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Recruiting Rankings Do Matter… If You Know How To Look At Them

Next Wednesday, one group of SEC fans will celebrate a signing day “championship.”  That same evening, a larger group of SEC-backers will claim that recruiting rankings aren’t accurate.

Both groups will be right.  Sort of.

In order to get a grip on just how accurate recruiting rankings are when it comes to predicting success in the rough and tumble SEC, we went back through 10 years of signing day grades and rankings.  Then we compared those rankings to the actual on-field results from 2006 through 2011.

We found — as we have before — that recruiting rankings do provide a pretty good ballpark indicator of a program’s future success.  But they are far from infallible.

As usual, we pored over the rankings as put together by Rivals.com.  Some prefer ESPNU’s rankings, others Scout.com and so on.  We like Rivals.  And the data you’ll see will explain why.

The general process was as follows:

1.  Tally up the recruiting rankings for all the signing classes that would normally impact a season.  Let’s use this past 2011 season as an example.  True freshman signed in ’11, sophomores in ’10, juniors in ’09, seniors in ’08, and a few redshirt seniors might’ve still been around from the ’07 class.  We used Rivals.com’s SEC rankings, 1 through 12.

2.  Add up the SEC records for each program in a given year.  The SEC title game didn’t count.  We didn’t knock off Alabama’s numbers due to NCAA penalties.  We wanted to know which teams won the most in-league games only… and we wanted to know who actually won on the field, not who was stripped by the NCAA later.

3.  Finally, we compared the combined recruiting rankings with the SEC records from the season in question.  Pretty simple.

Now, signing classes can be affected — obviously — by coaching changes, attrition, injuries, transfers, flunk outs, drop outs, dismissals and the like.  So the system isn’t perfect.  But it’s close enough to give us an idea of how accurate the recruiting rankings work.

Looking at the recruiting classes from 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005 and 2006, here’s what we found when comparing rankings to actual on-field SEC results in the fall of ’06:

School 2002 Rank 2003 Rank 2004 Rank 2005 Rank 2006 Rank Combined Recruiting Rank 2006 SEC Record
Georgia 2 3 2 2 2 11 4-4
LSU 5 1 1 6 3 16 6-2
Florida 7 2 3 4 1 17 7-1
Tennessee 1 7 4 1 7 20 5-3
Auburn 3 6 6 3 4 22 6-2
S. Carolina 4 4 9 7 8 32 3-5
Alabama 9 10 5 5 5 34 2-6
Arkansas 8 8 7 8 9 40 7-1
Ole Miss 10 9 8 9 6 42 2-6
Miss. State 6 5 11 10 11 43 1-7
Kentucky 12 11 10 11 10 54 4-4
Vanderbilt 11 12 12 12 12 59 1-7

Okay, right off the bat you’ll see that the combined recruiting rankings from ’02 through ’06 don’t provide a perfect team-by-team indicator of success.  Georgia had the five best classes leading up to 2006, yet the Dawgs managed only a 4-4 SEC record.  Arkansas, on the other hand, finished with a 7-1 league mark despite ranking 8th in the SEC for that five-year recruiting window.

Looking at the six seasons from 2006 through 2011, we found that there were always some schools that finished much better or much worse than the recruiting rankings would have suggested.

So recruiting rankings don’t work.  Right?  Not exactly.

For kicks we broke the league into fourths.  The idea was to see if recruiting rankings worked on a general basis.  Boy, did they:

The top three teams in recruiting rankings from ’02-’06 (Georgia, LSU and Florida) combined for a 17-7 SEC record.  That’s a winning percentage of .708

The next three teams in the recruiting rankings (Tennessee, Auburn and South Carolina) combined for a 14-10 SEC record.  That’s a winning percentage of .583.

The next three teams down the list (Alabama, Arkansas, and Ole Miss) notched an 11-13 SEC record.  That’s a winning percentage of .458.

And the three worst teams in Rivals’ ’02 to “06 recruiting rankings (MSU, Kentucky and Vandy) combined for an 8-24 SEC record.  That’s a .250 winning percentage.

In other words, recruiting rankings might not tell you exactly how your team will finish in SEC play, but they will give you a pretty good idea.  And we found that to be the case in 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2011.

