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Let’s talk for a minute about WSU’s recruiting rankings

Examining one of the more misunderstood elements of a football program.

NCAA Football: Alamo Bowl-Iowa State vs Washington State Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Yesterday, we put what we think is a bow on our coverage of the Washington State Cougars’ 2019 recruiting class with a story that took a look at the class following the addition of juco transfer running back Deon McIntosh, which a source indicated to us is the last remaining scholarship to be handed out heading into next season.

In the story, Scott mentioned that WSU finished No. 65 in the 247sports composite team rankings. This, of course, brings about some predictable responses from some of our fans about the annual disparity between the perceptions of our recruits nationally and the results on the field.

Here’s a quick and dirty look at how Leach’s recruiting classes have turned out, showing how each class translated to wins two years later, which is when you’d expect a particular class to start really paying dividends:

WSU 247sports Recruiting Rankings

Class Year Class Rank Wins, two years later
Class Year Class Rank Wins, two years later
2012 58 3
2013 50 9
2014 53 8
2015 42 9
2016 56 11
2017 44 ?
2018 45 ?
2019 65 ?

Many of our fans look at this as evidence that Leach is outperforming his rankings; after all, for each of the last four years, WSU has spent time in or around the top 25 of the human polls, culminating with last year’s No. 10 ranking, in spite of ranking roughly 50th in the four classes that fed into those seasons.

This, combined with LOOK AT WHERE USC RANKS AND THEY SUCK or HEY OREGON SCOREBOARD BABY!! leads some fans to dismiss rankings altogether. That’s a mistake.

There are a couple of things we know about recruiting rankings based on others’ study of data.

First, they’re imperfect. Duh. You obviously already know this. These rankings are generated by guys who aren’t coaches, and evaluations are largely based on the physical maturity of guys who are 17 and 18 years old. The guy who’s destroying everyone at 18 might be four stars but not get any better at USC by the time he’s 21; the guy who’s three stars shows up at WSU and hits the strength and conditioning program and becomes better than that four-star guy. Rankings don’t take “fit” into consideration, either. It’s mostly just a number that indicates the perceived “ceiling” of the player, which we’ve explained here in the past.

Additionally, the rankings are sometimes janky depending on other factors. For example, WSU’s 2019 class is the lowest of Leach’s tenure, right? Well, that’s based on 20 commits, and rankings are based in part on volume (a method you’re free to disagree with). You might remember that there are 25 scholarships available. Here’s who that ranking doesn’t include:

  • Gage Gubrud (grad transfer)
  • Deon McIntosh (late juco transfer)
  • Rocky Katoanga (grayshirt)
  • Gatlin Grisso (grayshirt)
  • Oscar Draguicevich (who was put on scholarship at the end of last season and has to count against the 25)

Gubrud will likely be the starter at QB and be as good or better than most of the four-star QB recruits in this class nationally. McIntosh will likely be the primary backup to Max Borghi and be as good or better than any of the three-star recruits in this class, nationally. Katoanga and Grisso both signed in 2018 and would have probably been ranked higher if not for injuries. Draguicevich might be the best punter in the Pac-12 in the coming years.

In addition to being exceptional at identifying and developing talent, WSU also has made a living on these margins in Leach’s tenure. So, yes, in that way, WSU’s recruiting rankings aren’t a true reflection of the quality of the recruiting classes because we’re winning a bunch of games. But it’s also true that WSU isn’t really unique in this respect — the Utah Utes, for example, routinely rank around where we do and produce similar results.

But .......

Despite their imperfections, recruiting rankings are a very good proxy for the ceiling of a program’s achievement. You just don’t see programs rank where we do and win at the highest levels with any kind of consistency, and that’s something fans would be wise to acknowledge before dismissing rankings out of hand.

Not to open up old wounds, but consider that the Washington Huskies have routinely ranked in the top 25 in recruiting rankings in Chris Petersen’s tenure — sometimes in the top 15. They also have won a pair of Pac-12 championships and been to the CFP and a pair of NY6 bowl games in the last three years — achievements WSU fell short of because the Huskies kicked our asses each year.

It doesn’t mean that a program can’t rank in the 40s and 50s in recruiting and later jump up and achieve something special with the right mix of guys; last season is evidence of that, as are WSU’s Pac-10 championships in 1997 and 2002. But it takes a special combination of factors for it to happen, and it’s probably a one-off. I’m sure you can think of other programs who have jumped up and then disappeared again (hi, Kansas).

Thus, the best approach to recruiting rankings from a WSU perspective is to recognize these two factors:

  • WSU’s rankings don’t prevent an excellent coaching staff from putting a very good team (by WSU’s standards) on the field year after year; and
  • WSU’s rankings also make it very difficult to have a great team that can win a Pac-12 championship or get to a NY6 bowl.

Personally, I’m OK with those two things. Would I love to see us get to the fringes of the top 25 in recruiting? Of course — because if you can do that for a couple of years, that’s when you start feeling like it’s realistic to expect to achieve truly big things. But I’m not sure that’ll ever happen. And I don’t think that’s a failure on anyone’s part; I just think that’s a reality of life as a WSU fan, and that’s why I’m really glad Mike Leach is our coach.

On to the links!


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