Recruiting plays a huge role in college sports, and football is at the head of the list.
It’s one of the most important factors in building a program. However, being versed in the recruiting game shouldn’t be considered essential only for coaches. Those betting on college football should have a good handle on it as well. A direct relationship exists between a program’s success on the recruiting trail and on the field. Fortunately, bettors have numerous sources to help them better understand how well a team is faring in recruiting, quantitatively as well as qualitatively. The well-trusted 247Sports, perhaps the leader in the arena, logs all recruits for every team each season and generates a numerical grading process based on the combined scores of the players a school signs.
It’s pretty well known that schools like Alabama, Georgia, LSU and Ohio State are wildly successful in recruiting, and their consistent on-field success can easily be attributed to that. In fact, Alabama has scored the highest national football rating from 247Sports in eight of the last 10 seasons, with Georgia on top the other two years, including 2020. But finding lower-radar teams that might be ready to surprise because of unusually good or bad recent recruiting classes can be crucial to success in betting college football. Similarly, knowing which teams are trending in the right or wrong direction in recruiting can benefit the handicapper. Of course, schools must take recruits and make teams out of them, otherwise known as coaching. Knowing which programs make the most or least from their recruiting classes should be a fundamental part of your college football knowledge base.
I will address all those subjects, including projecting this year’s conference standings, based solely on the recruiting rankings from 247Sports and a predictive formula I uncovered using regression analysis.
2020 projected standings using last 3 years’ recruiting rankings
After compiling year-by-year recruiting rankings for FBS teams since 2007 and comparing different options to the actual records and my power ratings that teams closed at in a given season, I determined that the most predictive time frame of a team’s success on the field came when considering its last three recruiting classes. It was greater than one, two or four years or any special combined formulas I derived using the one- through four-year window. As is true with any statistical study, there are exceptions to the rule. But knowing what I know from 20-plus years in this industry, I am comfortable with using this three-year time window to analyze teams’ prospects.
Here are the would-be projected standings for the 2020 season for each conference using their combined average rank for their last three recruiting classes — 2020, ’19 and ’18. Remember that these projections include no other factor than the perceived talent level of the players when they signed as recruits.
Teams that do the most and least with their recruiting classes
Signing a quality recruiting class is only part of the story. Coaches need to develop the talent they acquire and mold the players into a functioning unit to be successful. Some programs have demonstrated this ability far better than others. While some schools take modestly rated recruiting classes and make winning programs out of them, others take highly rated classes and underachieve on the field. Let’s look at some of the programs that have distinctly demonstrated the opposite ends of this spectrum.
These teams are sorted by the difference between their average national recruiting rankings over the last five years compared with their end-of-year power ratings on my scale. As you analyze the merits of why each team appears on the list, be sure to consider which programs have undergone coaching changes in recent years and how relevant this might be for 2020.
See charts with this story on page 10 of Point Spread Weekly
Top 20 teams whose on-field performances have exceeded their recruiting ratings
Teams on the overachieving list share a trend in that they typically have stable coaching situations or undergo changes that involve coaches leaving willingly, usually to join other programs. Such is the case for No. 1 on the list. Appalachian State is heading into 2020 with its third coach in three years due to success. Interestingly, the three armed forces teams follow at Nos. 2-4, a credit to the quality character of their recruits.
