Welcome to Fact or Fanatic, a bi-weekly column where we put fanbase chatter up against the stats. Ever want to learn if your opponents’ favorite bit of social media baiting holds up under the harsh glare of the numbers? Well, this is the place to do it.
Over the past few weeks, we’ve noted mounting bits of ugliness rearing up on Twitter about high school commits and their star ratings. The ratings system, primarily established by Rivals.com and 247Sports, have made both sites essential reading for the college football fanatic who’s caught up in the superpower détente known as recruiting. Adults spend hours poring over film, stats, and reports about teenagers. With middle-schoolers getting scholarship offers from Power Five universities, the ratings of sites like these take on additional importance to the recruitment addict.
So much importance, in fact, that Twitter flame wars are springing up like mushrooms in a pasture when one fanbase flames another for being a “three-star U” or laughs at a commit that’s “only” a three-star or, more shamefully, a fan excoriates an adolescent who’s committed to the school he supports because he’s “only” a three-star. Setting aside the creepiness factor of a grown-up tweeting a young athlete (don’t be THAT guy trolling teenagers), we started to wonder: Is it true that four- and five-star athletes are the only worthwhile commitments for a major football program?
So Fact or Fanatic decided to put it to the test.
The Ratings System
One of the major problems with any of the major ratings sites—Rivals, 247Sports, ESPN, and Scout—is the fact that none of them uses the same system. Most of them assign a five-star rating to a set number of athletes in comparison to their peers. For example, Scout:
Understanding Scout.com’s Top 300 is really not that difficult. A five-star rating is awarded to the top 50 prospects. A four-star rating is awarded to a prospect that is considered one of the next 250 best players, ranked No. 51 to 300.
Whereas at Rivals:
A five-star prospect is considered to be one of the nation’s top 25-30 players, four star is a top 250-300 or so player, three-stars is a top 750 level player, two stars means the player is a mid-major prospect and one star means the player is not ranked.
Meanwhile 247Sports sets up a grading system where prospects are graded from “franchise player” down to “Two-Star”—and according to them, two-star players are basically a catch-all phrase meaning (and we quote) “These players make up the bulk of Division I rosters. They may have little pro potential, are likely to become role players for their respective schools or not enough is known about the prospect to rank them accurately.”
In other words, we have no idea. If you want to know more about the differences in these ratings systems, go to the same source we did: SB Nation’s January 21, 2016 article “Rivals, Scout, ESPN, 247: Star Rating Systems Explained” by Jeff Nesser. It’s the best explanation we discovered, and he does it much better than we ever could.
The result of this disparity is that a three-star on Rivals might be either a four- or two-star on another site because the parameters set for each are so different. Since the rating scores are subjective, players’ ratings can be affected accordingly. And one thing I’ve noticed in the aforesaid Twitter wars is that fanbases tend to run with the site that rates a commit higher, while their rivals go straight for the lower score. This undermines the objective evaluation of any player—save by those who’ve actually watched the literally hours of film available on those players.
Keep in mind that subjective rating system—it’s important.
Does Team Success Correlate with Recruiting Players With High Star Ratings?
Here, we find a lot of conflicting data. We have to start with exactly how rare it is to get those coveted stars. SB Nation’s Alex Kirschner pointed out that of an estimated 300,000 high school football players, only 33 would receive five stars, 354 four stars, and 1,202 three stars. The percentages involved here are astronomically small. Only 2.5% of high school football players will go on to play Division I football.
There’s no doubt that college football programs who recruit the highest-rated players traditionally do well. Bud Elliott shows that correlation very well in his SB Nation article. Alabama, Ohio State, USC, LSU, and Notre Dame all have a history of reloading top-tier talent and winning championships as a result.
But there are other factors that play a role in a program’s success. The majority of blue chip high school players come from only a few states: Florida, Georgia, Texas, and California primarily. Every major program is trying to reap the bounty of four- and five-star players from those states. But each school also focuses upon the top players in its own state. Ian Boyd at Football Study Hall took a detailed look at this issue in February, 2015. Factors like environment, genetics, climate, and types of football play make a difference as to what sort of football player high schools routinely develop. In addition, you have to consider the programs that can easily develop three-star players into blue-chip collegiate talent. Schools like Oregon, TCU, Georgia, and Wisconsin all have a history of doing just that.
Let’s be real: The strength and conditioning at D1 programs can take a three-star player out of high school and turn him into a five-star talent as he achieves his full growth. There’s a lot of difference between the maximum potential of an 18-year-old and a 22-year-old.
