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Which College Football Teams Do The Most With The Least Talent? (And Vice Versa)

College football can feel like a hopelessly deterministic sport sometimes. In this week’s preseason AP poll, for instance, it was revealed that the recruiting machines at Alabama, Ohio State, Florida State and Southern Cal are also the top favorites to win the College Football Playoff. Ho-hum.

But although raw talent has a pretty strong correlation with on-field success, it doesn’t completely guarantee it. Teams with good rosters can always let their fan bases down, while others can achieve far better results than we would expect from their recruiting hauls alone. (Hello, service academies!)

To get a sense of which teams have gotten the most — and the least — out of their talent, I took ESPN’s Football Power Index (FPI) ratings for each FBS program over the past two seasons,1 and plotted them against 247Sports.com’s Team Talent Composite scores. (The latter measures a roster’s strength by tracking how many highly touted prospects a team has at its disposal.) The overall relationship between FPI and roster talent is relatively strong — recruiting scores explain about 65 percent of the variation in team performance — but some teams have managed to rise above college football’s penchant for predestination.

I mentioned the service academies — Air Force, Navy and Army — because they are the biggest outliers here. Although their recruiting process works largely the same as at other schools (with the biggest exception being a lack of scholarships specifically for athletics), they face unique barriers to hauling in top talent, including mandatory military service after graduation, tougher academic requirements and even size restrictions for incoming players.2 That’s why, according to the Team Talent Composite, the academies are mostly filled with players who were lightly regarded coming out of high school. But whether because of their emphasis on character and discipline, or just their predilection for triple-option schemes that can trip up the most formidable defenses, these programs have produced far better results than their talent would suggest.

Among Power Five schools, the top outperformers are a generally unsurprising collection of well-coached programs, such as the perennially overachieving Wisconsin Badgers, the Washington schools (both UW and WSU), plus Bill Snyder’s K-State and Mike Gundy’s Oklahoma State squads. But ahead of them all might be a surprising team: the Oklahoma Sooners. OU got a reputation for losing big games under former coach Bob Stoops, but Stoops probably should have also gotten more credit for putting the Sooners in position to play those games in the first place, given the way they outplayed the expectations of their recruiting classes.

Meanwhile, at the other end of the spectrum, there are programs that recruit like crazy but achieve only modest outcomes, like South Carolina, Texas and Georgia. The latter two in particular are storied programs that recruit off of their prestige, but both teams have found a way to mess up that advantage in recent seasons. There’s also no shortage of teams that field average talent but manage to be awful anyway, like Kansas and Rutgers. All of these schools serve as testament to the importance of coaching and player development in any program’s fate. Although a team like Nick Saban’s dominating Alabama squad can be No. 1 in recruiting and No. 1 in performance on the field, most schools have to make the best out of what they’ve got.

How much bang does your favorite school get for its recruiting buck? Find out in our searchable table below.

College football teams’ success vs. their recruiting programs

Team Talent Composite vs. Football Power Index rating for FBS college football programs, 2015-16

