Recruiting rankings a key piece of college football puzzle

June 18, 2022 07:07 PM
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Recruiting plays a massive role in building a college football program, and it should play a big part in college football handicapping too.

With the explosive growth of the transfer portal in recent years, the importance of recruiting has never been greater. How big has the transfer portal become? 247sports, the source I use for my annual recruiting rankings report, has added a “transfer” rating to its “recruit” ratings and also combines the two into an “overall” rating. Because of the impact of the transfer portal, I have chosen to use the overall rating in my study.

247sports.com is the best source in this space, in my opinion. The site logs the recruits/transfers for every team and uses a numerical grading process based on the combined scores of the new players. The site’s grades can be turned into a useful foundational betting analysis. 

Alabama has scored the highest national rating at 247sports in nine of the last 12 years, with Georgia taking the top spot twice and Texas A&M topping the list in 2022. Considering the Bulldogs won the national title last season, it might not be long before the Aggies win a College Football Playoff.

We all know other schools such as Clemson, LSU, Notre Dame, and Ohio State are usually wildly successful in the recruiting game too. The trick is finding teams under the radar that might be ready to surprise because of unusually good or bad recent recruiting classes.

There’s also the matter of taking recruits and making a team out of them, otherwise known as coaching. Knowing which programs make the most or least out of their recruiting classes is key.

Teams that do the most/least with their recruiting classes

Signing a quality recruiting class is only the start. Coaches need to develop talent and mold players into a functioning unit in order to be successful. Some programs have demonstrated that ability better than others. Let’s look at some programs that have distinctly demonstrated opposite ends of this spectrum.

The teams below are sorted by the difference between their average national recruiting rankings over the last five years compared to my end-of-year power ratings. As you analyze why each of these teams appears on the list, be sure to consider which programs have undergone coaching changes in recent years and how relevant that information might be for 2022. 

Top 20 teams whose on-field performance has exceeded their recruiting ranking

Teams on the “overachieving” list typically have stable coaching situations or coaches who leave because they are sought by other programs. 

Such is the case for Appalachian State, No. 1 on the list for the second straight season. Shawn Clark is entering his third season as Mountaineers coach (after the school changed coaches for three straight seasons). Also of note, the three armed forces teams are ranked Nos. 2, 3 and 7, likely a credit to the character of players those schools recruit. 

Eight of the top nine teams on the list — other than Liberty slipping in for Tulsa — were top-nine teams last year, a sign of programs with a consistent method of operation. 

All but three teams in the Top 20 are from Group of 5 conferences, with only Iowa State, Kansas State and Wake Forest representing the Power 5. It’s hard to compete for conference titles in the Power 5 if you aren’t recruiting well. Power 5 teams that were in the Top 20 last year but fell out this time around are Wisconsin, Iowa and Oklahoma State.

1. Appalachian State — Recruit Rank: 95, Steve Makinen Power Rating Rank: 46.4, Difference: + 48.6

2. Air Force — Recruit Rank: 106.75, SM Power Rating Rank: 62.5, Difference: + 44.25

3. Army — Recruit Rank: 112, SM Power Rating Rank: 70.2, Difference: + 41.8

4. Liberty — Recruit Rank: 102.75, SM Power Rating Rank: 65, Difference: + 37.75

5. Buffalo — Recruit Rank: 115, SM Power Rating Rank: 79, Difference: + 36

6. Wyoming — Recruit Rank: 108.8, SM Power Rating Rank: 74.4, Difference: + 34.4

7. Navy — Recruit Rank: 108.8, SM Power Rating Rank: 74.8, Difference: + 34

8. UCF — Recruit Rank: 60.4, SM Power Rating Rank: 26.8, Difference: + 33.6

9. Ohio — Recruit Rank: 110.2, SM Power Rating Rank: 78.2, Difference: + 32

10. Iowa State — Recruit Rank: 51.4, SM Power Rating Rank: 19.8, Difference: + 31.6

11. Utah State — Recruit Rank: 109.6, SM Power Rating Rank: 80, Difference: + 29.6

12. Fresno State — Recruit Rank: 90.8, SM Power Rating Rank: 62.8, Difference: + 28

13. Tulsa — Recruit Rank: 105.4, SM Power Rating Rank: 78.2, Difference: + 27.2

14. Coastal Carolina — Recruit Rank: 111, SM Power Rating Rank: 86.8, Difference: + 24.2

15. Boise State — Recruit Rank: 61.2, SM Power Rating Rank: 37.6, Difference: + 23.6

16. BYU — Recruit Rank: 75.6, SM Power Rating Rank: 52.4, Difference: + 23.2

17. UAB — Recruit Rank: 100.2, SM Power Rating Rank: 79.2, Difference: + 21

18. La.-Lafayette — Recruit Rank: 89.8, SM Power Rating Rank: 71, Difference: + 18.8

T19. Kansas State — Recruit Rank: 59.2, SM Power Rating Rank: 40.6, Difference: + 18.6