1. APPALACHIAN STATE: Recruit Ranking: 110.6, EOY SM Power Rating: 50.2 - Difference: 60.4
2. AIR FORCE: Recruit Ranking: 116.6, EOY SM Power Rating: 67.4 - Difference: 49.2
3. NAVY: Recruit Ranking: 102.6, EOY SM Power Rating: 56 - Difference: 46.6
4. ARMY: Recruit Ranking: 121.8, EOY SM Power Rating: 79 - Difference: 42.8
5. WYOMING: Recruit Ranking: 116, EOY SM Power Rating: 80 - Difference: 36
6. OHIO U.: Recruit Ranking: 108.6, EOY SM Power Rating: 72.8 - Difference: 35.8
7. MEMPHIS: Recruit Ranking: 71, EOY SM Power Rating: 38.4 - Difference: 32.6
8. UTAH STATE: Recruit Ranking: 100.8, EOY SM Power Rating: 75 - Difference: 25.8
9. IOWA: Recruit Ranking: 47.6, EOY SM Power Rating: 22.2 - Difference: 25.4
10. BUFFALO: Recruit Ranking: 119, EOY SM Power Rating: 93.8 - Difference: 25.2
10. BOISE STATE: Recruit Ranking: 62.4, EOY SM Power Rating: 37.2 - Difference: 25.2
12. WESTERN KENTUCKY: Recruit Ranking: 92.2, EOY SM Power Rating: 67.2 - Difference: 25
13. KANSAS STATE: Recruit Ranking: 61.4, EOY SM Power Rating: 36.6 - Difference: 24.8
14. TEMPLE: Recruit Ranking: 82.4, EOY SM Power Rating: 58.4 - Difference: 24
15. TROY: Recruit Ranking: 106.4, EOY SM Power Rating: 83.4 - Difference: 23
16. WISCONSIN: Recruit Ranking: 37.2, EOY SM Power Rating: 16.2 - Difference: 21
17. EASTERN MICHIGAN: Recruit Ranking: 122.2, EOY SM Power Rating: 102.4 - Difference: 19.8
18. SAN DIEGO STATE: Recruit Ranking: 76.2, EOY SM Power Rating: 56.8 - Difference: 19.4
19. OKLAHOMA STATE: Recruit Ranking: 36.6, EOY SM Power Rating: 20 - Difference: 16.6
20. UCF: Recruit Ranking: 66, EOY SM Power Rating: 50 - Difference: 16
Top 20 teams whose recruiting ratings have exceeded their on-field performances
The programs on this underachieving list are those that more often than not fire their coaches due to lack of success. At the top of the list is Rutgers, which made an interesting change this season by going back to the coach, Greg Schiano, who typically had it among the overachievers about 10 years ago.
1. RUTGERS: Recruit Ranking: 54.8, EOY SM Power Rating: 105 - Difference: -50.2
2. MARYLAND: Recruit Ranking: 36.2, EOY SM Power Rating: 76.6 - Difference: -40.4
3. KANSAS: Recruit Ranking: 66.6, EOY SM Power Rating: 104.4 - Difference: -37.8
4. ARKANSAS: Recruit Ranking: 26.6, EOY SM Power Rating: 64 - Difference: -37.4
5. UCLA: Recruit Ranking: 17.2, EOY SM Power Rating: 52.4 - Difference: -35.2
6. TENNESSEE: Recruit Ranking: 12.4, EOY SM Power Rating: 46 - Difference: -33.6
7. SOUTH CAROLINA: Recruit Ranking: 20.2, EOY SM Power Rating: 52 - Difference: -31.8
8. ILLINOIS: Recruit Ranking: 56.4, EOY SM Power Rating: 84.2 - Difference: -27.8
9. EAST CAROLINA: Recruit Ranking: 79.6, EOY SM Power Rating: 106.6 - Difference: -27
10. OREGON STATE: Recruit Ranking: 58.2, EOY SM Power Rating: 84.6 - Difference: -26.4
11. NEBRASKA: Recruit Ranking: 26, EOY SM Power Rating: 51.6 - Difference: -25.6
12. TEXAS: Recruit Ranking: 11.2, EOY SM Power Rating: 36.6 - Difference: -25.4
13. FLORIDA STATE: Recruit Ranking: 5.6, EOY SM Power Rating: 30.8 - Difference: -25.2
14. VANDERBILT: Recruit Ranking: 51, EOY SM Power Rating: 74.4 - Difference: -23.4
15. MISSISSIPPI: Recruit Ranking: 18.8, EOY SM Power Rating: 42 - Difference: -23.2
16. ARIZONA STATE: Recruit Ranking: 26.8, EOY SM Power Rating: 49.6 - Difference: -22.8
17. TEXAS STATE: Recruit Ranking: 102.6, EOY SM Power Rating: 123.6 - Difference: -21
18. SAN JOSE STATE: Recruit Ranking: 87.8, EOY SM Power Rating: 106.2 - Difference: -18.4
19. MARSHALL: Recruit Ranking: 69.4, EOY SM Power Rating: 86.8 - Difference: -17.4
20. NORTH CAROLINA: Recruit Ranking: 27.4, EOY SM Power Rating: 44.2 - Difference: -16.8
Teams whose recruiting appears to be trending in each direction
Recent success or lack thereof on the recruiting trail figures to have a direct relationship with how teams fare on the field in the coming years. Teams whose classes are improving consistently are likely to become more prominent on the national and conference stage, while those whose class strengths are declining could be experiencing downturns in the near future. Let’s look at teams on both ends.
