FishDuck Recruiting Special: Pac-12 Talent – The Introduction

Chris Charbonnier FishWrap, FishWrap Archive

We’ve all heard it: “recruiting rankings don’t matter”. Usually, someone says this on the message boards after our favorite team picks up a commitment from a two or three-star player who is “underrated”. Well, it is true, recruiting rankings mean nothing in terms of on-field production, but do they act as a good predictor of success? I defer to Matt Hinton, who wrote a great five-part series last year called “Star Power.” A part of the Dr. Saturday blog, the series can be found here: 1 2 3 4 5. As the most comprehensive study of its kind, it is definitely worth the read. Here’s how Hinton opens up:

Chip Kelly may not care much about recruiting rankings, but Oregon's class has him and fans all smiles

“If you didn’t know any better, you might be convinced all those recruiting stars everyone gets worked up about every winter didn’t correspond to future success at all…fortunately, because we’ve been bestowed by the American education system with the magic of basic arithmetic, we do know better.”

Matt goes on to unveil a litany of statistical charts, graphs and models, which he uses to support the conclusions he makes. To summarize his findings, recruiting rankings are not only valuable, but “have considerable predictive power” for both individual players and entire teams. Dave Bartoo, creator of the College Football Matrix, claims that Hinton’s findings corroborate eight years of recruiting profiling:

“Recruiting rank, when correctly adjusted, is the single-best tool for predicting game outcomes, months in advance. While where the game is played and our coaching effect refines the predictions, talent wins the day.  In the last seven years, 84% of all conference champions were in the top third of conference recruiting and no team has made the National Championship Game without being in the Top-16 of our adjusted 4-year recruiting rankings.”

If you’re a fan of college football, check out the CFBMatrix. Using Dave’s adjusted recruiting rankings (plus a small field adjustment), the Matrix picked 77% of all PAC12 games correctly this year; in March. Dave’s Matrix was pretty good at predicting results in the PAC12, ACC and SEC. In fact, it was better than any other national publication that comes out with preseason predictions. Stats don’t lie. Many fans won’t like the conclusions that Hinton or Bartoo have come to, but the fact is, talent wins.

People like to criticize rankings, but it’s easy to forget that the big recruiting sites are very good at what they do. Scout, Rivals and 247 are all great resources. They give the average fan access to a comprehensive ranking system that was hidden away in the offices of D1 recruiting coordinators until only recently.

The scouts who compile these rankings didn’t just happen upon the title bestowed upon them, and the rankings that you and I scrutinize so heavily weren’t just drawn from a hat. Most recruits are ranked during the spring of their junior year. Then they’re re-evaluated after summer camps, again after their senior seasons and yet again after all-star games. By the time signing day rolls around, the experts likely feel pretty good about their rankings. Typically, you’ll notice that a player is ranked similarly across all of the respected sites. Are there exceptions? Of course, but usually the scouts agree.

Additionally, the star ratings are valuable because they group players by tier. If the #10 WR and #35 WR are both four-stars, then there probably isn’t a huge difference between the two. Each site compiles their player rankings differently, so it’s telling that more often than not, they’re quite similar. When the sites DO separate a player by a star, there are a number of possible explanations for the disparity. Maybe one scout saw a particular player dominate at a summer camp, while other sites had to rate said player based on film that shows him playing through injury.

Now, scouts will always over and under-rate individual players, but so does every single FBS division football coach. When you’re rating hundreds of players every year, mistakes are inevitably going to happen. Ratings aren’t everything, but they shouldn’t be disregarded either; they’re the best resource we have when it comes to looking at the talent level of college football teams.

College coaches are not dumb. They know that winning consistently requires talent, which they’ll go to great lengths to acquire. As evidenced by offer lists, interest level in a recruit often correlates with their rating. Many pass this off as conspiracy, saying that recruits are ranked based solely on their offer lists, but I don’t buy it. I think that the coaches and recruiting websites simply see the same thing. Maybe a 4-star with a bunch of offers is just a really good football player. That’s obvious to the scouts who gave him four stars and the coaches offering him a scholarship. Is that so hard to believe? There are certainly different biases among the recruiting websites, which is why I feel it’s important to use a comprehensive approach, but I don’t believe any particular bias renders an entire ranking system useless.

“If you consider the initial grade as a kind of investment – a projection of how likely a player is of becoming an elite contributor compared to the rest of the field – well, you’d put your money with the “experts” over the chances of finding the proverbial diamond in the rough every time.” (Hinton)


Are there certain players overlooked by recruiting sites that a coach might absolutely love? Of course, but most of the time, a coach will think more highly of a 4-star than they will of a 3-star because the 4-star is higher on the coach’s big board too! There are other factors that come into play like character, grades and fit, but raw athletic talent reigns supreme. There will always be teams that over or under-perform based on things like system, coaching and chemistry; but as a general rule, nothing is as important as talent. It’s not a coincidence that no team outside of the CFBMatrix “4-year moving average” Top-16 has ever played in a BCS national championship game. Talent doesn’t guarantee success, but it’s been proven to correlate with winning.

“Bigdukesix” of Recruitocosm writes his own analysis of the star-system. Using Hinton’s studies to support his findings, the author concludes by saying that, “being a decently-talented, well-coached team will only take you so far. At some point you run into a well-coached team with superior athletes and get ground up and spit out…recruiting success is necessary but not sufficient for consistent team success”. Well said.

I could go into how recruiting players for a specific system and making sure they’re team-first guys is really important, but that’s for another article. The fact is, there isn’t a coach in the country that would’ve turned away Dorial Green-Beckham. Your team didn’t recruit him? It’s because they didn’t think it was worth their time, not because they doubted whether he’d fit the system or the team.

There are always exceptions to every rule, and you can object to many of the statements I’ve made here using specific examples with the help of hindsight, but the fact is, in big time college football, talent precedes winning. The best way to measure that “talent” is to use the star-ratings awarded by professional scouts since we don’t have access into the recruiting offices of D1 schools. Hinton puts it plainly when he says that, “it’s a simple equation: the better your recruiting rankings by the gurus, the better your chances of winning games.”

In this series, I plan to look at the talent-level of each team in the PAC12 in order to try and better understand what the future holds for the conference. This concept is simply an expansion of the College Football Matrix. After realizing that the matrix didn’t account for all of the players lost each year to attrition, this project began.  Looking only at active scholarship players on each roster gives us a more accurate picture of each team’s true talent-level.

Beginning next week, I will begin counting down to the most talented team in the PAC12. We’ll start with #12 and work our way to #1 over a series of four articles. Each team analysis will begin with a screenshot of an excel spreadsheet I’ve created which breaks down players by class standing and recruiting rank. I did this to create a user-friendly visual that could be used in a number of ways. I’ve come up with a tier-system that uses rankings from Rivals, Scout and 247. The system is simple. For years 2008-2010, I use only Scout and Rivals while for 2011 and 2012, I also use the 247 rankings.


  • Tier-E: 5-star rating by at least one service
  • Tier-1: 4-star rating by at least two services
  • Tier-2: 4-star rating by one service
  • Tier-3: 3-star rating by at least two services
  • Tier-4: 3-star rating by one service
  • Tier-5: No 3-star rating by any service


See you next Thursday as we begin with the Pac-12 countdown, starting with #12, #11 and #10.

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