This weekend, college football's conference play begins in earnest. Fans love to talk trash about which conference would thrash which other conferences, and which have the most talent, or are the most successful, or would, if presented the opportunity, perpetrate the most egregious anatomical impossibilities on the SEC as a whole. Most of these are unanswerable, but for the question of "talent," we can look to how well conferences as a whole and their member schools recruit, which should give us an idea which end up with the most combined talent.
We took our data from the Rivals recruiting rankings, which are based on a five-star system. To start with a very broad indicator of recruiting strength this year, we weighted each class in the last five years: Classes three, four, and five years out were weighted 3x, classes two years out 2x, and classes one year prior 1x. This is extremely broad, and ignores things like the emergence of super-freshman stars, transfers to and from a program, and standout players leaving early for the NFL, but take it as a starting point. The perceived caliber of a program's intake doesn't determine its quality on the field, but better raw materials give you the best chance of success.
The table below shows each of the Big Five conference's average weighted team star ratings this season:
Given the SEC has four teams in the top 10 and had a recent string of seven straight national championships it makes sense they dominate the other conferences in recruiting. Although the other four conferences have similar talent, the Pac-12 stands out as being the only conference that has talent anywhere near the level of the SEC this season. Florida State may have won the national championship last season, but their conference (ACC) has fared poorly in recruiting.
But this season could be an anomaly. Maybe the ACC had better players in recent seasons than these numbers suggest. So we looked at recruiting rankings for teams from 2009 to 2013 using the same weighted-average technique. We also made sure to only include teams when they actually played in a particular conference (e.g. Texas A&M is in the Big 12 until 2012 and in the SEC thereafter). As seen in the graph below, the relative talent in conferences has remained pretty stable with few changes in position.
The relative position of conferences was the same using weighted averages and non-weighted averages as seen in the tables below. The non-weighted average is simply an average of recruiting classes from 2009-2013.
Since 2009 these conferences' average star ranking tends to increase slightly. This is partially because the number of three-star players has increased. From 2005-2009, there were 991.8 three-star players each season on average. From 2010-2014 there have been 1,440.8 three-star players on average. The number of very top prospects (four- and five-star recruits) hasn't changed much, going from 382.4 on average from 2005-2009 to 369.2 from 2010-2014.
Any drop in four and five-stars is more than offset by the rise in three-stars. Altogether it means that part of the reason star ratings have increased is teams can now pull from more players that don't have two-star ratings (Rivals' lowest rating), which lower a team's average ranking. And it makes sense for Rivals to give more recruits a favorable ranking since it's becoming increasingly common for young players to immediately contribute and star.
(We should add that there are barely any unranked players playing in these conferences. Over five years, we saw a handful—there was a linebacker named Jon Shelby who committed to Kansas in 2012 but does not appear on its roster, for example—but overwhelmingly these were specialists, kickers and punters and similar.)
While conference position hasn't really changed, the Pac-12 has separated a bit from other non-SEC conferences. While the SEC still has highest-rated players by far, the Pac-12 slightly closed the gap during the past five seasons. Which is reflected on the field as UCLA and Arizona State improved to join Stanford, USC, Oregon in the top 20.
Does any of this matter? Sports Illustrated found recruiting rankings to be about as predictive as preseason AP polls. Researchers from Ohio State found that 5-star recruits bring their schools more than $150,000 in bowl proceeds. It isn't coincidence that teams playing in BCS games often had the highest-rated recruiting classes in prior years. The position of conferences in recruiting lines up pretty well with how many teams each conference has in the AP top 25 as seen in the table below.
The 85-man scholarship limit put in place in the mid-1990s was meant to bring parity to college football. This has helped smaller schools and conferences, but at the top, the SEC has dominated in spite of it. Below you'll find the average Rivals star-ratings for the recruiting classes of the last five years of all teams in the major five conferences.