Despite what anybody tells you, talent evaluation is a crapshoot much more than a science.
If it truly were a science, why do teams in the NFL, NBA, NHL and Major League Baseball blow so much money on first-round picks who never become stars -- or, in some cases, never do anything?
The saying goes extra for college-recruiting rankings. Projecting how a 17- or 18-year-old kid will play in three, four or five years of college football is tough. What happens when a four- or five-star prospect arrives on a campus and finds a team full of guys as big and fast as he is? And what happens when, for the first time, that stud high school player actually plays against guys who are even better? As all talent evaluators find, you can't truly measure intangibles, and that often is the biggest factor in an athlete's development.
All that said, Wednesday is National Signing Day, and every college football fan knows that recruiting is the lifeblood for any program. Championship games are played in December and January, but giant steps toward reaching those championship games take place every first Wednesday in February. Still, just getting those big-time recruits on campus isn't enough. The players have to be developed once they are there, and some schools do a better job of that than others.
We took a look at the final top 25 from the 2013 season's coaches' poll and looked at how well each school recruited in the past five recruiting cycles (that takes into account true freshmen through fifth-year seniors for each school). For the most part, good recruiting rankings translated into good on-field performance.
Note that we said "for the most part." Fourteen of the schools in the final top 25 of last season had recruiting-ranking averages of 25th or better in that five-year span (we used 247Sports.com's consensus class rankings as our guide). But there were definite outliers. No. 12 Central Florida, for instance. The Knights' average recruiting ranking over that five-year span was 72nd, and UCF was one of three schools whose average was 50th or lower. There were eight that ranked 38th or worse and six that ranked 40th or worse.
We also put together a list of five schools that most underachieved last season relative to their recruiting ranking -- that's at the bottom of the story.
We didn't take injuries into account for any school in either list, nor did we worry about players who went pro early. We simply added together a school's recruiting ranking in each of the five years to come up with a "recruiting number," and we then came up with an average ranking over the five-year span. Within each team's write-up, we also figured out where it would've ranked in the season-ending top 25 relative only to the other teams in the poll with its recruiting ranking.
Here are the results:
1. Florida State
Recruiting numbers: 36. Average rank of 7th.
Finish by recruiting rank: 4th.
Buzz: The Seminoles' national-recruiting rankings ranged from 2nd (2011) to 12th (in '09, when Bobby Bowden still was coach). Jameis Winston signed in '12, and that class was ranked third nationally, one of four in our five-year span that finished in the top 10.
Recruiting numbers: 60. Average rank of 12th.
Finish by recruiting rank: 7th.
Buzz: The Tigers' national rankings ranged from 22nd (in 2009) to sixth ('10, the Cam Newton class). Auburn has recruited well of late, but for whatever reason, other than the '10 season, former coach Gene Chizik and his staff didn't do all that much with the talent on hand.
3. Michigan State
Recruiting numbers: 152. Average rank of 30th.
Finish by recruiting rank: 16th.
Buzz: The Spartans' highest-ranking class in the five-year span was 23rd in 2010; the lowest was 37th in '13. Michigan State traditionally has not signed a lot of high-profile prospects, but the staff does a good job of finding guys who fit nicely into the Spartans' schemes. Stud CB Darqueze Dennard, for instance, was a lightly regarded recruit in the '10 class who was the consensus No. 85 player not in the nation but in his home state of Georgia. (His high school graduating class had 40 students.)
4. South Carolina
Recruiting numbers: 97. Average rank of 19th.
Finish by recruiting rank: T-11th.
Buzz: The class rankings ranged from 13th in 2009 to 30th in '10. Jadeveon Clowney was the nation's No. 1 recruit in the 2011 cycle, and the Gamecocks' class that year ranked 16th.
Recruiting numbers: 188. Average rank of 38th.
Finish by recruiting rank: 18th.
Buzz: Mizzou's recruiting finished in the top 30 once in our five-year span -- 21st in '10. The low in that span was 57th in '11. Coach Gary Pinkel and his staff deserve credit for player development, especially on defense.
Recruiting numbers: 54. Average rank of 11th.
Finish by recruiting rank: 6th.
Buzz: The highest ranking was fourth in 2010 and the lowest 16th in '13. OU always recruits well in Texas.
Recruiting numbers: 97. Average rank of 19th.
Finish by recruiting rank: T-11th.
