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Do Stars Matter? A Deep Dive into Pac-12 Recruiting and Success

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The cliche that “it’s not the Xs and Os, it’s the Jimmies and the Joes” has been around since time immemorial. Here’s a look at how the numbers back that sentiment up.

NCAA Football: Fiesta Bowl-Penn State vs Washington Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

You don’t have to read college football message boards for long before you come across the recruiting vs. player development debate. One group invariably believes that coaches have to find players who fit their system and who can develop through focus and hard work. Another group points out that teams rarely win big without meeting the “Blue Chip Ratio” of 50 percent of the roster at four-stars or above in the recruiting rankings.

Of course, everyone would prefer to have 25 players enroll every fall with five-star ratings, 4.0 GPAs and the attitude of Rudy Ruettiger, but recruiting is competitive, and no team gets everything they want. Husky fans, in particular, have debated the topic due to Chris Petersen’s roots in the Mountain West and the perception (fair or not) that his coaching modus operandi is to do more with less talent.

So who is right? I say we let history be our guide. To keep things simple, I tracked 247Sports’ Pac-10/12 recruiting rankings every year back to 2000. I ranked the teams from 2004 to present using a composite of each team’s rankings over the previous five recruiting cycles. Excluding transfers, walk-ons, and the occasional unforeseen situation, that five-year window would make up the vast majority of a team’s roster the following year, accounting for redshirt players.

For example, from 2000 to 2004, the Huskies ranked fifth, third, third, second and sixth in the PAC recruiting rankings, for an average placement of 3.8. Over that five-year period, only USC had a better average in-conference recruiting ranking than the Huskies. So did they second in the conference in 2004? No; they finished dead last that year. But hopefully the example helps to illustrate my study.

Before diving into the results, I should note that some of the data from 247Sports during the early years of this study were less reliable. Additionally, my conference standings are based on conference record with overall record as tiebreaker. If a team won its division (the division era started in 2011) with the third-best record in the conference, the division win does not trump the record — they still get a third-place ranking. I did not include conference title games in the rankings.

Overachievers

For the purpose of this activity, I am defining an overachiever as any team that finished five places higher in the standings than their aggregate recruiting over the previous five-year period would have projected. Since the 2004 season (the first season with a full complement of players recruited in 2000 or later), there have been 18 seasons where a team overperformed its recruiting by at least five places.

One thing to keep in mind is that to overperform, you can’t have a top-five team by recruiting talent. USC has had the most talent team in the conference every year since 2004. There have been five individual seasons when they didn’t have the No. 1 recruiting class, but they have always been close enough to the top to average out as No. 1 in every five-year window. You can’t do better than No. 1, so there’s no way for USC to overperform. They deserve mention for the fact that they have never UNDERperformed by five places. Despite a few fifth-place finishes, they did not earn any of the underperformance red flags associated with falling at least five places behind their talent level.

2004 California

In Jeff Tedford’s third year as Cal’s head coach, he took the seventh-most talented roster in the conference to a second-place finish and a No. 9 ranking in the country. Interestingly, Tedford would never finish that low in conference recruiting rankings nor would he surpass the second-place finish in the following eight years of his tenure. If you’re looking for a non-Tedford explanation for the aberration, it might have something to do with the quarterback. 2004 was the final collegiate season for Aaron Rodgers (a three-star recruit out of JuCo), and it didn’t hurt that freshman Marshawn Lynch lined up behind him in the backfield. We know that Rodgers helped Tedford earn the moniker of “QB guru,” but he might have had more than a little to do with Tedford’s reputation as a “good coach.”

2004, 2006 to 2010, 2012 Oregon State

Impressively, the Beavers accounted for seven out of 18 total overachieving seasons. If there is a Pac-12 coach who supports the argument that a coach can elevate the talent level of his players, Mike Riley is that coach. From 2004 to 2012, he never had a team that ranked higher than eighth in recruiting, but he tallied five third-place finishes. On the other hand, Riley could be used as a data point for the opposite argument because he never got the team over the hump. They never finished above third, they were never ranked higher than 18th at the end of the season, and their most prestigious bowl appearance was the 2012 Alamo Bowl. All told, an average finish of 6.4 is a great outcome for a team that averages ranking 9.9 in the conference in recruiting. OSU is easily the steadiest overachiever in the Pac. The problem is that he didn’t turn the positive on-field results into momentum on the recruiting trail.

