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Which Pac-12 football teams over and under perform relative to recruiting?
No, this isn't just an excuse to giggle at UCLA, though that's still a plus
As the interminable off-season slowly trudges along (8 weeks left!) The Athletic provided us with an interesting bit of off-season fun: College football’s biggest overachievers and underachievers based on recruiting over the last four seasons.
Their method? Pretty simple, really. Take the average of each team’s 247 composite recruiting rankings from 2015-2018 and the average of each team’s Massey Rankings from the past four years, and then compare those two numbers. Teams with better Massey ratings have overperformed based on their talent, teams with worse Massey ratings have underperformed. You should read their whole article, but since we have certain niche interests in these parts, let’s dive right in to what matters: the Pac-12:
Utah, +15 (36th in recruiting, 21st in performance)
Washington State, +10 (45th in recruiting, 35th in performance)
Washington, +9 (22nd in recruiting, 13th in performance)
Arizona State, +7 (35th in recruiting, 28th in performance)
Oregon, -1 (19th in recruiting, 20th in performance)
Stanford, -9 (23rd in recruiting, 32nd in performance)
Colorado, -16 (58th in recruiting, 74th in performance)
Cal, -17 (43rd in recruiting, 60th in performance)
USC, -19 (4th in recruiting, 23rd in performance)
Arizona, -44 (49th in recruiting, 93rd in performance)
Oregon State, -44 (61st in recruiting, 105th in performance)
UCLA, -55 (16th in recruiting, 71st in performance)
Looks pretty ugly, right? Well, yes and no. Here are a few pieces of context to keep in mind before we dive in deeper:
This metric includes 2020 numbers in it, which may or may not be meaningful for the Pac-12. This is going to be a recurring theme over the next 3-4 years. Are we going to pretend, particular for the Pac-12, that the 2020 season actually gave us useful information?
Power 5 teams are guaranteed to ‘underachieve’ because they dominate recruiting. Counting Notre Dame, there are 65 power conference teams . . . and exactly three of them rank outside of the top 65. Hell, here’s the list of G5 teams that have cracked the top 65, and P5 teams that have fallen outside of the top 25:
Boise State (62)
Boston College (72)
Even the very best, most attractive G5 schools barely out-recruit the least attractive P5 schools. As a consequence, it’s impossible for P5 schools to collectively overachieve. The average ranking for P5 teams in this metric is -10.3, because on average there’s no room to go up and lots of room to go down (just ask Oregon State and UCLA).
As a result, a more accurate ranking might push Oregon up into the ranks of the overachievers and push ASU and Stanford into the ranks of the neutral performers, relative to their power conference peers.
But the Pac-12 is still performing worse than average for a P5 conference. The Pac-12’s average performance is -15, below the P5 average of -10. This more or less passes my smell test, as to my eye the Pac-12 has been down, but not nearly to the degree argued by Chicken Little doom-sayers.
Still, virtually of that underperformance comes from Arizona, Oregon State, and UCLA. Most teams in the conference are relatively close to performing at the level of the talent they produce. But three teams obviously stand out. So what’s up with the Wildcats, Beavers, and Bruins?
Arizona’s explanation seems relatively straight forward: Kevin Sumlin took over with Rich Rodriguez’s recruits and ran the Wildcats into the ground. How/why exactly Sumlin flamed out so badly is not entirely clear (his poor recruiting in 2019 and 2020 aren’t yet factored into The Athletic’s metric) but his Arizona teams got steadily worse throughout his tenure, culminating in last year’s grisly Territorial Cup.
Oregon State’s malaise is also pretty easy to diagnose - Gary Anderson signed up to coach the Beavers in 2015, burned out of the job, left mid-season in 2017, and left behind a broken roster. Jonathan Smith has actually done a decent job returning OSU to respectability but rock bottom was very low indeed.
UCLA is the big mystery. Why did Jim Mora, with a team built on top 20 recruiting class after top 20 recruiting class, turn in a miserable 6-7 season and get fired? Why did Chip Kelly take all that talent and go 10-21 over three years?
I’m not going to say that UCLA playing up to their talent level immediately brings the Pac-12 out of the doldrums nationally, but add in a UCLA team that actually plays like the 16th best team in the country and the narratives about this conference over the last four years are very different. Still: UCLA, please stay inexplicably bad.
What about Cal? As noted above, while Cal is technically listed as an underachiving team relative to recruiting rankings, the Bears are just a touch below average among their P5 peers. But it’s worth trying to understand why that might be the case.
Cal’s recruiting average is based on two classes under Sonny Dykes (34th and 31st in the 247 composite rankings) and two classes under Wilcox (70th and 42nd in the 247 composite). If you go back and look at those two Dykes classes, you will see plenty of key players for Justin Wilcox . . . and also a ton of players who barely got onto the field at Memorial Stadium. Some of that is a normal rate of attrition (medical retirements, players who didn’t develop, etc.) but much of it came from voluntary transfers over the course of the transition from Dykes to Wilcox. It’s a really mean feat if a new coach can convince everybody to stay and buy in, but the reality is that Cal lost a lot of talent to transfers early in the Wilcox era.
Still, it was a little bit jarring to see Cal pop up in this exercise as ‘underachievers.’ Wilcox and his coaching staff very much have the reputation of wringing everything out of the talent on the roster, and I think this number is a good sanity check on our prior assumptions.
It might be fair to wonder if the coaching staff, while getting their due credit for maximizing the talent of their defensive players, maybe have been getting by a little bit easy for their struggles to maximize talent on the offensive side of the ball. Of course, the current collection of offensive coaches has entirely turned over in the last two off-seasons, so other than Justin Wilcox there’s not anybody around involved with the ugly offenses of 2017, 2018, and 2019.
Either way, with recruiting picking up, the expectations will rise accordingly. If Cal starts overachieving relative to their talent in the next season or two, we could be in for some very exciting football.