T19. Wake Forest — Recruit Rank: 63, SM Power Rating Rank: 44.4, Difference: + 18.6

Top 20 teams whose recruiting ranking has exceeded their on-field performance

Teams on the “underachieving” list are often forced to fire their coaches due to a lack of success. Rutgers and Maryland share the top spot on this list. Of these two, the Terrapins have been better on the field, so it seems Scarlet Knights coach Greg Schiano has the most work to do. 

The top three teams remain the same as last year, with Vanderbilt moving up 10 spots to No. 4. As the Commodores’ recent recruiting classes have improved, their play has not.

Overall, this list is dominated by Power 5 schools who sign good athletes but don’t win enough games. This is not a list coaches from the Power 5 want to find themselves on, and the list includes respected names such as Mack Brown, Chip Kelly and David Shaw.

The four Group of 5 teams in this collection of underachievers are Florida International, Bowling Green, East Carolina and UNLV. The Pirates might be the only one of those four teams capable of jumping off this list next year, as they are riding the positive momentum of a 7-5 season. 

Only two teams from this group have new coaches in 2022 (Duke and FIU).

T1. Maryland — Recruit Rank: 28.4, SM Power Rating Rank: 72.6, Difference: -44.2

T1. Rutgers — Recruit Rank: 53.6, SM Power Rating Rank: 97.8, Difference: -44.2

3. Kansas — Recruit Rank: 64, SM Power Rating Rank: 105.6, Difference: -41.6

4. Vanderbilt — Recruit Rank: 52.6, SM Power Rating Rank: 91.6, Difference: -39

5. Arkansas — Recruit Rank: 30, SM Power Rating Rank: 66.6, Difference: -36.6

6. Tennessee — Recruit Rank: 16.6, SM Power Rating Rank: 52.8, Difference: -36.2

7. Florida State — Recruit Rank: 16, SM Power Rating Rank: 51.8, Difference: -35.8

8. Georgia Tech — Recruit Rank: 43, SM Power Rating Rank: 72.8, Difference: -29.8

9. FIU — Recruit Rank: 79.6, SM Power Rating Rank: 109, Difference: -29.4

10. Nebraska — Recruit Rank: 20.6, SM Power Rating Rank: 45.6, Difference: -25

11. South Carolina — Recruit Rank: 31.4, SM Power Rating Rank: 56.2, Difference: -24.8

12. Bowling Green — Recruit Rank: 97.8, SM Power Rating Rank: 122.4, Difference: -24.6

13. Colorado — Recruit Rank: 46.2, SM Power Rating Rank: 70.4, Difference: -24.2

14. North Carolina — Recruit Rank: 22.4, SM Power Rating Rank: 45.8, Difference: -23.4

15. East Carolina — Recruit Rank: 82.4, SM Power Rating Rank: 104.6, Difference: -22.2

16. Duke — Recruit Rank: 55.4, SM Power Rating Rank: 76, Difference: -20.6

T17. Illinois — Recruit Rank: 62.2, SM Power Rating Rank: 82.8, Difference: -20.6

T17. UNLV — Recruit Rank: 92.4, SM Power Rating Rank: 113, Difference: -20.6

19. UCLA — Recruit Rank: 28.4, SM Power Rating Rank: 46.4, Difference: -18

20. Stanford — Recruit Rank: 29, SM Power Rating Rank: 46.8, Difference: -17.8

Teams whose recruiting appears to be trending one way or the other

Recent success, or lack thereof, on the recruiting trail figures to have a direct relationship with performance on the field in future years. Teams whose classes are consistently improving will likely become more prominent on the national/conference stage, while those whose classes are declining will likely experience downturns. There are also unique situations in which a team adds an unusually high- or low-rated class compared to normal results. Let’s take a look at teams on both ends of the recruiting momentum spectrum.

