Transfer Portal vs High School Recruiting

This fanpost, unlike many of my others, will not include a lot of data. I'll let you know that the title and first part of this fanpost are a little misleading to where I'll be taking this at the end.

High school recruiting has been the lifeblood of college football for decades. Even so, it has grown in importance recently-spawning industries like recruiting services. It is now a full-time endeavor for coaches as well as some fans, and it has also generated almost as much (maybe even more) discussion by fans as the actual football games. Some of that discussion has been around how the importance of recruiting, especially comparing recruiting at different schools. At a "macro" level, I don't think that there is much of an argument; schools like Alabama which get a lot of the top recruits are going to be better off than schools like Kansas which get few, if any, of those top recruits. So there isn't a big question about a difference between the #1 recruiting class and the #71 class. The question is how much importance to place on smaller differences like between #1 and #10 or between #10 and #20.

But, let's shift gears...

For years there has been a growing popularity for transfers between teams. There were initially restrictions on that, like having to sit out a year. As players found ways around those restrictions (like being a graduate transfer), the popularity of transfers has increased. And we've recently seen some monumental shifts in the process of transferring. First there was the Transfer Portal which made contact easier between players that wanted to transfer and schools that were looking for players. And then there was the removal of the restriction on sitting out a year. As a result, the number of players transferring this year has increased dramatically. (This would have been a good place for some actual data, but I was not able to find it easily. I don't think that there is much question about this, so it didn't seem like data was really required to show this.) It used to be a means to fill in a hole or two on a roster, now it is being used by some schools to build a roster.

So now we have two different ways for a coach to add to his (or, maybe in the future, her) roster: high school recruits, or players from other programs. Okay, both ways have been present for a while, but the transfer method is now impacting more programs and having a much bigger impact on most programs. Just look at UW's roster now as an example. It wasn't that long ago that UW rarely had even a JC transfer on the team; now almost 10% of the roster is a transfer of some kind (i.e. not directly from high school): JC, grad, or other transfer. And obviously UW is not alone. (Here's where some more data could be useful, but I haven't done that level of research yet.) I wouldn't be surprised if there are some teams where 20% or more of their roster is transfers.

There are a lot of ways to take the discussion at this point. The question that I want to discuss is: Do recruiting rankings matter when a large percentage of your roster was not gained through recruiting, but through transfers?

No matter what your view of recruiting rankings was before, you will have to admit that they will mean less as we see more and more transfers. However, the impact on some schools will obviously be less while it will be more for other schools. A school like Alabama that already recruited well shouldn't be impacted much-if at all. A school like Arizona, which has added 14 players through transfers this year, could significantly improve their talent (and likely their win/loss record) this year because of those transfers. It used to be the belief that schools that recruited well would continue to do well in the long run while schools that relied on transfers might get lucky a few times, but that wouldn't be sustainable. With more transfers, that is probably not the case any more; I think that we'll see some schools be able to sustain a level of talent on their team through transfers. Recruiting may still be the main source of talent, but transfers-at least at some schools-may be a great supplement.

In looking at it, transfers likely won't impact schools at the "macro" level. A school like Kansas is never going to be able to add enough talent through transfers alone to rival a team like Alabama. There probably won't be many "blue chip" transfers, and most those that do go through the Transfer Portal won't end up at Kansas; a few might, but not enough to make a significant difference-at least in the short term. Some schools could see a noticeable negative effect from the Transfer Portal, like the mass exodus that we're seeing at Tennessee. I could easily see that transfers will impact the relative talent of teams at a more "micro" level. A team like Tennessee could be much less competitive this year because of the transfers while a school like Arizona which has added a lot of transfers could be much more competitive as a result of the transfers.

I would argue that since most of the roster will still be from high school recruits (at least for the majority of teams), that recruiting rankings are probably still a good indication of the best teams. Also, those teams that recruit the best high school players are also the ones that will probably get the best transfers. But I also think that it is more likely that a team could pull together the right transfers at key positions to improve the talent on their team-above what they would have through recruiting. If this happens to a team that was on the fringe of being great, then it could give them the boost that they need.

Using my purple-colored glasses, I could see this happening at UW this year. O'Brien provides the kind of solid backup every elite team needs. If Polk and Jackson can contribute in the way that Pettis and Ross did, and Moore provides depth at the TE position, UW's offense could suddenly be as good, if not better, than in 2016. Martin looks like he could fill in (to an extent) for the loss of ZTF. And Bookie seems to be a great plug-and-play into the secondary. A lot still needs to happen, like Morris and the DL improving, but there is talent and experience across both the offense and defense.

The corollary to that question above is: Do recruiting rankings matter if a large percentage of those recruits are no longer on your team? (They've transferred out or left football.) The answer to this is probably still the same, but not as often. It is easy to envision cases where teams recruit well (for a while), but then lose many of those recruits. I expect that this would happen most often when there is a major coaching change or other major development in the football program (like sanctions). However, even when this happens it really isn't any different from teams that recruit well but don't coach well (looking at you Texas, USC, etc.). So I don't think that transfers out really disprove the importance of recruiting rankings (necessary, but not sufficient).

I've mentioned before in some of my posts that 247Sports puts out a "Team Talent Ranking". I believe the idea initially was to look at who is actually on the roster rather than who was recruited. This would take into account transfers and recruits that never made it into the program for whatever reason (e.g. not eligible academically). Because of that, I've liked this as a better way to rank teams than by recruiting rankings. In the past to come up with a score for a team it seemed that 247Sports would just look at the recruiting grades of all of the players currently on a team's roster. (If I remember, it is more complicated than that. There is a formula involved, similar to their recruiting rankings, where they provide some weighting-not all recruits would be treated equally. Regardless, there is a score for each team based on who is on the roster.)

Based on what 247Sports has been doing with their Transfer Portal listing, I have some concern about what they could do to that "Team Talent Ranking" when they update it this year (and in the future). In the Transfer Portal, they now include each player's grade from when they were a high school recruit; but they are also re-grading many recruits based on how they have looked once they got to college. On the surface, that makes some sense. This gives them a way to correct a recruit who has not looked as good as his recruiting grade did. Ty Jones, for example, has gone from a 4-star to a 3-star. (Maybe a bit harsh, but he wasn't as much of an impact player at UW as I know many fans expected.)

My concern is if 247Sports uses these new grades for the transfers as part of their "Team Talent Ranking". This would be wildly inconsistent. To be consistent, they would need to regrade every player on each roster, and that seems like such a monumental task that I don't see them doing that. For example, if they can take a 'star' away from a transfer like Jeremiah Martin, then they should add one or two 'stars' to Eddie Ulofoshio. I would actually like it if they did that because I think it would be a great look at the true talent level on each roster. But, I think that they have enough trouble trying to do that with the transfers. There are probably 30 players on each roster that have seen little actual playing time, so those grades may be very inaccurate. (I expect that this will be more accurate for the ones that see a lot playing time, like the starters.) This is important because you never know which players will break out each year. Who would have had ZTF with a high re-grade prior to the 2020 season? You never know which relatively unknown players are ready to pop each year. The best thing for 247Sports to do would be to stay consistent; continue to use high school recruiting grades for their "Team Talent Ranking".

Recruiting rankings have never been a great predictor for the outcome of any given football game. Nor are they a great predictor for conference championships. Recently there has been a correlation to winning the national championship, but I expect that transfers will eventually reduce that correlation.

I'd like to see your comments about my question above: Do recruiting rankings matter when a large percentage of your roster was not gained through recruiting, but through transfers?