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The Question of Talent

One year and two days ago, former Nebraska secondary coach Corey Raymond said this after the Huskers let a lead slip away against South Carolina in the 2012 Capital One Bowl:

“Just be honest. Look at them, look at us. It’s pretty obvious.”

He was talking about talent.

Two days ago, current Nebraska secondary coach Terry Joseph said this after the Huskers let a lead slip away against Georgia in the 2013 Capital One Bowl:

“We have a ways to go as a program. When you play against a team like that, and to win at a real high level, you got to have depth, and you’ve got to have guys who can finish.”

He, too, was talking about talent, albeit in a less direct, more genteel way. A lot of people who follow Nebraska football are talking about talent right now.

On one hand, that’s not surprising. The more talent a team has, the better off it is. Nobody disputes this point. So when you have a program, like Nebraska, that has yet to meet or exceed sky-high expectations, getting more talent is a popular “fix.”

Theoretically, a coach can always get more talent. You can shop for it. When you run out of milk you go to the store and get more. The store is never out of milk and America is always stocked with footballing talent. Should a coach prove that he isn’t great at picking up milk from the store, he typically isn’t the coach for long at a place like Nebraska.

That’s a significantly easier answer than confronting the more mysterious notions of player development, confidence, consistency, or strategy. Coaches have to create that stuff. It isn’t at the store.

So am I surprised that talent is the hot button topic at the moment? I am not. It’s the easier answer.

But, as someone who’s never fully bought that Nebraska lacks talent, I am surprised that what was a close game against a Georgia team that definitely isn’t lacking for talent, seemingly did nothing to slow that discussion. Sure, the 2012 Blackshirts could have used a defining playmaker at one or two key spots, but was there a wide gulf between what the Bulldogs put on the field and what the Huskers had out there?

Every person who follows recruiting knows that the star system is an inexact science – projections, by definition, are inexact – but this stops almost nobody from using those rankings as a basis for comparison. So let’s use them for a little back of the envelope math in an effort to come up with an objective comparison.

Georgia’s 22 starters in the Capital One Bowl, including one walk-on with no ranking who was removed from the calculation, had an average Rivals ranking of 3.62 stars. Nebraska’s 22 starters, including two unranked walk-ons (also removed), had an average of 3.3 stars. Georgia’s starters, as a whole, were believed to be three-tenths of a star better than Nebraska’s coming out of high school. That number doesn’t tell us much on its own, so let’s go further.

In 2012, Iowa State and Central Florida ranked 60th and 61st in the Rivals team rankings when sorted for average star ranking. With 122 teams playing FBS football at the time, that makes their recruiting classes the median in college football for that year. The average player on the median class in 2012 had 2.76 stars, which gives us a general idea of how good the average FBS signee was that year. Do that for the past five classes – which would includes almost every player who could still be playing – and the average player in college football was a 2.67-star player.

Now back to the Capital One Bowl. Georgia’s starters on Tuesday were 35.6% better than that mythical “average guy.” Nebraska’s were 23.6% better. What does a gap of 12 percentage points actually look like on the field? It’s about one or two players. If Baker Steinkuhler, the only five-star prospect Nebraska has signed since 2008 according to Rivals, starts that game, the Huskers’ overall average climbs to 3.4 stars per player. Go down the list of Nebraska commits under Pelini and, with a couple of key insertions, you can close that gap between the Bulldogs and Huskers pretty quickly.

Talent matters. Matt Hinton has done a good job of quantifying  how much it matters over the years, but it’s important to realize what a fine line we’re talking about here.

Three star players make up nearly 40% of the signees in any given year and the top 40 or so schools in any give year out are almost defined more by their ability to not dip below that three-star mark. Over the past five seasons, only USC has had a class where the average player was better than 4-stars (2012, 2010). This year the Trojans became the first team in history to open the season at No. 1 in the AP poll and finish with six losses.

Since 2002, Nebraska’s fallen below that average three-star mark twice. The first was the 2004 class when Bill Callahan was hired with less than a month to go before signing day. The second was in 2008, when Bo Pelini had to cobble together his class in two months.

You saw a lot of that class, particularly on defense, in Orlando this week. The question on many Husker fans’ minds right now is how a leaky defense will be better next year with so many players gone and so many unknowns.

But if you favor the talent argument, consider this: Since that 2008 class, Pelini’s average signee comes in at 3.34 stars. Callahan, whose Nebraska tenure was defined by recruiting and little else, averaged a 3.31-star signee over his final three seasons.

Nebraska has talent. A team can always use more, but that’s only part of the equation. Getting better players can definitely increase a team’s margin for error, but so can committing fewer errors.

Which is more important to the future success of Nebraska football? I know where I’d start.