15 teams whose recruiting rankings are trending in a positive direction

Arizona (L4 average recruiting rank: 63.8; 2022: 26): Jedd Fisch took over before the 2021 season and he had a ton of work to do. His first recruiting class was not well respected but this year’s was spectacular, ranking 26th in the country. The stud of that group is Washington State transfer QB Jayden de Laura.

Arkansas (L3 ranks: 30, 25, 22): Each successive class for Sam Pittman appears to be getting better. Coming off a 9-4 season, the Razorbacks seem to have found the man to keep their program at a high level once again.

Boston College (2015-20 ranks: none better than 60th; L2: 37, 53): Jeff Hafley enters his third season at BC and seems to be on good footing for 2022. QB Phil Jurkovec decided to come back for another year, and BC’s last two classes are the team’s best since 2010 and 2011.

Buffalo (L2 ranks: better than 100; previous 10 years: no such occurrences): Maurice Linguist inherited a team that was trending in the wrong direction in terms of recruiting. His first two classes have ranked 99th (2021) and 75th (2022). The latter is very high by MAC standards, and that could be a good sign for a team that fell off last year.

Coastal Carolina (L2 average rank: 87.5; 2017-20 average: 118.5): The combination of being in Myrtle Beach and winning football games the last two seasons seems to be having a positive impact for Jamey Chadwell and Coastal Carolina.

Fresno State (L2 ranks: 70, 68; previous 10-year average: 91.3): Jeff Tedford returns to Fresno State and is set up to maintain a high level of success after the team went 10-3 last year. QB Jake Haener is back, and the last two recruiting classes were the program’s best since 2010.

Houston (L3 ranks: 73, 79, 51; previous 8-year average: 110.7): Not coincidentally, Houston’s best three recruiting classes over the last decade came right after its most successful seasons. The Cougars went 12-2 in 2021, and the reward for Dana Holgorsen was a 51st-ranked class, the program’s best since 2016.

Indiana (2022 rank: 30, best on record): Coming off the team’s best back-to-back seasons in years, Indiana plummeted to 2-10 in 2021. Strangely, Tom Allen was able to bring in the program’s best recruiting class on record. The downturn shouldn’t last long.

Kentucky (L3 average rank: 25.7, including program-best 20th in 2022): With two double-digit win seasons in the last four years, Mark Stoops seems to have Kentucky set to stay competitive in the SEC for the foreseeable future. His 20th-ranked class is the team’s best dating to 2007.

Missouri (L2 ranks: 28, 18; previous 10 years: better than 30th just once): The Tigers are in a six-year downturn, but Eli Drinkwitz might be on the verge of bringing this team back to respectability. His 2022 recruiting class (18th) is the best I have on record.

North Carolina (L3 average rank: 14.7; previous 8-year average: 29.8): Mack Brown has clearly elevated the UNC recruiting standards, as the team’s ranking has improved in four consecutive years to reach a program-best 11th in 2022.

Rutgers (L2 ranks: 41, 33; previous 8-year average: 56.4, with none equaling the L2): Greg Schiano is picking up where he left off in terms of recruiting success at Rutgers. Unfortunately, there were eight years between stints with the Scarlet Knights.

SMU (L2 ranks: 51, 50; previous 11-year average: 75.2): Off three consecutive strong seasons, new coach Rhett Lashlee could be ready to take SMU to another level. The team’s last two recruiting classes rank very high by AAC standards.

Texas A&M (L4 ranks: 4, 6, 8, 1; previous 9-year average: 15.4): Jimbo Fisher has lifted Texas A&M to the top of the recruiting rankings in 2022. With the last four classes the Aggies have brought in, it’s CFP or bust.

UCF (L2 average rank: 46.5; previous 10-year average: 68.1): Gus Malzahn has taken UCF recruiting to another level in his two years. With strong recruiting runs by Houston, SMU and UCF, Cincinnati’s run at the top of the conference is likely over.

15 teams whose recruiting rankings are trending in a negative direction

Arizona State (L2 ranks: 52, 54; both worsts since 2011): Herm Edwards’ recent recruiting class failures, in addition to the loss of QB Jayden Daniels, threaten to spill over to the field.

Auburn (L2 average rank: 20; 2010-20: 8.5): At Auburn, 20th-ranked classes just don’t cut it. Bryan Harsin has not been able to pick up where Gus Malzahn left off.

