National Signing Day is often the first time we hear from college football coaches following the bowl season, and there are two things we definitely know they will say:
1. We're very pleased with this class.
2. We don't pay attention to recruiting rankings.
I spent four years attending Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald's signing day press conferences, and like so many of his peers, that last line was his favorite. "I was a zero-star recruit," he would say, as if that proved that "zero-stars" could become All-Americans, just like him.
Of course, it's technically true that way back in the early 1990s, Fitzgerald was a zero-star recruit. Pretty much everybody was a zero-star recruit at the time. And it makes sense that Fitzgerald and other coaches do their own scouting and make their own evaluations of high school players: judging and ranking the college football potential of 17- and 18-year-olds remains an imperfect science.
Still, when Northwestern signs a class full of middling or slightly-above-middling players—Rivals ranks this year's class No. 48 nationally and No. 10 in the highly competitive Big Ten—you can be confident that, like the rest of the Wildcats' historically average classes, this one will come nowhere close to a national championship.
None of this is to single out Northwestern. The "star ratings don't matter" platitude extends far beyond Evanston. To wit: Oklahoma State's Mike Gundy recently said the same thing. Generally, the coaches and fans who say star ratings don't matter are the ones who don't get players with good star ratings. They're all Donald Trump, saying Iowa doesn't matter after losing in Iowa.
If you want to win a national title, however, you need a highly rated class. Otherwise, good luck—you'll need it, because with mediocre recruiting classes, you'll be trying to make history. Here's why:
To win a National Championship, you need two top 10 classes on your roster
The past 12 title-winning schools featured rosters made up entirely of ranked classes (going back to the 2000 class). Moreover, all of them had at least two top 10 classes, according to rankings from 247Sports:
The biggest overachiever there is Auburn, and they still had an average class rank in the top 15. Better yet, the Tigers had Cam Newton, who ended up being one of the best players in the history of college football. (Not coincidentally, Newton was a five-star recruit.)
To win a title, you don't need to have the best class every single year like this season's Alabama squad, but you do need to sign more blue-chip classes than not.
"But my school develops players who were overlooked!"
Perhaps you're still not convinced that recruiting stars correlate with winning. Fine. Let's talk about teams that purportedly overcome their lack of star power with "player development."
It's true that some coaches maximize player potential better than others, but doing so is far less important than raw, glorious talent, mostly because development variations are not nearly as wide as talent variations.
If development were all that mattered, there would be far more parity in college football. In reality, the best players coming out of high school as identified by the recruiting services tend to perform better in college and ultimately "develop" better toward the NFL. Here's what SB Nation's Bud Elliott found when reviewing the 2014 NFL Draft:
● A five-star recruit had a three-in-five chance of getting drafted (16 of 27).
● A four-star had a one-in-five chance (77 of 395).
● A three-star had a one-in-18 chance (92 of 1,644).
● A two-star/unrated recruit had a one-in-34 chance (71 of 2,434).
While some two-star recruits did outperform five-star recruits due to development, five-stars are much more likely to make it to the NFL, and to make a bigger impact before they ever get there.
Recruiting rankings are a lesson in probability
The "stars don't matter" crowd received a big boost in this year's title game, when Clemson freshman walk-on Hunter Renfrow caught two touchdown passes against an Alabama secondary full of five-stars.
Woah, this two-star played better than some five-stars! That must mean star ratings are meaningless, right? Of course not. One outlying result doesn't invalidate a trend. If you're judging recruiting rankings on one or two examples, that's a mistake. You're also completely misunderstanding what the ratings are trying to accomplish in the first place.
No recruiting service will say that a five-star recruit is definitely going to pan out, just as they won't say that a two-star is definitely not going to pan out. Rather, recruiting rankings are about probability. Five-stars have a better chance of getting drafted by the NFL than two-stars, and they generally work out better in college, too.
Stories like Renfrow's don't make this any less true. Yeah, that two-star at the bottom of your class could be special—when it comes to probabilities, there's always a chance that the unlikely will happen. But the odds say that the five-star in Alabama's class will be bro-hugging Roger Goodell on draft night.
Perhaps that's why the Crimson Tide, winners of the past five recruiting seasons, always seem to win on the field, too.