Teams whose recruiting rankings are trending in a positive direction
Appalachian State (Last 3 years’ recruiting ranks: 113, 99, 83)
The Mountaineers’ classes are getting better and better despite coaching changes each year. This program seems poised to dominate the Sun Belt Conference for many years.
Clemson (2010-14 average recruiting rank: 17.6, 2015-20: 9.3)
Culminating with a No. 3-ranked class this year, winning is making Clemson a sought-after destination for top recruits.
Colorado (2010-16 average recruiting rank: 62.9; 2017-20: 42)
New coach Karl Dorrell could benefit from a step up in recent recruiting classes. The Buffaloes’ drought of one bowl game in the last 13 seasons (2016) should end soon.
Florida Atlantic (2010-15 average recruiting rank: 98.6; 2016-20: 72.8)
Lane Kiffin had a major impact on Florida Atlantic’s success on and off the field. He will be missed.
Florida International (Last 4 years’ average recruiting rank: 78.5; previous 4 years: 106.5)
Located in weather-friendly Miami, FIU should have solid recruiting classes. This program is poised for an extended run of success.
Georgia (Last 3 recruiting ranks: 1, 2, 1)
After many years as a marginal top-10 recruiting program, Georgia has gone head to head with Alabama with its last three classes. Expect the Bulldogs to be in the national title hunt for years to come.
Iowa State (Last 2 recruiting ranks: 46, 46; previous 8-year average: 60.2)
Coach Matt Campbell has scored top-50 classes for the first time over the last decade in back-to-back years and is steadily making Iowa State a preferred destination in the Big 12.
Louisiana Lafayette (Last 2 recruiting ranks: 76, 79; previous 3-year average: 110.7)
The Ragin’ Cajuns made a big jump to 11 wins after a 10-year-best 2019 recruiting class. Extended success could be forecast.
Louisiana Tech (Last 3 years’ average recruiting rank: 78.3; previous 7 years: 95)
A solid uptick in recent recruiting classes should have Louisiana Tech in contention in Conference USA for at least the next few seasons.
Minnesota (Last 3 years’ average recruiting rank: 40.3; previous 7 years: 58.3)
The P.J. Fleck effect is impacting Minnesota football, both on and off the field.
North Texas (Last 2 recruiting ranks: 75, 68; previous 9-year average: 106.7)
Coach Seth Littrell and North Texas could be due for a huge rebound after back-to-back banner recruiting classes by UNT standards.
Penn State (Last 7 years’ average recruiting rank: 15.1; previous 3-year average: 37.0)
Coach James Franklin’s seven recruiting classes have brought Penn State football back into national prominence.
Purdue (Last 2 recruiting ranks: 25, 33; previous 9-year average: 64.3)
Coach Jeff Brohm has brought Purdue up to a different level in terms of recruiting. After a 4-8 season in 2019, I would expect the results to show very soon.
