Mon Jan 31 06:53am EST
With signing day looming, it's time for the Doc's annual, week-long defense of the recruiting-industrial complex. (See parts one, two, three and four.) Part Five: Programs that have most consistently fallen short of the gurus' projections on a head-to-head basis.
Last week, we were able to draw three conclusions about the usefulness of the annual recruiting rankings to predict the future on the field: a) On a team level, the rankings are right about twice as often as they're wrong; b) On an individual level, they're a solid, consistent gauge (certainly the best available) for determining which newcomers are sound investments to become star players; and c) They provide a reliable template for the composition of the top of the polls.
On all three levels, the rankings lay as solid a foundation for predictions and assumptions about the future as we can reasonably expect – they do matter as a consistent, reliable reflection of the distribution of talent.
Of course, there are exceptions, especially anecdotal ones. But while every middle-of-the-pack school has its token triumphs over the heavy hitters, and every powerhouse its moments of shame against the underclass, the trend in favor of the "more talented" teams cuts even deeper than it may seem from the numbers. In the broadest terms, only a small handful of teams are able to consistently defy the destiny laid out for them on signing day for more than year or two at a time. On Friday, we looked at five middle-of-the-pack programs from the major conferences that have reliably outperformed the scouts' projections over the last four years against teams that earned higher marks in the recruiting rankings. Monday, we look at the other side of the coin: High-ranking teams that have most consistently under-performed according to their recruiting pedigree.
Note that the method in this case is concerned with head-to-head results, not winning percentage or ranking in the final polls, which tend to be apples-and-oranges comparisons because of differences in strength of schedule. Georgia and Tennessee, for example, have significantly underperformed since 2008 based on their records, but in both cases, the vast majority of those losses have come at the hands of fellow recruiting heavyweights in the SEC. (Namely, Alabama, Auburn, Florida, LSU and South Carolina, each of which has brought in a steady stream of top-20 classes according to Rivals.) Against teams that haven't established themselves as top-25 recruiting powers, UGA and UT have performed about as well as the rankings suggest they should – or at least, well enough to avoid this list. For our purposes, it's not possible to "underachieve" against an opponent with ostensibly the same talent level.
With that in mind, only a few teams clearly spit the bit against supposedly "inferior" talent over the last full recruiting cycle:
1. Notre Dame. Individually, some of Charlie Weis' most hyped signees turned out to be all they were cracked up to be, especially in the passing game. Golden-boy quarterback Jimmy Clausen and his top target, Golden Tate, finished their careers as one of the most prolific pass-catch combos in the nation in 2009. Former five-star Kyle Rudolph will likely be the first tight end off the board in April's NFL draft. Another five-star coup, Michael Floyd, will be back next fall to break all of Tate's school receiving records before going on to high draft status himself in 2012. There's still time for the rest of the Weis holdovers to make their move in Year 2 under Brian Kelly.
So far, though, the string of top-10 classes Weis inked from 2006-08 has amounted to an ongoing series of debacles, beginning with the 3-9 catastrophe of 2007. Since that season, the Irish have lost three of four to their longtime whipping boy, Navy; dropped multiple games in ongoing series with the likes of Boston College, Michigan State, Pittsburgh and Stanford; and suffered embarrassing November defeats at the hands of recruiting non-factors Air Force, Syracuse, UConn and Tulsa in consecutive seasons. They still haven't beaten a team that finished in the final polls since early 2006.
To its credit, the 2010 edition managed to close Kelly's first season with back-to-back wins over a pair of fellow underachievers, USC and Miami, which is no small triumph after years of going out with a whimper. But it will take a genuine breakthrough in 2011 to avoid being back on this list next year.