Below are the group results for each of those seasons:

2007 Season (2003-2007 recruiting rankings)
1.  Top Three Schools (Florida, LSU, Georgia): 17-7 in SEC, .708
2.  Next Three Schools (Tennessee, Auburn, S. Carolina): 14-10 in SEC, .583
3.  Next Three Schools (Alabama, Ole Miss, Arkansas): 8-16 in SEC, .333
4.  Bottom Three Schools (MSU, Kentucky, Vanderbilt): 9-15 in SEC, .375

2008 Season (2004-2008 recruiting rankings)
1.  Top Three Schools (Florida, Georgia, LSU): 16-8 in SEC, .666
2.  Next Three Schools (Tennessee, Auburn, Alabama): 13-11 in SEC, .541
3.  Next Three Schools (S. Carolina, Ole Miss, Arkansas): 11-13 in SEC, .458
4.  Bottom Three Schools (MSU, Kentucky, Vanderbilt): 8-16 in SEC, .333

2009 Season (2005-2009 recruiting rankings)
1.  Top Three Schools (Florida, Georgia, LSU): 17-7 in SEC, .708
2.  Next Three Schools (Alabama, Tennessee, Auburn): 15-9 in SEC, .625
3.  Next Three Schools (S. Carolina, Ole Miss, Arkansas): 10-14 in SEC, .416
4.  Bottom Three Schools (MSU, Kentucky, Vanderbilt): 6-18 in SEC, .250

2010 Season (2006-2010 recruiting rankings)
1.  Top Three Schools (Florida, LSU, Alabama): 15-9 in SEC, .625
2.  Next Three Schools (Georgia, Auburn, Tennessee): 14-10 in SEC, .583
3.  Next Three Schools (S. Carolina, Ole Miss, Arkansas): 12-12 in SEC, .500
4.  Bottom Three Schools (MSU, Kentucky, Vanderbilt): 7-17 in SEC, .291

2011 Season (2007-2011 recruiting rankings)
1.  Top Three Schools (Alabama, Florida, LSU): 18-6 in SEC, .750
2.  Next Three Schools (Georgia, Tennessee, Auburn): 12-12 in SEC, .500
3.  Next Three Schools (S. Carolina, Ole Miss, Arkansas): 12-12 in SEC, .500
4.  Bottom Three Schools (MSU, Kentucky, Vanderbilt): 6-18 in SEC, .250

That’s pretty impressive.  Breaking six seasons into fourths, there were 24 “slots” and only two of those slots were a tad off:

* In 2007, the bottom four schools in the recruiting rankings actually outperformed teams 7, 8 and 9 by one game in the SEC standings.

* Last season, teams 7, 8 and 9 finished with the same .500 record in conference play that teams 4, 5 and 6 did.

Other than those two tiny differences, the recruiting rankings provided a good ballpark indicator of teams’ SEC success.

The trick to reading recruiting rankings, therefore, is to use them as a compass.  Over a span of years, you’ll find that the teams getting the highest marks on signing day in the SEC will usually do pretty well.  Those that score poorly, usually really won’t have good results inside the league.

But recruiting rankings cannot be used as a GPS.  They aren’t precise.  They aren’t perfectly accurate.  Almost every year, Arkansas outperforms its recruiting grades.  Meanwhile, a school like Tennessee — that has seen massive attrition thanks to back-to-back coaching changes — has underperformed based on the caliber of its signing classes.

Recruiting rankings do matter.  The more four-stars your schools signs, the better the odds you’ll find a great difference-maker.  It’s a bit like buying raffle tickets.  The more you have, the better your odds of winning the prize.

Just remember — and we can’t say it enough — these rankings have to be used as a compass to point you in the right direction.  They can’t be used as GPS to tell you exactly where your favorite team will finish in a given year.

Finally, as a bonus, we’ve provided the combined class rankings for each school from 2002 through 2011 below.  Also listed are each school’s SEC record for the years 2006 through 2011.  Once again… even these rankings over a such a long period of time delivered a good ballpark read on how things would actually play out on the field over that six-season span of games:

School Combined 2002-2011 Recruiting Rank Combined 2006-2011 SEC Record Group Record Group Winning Pct.
Florida 1st (31 total points) 34-14
Georgia 1st (31 total points) 30-18
LSU 3rd (32 total points) 34-14 98-46 .680
Tennessee 4th (45 total points) 22-26
Alabama 5th (47 total points) 34-14
Auburn 5th (47 total points) 28-20 84-60 .583
S. Carolina 7th (63 total points) 24-24
Ole Miss 8th (80 total points) 12-36
Arkansas 9th (84 total points) 28-20 64-80 .444
Miss. State 10th (92 total points) 16-32
Kentucky 11th (109 total points) 16-32
Vanderbilt 12th (119 total points) 10-38 42-102 .291

And in case you’re wondering, the Rivals.com currently ranks the SEC recruiting classes as follows (from first to 14th): Alabama, Florida, Texas A&M, Tennessee, South Carolina, LSU, Auburn, Georgia, Vanderbilt, Arkansas, Mississippi State, Ole Miss, Missouri and Kentucky.

