The world is flat and borderless. That’s what the books say. Technology did it, made it possible to see into any corner of the world, absorb its culture, acquire its goods.
College football continues to exist as a refutation of that idea. It is a sport that is about division and then subdivision. Every week is a chance to prove that the best football is obviously played here, which is proof that the football over there is crap. Tuscaloosa and Auburn, 120 miles between them as the War Eagle flies, desperately want to be viewed as worlds apart. An Aggie in College Station will say he or she has nothing in common with an alum of “Texas University,” also just120 miles away. Clemson and Columbia share the same elevation but citizens of both are convinced their town is a city upon a hill compared to the other one. We’re all born with the bricks, a sense of pride in where we come from, but the games are the mortar that builds these walls. Win and your school has beaten back evil itself. Lose and its further proof of the inherent unfairness of life.
This makes college football fun. Zoom out, however, and it becomes pretty obvious that the bitterest of rivals have more they share than separates them. Oklahoma and Nebraska were this way before conference expansion and, eventually, realignment killed the rivalry. Despite being viewed as opposite in every way, particularly during the Barry Switzer-Tom Osborne battles, the Sooners and Cornhuskers had one key thing in common: Minus a handful of hall-of-fame coaches – three for Oklahoma, two for Nebraska and Biff Jones, who coached at both briefly – there was no good explanation for why they were so good. Not when you consider location. Not when you consider population. Not when you consider access to talent.
Both were nearly miracles, creating something out of nothing, an identity built in to the state nicknames that eventually ended up as the university nicknames.
Oklahoma, due to its proximity to Texas, was always better off than Nebraska in that regard but Norman would still have to be considered a college football outpost. If you were starting a college football program today and wanted to win quickly, you wouldn’t put it there. Or in Lincoln.
You might put it somewhere close to Jonesboro, Arkansas.
WE KNOW that talent matters. It’s not everything, of course, but it might be the most consistent predictor of college football success. Since 2002, every national champion has landed at least one top-five recruiting class, using Rivals’ rankings, in the four years leading up to its title-winning season. Go back further than that and you start to reach the early days of the recruiting industry, but if you’re willing to dig you can piece it together and you’ll find that the scale changes slightly but the correlation between talent and winning really doesn’t.
Instead of top-five classes being the cutoff point, it’s top-10. From Miami’s 2001 title back to Nebraska’s in 1994, eight of the nine national champions, including shared titles, had at least two top-10 classes in the four years preceding a national championship. Oklahoma’s 2000 championship team, the only national champ to start a season unranked, is the outlier.
This is not a likeable truth. For one, recruiting can be an unsavory business even when done by the rules. Also, people like to remember the exceptions to the rule, the walk-ons and uncovered gems that were better than the 5-star hot shot every team wanted. People want to think a sport they love is about more than talent accumulation.
Occasionally it is. But the data over just the last 20 years is pretty conclusive: The surest way to contend for national titles is to recruit well and the surest way to recruit well is to be surrounded by top-level talent.
It’s a particularly unpopular storyline in Nebraska because the Huskers have every advantage – facilities, tradition, fans — but that one.
PICTURE A GLOBE that floats freely and rotates on any axis. Now let’s say you started putting a pin on the globe marking the location of every Rivals250 recruit – the top 250 players in the country – since 2004, the first football season after Steve Pederson decided Nebraska should not gravitate towards mediocrity. The weight of those pins would cause the globe to rotate to find a balance with the heaviest point on the globe facing straight down.
To make this made-up thing somewhat official sounding, we’ll call that point the Center of Recruiting Gravity and give it an acronym (CRG).
This is how your nascent college football program ends up in northeast Arkansas.
THE CENTER of the recruiting universe over the past 13 years is nestled in the bend of a stream, someplace after Hogpen Slough becomes Pickett Lake but before Pickett Lake becomes Pickett Slough. There’s nothing actually there. Just some farmland and a muddy body of water, but it is technically the center of where the best 3,000 or so recruits since 2004 played high school football.
The actual geographic center of the United States is near Lebanon, Kan., less than 20 miles south of Red Cloud, Neb., on US Highway 281. The population center of the United States, according to the latest census, is near Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., about 150 miles north and just slightly west of the recruiting CRG. This can tell us a lot about recruiting to Nebraska and recruiting in general.
Theoretically, Nebraska is well positioned to recruit any corner of the United States thanks to its central location. Practically, however, it’s not close to most of the major centers of talent and that turns out to be as important as anything else when it comes to wooing blue-chip players.
Most people understand this inherently, but putting some numbers to it offers evidence we’ve always assumed was there.
So imagine you’re a head coach. Let’s say last year wasn’t the greatest, the boosters are fidgety and the message boards are hot to the touch. You decide to get on a plane and go recruit the 10 best players in a state two states over. One thing before you leave – tear your list in half. Good luck deciding which half.
