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After Signing Day, Wisconsin Makes The Best Of Its Recruits

In most college towns, the unofficial start to next football season is National Signing Day. After months and even years of courting, athletic programs officially find out Wednesday which of recruits they’ve snagged, and which they’ve lost to rivals.

For those who care to listen, there’s going to be a lot said about which schools nabbed the best recruiting class. But the pundits don’t have the last word — wins and losses do. I looked at how well schools’ recruiting classes translate into wins on the field and created a rating of how much each program underperforms or outperforms.

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I built my data set using two sources. I used ratings created by Ken Massey, a statistician best known for his system of rating sports teams, to measure team success. The ratings take into account factors such as win-loss and strength of schedule, which allowed me to distinguish between two teams with an identical win-loss record. I then used recruiting data from Rivals to measure how well a team recruited in each year from 2002 to 2014.1 With that, I made a simple statistical model to predict where a team would finish in the ratings and compared the prediction to its actual 2014 rating.2

The chart below shows how much better or worse each school fared in 2014 compared with how its recruiting predicts that it would finish.

pettigrew-datalab-signing-day-1

But that only tells us about the past year. I replicated the analysis for each season since 2005 to see which programs are habitually over- or underachieving.3

pettigrew-datalab-signing-day-2

Anchoring the top of the overachievement scale is Wisconsin, who on average finishes 32 spots higher than predicted. Also at the top of the scale is Oregon, which turns top-30 recruitment years into top-10 finishes, and Missouri, which has turned top-40 recruits into two top-5 seasons. The chart also shows that Georgia Tech’s overachievement in 2014 was not an anomaly. Despite having had just one top-40 recruiting class since 2002, the Yellow Jackets have had multiple strong seasons over the past decade.

The worst of the underachievers are Colorado, Illinois and Indiana. And unsurprisingly, several years of coaching changes, off-field distractions and underwhelming on-field performance have left the football powerhouses of Michigan, Miami and Tennessee among the underachievers.

If your team is a perennial overachiever and has an unusually strong recruiting class this year, perhaps expect big things in the next few years. If you’re a fan of an underachieving team, don’t get too excited just yet about a strong recruiting class. It hasn’t done much good in the recent past.

UPDATE (Feb. 4, 5:50 p.m.): Minnesota was left out of the data for this article despite being in a Power 5 conference. In 2014, it overachieved by 17.3 points on the Massey scale, but over the past 10 years it finished 9.4 points lower than predicted on average.

Footnotes

  1. I chose to use Rivals over other recruiting services because of the availability of data, although this choice should not affect my analysis because team assessments are strongly correlated across recruiting services. In particular, I assessed each school’s recruiting success by using Rivals’ “points” metric, which awards points based on the skill level of recruits and how highly the recruits are ranked nationally.
  2. For those with a bit of statistical training: I used ordinary least squares (i.e. linear regression) to regress the Massey ranking on the average recruitment points from 2011 to 2014, a squared term for the recruitment points (to account for the possibility that teams can only be so good or so bad and recruitment will have diminishing returns), plus an intercept, and then calculated the residuals for each school.
  3. I took the average of a school’s annual overachievement coefficient (i.e. the residuals).

Stephen Pettigrew is a Ph.D. candidate in the Harvard Department of Government. In addition to studying American politics, Stephen writes about sports analytics on his blog, Rink Stats.

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