Washington (Last 3 recruiting ranks: 16, 15, 16; previous 8 years, no top-16s)
Departed coach Chris Petersen left the Washington program in good shape for Jimmy Lake.
Wisconsin (Last 2 recruiting ranks: 29, 25; previous 9-year average: 43.1)
Wisconsin has had a reputation for producing a better product on the field than its talent level indicates. The latter part of that equation could be changing as Paul Chryst has scored landmark classes in back-to-back years by Badgers standards and has an early No. 7-ranked group for 2021.
Teams whose recruiting rankings are trending in a negative direction
Arizona (Last 7 years’ recruiting ranks: 31, 48, 48, 45, 61, 55, 62)
The Wildcats’ classes have dropped from the top 24% in the country to the top 48% in seven years. The shine of playing Arizona football has worn off for top recruits.
Ball State (2010-17 average recruiting rank: 101.8; 2018-20: 121.7)
Having not played in a bowl game since 2013, Ball State’s recent recruiting classes are now among the bottom 10 in the country.
BYU (2010-17 average recruiting rank: 60.4; 2018-20: 79)
It’s pretty clear that Bronco Mendenhall had a much better recruiting touch than current coach Kalani Sitake.
Florida State (Last 5 years’ recruiting ranks: 3, 6, 11, 18, 22)
After consistently signing top-5 classes in the early part of the decade, FSU has slipped in five straight years. New coach Mike Norvell faces a challenge in restoring the allure of coming to Tallahassee.
Hawaii (2010-14 average recruiting rank: 87; 2015-20: 108.7)
Another coaching change for 2020 and a trend of worsening recruiting classes has Hawaii facing a downturn. The Warriors’ 125th-ranked class for this year is their worst in over 10 years.
Marshall (2010-16 average recruiting rank: 64; 2017-20: 81.8)
Despite a prolonged run of success, top recruits seem to be turning away from Marshall and coach Doc Holliday. The Thundering Herd ranked a decade-worst No. 95 in 2020.
Mississippi (Last 4 years’ average recruiting rank: 29.8; previous 4 years: 11.3)
Ole Miss’ No. 5-ranked recruiting class of 2016 is mostly gone. The last four classes haven’t come close to that level, and the Rebels are in a four-year bowl drought.
New Mexico (2010-16 average recruiting rank: 94.8; 2017-20: 115.5)
A recent plunge in recruiting for New Mexico football has shown on the field and mandated a coaching change.
Rutgers (2011-12 recruiting ranks: 29, 23; last 8-year average: 56.4)
The last two recruiting classes that could be attributed to coach Greg Schiano’s first tenure with Rutgers were top 25%. They have fallen dramatically since. No wonder the Scarlet Knights turned back the clock in hiring him again.
San Diego State (Last 4 years’ recruiting ranks: 77, 79, 91, 103)
New coach Brady Hoke takes over a San Diego State program whose recruiting is heading in the wrong direction.
San Jose State (2019-20 recruiting ranks: 126, 116; previous 5-year average: 84.2)
San Jose State has fallen off the recruiting map the last two years. Its ability to compete in the Mountain West in the near future could follow.
Temple (Last 4 years’ average recruiting rank: 100.8; previous 5 years: 71.8)
In Matt Rhule’s tenure with Temple, the program was gaining a strong foothold in the Philadelphia and Pennsylvania recruiting markets. A lot has changed since.
Texas Tech (Last 3 years’ average recruiting rank: 61; previous 8 years: 36.9)
A distinct drop in recruiting prowess finds Texas Tech in the midst of a downturn. But Matt Wells’ No. 49-ranked class for 2020 was the program’s best since 2017.