Based on the last 13 years of Rivals250 data, half of the best players in country are staying in state. It was 50.9 percent between 2004 and 2016, to be exact. Coaches today might be getting slightly better odds than they did seven years ago – since 2010, 49.2 percent of the top 250 have stayed in state, down from 53.5 percent over the previous six recruiting cycles – but it’s still basically a coin flip every time a coach heads out of state.
If that state you’re hoping on a plane to visit isn’t part of your conference’s footprint, the odds get even worse. Over the entire span surveyed, 79.1 percent of Rivals250 recruits stayed within a conference that has a school in the recruits’ home states. As with the in-state percentages, recruits are showing a slightly increased willingness to leave their home turf of late. Between 2004 and 2009, 81.2 percent of Rivals250 recruits stayed in conference. Over the past seven recruiting cycles, that number is down to 77.7 percent. Maybe in 20 years, proximity will matter even less.
For now, however, it’s still a formidable foe.
If you’ve tired of the non-stop chest-beating out of the SEC – and it seems like most fans of any team outside that conference have over the past decade plus – counter with this: The SEC should have been the best conference in the country based on talent. The numbers make it abundantly clear.
Between 2004 and 2016 the SEC signed 32.6 percent of all the Rivals250 recruits and eight of the top-10 talent-producing states were either SEC states or SEC adjacent. The ACC was second at 20.4 percent followed by the Pac-12 (17.6), Big Ten (16.3) and Big 12 (11.6).
Here’s another way to look at it. The Big Ten landed 480 Rivals250 players over the past 13 seasons, almost exactly half the SEC’s total (959).
Here’s yet another way: Alabama signed 144 of the best players in the country over the past 13 seasons. The Big Ten West Division teams combined to sign 111.
A school can have the most generous boosters and devoted fans in the world supplying any number of resources meant to assure success on the football field. But proximity to talent is the one resource that’s not for sale.
So what’s a school like Nebraska to do?
It might already be doing it.
NEBRASKA’S CENTER of Recruiting Gravity for Rivals250 prospects is near a silo north of Dodge City, Kan., 271.5 miles southwest of Memorial Stadium. It’s a surprising location given that our recruiting globe tilts strongly towards the southeast. It’s also closer to Lincoln than I was expecting.
Among the 25 schools that have signed the most Rivals250 players since 2004, Nebraska’s stadium-to-CRG distance is only the seventh-longest. Four of the six schools that have had to go farther than Nebraska to land top players were limited by location. Miami can’t go south, so its CRG is naturally pulled north and Florida is a pretty long state top-to-bottom. California, USC and Oregon can’t go west, so every player they pluck from somewhere other than the West Coast pulls their CRGs east. Stanford – which has a CRG all the way in Oklahoma, 1,063 miles from campus – has the perfect mix of factors to produce the longest distance traveled among the top 25. The Cardinal naturally has to move east and also has to look everywhere to find players who can qualify for the academically-rigorous school. Getting those players to pick up and move is easier when you can offer one of the world’s most valuable degrees. Notre Dame is in a similar position.
(The map below shows you the CRG for the top 25 recruiters over the past 13 seasons relative to campus location. You can zoom in or out and hover over the yellow lines to see the distance from campus.)
Compare that to Auburn, which has a CRG just 26 miles from Jordan-Hare Stadium, or Alabama, which had to go, on average, just 32 miles northeast towards Birmingham to land its 144 Rivals250 players, the second most in the country behind USC.
Again, this all only serves to confirm what we’ve always assumed about the challenges Nebraska faces in recruiting, but getting a clear bearing on which way recruiting gravity pulls the Huskers could be useful in determining where Nebraska should look in the future.
All things being equal, any team capable of landing top-250 recruits should be pulled towards the Arkansas-Tennessee border. That’s the bull’s-eye.
Schools that are east of the bull’s-eye – those that are in the most populous portion of the United States – can get away with resisting gravity a bit. LSU probably doesn’t need to go to California that often when it almost always has comparable players closer to home. Its CRG can move a little east. Penn State should look to the northeast given that it has long been the preeminent football program in that part of the country. It makes sense for Clemson and North Carolina to stick a little closer to home rather than venture into the heart of SEC country.
But for the schools in the western half of the country, the pull of the densest recruiting area is evident except for two schools — Oklahoma and Nebraska. They are both centrally located and lucky enough to have the clout to recruit nationally but the CRG for both schools over the past 13 seasons has been pulled south towards Texas, not SEC country, and also west towards California.
That’s probably where those schools should be looking and here’s why: The SEC and the ACC, the heavyweight and light heavyweight recruiting champions of the past 13 years, aren’t really out there. Schools from those conferences offer the best players in the West, sure, but they don’t have a ton of success. The SEC landed only 3.2 percent of the Rivals250 players from California. The ACC is barely in Texas, signing just 2.6 percent of the top-250 players there since 2004. Clemson almost became the first national champion in 25 years without a Texan on the roster. Florida State only has one in 2016.
