Some final thoughts on recruiting (yeah, right)

Sunday Morning Quarterback led me to this “college football recruiting prediction model” website hosted by – no shit – Mercer University. The site purports to provide “an econometric model to predict the choices of college” by the incoming recruiting class.

If, like me, you’ve raised teenage kids, the whole idea of coming up with a predictive model of how a seventeen year old will make a major decision falls somewhere between amusing and incomprehensible. And to their credit, the authors of the model admit to being

… a bit surprised by the results. There were a number of factors that we thought would significantly impact the decision of the high school athlete that didn’t. For example, factors like the school’s graduation rate, the number of Bowl Championship Series (BCS) bowl appearances, the current roster depth at the recruited player’s position, the number of players from a specific college drafted by the NFL, and even the number of national championships won by a particular program don’t systematically influence the decisions of high school athletes.

So what did they find that does matter to these kids?

  • Whether the athlete made an “official visit” to a specific college

  • Whether the school is in a BCS conference

  • The distance from the high school athlete’s hometown to a specific school

  • Whether the recruit is in the same state as a specific school

  • The final AP Ranking of a specific school in the previous year of competition

  • The number of conference titles a school has recorded in recent years

  • Whether the school is currently under a “bowl ban” for violating NCAA rules

  • The current number of scholarship reductions a school faces for violating NCAA rules

  • The size of the team’s stadium (measured in terms of seating capacity)

  • Whether the school has an on-campus stadium

  • The current age of the team’s stadium

They conclude

… high school athletes prefer winning programs that are close to home, are in possession of good physical facilities, and are in good graces with the NCAA. Interestingly enough however, reduced scholarships increase the likelihood of choosing a particular school, holding all else constant…

The authors claim somewhere around a 70% success rate for predicting where the Rivals top 100 recruits will wind up (you can see the 2007 list at the link). My only comment is that if they could figure out some way to work a “hormonal” factor into their model, they could probably get that bad boy up another 10%, easy.

Meanwhile, over at Saurian Sagacity, Mergz takes a shot at analyzing the relationship between recruiting success and success on the field – in this case, by comparing Scout.com’s top 25 schools in recruiting for the years 2003-6 with the coaches’ final top 25 poll for the season just ended. It’s a valiant effort, and interesting as far as it goes, but in the end it left me wanting more.

In his defense, Mergz avoids drawing certain conclusions from his comparison:

…Whether this is a result of inaccurate rankings by Scout.com, poor coaching, poor effort, or just bad luck is for you to decide…

What a tease! What good is a piece like this without doing some fingerpointing and throwing blame around?

Seriously, I do think some broader context is valuable for this discussion. For one, there are things about the whole recruit evaluation process that distort what I would call the real value of an incoming class. I’m not talking about whether a particular kid is really a four star or five star recuit, or even whether he pans out over time according to his rating on Scout or Rivals (you can call that micro evaluation).

I’m looking at this on the macro level. These classes are ranked on two factors by the services – the number of recruits that commit and the average number of stars per player in the class. By its nature, the process is gamed against schools that don’t have as many slots to offer incoming athletes as others do. Yet it may very well be that the schools with fewer slots are loaded with upperclassmen who will make a significant contribution to a school’s success.

Another flaw in the recruiting rankings results from counting stars without really looking at a school’s particular needs. Hypothetically, a school that loaded up and signed a class solely comprised of 15 five star wide receivers would wind up with a very high recruiting ranking, but would have likely signed a poor class in terms of meeting its needs to field a competitive team. On the other hand, look at Georgia’s class this year: faced with a severe shortage of offensive linemen for ’07, Richt and Garner have focused on the problem and brought in a large number of well regarded prospects to address it. And while most of the recruiting services have given Georgia credit for doing a fine job of filling its needs, the rankings model they use won’t.

There are many other factors that I would think come into play in an analysis like this. Mergz cites South Carolina as a school for which the number of losses it’s suffered is unmerited based on the last four years recruiting classes it’s enjoyed. The problem with that is that Spurrier has come in with a totally different offensive system than the one Holtz ran and it’s quite likely that some of Holtz’s talent is unsuited for what the ‘Cocks run now. Making matters worse, for several reasons in his first year, Spurrier ran off a significant amount of the talent Holtz recruited.

There are a lot of other items I know should be thrown into the mix: schedules, injuries (what’s Georgia’s record last season with a healthy Coutu?) and the remainder of Mergz’s list. One thing that might level out some of these factors would be to measure the recruiting rankings against the polling results over the same amount of time, as opposed to four years of recruits and one season’s poll.

One thing I feel comfortable saying is that over time, a school that consistently recruits top 15 classes is going to do better in the polls than a team that doesn’t. I don’t want to come off as some sort of Bizarro HeismanPundit here – clearly coaches that know how to run a program, manage a game and deploy their talent effectively matter a great deal – but, as the old saying goes, you don’t want to bring a knife to a gun fight. Talent does matter. I just wish we had a way of getting a better handle on how much it matters in college football.

And with that, I’m done with the subject for a while. I hope.

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One response to “Some final thoughts on recruiting (yeah, right)

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