FOOTBALL POWER INDEX

TEAM
CONF.
TALENT
ACTUAL
VS. EXPECTED
1 Air Force MW 57.8 +1.4 +24.3
2 Western Kentucky C-USA 377.7 +11.8 +18.1
3 Navy American 324.8 +6.4 +15.4
4 Appalachian State Sun Belt 323.1 +5.0 +14.1
5 Western Michigan MAC 442.6 +9.1 +11.9
6 Memphis American 416.5 +6.8 +11.0
7 Temple American 449.3 +7.5 +10.0
8 Oklahoma Big 12 776.7 +24.4 +9.8
9 Washington Pac-12 683.5 +19.3 +9.6
10 Toledo MAC 444.9 +6.6 +9.3
11 Army FBS Indep. 159.1 -8.5 +9.2
12 Washington State Pac-12 531.7 +10.6 +8.8
13 Wisconsin Big Ten 639.8 +15.9 +8.4
14 Kansas State Big 12 504.5 +8.7 +8.3
15 Oklahoma State Big 12 641.8 +15.7 +8.1
16 Louisville ACC 647.6 +16.0 +8.1
17 Brigham Young FBS Indep. 525.2 +9.4 +8.0
18 Baylor Big 12 639.8 +15.4 +7.9
19 Clemson ACC 826.8 +25.0 +7.8
20 Iowa Big Ten 565.9 +11.3 +7.7
21 Boise State MW 558.9 +10.9 +7.7
22 Houston American 542.1 +9.9 +7.6
23 Utah Pac-12 577.2 +11.6 +7.4
24 San Diego State MW 488.5 +6.9 +7.4
25 TCU Big 12 648.0 +15.1 +7.2
26 Louisiana Tech C-USA 444.7 +4.4 +7.1
27 West Virginia Big 12 640.2 +14.0 +6.5
28 North Carolina ACC 676.3 +15.5 +6.2
29 Utah State MW 344.3 -2.0 +6.0
30 Tulsa American 406.6 +0.9 +5.6
31 Colorado Pac-12 534.2 +6.8 +4.8
32 USF American 546.8 +7.3 +4.7
33 Ohio State Big Ten 904.9 +25.6 +4.3
34 Georgia Tech ACC 586.4 +8.8 +4.2
35 Georgia Southern Sun Belt 413.3 -0.3 +4.1
36 Alabama SEC 982.3 +29.3 +4.0
37 Minnesota Big Ten 525.8 +5.3 +3.8
38 Pittsburgh ACC 630.5 +10.6 +3.6
39 Michigan Big Ten 852.0 +22.1 +3.6
40 Stanford Pac-12 772.2 +17.9 +3.5
41 Virginia Tech ACC 652.6 +11.6 +3.5
42 Troy Sun Belt 363.0 -3.8 +3.3
43 Northern Illinois MAC 392.0 -2.3 +3.3
44 California Pac-12 613.6 +9.2 +3.2
45 Ohio MAC 351.6 -4.8 +2.9
46 N.C. State ACC 613.3 +8.9 +2.8
47 Arkansas State Sun Belt 439.8 -0.5 +2.5
48 Ole Miss SEC 786.2 +17.4 +2.3
49 Central Michigan MAC 384.3 -3.8 +2.1
50 Mississippi State SEC 679.6 +11.5 +2.0
51 Middle Tennessee State C-USA 423.2 -2.2 +1.7
52 Colorado State MW 400.7 -3.4 +1.7
53 Arkansas SEC 692.2 +11.9 +1.7
54 Tennessee SEC 812.2 +18.0 +1.6
55 New Mexico MW 364.5 -5.7 +1.3
56 Southern Miss C-USA 456.1 -1.0 +1.2
57 Northwestern Big Ten 604.7 +6.4 +0.8
58 Bowling Green MAC 413.1 -3.8 +0.7
59 LSU SEC 903.5 +21.8 +0.6
60 Wyoming MW 315.5 -9.0 +0.6
61 Idaho Sun Belt 259.6 -11.9 +0.5
62 Texas Tech Big 12 623.0 +6.8 +0.2
63 Penn State Big Ten 737.4 +12.3 -0.3
64 East Carolina American 422.9 -4.5 -0.5
65 Florida State ACC 898.3 +20.1 -0.8
66 Duke ACC 581.5 +3.4 -1.0
67 Wake Forest ACC 507.6 -0.6 -1.1
68 Michigan State Big Ten 717.5 +10.3 -1.2
69 Iowa State Big 12 540.6 +0.9 -1.4
