Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Why it matters

Speaking as someone who paid about as much attention to recruiting rankings as I did Malaysian politics for the first, oh, 98 percent of my lifespan, like the rest of you I'm getting pretty fatigued with the whole recruiting rat race or meat market or wild choose chase or whatever animal-related metaphor you'd like to choose for it. With all due respect to Nosa Eguae or John Sullens or whichever potential redshirt candidate you'd choose, it just doesn't seem ... proportional to throw a party when Auburn lands a guy who won't even see the field for at least a year, maybe two, maybe three, maybe never. That goes double for the palm branches laid out for Rollison, who (despite what his coach might have us believe) still doesn't strike me as having better than 2-in-3 odds to ever wind up on Auburn's campus.

But the simple, unfortunate, unavoidable fact is that recruiting matters, and it matters a lot. Every year Matt Hinton--Dr. Saturday nee SMQ comes up with some new bit of research showing why this is the case, and his latest effort is a must-read doozy. Your money-grafs, discussing only BCS-on-BCS competition and how the Rivals "points" system fares as a predictive model:
Based on the recruiting rankings of the last five years, the "more talented" team according to the gurus won almost two-thirds of the time in 2008, by a little more than a touchdown per game. Just as importantly, the difference became more obvious as the gap widened, exactly as you'd expect if the rankings are worth anything at all.

There was virtually no difference between teams that recruited within 2,000 points of one another over the preceding five years (or less than 400 points apart per year); as you might expect, the rankings weren't very useful for parsing talent gaps that small with so many other factors in play, and teams that found themselves bunched closely together in the rankings were generally in the same situation when they went head-to-head on the field.

At that point, though, the class differences become too wide bridge, and the higher-ranked teams begin to dominate. Teams that brought in an annual 400-1,000-point advantage over their opponent on any given weekend won two-thirds of the time last year, by 10 points per game; teams that "out-recruited" the opposing sideline by at least 5,000 points from 2004-08 won a whopping three-fourths of the time, by more than two touchdowns. In other words, for every Oregon State over USC and Ole Miss over Florida, there were three cases of Oklahoma over Baylor, LSU over Mississippi State and Ohio State over Northwestern. But you knew that.
The Rivals "score" for Auburn in the five-year span of the study: 8,046. Alabama is still within the range specified by Matt where the rankings' predicted winner is still a coinflip, at 9,542 points total or only about 300 points a year. But Auburn's running serious deficits against Georgia (approximately 500 points a year in difference), LSU (570), and Florida (790).

Sure, there are all kinds of distortions within these rankings, all kinds of inaccuracies and biases and systematic flaws*. Nevertheless, I ask you: do you think it's coincidence Auburn has gone 1-4 against those three teams the past two years and 13-7 against all other competition? Coincidence that we've now lost three of four to LSU, three in a row to Georgia? I do not believe it is.

As Matt suggests, it's not necessary to out-recruit these teams to beat them. But Auburn has to stay within striking distance, to keep within that coinflip range where coaching and execution and luck matter and the talent disparity does not.

This is why I've started following recruiting, why we're going to have to grit our teeth and get through this next week, why Google is getting back in the surveying business at the JCCW tomorrow. As much as we'd like it to be otherwise, recruiting matters.

*The biggest one, if you ask me, is that teams get points for commits even if they fail to qualify, and if they go the JUCO route and recommit, that team gets those points again. The recalculated rankings in September ought to be the ones more widely publicized and used, but of course by then everyone's forgotten all about Signing Day. For the record, those recalculations wouldn't do a whole lot to help Auburn, I don't think, given Tubby's predilection for non-qualifiers the past two seasons.

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