Published Thursday, February 20, 2014 AT 10:38 AM / Updated at 7:52 PM
Recruiting: Study finds Nebraska’s efforts waning. Is it flawed?
Sam McKewon Omaha World-Herald

I have a great fondness for college football recruiting services. I like analysis of those services and prospects, as far as they go.

But I’m rarely fond of studies of recruiting classes.

I’m particularly not fond of a recent SB Nation study that analyzes recruiting classes over the last four years. According to the study, Nebraska’s recruiting has fallen off one of the biggest cliffs of any major conference school. Between the 2011/2012 classes and the 2013/2014 classes, it’s 28 percent worse, the study claims, in attracting four-star or five-star prospects, which the study deems to be the key to winning national titles.

From the article:

Nebraska’s move to the Big Ten has not helped its recruiting at all. If anything, it has hurt quite a bit. The two-year drop of 28 percent compared to the ’11-12 classes is one of the biggest in the country, and coach Bo Pelini’s perpetual hot-seat status doesn’t help either. Nebraska is a weak state for high school talent, and Nebraska has not been nationally relevant in any way since current recruits began elementary school.

Did Nebraska’s recruiting really get 28 percent worse in 2013-2014 compared to 2011-2012?

No. It got better, and anyone who follows Nebraska recruiting specifically knows that. From a recruiting service perspective, it probably got a bit worse. But 28 percent worse? No. Consider:

Rivals
2011/2012 average class rank: 20
2013/2014 average class rank: 24.5

Scout
2011/2012 average class rank: 34
2013/2014 average class rank: 22.5

247 Sports
2011/2012 average class rank: 23.5
2013/2014 average class rank: 28

Even if Rivals and 247 Sports believed at the time Nebraska recruited a little better in 2011 and 2012, it wasn’t 28 percent better. (Scout thought NU recruited better in 2013 and 2014 combined.)

The study is flawed because it thinks “percentage of blue chippers in class” is a useful way of measuring recruiting class strength. It’s a poor method — because it favors small classes and it puts disproportionate weight on an arbitrary four-star/three-star cut-off. We’ll tackle the small classes first.

NU signed 37 players in the 2011 and 2012 classes. The Huskers signed 49 in 2013 and 2014. It’s pretty obvious that Nebraska would have had to sign fewer “blue-chippers” in 2011 and 2012 to get the same percentage reached with the 2013 and 2014 classes combined.

Yes, the Huskers did sign more blue-chippers overall in 2011 and 2012 than they did 2013 and 2014. You also know how little that actually means in Nebraska’s case.

The 2011 class has largely been a washout. Out of ten Rivals four-star recruits, just three — Jamal Turner, David Santos and Daimion Stafford — have become consistent starters. Five — Bubba Starling, Todd Peat, Jr., Aaron Green, Tyler Moore and Ryan Klachko — have already left, and three of those guys never played a down here. Green is a role player at TCU. Moore started at tackle at Florida — for an offense significantly worse than Nebraska’s — before he broke his arm in a scooter accident.

The best player (by Secretariat victory-sized lengths) in the 2011 class, Ameer Abdullah, was merely a high-level three star. I’d submit he was a better running back than Green the day he stepped foot on campus and has been every day since.

Abdullah was not a four-star prospect in part because, let’s face it, recruiting services employ what can best be called an arbitrary cut-off in the number of four-star players in their system. In Rivals, one player will be a 5.7 three-star while another will be a 5.8 four-star. At 247 Sports, an “89″ is a three-star while a 90 is a four-star. Since 247 only rates players down to 70, it’d be inaccurate to say that the difference between 89 and 90 is merely one percentage point. It’s a little bigger than that. But it’s a heck of a lot smaller than the difference between a four-star and a three-star. Despite 247, ESPN and Rivals using numerical systems that all but declare the star system to be an incomplete look at the minute differences in players, the star systems hang on, and most perfectly useless studies are conducted because of them.