Buzz: Interestingly, Clemson and archrival South Carolina have the same average rank over the past five seasons (though Gamecocks fans will be quick to tell you their team has won five in a row in the series). Clemson's recruiting high in the five-year span was 10th in 2011, with the low coming in '09 (29th).
Recruiting numbers: 10. Average rank of 2nd.
Finish by recruiting rank: 1st.
Buzz: Alabama "won" the national-recruiting title in 2011, '12 and '13, and the Tide's lowest ranking in the five-year span was fifth in '10. Alabama's recruiting was second in '09. In short, Nick Saban is a recruiting machine.
Recruiting numbers: 85. Average rank of 17th.
Finish by recruiting rank: 9th.
Buzz: The best ranking was 12th in 2011 (Marcus Mariota's class), with the lowest coming in '09 (28th), which was Chip Kelly's first year as coach. Oregon has finished in the top 20 of the recruiting rankings in each of the past four years.
10. Ohio State
Recruiting numbers: 37. Average rank of 7th.
Finish by recruiting rank: 5th.
Buzz: The Buckeyes' best ranking was 2013, when they finished second. The only time out of the top six in the five-year span was a 20th-place finish in '10.
Recruiting numbers: 120. Average rank of 24th.
Finish by recruiting rank: 14th.
Buzz: Stanford followed its best-ever ranking of seventh in 2012 with a 51st-place finish in '13. But Stanford had room to sign just 12 players in '13. The other three classes in our five-year span ranked between 18th and 22nd. Jim Harbaugh proved you could sign high-level recruits on The Farm, and it's up to David Shaw to continue doing so.
Recruiting numbers: 358. Average rank of 72nd.
Finish by recruiting rank: 25th.
Buzz: UCF's best finish in our five-year span was 50th, in 2011. The second-best was 56th in '10, which is when the Knights signed Blake Bortles -- a consensus three-star prospect who ranked 139th in his home state of Florida. UCF's worst figure was 101st, in '12. The other two classes in our five-year span ranked 70th or worse. So how did the Knights win 12 games, including the Fiesta Bowl? Remember us mentioning player development?
Recruiting numbers: 35. Average rank of 5th.
Finish by recruiting rank: 3rd.
Buzz: Les Miles has few peers on the recruiting trail. LSU's best ranking in our five-year span was first in 2009; the worst was 14th in '12. The other three classes were either sixth or seventh. LSU annually cleans up in Louisiana, which produces more than its share of four- and five-star talent.
Recruiting numbers: 226. Average rank of 45th.
Finish by recruiting rank: 21st.
Buzz: Louisville's rankings ranged from 29th in 2011 to 66th in '09, the year before Charlie Strong became coach. Teddy Bridgewater came aboard in '11 -- he was a four-star quarterback who was the consensus No. 100 player in the nation.
Recruiting numbers: 93. Average rank of 19th.
Finish by recruiting rank: 10th.
Buzz: UCLA's on-field performance didn't necessarily show it, but the Bruins recruited well under former coach Rick Neuheisel and they have continued to do so under Jim Mora. UCLA's rankings in our five-year span ranged from seventh in 2013 to 45th in '11 (Brett Hundley's class). But the 45th-place ranking is an aberration: The other three classes in our five-year span were ranked between 10th and 17th.
17. Oklahoma State
Recruiting numbers: 160. Average rank of 32nd.
Finish by recruiting rank: 17th.
Buzz: Oklahoma State's rankings ranged from a best of 25th in 2011 to 43rd in '09. Oklahoma State's facilities have undergone a massive upgrade in the past five years, which has helped the Cowboys attract better players.
18. Texas A&M
Recruiting numbers: 102. Average rank of 20th.
Finish by recruiting rank: 13th.
Buzz: Three of the Aggies' classes in our five-year span finished in the top 18, highlighted by a No. 9 finish in 2013. The worst was 35th in '11, Mike Sherman's last recruiting class as coach. But that class featured Johnny Manziel and Mike Evans. Manziel was a three-star guy who wasn't even a top-60 player in his home state of Texas. Even then, he was thought to be too small. Evans was a three-star guy who wasn't even in the top 125 in Texas. He didn't have much of a football background, having spent more time as a basketball player.
Recruiting numbers: 30. Average rank of 6th.
Finish by recruiting rank: 2nd.