Duke (2022 rank: 64, worst since 2013): Mike Elko’s first class is the program’s worst since 2013. It doesn’t seem the Blue Devils will emerge from their funk anytime soon.

Florida Atlantic (L4 ranks: 61, 73, 82, 106): Lane Kiffin’s recruiting efforts had a huge impact on the success of FAU, but Willie Taggart doesn’t match up — in recruiting or coaching. The Owls’ 106th-ranked class is the program’s worst in 12 years.

Florida State (L4 ranks: 18, 22, 23, 19; previous 11-year average: 4.5): The fact the Seminoles haven’t won more than seven games since 2016 is no accident.

Hawaii (L4 average rank: 121.3; previous 9-year average: 94.1): Hawaii has turned to former star quarterback Timmy Chang to try and bring the program back to its highest levels. His first class did not win over many fans.

La-Lafayette (2022 rank: 119, worst since 2017 and a 51-spot drop from 2021): Transitioning out of a huge four-year run under Billy Napier is going to be tough, especially with Michael Desormeaux bringing in the Ragin’ Cajuns’ lowest-ranked class since 2017. 

NC State (2022 rank: 76, lowest on record): After a solid 9-3 record in 2021 that felt like a step forward, NC State’s staff seems to have lost that momentum through recruiting. This year’s class broke a trend of four straight classes ranked 41st or better.

Nevada (2 of last 3 classes ranked 118th or worse): Not only does this program have to move on from coach Jay Norvell and QB Carson Strong, but this year’s class (and the one from 2020) were ranked very poorly by Mountain West standards.

Old Dominion (L3 ranks: 94, 102, 117): Old Dominion’s ranks are headed in the wrong direction, and it’s unfortunate after the 2021 team won six times and played in a bowl game. In 2019, when ODU’s class ranked 116th, the Monarchs followed it up with a 1-11 season.

Temple (L5 average rank: 103.8; previous 5-year average: 71.8): In Matt Rhule’s tenure with Temple, the program was gaining a strong foothold in Pennsylvania. A lot has changed since, as three of the last five classes have been ranked 100+ .

Tulsa (L4 ranks: 107, 112, 126, 113; previous 3-year average: 92.3): Tulsa had three straight Top 100 classes from 2016-18, and that group produced two straight winning seasons in 2020 and 2021. Times have changed.

UCLA (L4 ranks: 40, 32, 31, 29; previous 7-year average: 15.3): Chip Kelly was expected to have a big impact on recruiting at UCLA. He has, only the impact has been negative. His last four classes have ranked 29th or worse after the Bruins brought in Top 15 classes on a regular basis in previous years. Fortunately, QB Dorian Thompson-Robinson decided to come back for a fifth year. 

Western Michigan (L2 ranks: 97, 120, both worsts since 2013): Western Michigan has enjoyed eight straight seasons of at least .500 football. Perhaps a drop in recruiting may lead to that streak ending.

Washington (L4 ranks: 15, 16, 36, 58): Former coach Chris Peterson led a positive wave of strong classes, then the classes under Jimmy Lake in 2020-21 dropped off — and now coach Kalen DeBoer’s 2022 class plummeted to the lowest on record. Last year’s 4-8 season may not have been a fluke.

Potential 2022 surprise teams

There are surprise teams every season, both positive and negative, and there are many contributing factors. After analyzing the recruiting rankings against my power ratings for this report, here are some teams with the potential to show rapid improvement or decline this season.

Teams that could improve significantly in 2022

Arizona: Jedd Fisch’s team has a chance to be a lot better in Year 2. The program was at least more competitive in 2021 than it was in 2020, with five of its 11 losses by single-digit margins. Now he brings in an elite-level class for 2022 (26th). Transfer QB Jayden de Laura was a two-year starter at Washington State, where he put up solid numbers. 

Boston College: QB Phil Jurkovec had a big 2020 season before being hit by injuries a year ago. It was a pleasant surprise to hear he was coming back this fall. Perhaps he likes the looks of the Eagles’ recent recruiting classes. BC could be a sleeper in the ACC.

Buffalo: Last year I called for a down season for the Bulls, who were transitioning coaches and figured to be rebuilding from the loss of a strong class in 2020. This year I think they could be back in the fold in the MAC.

Indiana: One of the Hoosiers’ key signees is transfer QB Connor Bazelak from Missouri, who had two relatively strong seasons in the SEC. The wheels fell off for IU late in 2021, but the positive recruiting momentum and a relatively weak early schedule could help turn things around.

