When college football teams fail to meet expectations, fans tend to turn to an old stand-by: Our coach is an all right recruiter, but he just can't coach. This is the narrative behind, for example, Will Muschamp's downturn at Florida. On the other hand, coaches who significantly exceed expectations are perceived as solid coaches despite meager recruiting skills. (This the case for Bill Snyder.) But these coaches are outliers. How does the rest of college football fare in translating expected talent to actual success?
We compared how teams recruited to where they ended up in computer polls at the end of each of the last five seasons. To measure on-field success, we used Kenneth Massey's ranking composite. Massey is a statistician whose work contributed to the BCS computer rankings; his composite index averages dozens of rankings including the six computers used in the BCS, the AP poll, and the USA Today coaches' poll.
Rivals rankings were used to measure recruiting. For each season, we used an average of the five previous recruiting classes. Even though upperclassmen generally contribute more than underclassmen, we avoided weighted averages because upperclassmen also transfer schools, declare for the NFL draft early, and have career-ending injuries.
To give an example of how we rated teams, 2009 teams are made up of recruiting classes from 2005-09. In 2009, USC had a 3.2 average, since the five recruiting classes that made up that team were, on average, ranked 3.2.
We then averaged results from 2009-2013 and compared the metrics. Doing this tells you that from 2009-2013, USC finished 22nd in Massey's poll on average with teams that had recruiting classes ranked 4.2 on average, meaning they "underperformed" their recruiting rankings by 17.8 spots on average. Perhaps as a consequence, Lane Kiffin got fired.
The further teams are from the chart's dotted red line, the greater the discrepancy between their recruiting and on-field rankings. Teams in the blue region did better on the field while teams in the red region were better at recruiting.
Of teams in the red region, Kansas had the most distance between its talent and team success. The Jayhawks are near the middle of the horizontal axis, so it's not like they recruited blue chippers. They've just been so awful on the field, as Charlie Weis lost 19 of 20 contests against Power 5 schools, that they haven't come close to meeting the expectations of their mediocre recruiting classes, underperforming their recruiting classes by 48.9 spots on average.
Of teams in the blue region, Navy had the most distance between talent and success. Despite military-academy restrictions that make recruiting top players difficult, Navy made bowl games in four of the last five seasons as they outperformed their recruiting expectations by 57.4 spots on average.
There was a significant correlation (r=0.77) between recruiting and on-field rankings. The mean difference between recruiting and on-field rankings was 16.6, and the median difference was 14.8. Arizona and Nebraska had the smallest discrepancies with a 0.2 difference, while Navy had the largest with a 57.4 difference. Recruiting obviously isn't an exact science and has its flaws. But given there's more than 120 teams in FBS college football, these rankings give a decent idea of where teams will sit in upcoming years.
Below are sortable tables to make more sense of the data. "BCS" refers to Massey's on-field ratings. The first table shows team averages, rankings (which just order the averages), and standard deviations for Rivals and Massey ratings. "BCSAvg" is where teams sit on the vertical axis in the chart above, "RecAvg" is where teams are on the horizontal axis. "Diff" is the difference between on-field and recruiting averages. A negative "Diff" means teams "underperformed" their recruiting. A positive "Diff" means they "outperformed" their recruiting.
The second table shows how on-field rankings fluctuated. The third table shows year-by-year recruiting rankings.
Table 1: Aggregate on-field and recruiting ratings
Table 2: Year-by-year on-field ratings
Table 3: Year-by-year recruiting ratings
Chart by Sam Woolley
Previously: The SEC Really Does Get The Best Players