On one side, fans obsess over every detail of each recruit. They analyze every decimal point assigned to each player. They start angry message board threads because a recruit they like is rated a 5.7 instead of 5.8*. Then watch as many highlight videos as possible and determine (based on highlight tapes, which only show highlights, which conveniently neglect lowlights. In media school we call this “framing”) that every two or three star recruit committed to their team is an underrated future All-SEC player.
*Can we all agree that the Rivals.com system of rating players on a scale of 5.4 – 6.1 is completely ridiculous? It’s like they’re figure skating judges. Is there a reason every recruiting service doesn’t use the same 0-99 scale that the EA video games use? Why can’t each player have a set of attributes, and then rated on the 0-99 scale, then given an overall rating based on the scores of each individual skill? If the EA people can do it for each player in college football, why can’t these recruiting services with national networks do the same?
On the other side of the field are those who think it’s all trash. They point to all the five-star busts and the three star Heisman winner and all the unrated, two-star, and three-star players in the NFL. They point to the annually overrated Texas class because, well, people still hate Texas. These are the same people who may ignore the possibility of a correlation between Nick Saban building five #1 rated classes in six seasons and Alabama’s current dominance. “It’s all about development,” they say, much like every coach whose class isn’t in the top 5.
Like most things, the truth probably falls somewhere in the middle. I don’t believe rankings alone are a direct indication of how a program does for the next few years, but I do think it can serve as a general gauge. Depending on your preferred recruiting service, Arkansas finished somewhere 12th and 9th in the SEC, which seems bad, but between the low 30s and low 20s nationally, which means it’s still a strong, talented class that is better than most and given the right circumstances can be competitive with anybody.
So what exactly are these circumstances? These are the things that recruiting has no effect over, but still play an important part in determining who wins and loses games, or how well one recruiting class mixes with the other classes immediately preceding and following it. Every college football team is a blend of about five different recruiting classes, and building a good team requires following a good class with more good classes. Alex Collins may get a lot of playing time at running back this year, but he’ll probably be running behind an offensive line made up of older players and will likely take handoffs from a quarterback at least two years older than him.
Also, how many games do we watch that come down to fumbles or missed field goals or SEC officiating? Fluky things that can barely be accounted for? Plays like the infamous last play of the Alabama vs. Georgia SEC Championship Game, are things that recruiting can’t control, yet that play likely determined the national champion. Recruiting also doesn’t affect scheduling, which is what gave Georgia a clear advantage to get to Atlanta over rivals Florida and South Carolina. Arkansas can recruit as well as possible, but as long as the Razorbacks play in Tuscaloosa and Baton Rouge every odd year, the Hogs will have a clear disadvantage since Arkansas hasn’t won in both places in the same year since joining the SEC (unless you count Alabama’s retroactive 1993 forfeit).
It’s foolish to think there’s any substantial difference between a class ranked 22nd and a class ranked 18th. Much has been made about Ole Miss’ class**, but of their five-star players, one is a single defensive lineman, one an offensive lineman, and one a wide receiver. How many games can a single offensive or defensive lineman win? Not taking anything away from Laremy Tunsil, the Rebels’ highly touted offensive lineman has a chance to be a great player, but if it’s understood that an offensive line works as a unit rather than an individual, would you rather have the offensive line recruits assembled in Oxford or the group coming into Fayetteville? The Razorbacks are bringing in three players rated four-stars on at least one recruiting service, plus a JUCO All-American.
**I love making the Ole Miss recruiting jokes as much as anyone, but sometimes the cards just fall right. Robert Nkemdiche’s brother is already on the team. Another of their top recruits is from Batesville, Miss., a town less than an hour away from Oxford. It doesn’t account for all the big time commits Hugh Freeze received, but it’s a part of it. Maybe one day Arkansas can get lucky enough to have a group of, say, five top recruits from one of the high schools near Fayetteville in Northwest Arkansas. One can dream.
The rankings also don’t take into context the job Bret Bielema and his staff did in putting together this class in two months. Arkansas spent most of the year in recruiting purgatory after the motorcycle accident (even other schools who fired their coaches didn’t spend 8 months recruiting against their own “interim” label) and the previous staff tried to appease fans and make themselves look good by taking a bunch of commitments that Bielema later deemed unqualified for Arkansas. As a result, the new coaches put more than half of Arkansas’ class together in about two months.
In hiring the assistant coaches he did, Bielema made a bet that he could bring in some good players from Florida, something Arkansas coaches in the past had tried and mostly failed. The bet paid off, as the Razorbacks enjoyed some of the ESPNU Signing Day spotlight when Denver Kirkland announced his decision live on air; Alex Collins announced his commitment on Monday night only to grab many positive headlines for the way he handled himself while his family’s issues were put in front of the college football world; and the Hogs picked up two other players from South Florida who committed earlier in the process. If this is the beginning of some sort of pipeline from South Florida to Fayetteville for Bielema, that could mean more to Arkansas than any single class’ rankings could convey.
What the Razorback coaches have been able to accomplish in two months has Arkansas fans intrigued to see what they can do when given an entire year to build relationships and evaluate players. Bielema is fond of saying he wants to bring an SEC championship to Arkansas, which he usually notes is something Arkansas fans haven’t had. He’s correct, but no SEC program has won the title without having some recruiting classes ranked higher than what Arkansas has been able to traditionally pull in. History says that despite Bielema’s excellent record of player development, and the usual four-years-later upgrade given to his classes, in order to win the SEC, Arkansas must finish higher in the recruiting rankings. And I think the results from his first two months on the job in Fayetteville suggest Bielema can do it.
The closest any program has been able to come to pulling off the SEC championship without top classes behind it may have been Arkansas in 2006, when Darren McFadden proved the recruiting services folly for not having a special category beyond five-stars for special-advanced humanity. And if five stars can range from McFadden to Darius Winston, maybe it’s best to refer to these rankings as “educated shots in the dark”.