How much weight to give college football recruiting rankings is a subject that often vexes me. It starts with a moral concern—at the risk of being overly sanctimonious, I find the fawning hype given to the college choice of a 17 or 18-year-old kid, and the accompany emotions that pour out from adults over it, to be insane. On a practical level, I’d like to believe that what happens once the kid is on campus—from player development to coaching strategy—matters more than the star rating given by a recruiting service.
I’d like to believe all those things. But it reminds me of what Morgan Freeman once said in Shawshank Redemption, “I’d like to tell you that Andy stood his ground and the sisters let him be—but prison life is no fairy tale.” Neither is the cutthroat world of college football talent procurement. Recruiting services keep getting more accurate with their rankings and the correlation between a high spot in the recruiting rankings and a legitimate shot at a national championship is too strong to ignore.
So the question then is just how to evaluate recruiting classes and how much weight to give those evaluations in making preseason predictions. I keep an Excel spreadsheet that shows each school’s ranking in the 247 Sports Top 50 for each of the last four years. Those rankings are then weighted for where each class is in their development. The recruits of the Class of 2015 are now entering their senior year and presumably should matter more than any other.
The formula is to just take the ranking for the senior class (2015) and multiply it by 4. The current crop of juniors (2016) has their ranking multiplied by 3. The sophomore class by 2 and the incoming freshman class rank is multiplied by 1. Then you simply add up the numbers to get the final recruiting score.
It’s not rocket science by any stretch, and it’s not intended to be. There are any number of factors not accounted for—early departures to the NFL or leaving school for any other reason would be the biggest example. A class with a 5-star rated quarterback would be considered more valuable than one with a collection of 4-stars at a few different spots. And, most importantly, some coaching staffs simply develop their talent better than others.
All that means is that the final recruiting score is not a power ranking. I don’t simply take the scores and use them as my preseason predictions. What I do use them for is to be able to have a quick shorthand way of knowing how much raw talent each program is working with.
Here are the top 11 recruiting scores for this season (I choose 11 because that’s the number of spots the power conferences have in the New Year’s Six major bowl games, with the 12th spot reserved for the top midmajor).
As you can see, the list isn’t perfect—LSU, Texas, Notre Dame and most glaringly, Tennessee, have not played up to their potential. But this list includes every national champion since 2008. It includes every runner-up except Oregon (2010, 2014).
I root for Wisconsin, so I’ll give you my conclusions on this from that perspective. The Badger program has become the epitome of making the most of your talent pool (a score of 132) and if given the choice, we’re better off having Paul Chryst, his staff and this class of recruits then we would be with a more talented, but dysfunctional situation like LSU or Tennessee.
But it also means the Badgers are going to be badly overmatched by programs that do recruit well and have coaching staffs that know what they’re doing—i.e., Ohio State, the team that ruined Wisconsin’s perfect season in last year’s Big Ten Championship Game. If your team is not on this list right here, you better keep your expectations in line. Even if they have 18 starters back, it’s unlikely the overall raw talent pool is sufficient to match up with Alabama or Ohio State.
The short way of summing this up is simple—great—not good, but great–recruiting won’t cover up coaching malfeasance, but it is an absolute prerequisite if you want to win a national championship. Whomever hoists the trophy next January in Santa Clara will come from the above list of 11.