Texas San Antonio (Last 4 years’ recruiting ranks: 75, 85, 96, 104)
UTSA’s bowl season of 2016 was met with enthusiasm by recruits the next spring. Since then, the Roadrunners have slipped steadily in the standings and in the recruiting rankings.
USC (Last 3 years’ recruiting ranks: 4, 19, 55)
Coach Clay Helton’s recruiting trend is obviously going in the wrong direction. After back-to-back No. 4 rankings in 2017-18, the last two classes are this program’s worst in many years.
Potential 2020 surprise teams based on recent performance and recruiting
Each season, some teams surprise positively and negatively due to many factors. From analyzing the recruiting rankings against my power ratings, I came up with these lists for teams that show signs of rapid improvement or decline in 2020.
Teams that could improve significantly in 2020
Arkansas’ end-of-year power rating has declined in five straight seasons, according to my numbers. This is very strange, considering the Razorbacks have had top-30 recruiting classes in nine of the last 10 seasons. The talent level is too high to be mired in 2-10 seasons. Perhaps new coach Sam Pittman can be the one to put it all together.
In the early part of the last decade, Bowling Green was a perennial power in the MAC. The recruiting pattern of the last four years suggests a return to success could be just around the corner. After averaging 3.0 wins per season over the last four years, 2020 could double that.
The Seminoles’ recent recruiting classes have been among the elite in the ACC. Their performance on the field has not. New coach Mike Norvell may have inherited a gold mine.
The Bulldogs went from one to nine to 12 wins in a three-year span, then back down to 4-8 a year ago. With 16 starters back and what appears to be a weakened MWC West, Fresno State should contend for a bowl game again.
Georgia Tech’s recent recruiting classes are much more befitting a seven- or eight-win team than a 3-9 program. That was the record in coach Geoff Collins’ first year, a season whose main objective was system conversion from the Paul Johnson triple-option days. In Year 2, with a nation-high 19 starters back, the Yellow Jackets could be much better than people think.
In many cases, teams that fell significantly the previous season are good candidates to bounce back, at least to a normal level. Maryland was 3-9 last season after a seven-year run of a little over five wins per season. The Terps’ 2017-18 recruiting classes were elite at Nos. 18 and 28, and those groups will be the upperclassmen for 2020.
Coach Manny Diaz’s first season at Miami was inconsistent, but Year 2 has good potential. After finishing 6-7, Diaz has No. 12- and No. 8-ranked recruiting classes from 2017-18 to lean on, plus dual-threat QB Tate Martell is back. He was a highly rated recruit who transferred from Ohio State before last year and faced a number of challenges that kept him off the field last fall.
The 2019 season was expected to be a rebuilding effort for coach Dave Doeren. Only half the starters from the 2018 team that went 9-4 returned, and NC State was starting over at QB with Ryan Finley having graduated. It took a while to find an answer there, but Doeren did in Devin Leary. He and 14 other starters are back, and the Wolfpack’s last three recruiting classes have been improved. This will be a bowl team again.
Resurgent teams can often crumble under heavy expectations. Note the Cleveland Browns and Nebraska Cornhuskers of 2019. With the experts backing off quite a bit for 2020, expect stud QB Adrian Martinez and the highly rated recent recruiting classes of now third-year coach Scott Frost to come closer to realizing the potential.
The season-ending injury to QB K.J. Costello derailed Stanford’s 2019 season, which netted a 4-8 record. However, it allowed replacement Davis Mills to emerge. And with 17 starters back, including several seniors from coach David Shaw’s highly touted 2017 class, the Cardinal should be back in the hunt in the Pac-12.
With senior QB Sam Ehlinger back alongside 15 other returning starters, many from the No. 3-ranked recruiting classes of 2018-19, Texas could be a legitimate CFP candidate.
Jimbo Fisher’s third through fifth years at Florida State were his best. This will be his third year with A&M. Senior stud QB Kellen Mond is also back, and the recent recruiting classes are top-notch. Expect the Aggies to be very good this season, better than the 8-5 of 2019.