Buzz: The Trojans have been a recruiting juggernaut dating to the days of Pete Carroll. Even with scholarship restrictions because of NCAA violations, Lane Kiffin recruited well. USC's worst class in our five-year span was 12th in 2013. Three other classes ranked third (2009-11) and one was ninth.
20. Arizona State
Recruiting numbers: 206. Average rank of 41st.
Finish by recruiting rank: 20th.
Buzz: This is another program that got good bang for its buck this season. The Sun Devils' best ranking in our five-year span was 31st in 2010; the worst was 66th in '11.
Recruiting numbers: 234. Average rank of 47th.
Finish by recruiting rank: 22nd.
Buzz: Bret Bielema mastered the art of turning mostly three-star recruits and a handful of four-star guys into 10-win teams. Gary Andersen's one recruiting class in our five-year span, last year's, ranked 39th, and that's the Badgers' highest recruiting ranking in our time frame. The others ranged from 40th to 65th (in '11).
Recruiting numbers: 322. Average rank of 64th.
Finish by recruiting rank: 24th.
Buzz: Duke's best finish in our span was 53rd, in 2009. The worst was 74th in '10. The others ranged from 62nd to 70th. Suffice to say, coach David Cutcliffe and his staff notched 10 wins this season with recruits most other teams didn't want.
Recruiting numbers: 250. Average rank of 50th.
Finish by recruiting rank: 23rd.
Buzz: James Franklin, who just left to coach Penn State, was known as an ardent recruiter, and Vandy's two best recruiting classes in a long while came the past two years -- 26th in 2013 and 47th in '12. The other three ranged from 54th to 67th (in '09).
24. Notre Dame
Recruiting numbers: 66. Average rank of 13th.
Finish by recruiting rank: 8th.
Buzz: All five of the Irish's classes in our five-year span ranked in the top 20. The best was the fifth-place finish in 2013; the worst was 19th in '12.
Recruiting numbers: 135. Average rank of 27th.
Finish by recruiting rank: 15th.
Buzz: The Huskers' classes ranged from 17th in 2011 to 39th in '09. Bo Pelini and his staff deserve credit for thinking highly of RB Ameer Abdullah, a three-star recruit from Birmingham, Ala., who drew basically no SEC interest in '11.
So, what schools underachieved in 2013 relative to their recruiting rankings? Here are the top five underachievers:
Recruiting numbers: 27. Average rank of 5th.
Buzz: The Gators' class rankings ranged from first (in 2010, Urban Meyer's last class) to 11th in '11 (Will Muschamp's first). That means all but the '11 class finished in the top 10, and in our five-year span Florida had three top-five classes. Florida went 4-8 in '13, its first losing season since going 0-10-1 in 1979.
Recruiting numbers: 31. Average rank of 6th.
Buzz: Texas' rankings ranged from second (in 2010 and '12) to sixth from 2009-12, but last year's fell to 17th. That turned out to be Mack Brown's final class, and there's no question the turmoil surrounding his job status hurt. Texas went 8-5 this season and was hammered by Oregon in the Alamo Bowl in Brown's final game.
Recruiting numbers: 41. Average rank of 8th.
Buzz: Georgia's best recruiting ranking was fifth in 2009 and '11, and the Bulldogs' lowest ranking was 12th in '10. The Bulldogs were 8-5 this season and lost to Nebraska in the Gator Bowl.
Recruiting numbers: 63. Average rank of 13th.
Buzz: Brady Hoke has ramped up the Wolverines' recruiting efforts, with Michigan's recruiting classes ranking fourth in 2013 and sixth in '12. The low in the five-year span was 26th in '11, which was Hoke's first class. Michigan finished 7-6 this season after losing to Kansas State in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl.
Recruiting numbers: 73. Average rank of 15th.
Buzz: The Vols haven't had a winning record since 2009, Lane Kiffin's lone season. But their recruiting efforts still have been relatively strong. Kiffin's one class ranked the highest in our five-year span: seventh in '09. But the past two classes have ranked 23rd (in '13, coach Butch Jones' first class) and 20th ('12, former coach Derek Dooley's final class). The Vols were 5-7 this season.
Just outside the top five was Miami (87 recruiting points, average rank of 17th). The Hurricanes had four top-15 classes in our five-year span, but the 2011 class ranked 33rd. Miami was 9-4 this season and was thumped by Louisville in the Russell Athletic Bowl.
Mike Huguenin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. You also can follow him on Twitter @MikeHuguenin.