70 Boston College ACC 534.0 +0.2 -1.7
71 Miami ACC 759.6 +11.8 -1.9
72 Texas A&M SEC 822.5 +15.1 -1.9
73 Florida SEC 794.1 +13.5 -2.0
74 Indiana Big Ten 562.3 +1.3 -2.1
75 Nebraska Big Ten 695.8 +8.2 -2.1
76 Syracuse ACC 514.5 -1.3 -2.2
77 San Jose State MW 408.5 -7.0 -2.3
78 Georgia State Sun Belt 328.7 -11.3 -2.5
79 Nevada MW 385.0 -8.5 -2.6
80 Old Dominion C-USA 333.4 -11.3 -2.7
81 Illinois Big Ten 527.4 -1.5 -3.0
82 Auburn SEC 865.4 +16.2 -3.0
83 Vanderbilt SEC 614.4 +3.0 -3.1
84 Cincinnati American 518.1 -2.1 -3.1
85 USC Pac-12 931.8 +19.5 -3.2
86 Ball State MAC 357.9 -10.8 -3.5
87 Missouri SEC 638.3 +3.8 -3.6
88 UNLV MW 354.5 -11.4 -3.9
89 Notre Dame FBS Indep. 849.8 +14.4 -4.0
90 Oregon Pac-12 747.9 +9.0 -4.1
91 Arizona Pac-12 611.6 +1.6 -4.4
92 Connecticut American 412.9 -9.0 -4.6
93 Marshall C-USA 487.6 -5.1 -4.6
94 UCLA Pac-12 806.2 +11.3 -4.8
95 Arizona State Pac-12 687.5 +5.1 -4.9
96 Kentucky SEC 643.3 +2.2 -5.4
97 New Mexico State Sun Belt 259.4 -18.0 -5.5
98 Akron MAC 428.2 -9.2 -5.6
99 Kent State MAC 336.2 -14.3 -5.8
100 Oregon State Pac-12 534.8 -4.0 -5.9
101 UTEP C-USA 273.3 -17.9 -6.2
102 Massachusetts FBS Indep. 347.3 -14.1 -6.2
103 Buffalo MAC 330.0 -15.2 -6.4
104 FIU C-USA 361.5 -13.6 -6.5
105 Tulane American 398.1 -11.7 -6.5
106 Texas-San Antonio C-USA 377.0 -13.1 -6.8
107 Eastern Michigan MAC 344.5 -15.1 -7.0
108 Louisiana-Lafayette Sun Belt 425.8 -11.4 -7.6
109 Georgia SEC 874.9 +12.0 -7.7
110 Purdue Big Ten 523.5 -6.6 -7.9
111 Louisiana-Monroe Sun Belt 307.8 -17.9 -7.9
112 Florida Atlantic C-USA 405.0 -12.9 -8.0
113 SMU American 460.4 -10.1 -8.1
114 South Alabama Sun Belt 378.3 -14.7 -8.4
115 Virginia ACC 643.0 -1.1 -8.6
116 Miami (OH) MAC 407.6 -13.4 -8.6
117 Maryland Big Ten 627.9 -1.9 -8.7
118 Hawaii MW 385.3 -14.8 -8.9
119 South Carolina SEC 716.3 +2.0 -9.4
120 UCF American 497.4 -9.7 -9.6
121 Rice C-USA 397.2 -15.1 -9.8
122 Texas Big 12 830.1 +7.3 -10.1
123 Charlotte C-USA 317.3 -19.7 -10.2
124 Fresno State MW 403.8 -15.9 -11.0
125 North Texas C-USA 366.1 -18.1 -11.2
126 Texas State Sun Belt 356.1 -20.6 -13.2
127 Rutgers Big Ten 593.9 -8.6 -13.6
128 Kansas Big 12 495.5 -14.4 -14.2

Sources: 247Sports, ESPN Stats & Information Group

Footnotes

  1. Ideally, we’d be able to look at this over a longer timeframe, but the data I’m using for this story only goes back to the 2015 season.

  2. Guidelines for weight and body fat, for instance, can make it difficult for top linemen to qualify.

Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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