2. Michigan. The recruiting cycle in question opened with Appalachian State's apocalyptic upset over the fifth-ranked Wolverines in the Big House, only the first of many plagues the Wolverines endured in the Great Tribulation that followed a serious national championship run in 2006. A combination of injuries and massive attrition undermined Michigan's continued presence at the top of the Big Ten recruiting charts under Rich Rodriguez, who presided over multiple losses to middling recruiters Illinois, Iowa, Michigan State, Purdue and Wisconsin, on top of losses to Utah and Toledo in 2008 and the Gator Bowl flop against Mississippi State that sealed his fate earlier this month.
On paper, the Wolverines ranked right alongside Ohio State as the most talented team in the Big Ten throughout Rodriguez's tenure. In reality, they turned in losing records to everyone in the league except bottom-dwellers Minnesota and Indiana. If not for the Fighting Irish, convenient victims of early, reaffirming Michigan wins three of the last four years, there would be no positives to speak of.
3. UCLA. Rick Neuheisel's return to his alma mater has been marked by a significant uptick in the recruiting rankings over predecessor Karl Dorrell, especially in the local hotbeds, and a pair of wins over one of the perennial SEC heavies, Tennessee. And … that's about it, really. If the Bruins are distancing themselves from the Pac-10's middle class on the recruiting trail, it hasn't shown up on the field, where they're a sobering 5-17 against Arizona, Arizona State, Cal, Oregon, Oregon State, Stanford and Washington in Neuheisel's three-year tenure. Whatever traces of optimism remained were so thoroughly expunged by last year's descent to 4-8 that even signing day this year comes with a certain funereal quality.
4. Texas A&M. On the front end of the time period in question, the Aggies turned in back-to-back upsets over in-state overlord Texas in 2006 and '07; on the back end, their late-season surge in 2010 included wins over Oklahoma, Nebraska and Texas, again. In between, though, A&M crashed and burned against almost everyone with a pulse, suffering losing streaks at the hands of Kansas State, Missouri, Oklahoma State and Texas Tech – and quite a few outfits without a pulse, dropping games against Arkansas State, Baylor, Colorado and Kansas. Throughout all of 2008 and 2009, the closest the Aggies came to beating a recruiting "peer" were wins over Colorado ('08) and Texas Tech ('09), neither of which has delivered a top-25 recruiting class in recent memory.
5a. Miami. The Hurricanes seemed to be on the upswing in 2009, thanks to early wins over heavyweights Florida State and Oklahoma, as well as eventual ACC champ Georgia Tech. In the long run, that streak was a mirage in a desert of futility. Even excluding a 1-3 mark against Virginia Tech, Miami was 7-11 against the ACC's middle class – Boston College, Clemson, Georgia Tech, Maryland, North Carolina, N.C. State and Virginia – in four years under Randy Shannon, with consecutive bowl losses to Cal and Wisconsin. In that context, it's easy to see why last November's loss to South Florida in the regular-season finale was the anvil that broke the camel's back.
5b. Florida State. The Seminoles' recent penchant for disappointment may not be as extreme as you think. Florida State is the only team on this list with a winning record each of the last four years (its streak of winning seasons stands at 34, the longest in the nation), and has finished in the top 25 in two of the last three. In relative terms, though, no collection of "underachievers" is complete without the 'Noles, now five years removed from their last ACC championship in a league they once ruled with an iron fist, and more than a decade out from their last foray among the national elite.
FSU has continued to dominate the rest of the Atlantic Division on the recruiting trail, but also has multiple losses against four of its five Atlantic rivals since 2006, with losing records against Boston College, Clemson and perennial recruiting doormat Wake Forest, owner of a stunning three-game winning streak over the 'Noles from 2006-08. Last month's Chick-Fil-A Bowl win over South Carolina capped a 10-win campaign in Jimbo Fisher's first season as head coach, which seemed like a significant step forward. That in itself pretty much sums up the last decade.
Together with last week's group of overachievers, we've now seen almost a dozen teams over the last four years that have consistently defied the scouts' projections in one direction or another … and four times as many that have performed, over time, pretty much exactly as the rankings projected them to perform. The outliers are notable because they're just that: Outliers.
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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.