When senior QB Mitchell Guadagni was lost for the season to an injury last year, MAC West favorite Toledo was 4-1. The Rockets finished 6-6. Recruiting rankings of the last four years suggest this is the best team in the MAC for 2020 and will rebound.
Before the 2019 season, reasons for a downturn in Morgantown were glaring. Perhaps the opposite can be said in Year 2 of the Neal Brown era. Four more starters are back this season than last, and senior QB Austin Kendall, an Oklahoma transfer, should be much better this fall.
Teams that could decline significantly in 2020
Air Force went from five to 11 wins from 2018 to 2019. On the surface, it’s hard to find any reason besides positive momentum. According to the Falcons’ recent recruiting rankings, the talent level has remained consistent. Expect a return to normalcy in 2020.
Former coach Matt Rhule was such a huge part of Baylor’s turnaround. The program was in shambles before he arrived, in scandal and in the standings. The rise has been meteoric over the last three years, but there are numerous concerns. Among them: The 2019 season ended unceremoniously, with multiple losses to Oklahoma and a 26-14 Sugar Bowl defeat at the hands of Georgia. Baylor’s recruiting rankings have dropped in three straight years. Rhule, who left for the NFL, organically touted character and pride in Baylor, and authentically replacing it will be difficult.
Florida Atlantic’s offense under departed coach Lane Kiffin was prolific. His influence on recruiting was just as special. New coach Willie Taggart had the exact opposite impact in both areas at Florida State.
Coach gone. Prolific starting quarterback gone. Only 11 total starters back. Worst two recruiting classes in recent memory in 2019-20. Look out, cliff, here comes Hawaii, fresh off a 10-5 season.
Tech will have the fewest starters back of any team in 2020, with just eight returning. QB J’Mar Smith will not be one of them, and the Bulldogs’ recent recruits, while decent, probably won’t step into key spots seamlessly. After a 10-3 season in 2019, earning a seventh straight bowl bid could be a challenge.
It should come as no surprise that matching a 15-0 season will be virtually impossible, but LSU has concrete reasons to think it won’t even come close. First, Heisman-winning QB Joe Burrow is off to the NFL along with several of his weapons. Second, highly touted passing-game coordinator Joe Brady also left for the NFL. Third, LSU is tied with Louisiana Tech for the fewest returning starters in the nation with eight. Finally, the Tigers’ recent recruiting classes, while still strong, have been equaled by several other SEC teams, including Alabama, Auburn, Texas A&M, Georgia and Florida. They play all of those teams in 2020 except Georgia, and they add a very strong Texas team to the opponent list this fall.
MSU’s athletic program has come under heavy scrutiny lately for several scandals, most recently a recruiting investigation that cost coach Mark Dantonio his job. With just 10 starters back from last year’s 7-6 team, things could go south this fall.
Departed QB Malcolm Perry was a big part of Navy’s eight-win improvement from 2018 to 2019. The two most recent recruiting classes were the worst in the 12-year Ken Niumatalolo era. There’s nowhere to go but down.
The Beavers wasted an incredibly good season from senior QB Jake Luton last fall, as his 28-3 TD-INT ratio netted just a 5-7 record. While that was a three-game improvement, the recent recruiting classes and the loss of Luton suggest a return to two or three wins.
The run of five straight bowl-qualifying seasons is in danger. The last four recruiting classes have been far from bowl-worthy.
Utah emerged from under the radar in November last season only to lose its final two games resoundingly. Although the Utes landed South Carolina graduate transfer QB Jake Bentley, only two starters are back from a defense that allowed 15 PPG. It will be very hard to match 11 wins.
Stud QB Bryce Perkins will be very tough to replace, and Virginia’s recent recruiting classes don’t stack up well against the rest of what looks to be an improved ACC.
To view the chart with this story, see “Point Spread Weekly” at VSiN.com/my-account