Blackmon at wide receiver, playing second fiddle to 79th-ranked Chance Blackmon, who has one catch in four years at Colorado and Houston.
LSU All-America cornerback Morris Claiborne was another future NFL first-round pick who was underrated out of high school. Claiborne was a 3-star recruit in 2009, a player without a position, so he became that year’s No. 58 “athlete” by Rivals.
There is no team sport for which it’s as difficult to evaluate prospects at such a young age as football. The nature of the sport provides so many unknowns. Will the player put on weight or lose it? Will he stay healthy? And when times are tough, will he respond with the competitiveness and heart a coach hopes to see?
Nonetheless, fans must find immediate recruiting winners and losers. Coaches know deep down there are recruiting winners and losers. And the recruiting services make money off telling fans who the winners and losers are before the players even step on campus.
This is college football recruiting in 2012, a world where getting ranked high can make or break a coach.
BEFORE THEY WERE ALL-AMERICANS
How the 2011 AP All-Americans were ranked by Rivals.com prior to attending college.
Robert Griffin III, Baylor
No. 4 Dual-threat Quarterback
Montee Ball, Wisconsin
No. 33 Running Back
Trent Richardson, Alabama
No. 2 Running Back
Barrett Jones, Alabama
No. 1 Center
Matt Kalil, USC
No. 3 Offensive Tackle
David DeCastro, Stanford
No. 11 Center
Kevin Zeitler, Wisconsin
No. 39 Guard
David Molk, Michigan
No. 5 Center
Justin Blackmon, Okla. State
No. 91 Wide Receiver
Robert Woods, USC
No. 1 Athlete
Dwayne Allen, Clemson
No. 12 Tight End
Sammy Watkins, Clemson
No. 3 Wide Receiver
Randy Bullock, Texas A&M
No. 5 Kicker
Melvin Ingram, South Carolina
No. 21 Outside Linebacker
Whitney Mercilus, Illinois
No. 28 Weak-side Defensive End
Devon Still, Penn State
No. 10 Strong-side Defensive End
Jerel Worthy, Michigan State
No. 53 Defensive Tackle
Luke Kuechly, Boston College
No. 44 Outside Linebacker
Jarvis Jones, Georgia
No. 4 Weak-side Defensive End
Dont’a Hightower, Alabama
No. 15 Inside Linebacker
Morris Claiborne, LSU
No. 58 Athlete
Tyrann Mathieu, LSU
No. 13 Cornerback
Mark Barron, Alabama
No. 5 Athlete
Bacarri Rambo, Georgia
No. 40 Athlete
Brad Wing, LSU
No. 5 Kicker
Top 25 Recruiting Rankings by Rivals.com, 2007-2011
7. Florida State
9. Notre Dame
11. Ohio State
14. South Carolina
18. North Carolina
20. Ole Miss
22. Texas A&M
T23. Virginia Tech
25. Penn State
This article appeared in Athlon's 2012 College Football Preview Annual.
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