Also in the Big Ten, Penn State gets a peculiar shaft. Here’s SB Nation’s analysis:

James Franklin is an awesome recruiter, and Penn State’s sanctions will hurt less over the next few years. However, even with all the excitement about Franklin’s first class, it was right in line with the 20 percent clip Penn State had recruited at over the three classes before his arrival. It will take time before Penn State can match Ohio State and Michigan on the recruiting trail.

Penn State signed 25 players in 2014. It signed 16, 19 and 17 in 2011, 2012 and 2013, respectively. The Nittany Lions signed a single Rivals four-star in the 2012 class, months after the Sandusky scandal. Franklin signed five Rivals four-star players. How, in any way, are those similar classes even by recruiting service standards? The 247 Sports Composite ranking rated Penn State’s 2014 class 24th nationally. It rated the 2012 class 48th.

A percentage method just isn’t effective enough to declare it definitive, or even entirely helpful.

Does having more highly-rated prospects correlate to winning more games? Generally, sure. It should be noted this is not a profound discovery. It’s like saying “Seattle and San Francisco have such good overall teams because they drafted Russell Wilson and Colin Kaepernick on the cheap, which left them more money for other good players.” The key is that Wilson and Kaepernick were cheap. The key is they’re good. Other cheap quarterbacks stink.

One key to recruiting isn’t just landing a many-starred prospect; it’s landing the right many-starred prospects and, furthermore, landing guys who really are many-starred prospects, except the recruiting services don’t know it.

Alabama’s a recruiting juggernaut, yes, and unsurprisingly, Bama’s the top program in the study. But the Tide has a different recruiting philosophy, too. Bama’s signed 100 players in its last four classes. From 2008-2011 — when the Tide was really rolling — it signed 109 players. Since there’s only 85 scholarships, well, you do the math. Coach Nick Saban just hired Lane Kiffin as his offensive coordinator. You think Bama’s going to be more or less modest with its signing numbers? Who are we kiddin?

Bama has quality, yes — perhaps the nation’s best — but Saban doesn’t skimp on quantity. If a high four-star has a rough start to his career — like running back Alvin Kamara, who hails from the same high school as recent Nebraska signee A.J. Bush — he hits the bricks. More room for the next guy. Bama — and Saban — is willing to be that kind of program.

Texas, under Mack Brown, was not. UT’s signed 88 players in the last four classes. Folks, Texas has not been a good program since 2009. The Longhorns have signed two five-star running backs since 2011. Neither Malcolm Brown nor Jonathan Gray is as good as Abdullah or Rex Burkhead, for that matter. Gray and Brown combined to run for 1,684 yards this year on 373 carries. Abdullah ran for 1690 on 281. Uh, bam.

But, see, at Bama, Brown and Gray would be third, fourth, fifth string. At Bama, the market corrects itself fast. Dee Hart, the No. 1 all-purpose back in the 2011 class — was sixth-string last year before being thrown off the team after the Sugar Bowl. Kamara was, like, seventh-string? Rivals had him rated as the No. 45 player in the country in the 2013 class. Bama shrugs this stuff off. Other schools don’t or won’t. I don’t think you can at Texas. The high school coaches have too many other programs they can send players to if you’re stockpiling a bunch of five-stars. So UT had stood pat with Brown and Gray. They’re nice players. Likely pros. Not five-stars.

Nebraska’s signed 86 players over the last four cycles. LSU’s signed 93, and the Tigers have lost a freighter of guys to the NFL. In theory, that should help blue-chip percentages (for LSU it has, and for Nebraska it will in 2015 if momentum holds), but Alabama combines high-end product with volume. It’s one of the modern, relatively soulless tech companies operating a football team. It has the algorithm.

These recruiting studies know that. A seasoned college football observer knows that. As for most of the rest of college football, a deeper study is probably in order.

Edit: I changed the word “accurate” in the blog headline to “flawed” because I’m not trying to suggest the study made up numbers. The conclusions from the data — and even the metric itself — are flawed, in my opinion.

About Sam McKewon

Sam McKewon covers Nebraska football for The World-Herald. Got a tip, question or rant? Good. Email him at sam.mckewon@owh.com. And follow him on Twitter at @swmckewonOWH. And call him at 402.219.3790.