 


21 comments
Greg
Greg

One small adjustment to this method that I would suggest is to weight each class. In any given year, more players who see game time will be upperclassmen, thus the older classes have more of an impact. The weighting can be done according to an average composition of who plays (and how much). For example, if on average, the composition of a team is 5% true freshmen, 20% sophomores, 30%, juniors, 30% seniors, & 15% 5th year seniors, weight each recruiting class accordingly.

Nolan
Nolan

VERY good point Walter. I'll take that and run with it. The recruiting services are lazy and 'ratings driven.' They naturally rank prospects of recently successful programs more highly than others. They probably do this intentionally, as the fans of the 'hot' teams will be very interested, while fans of others may not be. Also, it has always been the case that recruits want to go to successful programs, so ranking Alabama's prospects highly (for example) could never be a bad 'bet.' That also explains the odd situation of Arkansas - a program just re-entering elite status after a twenty five year hiatus. If Arkansas had the ratings numbers of say, Texas, or the long term elite status of Ohio State, I think their initial recruiting rankings would be more in line with their 'retrospective' rankings. Watch for Arkansas' recruiting rankings to jump dramatically as Petrino continues to demonstrate that he knows infinitely more about recruiting than Rivals ever will, and keeps Arkansas near the top.

Walter
Walter

I wish I could find my spreadsheet but I did a basic correlation analysis between:

1) Past 5 class rankings vs actual results

2) Recent results vs current actual results (previous 5 years record ranking vs latest record)

3) Recent results vs current class ranking (previous 5 years record ranking vs current class ranking)

The highest correlation was between recent success and current class ranking. And results vs current results was very close to recent class rankings vs current results.

In other words in my opinion class rankings are a trailing indicator, not a leading indicator, they are more accurate in predicting who has recently been successful than in who is going to be successful in the near future. Its just that recent past success is also highly correlated with near future results (teams that have been winning tend to keep winning, not 1 to 1, but enough that it looks like correlation).

Hogfan12
Hogfan12

@John at MrSEC What would you say about the "re-rankings" that ESPN does every four or so years? Those always seem to favor Arkansas more than how their classes were previously ranked, but do not necessarily do the same for the others. Do you believe there is any correlation there as to a teams' success?

Thanks,

mathteacher
mathteacher

This is a prime example of statistics being used to create results instead of looking at results.

this math teacher is very, very ashamed of you.

For example, let's look at your comment of 2011's 'quarters', but as individual teams.

Quarter 1

LSU: 8-0

Alabama: 7-1

Florida: 3:5

Florida skewed this poorly.

Quarter 2:

Georgia: 7-1

Tennessee: 1-7

Auburn: 4-4

1 high, 1 low, and 1 middle data point. Statistically...the average means NOTHING.

Quarter 3:

Arkansas 6-2

S. Carolina: 6-2

Ole miss: 0-8

Ole miss skews this badly.

Quarter 4:

MSU:2-6

UK: 2-6

Vandy: 2-6

This might be the ONLY area where you might have some merit.

Moral of the story. Don't do statistics when you don't know what you are doing. That or recruting rankings are absolutely and completely worthless. Ark/SC/Auburn/Florida proved that.

hoglin
hoglin

Thanks for this insightful article. I, like most Hog fans, am completely bewildered by the "star" talk. Even this year, after our BCS appearance, we are still near the bottom of the SEC according to Rivals (at least at the moment). I didn't think that was supposed to happen. Anyway, I think your post gets to the heart of some of the bewilderment. We get more out of our recruits' starts than others might. I think most Hog fans do not identify with being in the bottom tier of the SEC but that is where our recruiting seems to rank. No wonder we have such a love/hate relationship to the star ratings. It is helpful to hear from an outsider that our stars and our program seem to be at odds with one another.