Now look at this from Nebraska’s perspective. Given the program’s history – we’ll get to the coaches in a second – is it better to go after the top-five defensive tackle in Georgia who will presumably have offers from the top teams in the ACC and SEC and two chances to stay in conference (remember, 80 percent of the top prospects have). Or are the odds better with the top-five defensive tackle in California? He also might have offers from the ACC and SEC’s best but he probably isn’t going there very often based on the numbers. The Pac-12 schools are a formidable enough challenge, but only two of those schools rank in the top 15 in terms of total Rivals250 recruits signed, a group that includes five SEC teams and two ACC squads. Is it easier to beat out eight schools within driving distance or four?
Some will say that Nebraska doesn’t need to duck anybody, it can go head-to-head with anyone. Sometimes that makes sense and having a presence in as many places as possible should pay off in the long run. But there’s something to be said for working smarter, too.
Smarter for Nebraska might point due west.
The Huskers’ current coaching staff is probably just fine with that. That’s where they came from. That’s where many of their connections remain. That’s where they’re having remarkable success at the moment.
Since taking over after the 2014 season, Mike Riley and staff have landed five Rivals250 players: Eric Lee and Avery Anderson, Bo Pelini commits from Colorado who Riley held onto, in the 2015 class and Lamar Jackson (Calif.), John Raridon (Iowa) and Patrick O’Brien (Calif.) in the 2016 class. Add in two Rivals250 commits in the 2017 class thus far – Keyshawn Johnson Jr. and Tristan Gebbia, both from Calabasas, Calif. – and Riley has already shifted Nebraska’s 2004-to-2017 CRG 138 miles west from where it was when he took over.
Based on his history on the West Coast, that was probably going to happen whether it made sense or not. In this case, however, based on a decade-plus of data, it appears to make a lot of sense. Go where the players are often as good but the competition for those players is marginally softer.
Tom Osborne did. Over 25 years of recruiting, he signed nearly as many players from California (51) as he did from Texas (54).
And California isn’t the only place that appears potentially fruitful for Nebraska going forward. It also appears to make sense to look northeast as well.
Give Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany credit. He was mostly after TV markets when he added Rutgers and Maryland to the conference, but he also might have added two comparatively fertile recruiting grounds to the Big Ten footprint. Between 2004 and 2016, Maryland produced 69 Rivals250 players, 12th nationally despite ranking 19th in population. That’s comparable to South Carolina (68) and Mississippi (67). Add in the District of Columbia (17 Rivals250 players since 2004) and all of the sudden you have the third-most fertile recruiting area in the Big Ten behind Ohio and Pennsylvania.
But what if you lumped New Jersey into that group? It isn’t a bang-for-your-buck recruiting state like Maryland because its population is large but it has produced nearly as many top prospects over the past 13 years (67). Maryland, New Jersey and D.C. combined to produce 153 players ranked in the Rivals250, which, taken collectively, would only trail Florida, Texas, California and Georgia in the amount of top recruits produced over the past 13 years. In terms of available talent, adding Maryland and New Jersey was like adding another Ohio to the Big Ten.
It’s in Nebraska’s best interests to be up there, too, particularly when you consider that the home-state schools haven’t exactly been on the shortlist for a bunch of 4- and 5-star players. Maryland and New Jersey’s in-state signing percentages, predictably, rank in the bottom five nationally among Rivals250 players. Those states have largely been open waters when it comes to recruiting and they may – probably will — lean a little more heavily Big Ten as things progress. They’re already majority Big Ten states.
Nebraska’s staff doesn’t have the built-in connections there that it does in the West, of course, but the program isn’t totally foreign in that corridor either, particularly in New Jersey. Since 1973, the Huskers have signed 34 players from the Garden State more than either Iowa (29) or Kansas (28).
That tells us a lot about Nebraska recruiting, too. This has always been a program that has had to recruit nationally and, as the Huskers’ championships have dried up since 1999 proximity to recruits has emerged as the primary reason cited for the title drought. It’s hard to recruit to Nebraska. There are no natural advantages other than the name the program has made for itself. It can feel very much like an uphill battle.
It is an uphill battle and that’s unlikely to ever change. So if you’ve got to fight gravity anyway, why not mash the gas and accelerate in the opposite directions? If most of the traditional college football powers are currently being sucked towards a swamp in Arkansas, what happens if you choose to go away from it?
Traffic should be better, that’s for sure.
Also, Oklahoma has been looking that way a lot of late. Between 2004 and 2016 the Sooners landed 104 Rivals250 players. Forty-one of them were from Texas, just 16 from California. However, all 16 of those Golden-State signees have come since 2010, almost matching the total from nearby Texas (16).
Maybe it’s still not safe to hold once-hated Oklahoma up as a model, but most Husker fans would probably take the Sooners’ success just since 2010 – three conference titles, 38 weeks in the Associated Press top 10, four weeks at No. 1.
For as much as we use this sport to divide, the fiercest rivals are often the most similar.
It’s a matter of simple geography, really.