Nebraska Football: Yes, Recruiting Rankings Are Important For the Cornhuskers


So, we’re a little ways away from 2017’s National Signing Day, and Nebraska ending up with a no. 23 ranked class nationally (according to 247 Sports). Reports tended to think the class ranged from solid to good but not great. But there is a pretty universal agreement amongst those covering the team that Nebraska needs a good recruiting performance to win trophies.

But not everyone agrees with that premise. Keyshawn Johnson (senior, not the incoming freshman) thinks recruiting rankings are for fools (according to Erin Sorensen of Hail Varsity).

There is a not-insignificant portion of the fan base that feels this way about recruiting, too.  So, let’s imagine a conversation with such a fan – we’ll call him the Grumpy Recruiting Skeptic (GRS) – and help see if we can understand the tension.

GRS: I am so glad recruiting season is over.

DXP: I know, it’s pretty exhausting, but it’s nice to see Nebraska making some progress.

GRS: No, I mean I’m just tired of hearing about all this recruiting nonsense. It’s such a waste of time.

DXP: What do you mean?

GRS: This is Nebraska, we don’t need to worry about all that five-star nonsense. Back in the day, we’d win with grit and our walk-on program.

DXP: Well, even those teams in the nineties had some pretty talented players on them.

GRS: Of course. But we didn’t spend our time obsessing about which five-star kid was going to go where, because who knows what those kids will end up being. Highly rated kids flame out all the time, so I don’t know why we obsess about it so much.

DXP: You’re right, individual highly rated players do crash and burn. But in general, the better you do in recruiting, the more likely you are to win.

GRS: That’s what those sites want you to think. But how come teams like Texas and Florida get all the good recruits and don’t win squat?

DXP: Again, you’re looking at individual instances. The averages don’t take Mack Brown into account. Just read this piece from Matt Hinton from SB Nation, it explains why the ranking sites are helpful.

GRS: <clicking website, staring intently, putting phone down in frustration> TL;DR, what’s the point?

DXP: Basically, Hinton categorized schools in terms of their recruiting prowess as seen by the sites, ranking them from one-star schools to five-star schools. Here’s what their overall winning percentages are, from 2010-2013.

Five-star schools .679
Four-star schools .557
Three-star schools .495
Two-star schools .367
One-star schools .394

GRS: So, you’re telling me the good schools win a lot. Do they pay you for this?

DXP: OK, that was hateful. And besides, the numbers speak for themselves, I think. You recruit well, you win pretty often. You don’t recruit as well, you don’t win as often.

GRS: Yeah, but even those “five-star” schools have big time recruits that don’t work out. Even mighty Nick Saban at Alabama has his recruiting busts.

DXP: I think you’re missing the point. You’re right, college football is littered with individual five-star prospects that never amounted to anything …

GRS: See, you agree with me. I knew you’d come around.

DXP: Ahem. BUT, you can’t look at recruiting by cherry-picking individual cases. For it to really make sense, you have to look at it as a whole.

GRS: So you’re saying I shouldn’t be looking at all those amazing individual prospects that Jeremy Crabtree gets so excited about.

DXP: Well, sort of. Let me show you something Stuart Mandel of FOX Sports worked up. He was looking at the 2015 NFL Draft class.

So despite comprising less than 1 percent of all recruits, five-stars accounted for a quarter of 2015 first-rounders. Meanwhile, more than 90 percent of all recruits are designated as being three stars or less, yet their representation in the first round is nearly half that.

Put it this way: About one in four five-star recruits like No. 1 pick Jameis Winston goes on to become a first-rounder, but only about one in 64 three-star recruits like No. 2 Marcus Mariota does.

GRS: Well … that’s about the NFL, all I really care about is what happens in college.

DXP: But it illustrates the main point. You have to think of each recruit as a percentage chance to become a successful football player.

GRS: So think of these kids as numbers instead of as human beings. No wonder you run a blog out of your parents’ basement.

DXP: It’s a nice basement, thank you very much. And you’re avoiding the point. To really understand why recruiting rankings are important, you have to think of each recruit as a percentage chance to be successful. The higher the recruit (as we see from Mandel’s work), the higher percentage chance that he’ll be a successful player.

GSP: That seems pretty obvious.

DXP: I know, but I don’t think most people think of it that way. The individual hits and misses are easy to remember and visualize. But it only makes sense when you think about the group as a whole.

GSP: Meaning …

DXP: Well, let’s take Nebraska’s 2017 class as an example. There’s 20 kids in the class. Let’s say head coach Mike Riley recruited well, and each kid had a forty percent chance of being a success. Compare that to, just as an example, a less successful recruiter whose class would have kids with a thirty percent chance of being successful. You following me?

GRS: You’re not talking about Frank Solich, are you? Don’t get me started on Solich being fired …

DXP: <exasperated sigh> No, I’m not talking about Solich. I’m not really talking about anyone in specific. I’m just trying to make the point.

GRS: OK, then I’m with you.

DXP: Now, which class would you rather have, the forty-percenters, or the thirty-percenters?

GRS: Well … the forty-percenters, I guess.

DXP: Because that gives you the best chance to win, right?

GRS: Yeah, I guess so.

DXP: Even though, statistically, more than half of even the forty-percent class will fail.

GRS: But how do you explain teams like Kansas State, that consistently win with lesser talent.

DXP: Good question. The short answer, I’m pretty sure, is that Bill Snyder is a warlock.

GRS: It would explain a lot.

DXP: But it’s true, teams with lesser talent do win all the time. It’s just really hard to do. Yeah, you can win with (using our example) a thirty-percent roster. But it’s going to happen less often than teams with a forty-percent roster, that’s just math. (And, as the amazing commercial reminds us, if you argue with math, you will lose). Or, you have to make up the difference with better coaching. Snyder can do that. But most coaches can’t. If nothing else it makes your margin of error that much smaller.

GRS: But … you know, they say that if we go back to worrying about recruiting rankings, we’ll go back to the Callahan era …

DXP: Literally no one is saying that.

GRS: Being good at recruiting means Callahan and Steve Pederson and Solich going to Ohio!!!!!!!!11!!1!

DXP: OK, slow down, take a deep breath. Here, put on your 2005 Ohio Bobcats jacket.

GRS: Mmmmm, so green and snuggly. OK, I’m better now.

DXP: So, are you feeling a little better about recruiting rankings?

GRS: Well … maybe a little. But don’t ask me to like the stupid thing with the hats they do.

DXP: Baby steps, my friend, baby steps.


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