Imagine if Riley had taken the Alabama job that was offered to him instead of coming back to Oregon State after his stint with the Chargers. His inability to land top-end recruiting classes came back to bite him at OSU and doomed him at Nebraska. It’s also odd that Nebraska hired Riley in 2015, after the Beavers had already started to recede. Despite their strong 2012, the team finished eighth or worse in the conference in three of his last four seasons.

2010 Stanford

Much like the Aaron Rodgers Cal team played above its true talent level, Andrew Luck took the ninth-best group of recruits in the conference to a second-place finish in this season. One difference between Stanford’s trajectory and Cal’s is that Stanford maintained the momentum and finished in the top-two six times in an eight year period starting in 2010. Stanford’s rigorous admissions standards will always make it difficult for them to put together recruiting classes that rival the top teams in the country, but they have settled into a steady groove in the four-to-five range, which has allowed them to compete every year. Another distinction between this team and the 2004 Cal team is that nobody will second-guess the coaching staff. Head coach Jim Harbaugh finished his final season before leaving to take the 49ers to the Super Bowl, and his top two assistants — David Shaw and Vic Fangio — have gone on to great success, as well.

2005 Oregon

The peak of Oregon’s recent run of success ran from 2008 to 2015, a period in which the Ducks never finished worse than third in the conference. Three years earlier, they showed hints of what was to come with a 7-1 conference record, including six consecutive wins over ranked opponents. The more notable factor for the ‘05 Ducks was their aggregate recruiting ranking of seventh. It would stay at that level for one more year and then remain in the top-four every season for the next 12. Oregon is the antithesis of the idea I am examining in this study; they built a national contender by gradually assembling the requisite talent base.

2016 Washington

This Husky team was the one that led Petersen fans to suspect that their coach could win with marginally-rated talent. Certainly, the team had top-end talent that the coaching staff developed to an exceptional level, including NFL-bound stars like John Ross, Elijah Qualls, Sidney Jones, Budda Baker, and Kevin King. Still, every highly-successful college team will send players to the pros, and fans of every team on this list will remember similar examples.

It’s worth noting that the 2016 Huskies are the only team in this sample to win the conference without a top-five aggregate group of recruits. In other words, Petersen did something that no other Pac-12 coach has done since 2004 (although 2013 ASU had the best record before losing the conference title game). Whether he can do it repeatedly is a more difficult question to answer. At a minimum, there is no precedent for it.

Blips on the Radar 2013 ASU, 2014 Arizona, 2015 Utah, 2016 Colorado

Sometimes, everything breaks right for a team, even if they don’t have top-end talent. Each of these four teams punched above its weight class for a season and finished well above the recruiting-based projections.

The 2013 Sun Devils were a very good team that lost twice to an even better Stanford team. Looking at them from a wider angle, ASU finished 8th and 6th in the two years before and 4th and 9th the two years after. Their conference-best record in 2013 stands out as the abnormal result.

Arizona regularly finishes between eight to 10 in recruiting and typically matches that range in its results. In 2013, they finished one game ahead of three teams (UCLA, ASU, and USC) who all might have been better.

Utah appears on this list because it got the overall record tiebreaker over WSU, but its fourth-place finish is nothing to write home about.

Husky fans remember the 2016 Buffs from the Pac-12 title game. The one-sided result of that game is probably more indicative of the team’s ability than the second-place conference finish. That runner-up status came in the midst of six consecutive bottom-two-talent teams. It was also the only season in six in which Colorado finished out of the bottom-two in the conference.