And yet, the facts are incontrovertible. Teams that recruit the most blue-chip players inevitably are the same teams winning championships. As Matt Hinton sums it up in his article “Be It Ever So Humble, The Rankings (still) Get It Right”:
SO WHAT? The evidence is overwhelming: Despite some obvious, anecdotal exceptions, on the whole recruiting rankings clearly are useful for creating a realistic baseline for expectations. But the narrower your focus, the less useful they will become…The exceptions prove the rule: Overwhelmingly, setting aside every other conceivable factor that determines success and failure – injuries, academics, even coaching – individual players and teams tend to perform within the very narrow range their initial recruiting rankings suggest. Some percentage of both groups will not. But when it comes to forming expectations, it should go without saying that you never want to count on being one of the anomalies.
But What About the Players?
In one of the particularly nasty exchanges we witnessed on Twitter this weekend, a school’s fans were bad-mouthing a three-star recruit because he wasn’t “rated high enough” and therefore would “never play a snap” for that particular program. Because, they were so fixated on the star rating, the mean tweeters completely ignored the fact that the kid was a 15-year-old with three more seasons of high school ball to play. And this is a common position among fans – at least for a time.
Marcus Mariota, the Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback from Oregon, was a three-star on Rivals, Scout and 247Sports – and a TWO-star on ESPN – coming out of Honolulu, HI. He is now the starting QB for the Tennessee Titans, picked second overall in the 2015 NFL Draft. As Kyle Gentry, a 28-year-old medical professional from Franklin, TN, said:
And Mariota isn’t the only overlooked player to make the transition from three stars to NFL first-round pick. In fact, in that 2015 NFL draft, eight players were former five-stars, seven were four-stars, 16 were three-stars, and one (WR Breshad Perriman from UCF, now with the Baltimore Ravens) was a two-star-rated athlete coming out of high school. In that same article, writer Mike Huguenin reports the fate of the five-star athletes from 2010-2012, and we discover that:
All but one of the 26 rivals.com five-star recruits in 2010 are out of college. Fifteen of them were drafted, including four first-rounders. The top prospect was defensive end Ronald Powell, who was a fifth-round pick last year.
There were 30 five-star recruits in the 247sports.com consensus 2011 rankings. Six still have college eligibility. Of the 24 who are out of college, 13 have been drafted, including four in the first round. The top prospect was defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, who was the overall No. 1 pick in 2014.
There were 35 five-star prospects in the 247sports.com consensus 2012 rankings. Seventeen are done with college. Of those 17, eight were taken in the 2015 draft, including seven in the first round; two have signed free-agent contracts. The No. 1 prospect in the class was wide receiver Dorial Green-Beckham, who was a second-rounder this year.
So on the surface of things, a five-star prospect has slightly more than a 50% chance of being drafted by the NFL, a significant percentage for such a small statistical proportion of college football players. Bud in an article about sleeper recruits in the NFL, Elliott further extrapolates that in the 2014 draft:
A five-star recruit had a three-in-five chance of getting drafted (16 of 27).
A four-star had a one-in-five chance (77 of 395).
A three-star had a one-in-18 chance (92 of 1,644).
A two-star/unrated recruit had a one-in-34 chance (71 of 2,434).
All right, but is it true or not?
Here’s the deal. There were 31 five-star players in the 2016 recruiting class. That’s it. Those 31 players went to 19 different schools. Alabama, Ohio State, Clemson, Georgia, and Auburn are the only schools who got multiple five-star players.
Five-star players are such a tiny statistical proportion of the sum of NCAA players that a team isn’t going to rise or fall based on the star rating of one or two athletes. Where championships are built is in the development of the lower-ranked players within each program – a coaching staff’s ability to take that three-star quarterback and turn him into a Heisman Trophy winner, or to select players who may have lower star-ratings but specific skill sets that fit within their scheme, which is a particular talent with the TCU offense, as a recent example.
One of the few truisms we don’t have to research to call fact is that there really is no “I” in team. And calling an opponent “three-star U” because they got no five-stars and your team got one doesn’t mean a darn thing on the field.
A five-star player has unquestioned advantages in athletic ability, but for half of those athletes that ability doesn’t always show up on the collegiate field. So we’re calling this one fanatic. Sure, a five-star player is a potential benefit to any football program, but that’s not going to be where most games are won. Most games are going to be won by the confederation of players who were rated lower coming out of high school, but who pushed themselves and developed into truly elite athletes in systems that developed them to their true potential.