Stars Matter

Stars Matter, or a discourse on the efficacy of recruiting rankings related to winning percentage


One of our regular Auburn readers asked a couple of good questions, and it was on a topic I’ve wanted to write about. Here goes:
By the way, do you think that Bammer will have another top 5 class next year? Do you think that Bammer will win the head-to-head recruiting battle with Auburn next year? Why?

I expect Alabama to have at least a top ten class, and a very strong shot at a top 5. Last year, Alabama signed three five-star recruits, according to Scout.com (Julio Jones, Mark Barron and Tyler Love).

That’s a good crop of talent the state produced in the 2008 signing class. What’s interesting is that the 2009 crop of athletes could be even more talented. Right now, Scout.com has four state residents listed as five-stars.

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These players are listed as FIVE-STARs by Scout.com:
Kendall Kelly WR Gadsden High School
Dre Kirckpatrick CB Gadsden High School
Nico Johnson LB Andalusia
Tana Patrick LB Stevensen
I’m not saying they all sign with one school. I’m just saying the state could be even deeper than last season if some of these young players pan out. We’ll know more once the high school season gets underway.

But I’d look for both Alabama and Auburn to stand a chance for top 15 rankings—even if Auburn repeated its poor performance last season and missed on every real target in the state.

And that’s a worst case scenario for the Tigers. I doubt Tuberville and his staff would ever miss like they did last year. Of course, much of Tuberville’s failure was a simple abdication of the recruiting field. He didn’t get out there and work; therefore, Saban cleaned up.

I think it is evident by the media spin, and announcements Tuberville and his staff are out there recruiting harder this year than last.

We’ll have to see how things pan out, but I feel good about Alabama landing a strong majority of the top players in the state again this season. And with another bumper crop of athletes, that should equate to a top class in 2009.

QUESTION: On another note, didn’t Tennessee have the #1 recruiting class per Scout in 2005? Think they will win the NC this year?

This is a good question about the efficacy of recruiting rankings. Put another way, it is the oft-asked question of whether stars matter?!?!

The most common attack on Rivals or Scout is the anecdotal variety, perhaps best personified by this gem of wishful thinking from Phillip Marshall:

As I watch Philip Rivers, playing hurt, give the unbeaten New England Patriots all they can handle, I am reminded why I find recruiting rankings to be so overblown.

I saw Rivers play one game for Athens High School. I thought he looked like a guy who could be a good college player, but not as a quarterback. Auburn coaches apparently agreed, offering him an opportunity to play tight end. Alabama coaches didn’t offer him at all. North Carolina State coaches saw something entirely different, and they had it right.

With that in mind, I took a look at the rosters of the Patriots and the Chargers. The Patriots have 15 active players (not counting Randy Moss) who are from lower division schools or schools with little or no ability to recruit against the likes of Southeastern Conference schools. The Chargers have 10. I think it’s safe to say none of those players were lauded by recruiting services.

But anecdotal evidence doesn’t cut it. Yes, sometimes recruiting services miss. But, sometimes Babe Ruth struck out too. However, I bet if you look at the numbers, he’d turn out to have a pretty good slugging percentage despite his strikeouts.

So, we need something hard instead of anecdotal wishful thinking. Let’s turn to math—I hate it, but it can be useful. Sunday Morning Quarterback is a virtuoso with numbers; SMQ took the most recent draft as a yardstick and then measured Rivals.com star rankings for the draftees. What did SMQ find?

Semantics can’t hide the trend: five-star recruits have roughly a one-in-four chance of eventually being drafted, twice as high as four-star recruits, who themselves are about three times more likely to get picked than three-star prospects, and so on. Five-star kids are substantially more likely to get picked at any point in the first five rounds.

That’s emphatic, but there are additional data sources crunching the Rivals.com numbers. Athlonsports.com published this article, which looked at the first three rounds of the draft, and compared Rivals.com recruit rankings.

(only) One-thousandth of one percent of high school senior football players will ever receive a five star rating. Keep that in mind…

…a player has nearly a 50-50 chance of being drafted in the first three rounds if he is ranked as a five star recruit. The chance drops significantly for four stars. It drops even further for three star prospects, as they have less than a four percent chance. Two star recruits basically have no chance of being drafted in the first round — in fact, its less than one percent…

These numbers mean that recruiting ranking really do matter. Are recruiting services 100 percent accurate? Of course not. It is nearly impossible to evaluate motivation, maturity and integrity (See former Florida State WR Fred Rouse). However, recruiting rankings are pretty good indicators of how a prospect will turn out. As the industry grows, fans of college football can only expect that these self-proclaimed talent evaluators to get even better at predicting the future.

I’d say that is pretty good, and debunks Phillip Marshall’s argument that stars don’t matter:

According to Scout.com, of the 31 projected selections (New England doesn’t have a pick), nine were five-star prospects out of high school. Eight were four-stars and eight were three-stars. Six were two-stars. Make of that what you will. What I make of it is that there’s not a significantly better chance of a five-star being a first-round draft pick than there is a four-star, a three-star or even a two-star.

It is apparent Marshall didn’t pass stats in school. Or he is a liar. Idiot or liar…you be the judge.

Let’s go back to SMQ for a moment. SMQ ranked recruiting classes 2002-2007, and then compared the recruiting rank against winning percentage for the same time span.

Another strong correlation showed up as teams like Southern Cal posted the best recruiting classes, and the best winning percentage against BCS schools.

Auburn was also in the same category. They had the 10th best recruiting class on average during the 2002-2007 span, and had the 7th best winning percentage against BCS teams.

While a team might not win a national title, I think getting the best recruits increases your chances of winning—despite what Phillip Marshall might say.