Are the Huskers falling behind in recruiting?

If Dave Gillespie was worried in the early days of 1993, he definitely wasn’t going to admit it to the largest newspaper in the state.

The Huskers had just lost the Orange Bowl 27-14 to Florida State nine days earlier. It was Nebraska’s sixth straight bowl loss and fourth straight season where the Huskers fell outside of the Associated Press’ final Top 10. But that wasn’t Gillespie’s biggest problem.

His immediate concern was that the Huskers had just six players verbally committed to its 1993 recruiting class. Five of them were from Nebraska. One was a junior college transfer.

Surely, this must be a sign of the damage repeated big-stage losses were having on the Husker brand, right? Gillespie answered that question in a January 10, 1993 story in the Omaha World Herald:

“That Nebraska didn’t win its bowl game, that Nebraska is slipping in national prestige – I’m not so sure that a kid out in Jersey City, New Jersey, is cognizant of that negative press.

“We still feel a lot of doors are open because we are Nebraska. Where you see our reputation eroding is in the national media.”

That’s a recruiting coordinator’s job, of course. Have an answer. Yes, we’re behind but we’re ok. We had to go to Tokyo in December. That didn’t help. But we’ll be fine. (The 1993 class finished with an average national rank of 17.5.)

The fan sentiment that must have prompted that question should feel familiar. We’re hearing it right now as Nebraska is in the middle of a high-stakes summer recruiting week. The difference, obviously, is that today that concern arises in June.

“Nebraska needs some commits this week,” is a popular refrain right now. The Huskers are making some progress. Thanks to two commits in the last five days, Nebraska has doubled its total from a week ago. The Huskers now have four commits in the 2014 class, which is tied with the number Tennessee and Texas already have committed for 2015.

And that, ultimately, is the problem. The average number of commits for a team in the current Top 25 at Scout.com is 11.2. Baylor, somehow, already has 19. Good players are coming off the board quickly these days, a fact that hasn’t been lost on the nation’s college football coaches.

“Recruiting has sped up so much,” Bo Pelini told the Lincoln Journal Star last weekend. “Kids are making decisions earlier now. It’s just a fact: Our chances increase greatly when you get kids on campus.”

But it’s hard to get players, who have to pay their own way in spring and summer, to Lincoln. It’s not close to much, particularly the fertile recruiting grounds of the South, Ohio or California. Yet, as Pelini mentioned above, the campus visit is the centerpiece of Nebraska’s recruiting strategy. It’s the best thing Nebraska has to offer.

So, partly by circumstance and partly by design, the Huskers appear to be running a different race than the teams at the top of the recruiting rankings. But what does the data say?

To answer that question, I charted the commitment dates over the last 11 recruiting classes for Nebraska as well as the top-, 10th-, and 60th-ranked (representing the median) classes in the Scout.com rankings. Everything is expressed in terms of days from Jan. 1. So, when Luke Gifford committed to Nebraska on March 11 of this year, he committed 70 days into the recruiting period for purposes of this model. The resulting 11-season averages are not a comparison of Nebraska against all of college football — that would be a mammoth undertaking — but rather against the timelines of the best, the very good, and the average over the past decade. The graph below provides a sort of visual road map for when players are committing.

As you can see, the Huskers 11-year timeline very closely mirrors that of the median FBS team, a decent stand-in for average. Teams that finished at No. 10 and No. 1 got their first few commitments at about the same time as the Huskers, but the graphs start to diverge with commitments No. 4 through 15. That gap you see above is what’s causing the consternation among Nebraska fans. Teams at or near the top of the rankings, over the past 11 years, have gotten more players earlier. There appears to be some truth to the notion that, at least for teams at the top of the rankings, recruiting is “speeding up.”

The data also shows that this is a relatively recent phenomenon. Click through the chart above and you can see that the timeline graphs for the first half of the 11-year period (2003 – 2007) are more closely grouped than they are in the second half (2008 – 2013). Conveniently, this also shows the pre-Pelini era against the current one. Even considering Pelini’s stated preference for slowing things down on the recruiting trail, the graphs show that Pelini has actually landed more players earlier than his predecessors. He’s just not doing it as quickly as the top teams have.

To express idea more clearly, we can divide the recruiting calendar into three distinct periods: Preseason (anything prior to July 31), In-season (fall camp through the end of the regular season) and Postseason (Dec. 1 through Signing Day). Here are the percentage of players committed in those separate groups for each of the four classes mentioned above over the past 11 classes.

Over the past 11 years, Nebraska has received more than half of its verbal commitments either before the season or in-season, numbers the closely resemble that of the median team in Scout’s rankings. That’s significantly different than the Nos. 1/10 teams in the rankings, both of which have gotten more than 40 percent of their commits prior to the start of fall camp. Of the teams surveyed, Nebraska gets the highest percentage (25.79 percent) of its commits during the season, lending some support to the idea that the Huskers best recruiting tool is its gameday atmosphere.

But there’s another piece to Nebraska’s relatively slow starts on the recruiting trail — Bo Pelini, and therefore his staff, prize senior game film more than most.

“You can’t compare us to Ohio State and Michigan and Notre Dame,” recruiting coordinator Ross Els told ESPN last month. “We will not fill up that quickly. If we’re filling up that quickly, it’s either because we just won the national championship and everybody wants to play for us, or we might be not very selective in who we’re taking. We don’t throw offers out there just to throw ’em out there.”

Much like it was with Gillespie 20 years ago, it’s Els’ job to say things like that. Keep calm and carry on.

Is recruiting speeding up? The data above, limited as it is, supports that idea. Does that in turn mean that Nebraska, which prefers a more moderate pace, is falling behind?

The answer to that question is more subjective. If you think Nebraska, based on the tradition and resources at its disposal, should consistently be kicking around the Top 10 in the team recruiting rankings, the current recruiting timeline doesn’t really resemble that. But, based on earlier analysis of the Huskers’ average recruiting rankings from 1987 to 2012, Nebraska achieved that milestone only about half of the time between 1987 and 1996, a period where the Huskers’ average ranking in the final AP poll was 9.1. Pelini’s average final AP poll ranking is 20th over five season.

As Els hinted at in his comments to ESPN, increasing your wins on the field is still the best way to increase wins in recruiting and, in today’s game, that typically results in picking up more commitments earlier. A glance at the latest recruiting rankings shows that success is relative measure. Teams like Baylor, Texas A&M, Northwestern and Ole Miss don’t have conference titles to their name, but they have been better than expected at various points over the past few years. In short, they display an upward trajectory.

Four-loss seasons and division titles don’t move the needle at Nebraska. That’s something everyone in the state, from fans to staff, can agree on. Is Nebraska falling behind in recruiting?

I’d say they’re recruiting about as well as expected based on the success to expectations ratio. One way or another, that probably has to change.