2015 to 2017 Washington State

While UW fans won’t want to acknowledge it, the Cougs are in the midst of a run of overachievement rivaled only by Mike Riley’s mid-aughts Beavs. From 2010 to 2014, WSU was dead last in recruiting every season. The ratings ticked up to 11th in 2015 and 10th the next two seasons. The results similarly trended upward with a fifth-place followed by two fourths. Given enough time, Mike Leach improved the talent level at Texas Tech and the results followed. He has started to gain a foothold in Pullman (WSU is up to 8th for 2018, its best aggregate recruiting rating since 2007). Given enough time, he might get the Cougs to the same status as a top-25 stalwart.

Underachievers

Just like it’s impossible to be an overachiever if a team recruits extremely well every year, it is impossible to underachieve if a team ranks near the bottom of the conference in recruiting rankings season after season. Colorado has been a bottom-dweller for most of its tenure in the Pac; despite the magical 2016 season described above, they have six bottom-three and three dead-last finishes in seven seasons since joining the conference. But you won’t see them on this list of 12 underachievers because they have never ranged better than eighth in aggregate recruiting ranking, and they’ve been in the bottom two for each of the last five seasons.

2004 to 2007 Washington

Things started to go south for the Huskies as soon as Rick Neuheisel gambled away the coaching gig and the bad old days began. Although Keith Gilbertson struggled to match Neuheisel’s recruiting success from the start, the legacy of his predecessor’s recruits indicated that the team should have finished in the top three in both 2004 and 2005. Instead, the Huskies were dead last both times. In fact, Gilby’s final season and Willingham’s first season are the only examples in this study of a Pac team finishing in last place with a top-three-rated group of players.

Willingham’s failures speak for themselves, but let’s go into a bit more detail. He spent four years at the helm. The teams were rated third, fourth, fifth, and sixth in aggregate recruiting rankings. He finished 10th, ninth, 10th, and 10th in those seasons. Ronnie Fouch or no Ronnie Fouch, that’s a miserable run of performance. Willingham’s final season misses the cutoff as an “underachiever” because he had done enough damage to the talent base that the last place finish was no longer shocking.

2007, 2010, 2012 to 2013 California

I mentioned in the 2004 Cal section that there was a case to be made that Jeff Tedford was overrated as a head coach. The gist of that argument is that only he and Tyrone Willingham have coached three teams to finishes at least five places below their recruiting level. From 2006 to 2010, Tedford had the No. 2 rated Pac team each season, but finished second, seventh, fourth, sixth, and eighth. The persistent underachievement eventually took a toll on the recruitment and the talent started to erode, as well. By the time Sonny Dykes took over in 2013, they were only the No. 5 rated roster, but finished all the way down at 11th.

The 2007 team was notably disappointing. They featured superstars on both sides of the ball, including future NFL stars like DeSean Jackson, Alex Mack, Justin Forsett, Cameron Jordan and Tyson Alualu, among several other players drafted to the NFL. They opened the season with a 14-point road win against a ranked Tennessee team. A road win at Oregon put them in line to become #1 in the country, but they lost their next game at home to Oregon State. That loss was the first of six in their next seven conference games. A team that had national title aspirations instead beat Air Force in the Armed Forces Bowl.

2016 to 2017 UCLA

One of the themes in the overachiever section was the presence of a QB who could elevate an otherwise subpar roster. So what went wrong here? UCLA was led by Josh “Chosen” Rosen, but even he could not get a pair of No. 2 ranked rosters higher than eighth in the Pac. The 2016 defense even had five starting defenders drafted to the NFL, including rookie sensation Takk McKinley. With so much talent and six combined conference wins to show for it, it’s no surprise that Mora got his pink slip after the 2017 season. Something tells me that Chip Kelly won’t extend this streak to a third year.

Blips on the Radar - 2009 Arizona State, 2016 Oregon

The ‘09 ASU team has no great backstory. They started out 4-2 (2-1 in conference) and cratered with a six-game losing streak that left them ninth in the conference in spite of the third-rated group of recruits.

