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 do the team recruiting rankings teach us about the Pac-12:
The Most Top-Heavy League in America
There is a reason that Stanford in 2012 was the first outright Pac-12 champion not named USC or Oregon since 1999. The Ducks and Trojans are the two most-talented teams in the league over the last five years, ranking first (40-5) and third (30-15) in Pac-12 wins. These two powerhouses have earned at least a share of the conference crown for 12 straight seasons prior to last season. Only Stanford (34-11) and Oregon State (26-19) have winning Pac-12 records over the last five years — Utah's winning clip came mostly in the Mountain West. The rest of the league is getting better and coaching issues in both L.A. and Eugene will help close the gap, but make no mistake, this has been a two-horse conference race for over a decade.
The magical Jim Harbaugh
David Shaw is the head coach at Stanford and has done a remarkable job continuing Stanford's success over the last two seasons both on the field and on the recruiting trail. However, Jim Harbaugh deserves much of the credit for rebuilding the Cardinal program. Stanford was 16-40 the five years prior to Harbaugh taking over and he immediately raised the awareness of Palo Alto on the recruiting trail. By his second full class (2009), he had Stanford securely in the top 25 nationally in terms of talent. Shaw needs to be given loads of credit for continuing success post-Andrew Luck last fall, but there is a reason the San Francisco 49ers are in the Super Bowl and his name is Jim Harbaugh.
Mike Riley is consistently underrated
The Beavers are ranked ahead of only Washington State in terms of roster talent in the Pac-12 and are 49th nationally in recruiting over the last five years. And while Oregon State has had a down year or two here or there, Riley has this team achieving at unprecedented levels in Corvallis. The Beavers are being out-recruited by teams like Colorado, Kansas, Illinois and Minnesota but have experienced dramatically more success than all of the above. The credit has to go to Riley, one of the nicest guys in the business.
UCLA was in much better shape than their record indicated
The Bruins have always had talent. That has never been the issue in Westwood, be it under Rick Neuheisel or DeWayne Walker. Both coaches clearly recruited at an elite level, ranking the Bruins' roster third in the Pac-12 and 17th nationally in terms of talent. It was the coaching that was the issue. And it only took a small bit of energy from the new regime to kickstart the very talented UCLA roster. A 19-26 conference record is unacceptable for a team with "better" talent than Oklahoma State, Virginia Tech, Texas A&M, Wisconsin and Stanford.
The middle of the league has upside
Washington, Arizona State and Cal have recruited at a top-35 level the last five years despite all being at least five games under .500 in Pac-12 play over that same span. Only Cal (32-31) has a winning overall record as well over that span. However, the Huskies were 0-12 in 2008 and are 26-25 under Steve Sarkisian. And with a potential top 10 class signing in 2013 and totally reworked facilities, Washington appears poised to return to national prominence. There also appears to be plenty of talent for Todd Graham in year two at Arizona State and Sonny Dykes in his first season at Cal for each to be much better than past regimes.
Welcome to the big leagues, Utah
Kyle Whittingham’s team is 7-11 in two seasons in the Pac-12. The Utes were 21-3 in the Mountain West the three years prior to entering one of the power conferences. Yet, their recruiting has only gotten better over the last five years going from 60th to 44th to 32nd over that span. While 37th in the nation would likely give them the top roster in the MWC, it gives them the eighth-best collection of players in the Pac-12. It indicates that sledding will be tough in the loaded and developing Pac-12 South for the newbies from Salt Lake City.
What is wrong in Pullman?
There have been some famous quotes from players — recently and historically — about how tough it is to be a Wazzu football player. But this team won at least a share of the conference championship and went to the Rose Bowl twice between 1997 and 2003. So how is it that the Cougars are only ahead of UConn and Temple in terms of talent nationally? No power conference team has won fewer conference games over the last five than the Cougars (Indiana is tied with five wins as well but in five fewer games). Mike Leach has his hands full in Pullman, but if anyone’s scheme can overcome a talent differential like the one WSU is facing, it is the crazy pirate.
Pac-12's National Team Recruiting Rankings Breakdown:
Avg Nat'l Rank