On the surface, recruiting class rankings are an exercise in subjectivity. Individual players are rated by individual experts and you inherently get some wildly divergent opinions on the hundreds of high school player who end up playing college football. With that many kids scattered across the country, it would be more surprising if there weren’t differences of opinion.
But overall the recruiting services do a good job of evaluating high school talent. Matt Hinton — of CBSSports.com, SB Nation and Yahoo! Sports fame — has done excellent work showing each season how star rankings relate to overall individual success. His findings from the most recent recruiting cycle showed that a 5-star recruit has about 1 in 12 chance of becoming an All-American. Those odds drop to 1 in 32 for 4-star players and on down the line.
Those individual rankings make up the modern day class rankings and one thing has always frustrated me about those yearly class rankings — the lack of readily available historical reference points. The online databases at Rivals and Scout only go back about a decade. There were, of course, recruiting rankings before that. It was sort of a clandestine sub-genre of football journalism comprising annual newsletters and pay-per-minute hotlines, but it was there. Guys like Max Emfinger, Tom Lemming, and Allen Wallace sold their wares to a devoted fanbases and waited for the one time a year — signing day — when the major newspapers would call and ask them to make sense of what had just happened on a national scale.
Those guys moved around a lot as the Internet evolved, making locating those old rankings difficult but over the past two years I’ve tried to collect as many historical recruiting rankings as I could using various online sources, many archival Google News searches and the modern recruiting services’ databases. This seemed like a worthwhile expenditure of time because a) I’m sort of strange and b) there’s been a good deal of “conventional wisdom” sprout up around Nebraska recruiting.
That conventional wisdom tends to go something like this: Tom Osborne was a good recruiter who won more than his talent may have dictated (as best summed up by this turn-of-the-21st-century chart from CBSSportsLine.com). Frank Solich was ultimately done in by Steve Pederson but a couple of below average recruiting classes didn’t help. Bill Callahan recruited better than he won and Bo Pelini, well, the verdict is still out but he generally falls somewhere in between Solich and Callahan.
How closely does that resemble the data? This is an effort to find out.
For the past 26 Nebraska recruiting classes (1987-2012), I’ve located 99 individual class rankings. They include rankings from ESPN, Scout, Rivals, 247Sports, Emfinger, Lemming, SuperPrep, Prep Star, Blue Chip Report, and the National Recruiting Advisor. For all but two years (1988, 1991) there are multiple rankings for each class. You can find the average yearly rank for Nebraska’s past 26 classes below.
Those are the raw numbers but a graphic representation provides, perhaps, a better look at the yearly swings in recruiting. (Click to enlarge.)
That’s pretty spiky, which is the nature of recruiting for most schools in the country. Needs change year to year, coaches evaluate players differently than recruiting experts, there are any number of reasons for the swings but what the graph does provide is an indicator of the “neighborhood” in which Nebraska resides in the national recruiting landscape. That neighborhood over the past 25 years has been somewhere between 15th and 25th nationally. The median recruiting class over that span is 18.25, the mean is 18.82.
Break that out by coach and the average class ranks read like this:
Osborne (11 classes, 29 data points): 14.90
Solich: (6 classes, 27 data points): 20.19
Callahan: (4 classes, 24 data points): 18.00
Pelini: (5 classes, 19 data points): 23.89
If you apply a trend line — which, it must be noted, is a projection — to Nebraska’s average recruiting class rank, it looks like this:
Conventional wisdom confirmed? Maybe. Nebraska’s is recruiting slightly worse than it did during the height of its powers in the mid-1990s. But only slightly.
For example, look at Nebraska’s recruiting classes from 1995 to 1999. The Huskers were arguably never hotter on the national scene than in the midst of that championship run and the recruiting rankings reflected that. Osborne’s best recruiting stretch came after the 1994 title and Solich was even able to ride the wave for a few years. That’s not surprising, but it’s hard to argue that Osborne won his first national title via a talent upgrade.
Taking the longview, what we’re really talking about here is the effect winning had on Nebraska’s recruiting. The average Osborne class from 1987 to 1995 had a ranking of 17.67. Between 1995 and 2000, the Huskers experienced a national title bump in recruiting. The average class during that span ranked 10.60. In every year since then, the average Nebraska class comes in at 22.86. Off the pace, yes, but in the vicinity. What’s the difference between the 22nd best class and the 17th? One 4-star? Two 3-stars?
I recall Terry Fancona saying, in the inimitable and enjoyable way that all baseball managers seem to talk, “If you give yourself a chance, you’ve got a chance.” A bit of folkloric coachspeak, yes, but I’m not sure there’s a better conclusion out there when it comes to recruiting.
And, based on the data above, it appears to me that Nebraska is still doing a decent job of giving itself a chance.