AGator
AGator

If Florida recruits a player the recruiting services give them a high rating. Watch what happens to Paxton Lynch, a barely known unrated player who just got in the news because he is going to visit UF this weekend. I'm guessing he will suddenly get a good rating. This would be observer or expectation bias. The rating changes to fit with the desired results. The recruiting services aren't going to let a possible UF signee be rated a zero. They need to change their data to match what we expect or we will ignore their web site.

Florida's roster had a lot of highly rated players this year and yet other teams certainly appeared to have more talent when they played UF.

I think Florida's recruits get rated high automatically because there are a lot of schools competing for the same recruits which gives them more buzz. Not many schools go to Arkansas or Nebraska to recruit against the home state team so those players don't get rated highly. It seems like half the schools in the country recruit in Florida so that means a lot of people are talking about Florida recruits. The recruiting services hear all the buzz and bump up the ratings.

Levibooty
Levibooty

Recruiting ranking are good when viewed from a overall class perspective, less accurate when looked at from an individual perspective.

Nolan
Nolan

Good stuff. FWIW, the Hogs have another (real) top ten in the nation class coming in, and, as usual, Rivals has us about 24 spots off of reality.

rob
rob

I almost quit reading this, because it seemed so ridiculous, until I realized the point John was making. Well done!

xmego
xmego

Statistics drive me nutz. Love the compass/GPS analogy though. Brilliant!

DavidS1983
DavidS1983

This is really good stuff, guys. Great job.

John at MrSEC
John at MrSEC moderator

Greg...

I encourage you to do so. We do a lot of research, always fun to hear back how we should have spent more time on it.

John

John at MrSEC
John at MrSEC moderator

Nolan...

And everyone continues to use Arkansas as an example of why the rankings don't work. That's one school out of 12. And it short-changes Petrino who has an offensive system like Spurrier's in the 90s -- ahead of the game and productive even with lesser-star athletes plugged in.

John

John at MrSEC
John at MrSEC moderator

Hogfan12...

No clue about re-rankings. They're looking at one year's worth of classes, and we're looking a five years' worth of rankings. We're looking at how teams are made -- from true freshmen to redshirt seniors -- and then trying to find if the early rankings of those players provide an idea of how successful those teams will be.

We've found that they do provide a good, ballpark guide.

John

John at MrSEC
John at MrSEC moderator

mathteacher...

Guessing you're not teaching at MIT. If so, you're reading comprehension skills need work.

We state very clearly that recruiting rankings are not a GPS -- which you try to make them -- but they're a compass, a guide. Using five year's worth of recruiting rankings, we found that the 3 best teams in the rankings wound up with the best combined league record for six straight seasons. And on down the rankings. For six straight seasons.

Your point about combined numbers ignores the above, ignores what was written here and... is nonsense. That'd be like me saying, "You can't say the average American male is 6 feet tall because Kareem Abdul-Jabbar completely skews the numbers." That's why it's an average.

Moral of the story: Don't come to this site and try to leave ugly comments and insults unless you read the whole piece and understand it.

And personally, I'm ashamed of someone who would come to someone else's site and be rude and insulting in his comments. Want to disagree? Fine. But to be ugly, well... isn't time for you to go take roll in homeroom, Pythagoras?

John

John at MrSEC
John at MrSEC moderator

AGator...

I've always felt that way about big name programs. Unfortunately, our research doesn't show that to actually be the case. If it were the case, Florida wouldn't have had the best SEC record (along with LSU and Alabama) from 2006 through 2011.

Thanks for reading,

John

Nolan
Nolan

@John at MrSEC

I think Hogfan12 was just pointing out that the re-rankings of classes are consistent with your findings. In a general sense, as you very well pointed out, they are a very good indicator. In a specific sense, as in the case of Arkansas, they can be WAY off. Love this article and found it to be very informative. Could not agree with your conclusions more.

rob
rob

Now that surprises me John. AGator is 100% right, and if you're not smart enough to know it, then I'm sure it's only because you haven't been looking. Your evidence against his claim is just weak, because it in no way is proof that he/she is wrong. I could easily counter your argument by referencing the success Arkansas has had, despite it's low ratings.

John at MrSEC
John at MrSEC moderator

rob...

And I would point out the Bobby Petrino -- like Steve Spurrier in the 1990s -- has an offensive system so far ahead of the pack that he gets more production from players than one would assume he would get.

You use Arkansas... consider that the exception to the rule. You're ignoring the fact that the recruiting rankings sure seem to have borne out who would win and who would lose in the SEC over the last six years.

But ignore the numbers if you like,

John

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