Missouri: With Bazelak gone, it’s evident that third-year coach Eli Drinkwitz wanted a change. Transfer Jack Abraham figures to be a better fit for Drinkwitz’s offense. The Tigers could be ready to take a step up in the SEC after three straight seasons of .500 or worse.

North Carolina: QB Sam Howell has moved on after putting up big numbers over the last few seasons, but I still feel the Tar Heels could be a better team in 2022. Drake Maye, a former five-star recruit, could be even better than Howell, and UNC underachieved with Howell anyway. 

Rutgers: Coming off a bowl appearance in 2021, the Scarlet Knights have improved their win total, as well as their recruiting rankings, in four straight seasons. A winning record for the first time since 2014 doesn’t seem out of the question.

SMU: SMU has gone 25-10 over the last three seasons behind recruiting classes that ranked around 75th. The last two classes ranked 51st and 50th, and QB Tanner Mordecai, who threw for 39 TDs last year, is back. It’s a conference title or bust in the AAC.

UCF: Although not quite the SEC-level classes Gus Malzahn recruited at Auburn, his first two groups have ranked highly at UCF. The Knights were 9-4 last year and probably should have been 11-2. This should be a double-digit win team in 2022.

USC: USC’s 4-8 season in 2021 should be just an ugly memory by October. Coach Lincoln Riley’s team is a prime candidate for a big turnaround. Not only did he bring QB Caleb Williams with him from Oklahoma, but he also has consecutive classes ranked seventh or better to work with. No level of optimism is too high if you ask me.

Teams that could decline significantly in 2022

Arizona State: While Arizona seems to be on the rise, rival ASU is heading in the opposite direction. Recruiting levels are declining under Herm Edwards, and the team has generally underachieved in his four seasons in Tempe. With QB Jayden Daniels moving on, I wouldn’t be surprised to see this team fall in 2022, leaving the seat very hot for Edwards.

Auburn: Why would a quarterback as instrumental to Auburn leave for his final season? That’s the question I’m asking about Bo Nix and his venture to Oregon. Clearly there are internal issues under Bryan Harsin, and with a 12-12 record the last two seasons, this program is headed in the wrong direction.

Florida Atlantic: Willie Taggert has clearly dropped the ball after Lane Kiffin’s departure. With the recruiting rank having dropped to 106th, I don’t see the Owls going anywhere but down.

Hawaii: Hawaii has been weathering the storm the last four years with recruiting classes that have ranked 115, 125, 124, and 121. That is absolutely brutal by Mountain West standards, and with Timmy Chang coming in as a first-time head coach, I fear this is the season it all bottoms out.

La.-Lafayette: Louisiana-Lafayette has been on a tremendous run over the last three seasons, winning 34 games against five losses. The rewards for such success are promotions for coaches, and Billy Napier now finds himself atop the Florida program. What’s left at Louisiana remains to be seen, but with QB Levi Lewis gone and a poor recruiting class, the rest of the Sun Belt will be out to make up for the last three years.

Nevada: Jay Norvell got out at the right time. I’m not sure a lateral move to Colorado State is what he envisioned after a successful five-year run with the Wolf Pack, but he departs with star QB Carson Strong and many other starters who used up eligibility. Two of the last three recruiting classes for Nevada ranked 118th and 119th. It could be a tough season in Reno.

Old Dominion: ODU was 1-6 before winning its final five regular-season games and earning a bowl bid. After a third straight year of declining recruiting classes, I don’t expect the success to continue.

Tulsa: Despite back-to-back bowl appearances and a 13-9 record over the last two seasons, Tulsa has brought in four straight recruiting classes ranked 107th or worse. At some point that catches up, and 2022 could be that point — especially if QB Davis Brin (18-16 TD-INT ratio) remains the starter.

Western Kentucky: QB Bailey Zappe was one of the most impactful transfers in college football last season, as he threw for almost 6,000 yards and 62 TDs in the Hilltoppers’ nine-win season. Zappe was also a one-year rental, and the team needed all of its 44.2 PPG because the defense was not very good. After two relatively weak recruiting classes, all that was accomplished last year could be quickly forgotten.

Western Michigan: WMU has been at least .500 in each of the last eight seasons, the last five under Tim Lester. For whatever the reason, Lester and his staff have dropped the ball over the last three declining recruiting classes, with the most recent class ranking 120th. Getting lazy in recruiting has its consequences.

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