WACO, Texas — The Baylor Bears, coming off the greatest football season in their history, failed to land a single five-star recruit on national signing day Wednesday.
The Bears never seem to land the bluest of blue chips. But that’s OK. Trust me. Better yet, trust Baylor coach Art Briles.
During the 20 years I spent researching NFL drafts for this newspaper, I came to a quick realization that picking players is an inexact science.
That explains why the quarterback of the NFL champions was a lowly third-round draft pick and the Super Bowl MVP was an even lowlier seventh-round selection.
Reputation gets a player drafted in the NFL, but performance wins championships.
Which brings us back to college football’s national signing day. Those four and five stars assigned recruits are all about their reputations as high schoolers. But, as in the NFL, reputations don’t always translate into performance at the next level.
If that were the case, Alabama would have won the national championship again last season. In the five recruiting classes that comprised the 2013 Crimson Tide, Alabama was hailed as having the nation’s top class in four of them. The Crimson Tide finished in the top five in the other year, according to Rivals, the national authority on recruiting.
Rivals credited Alabama with landing 15 five-star and 70 four-star recruits in those five classes from 2009-13. That’s 85 of a possible 126 signees who arrived on campus with at least a four-star designation. So 67.5 percent of Alabama’s roster was considered the prep game’s elite.
Yet the most talented team in college football lost its last two games of 2013 to Auburn in the regular-season finale and to Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl.
Let’s take a look at four schools and the football teams they fielded last fall: Auburn, Baylor, Florida State and Michigan State. All must compete with in-state rivals that are considered perennial national powers and, thus, have built-in recruiting advantages.
Auburn competes with Alabama, Baylor with Texas, Florida State with Florida and Michigan State with Michigan.
Alabama’s recruiting rank over the last five years averaged out to a nation-best 1.8. Auburn’s average rank was 9.6. The Tigers landed nine fewer five-star recruits and 13 fewer four stars than the Crimson Tide during that five-year stretch. Yet Auburn upset Alabama last season and went on to play for the national championship.
Baylor’s recruiting rank over the last five years averaged out to 43.2. The Longhorns’ average rank was 7.4. The Bears landed eight fewer five-star recruits and 55 fewer four stars than the Longhorns over the last five years. Yet 11-2 Baylor crushed Texas, won its first Big 12 title and finished 13th in the nation last season. The Longhorns went 8-5.
Florida State’s recruiting rank over the last five years averaged out to 7.0. Florida’s average rank was 6.4. The Seminoles landed one fewer five-star and 13 fewer four-stars than the Gators. But Florida State whipped Florida last season and went on to capture the national title. The Gators went 4-8.
Michigan State’s recruiting rank the last five years averaged out to 31.8. Michigan’s average rank was 12.2. The Spartans landed three fewer five stars and 28 fewer four stars than the Wolverines. Yet Michigan State has defeated Michigan in five of their last six meetings, won the Big Ten title in 2013 and finished No. 3 in the nation with a 13-1 record. The Wolverines went 7-6.
Baylor claimed its first BCS berth last season despite failing to land a single five-star recruit in the previous five years. Michigan State landed just one — and he was long gone by the time the Spartans played in the 2014 Rose Bowl. Pass rusher William Gholston left school early after the 2012 season and now plays for the NFL Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Darqueze Dennard, who won the Thorpe Award as the best defensive back in the nation in 2013, was a mere two-star recruit at Michigan State. Aaron Donald, who won the Outland, Lombardi, Nagurski and Bednarik trophies last season, was a three-star recruit at Pitt.
No one was celebrating the 2010 recruiting seasons that landed Dennard and Donald. Michigan State ranked 30th in the nation in recruiting that year, Pitt 33rd.
But on Wednesday, we celebrated the 2014 recruiting seasons of Alabama, LSU and Ohio State. Rivals rated the Crimson Tide best in class once again, followed by the Tigers and Buckeyes. Rivals rated Baylor’s class No. 34.
“I think this is a great class,” Briles said. “But then I’ve been pleased with all of our (recruiting) classes. We get guys who fit what we’re doing.”
Forget the stars. It’s about the players. And Briles keeps finding them.