Likewise, the 2016 Oregon team was the dying gasp of a miniature dynasty. The Ducks finished in the conference’s top three for eight straight years. Inevitably, that success helped them improve their talent base to the point that they have ranked in the top-three consistently since 2011. By 2016, Chip Kelly was long gone, but Mark Helfrich was facing his first season with Scott Frost as the offensive coordinator and Marcus Mariota taking snaps. After a 2-0 start, things went south. Their only conference wins came over ASU and (inexplicably) No. 11 Utah on the road. The low point was the memorable 70-21 drubbing by UW at Autzen.

So what did we learn?

Several of the overachieving teams featured QBs who had a disproportionate impact on the rest of the roster. The effect of a great QB makes sense; a four-star QB helps your recruiting ranking as much as a 4-star guard or safety, but most QBs have a much bigger impact from game to game than any other position. 2004 Cal started Aaron Rodgers, who is a first-ballot NFL Hall of Famer. 2010 Stanford’s Andrew Luck has been a superstar when he has been healthy enough to play. The Oregon State overachievers were helmed by guys like Derek Anderson, Sean Mannion and Sean Canfield, all of whom were drafted to the NFL. Even 2005 Oregon’s Kellen Clemens carved out a professional career. Time will tell whether Jake Browning is able to follow his spirit animal, Kellen Moore, to a long-term gig as an NFL backup.

Conversely, several of the overachieving teams did not have exceptional QBs, so we can’t say that the position is a prerequisite. Ryan Katz, Taylor Kelly and Anu Solomon are names that history will likely forget. Some of these teams certainly got unexpected development from lesser recruits, but they also got good luck in injuries, scheduling, and breaks in individual games. Still, there are enough overachieving teams with stand-out QBs that I’m confident saying that the QB plays a key role in elevating the rest of the roster. Every coach knows this fact, of course, and if it were easy to grab a five-star QB in every recruiting class, then everyone would do it.

Another takeaway is the fact teams with lesser talent never consistently competed for conference championships. Mike Riley did yeoman’s work at Oregon State in the 2000s, but even he never won a conference title or contended for a national championship. Naturally, the teams who win the most will eventually see their talent level tick upward as recruits take notice of their success, so it is unlikely for a team to remain a contender with a lesser roster. Even so, the evidence in this study strongly suggests that no coach is good enough to consistently develop lesser talent into a contending team.

Finally, the fact that the biggest underachievers are clustered so closely together tells me that coaches who fail to build a successful culture struggle to quickly turn the tide. Losing with good players means that the team is not getting the most out of those players — they’re learning bad habits and failing to execute. Ten of the 12 examples of teams that significantly underachieved were led by Gilbertson, Willingham, Mora and Tedford (with one season of Dykes with Teford’s players). It’s not a coincidence that teams repeatedly underachieved once momentum started going in the wrong direction.

What comes next?

While most of this project has been dedicated to looking at exceptions to the rule, it might be fun to see what the aggregate recruiting rankings tell us about the future. Based on the recruiting rankings to date for 2018, the five-year aggregate rankings predict the following conference standings for next year:

  1. USC
  2. UCLA
  3. Oregon
  4. Stanford
  5. Arizona St
  6. Washington
  7. Utah
  8. Cal
  9. Washington St
  10. Arizona
  11. Colorado
  12. Oregon St

Charts!

Here are the year-by-year trends for each team in the study. Keep in mind that higher standings are worse, so you want to stay closer to the bottom of the chart.

Projected average: 5.1

Standings average: 5.6

Projected average: 4.5

Standings average: 6.8

Projected average: 10.6

Standings average: 10

Projected average: 9.9

Standings average: 6.4

Projected average: 7.9

Standings average: 7.2

Projected average: 3.8

Standings average: 5.9

Projected average: 3.7

Standings average: 3.4

Projected average: 1

Standings average: 2.8

Projected average: 5.7

Standings average: 4.7

Projected average: 8.9

Standings average: 7.1

Projected average: 5.3

Standings average: 6.9

Projected average: 10.2

Standings average: 8.2