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Interactive Graphic: WSU leads Power 5 in outperforming recruiting rankings

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The consistency with which the Cougars do it is stunning.

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

The Washington State Cougars have long fed off the narrative that they’re underrated. We’re all too familiar with the resource and geographic constraints that play into that. If Patrick Chun had a dollar for every time a recruit was described as a “diamond in the rough” we’d probably have a new indoor practice facility and gold gilded seat backs in Martin Stadium.

There were many years when the Cougs were primarily beating out Big Sky or low G5 schools for recruits and “diamond in the rough” wasn’t even an apt description, but more of a hope. It’s like if you’ve failed every test in a class, haven’t studied for the final and hope that your score will somehow be a “diamond in the rough.”

During Mike Leach’s tenure, the term has morphed from hopeful aspiration to a bit of annoyance, as I think it trivializes the job Leach and his players are doing. However, whether or not I like it, people talk about at our recruiting that way. So ... what if it’s true? What if WSU has carved out a knack for finding under valued players, those right fits, that allow the Cougs to punch above their weight on the field?

CougCenter uses 247Sports’ “Composite Rating” as our standard. Jeff did a nice job of explaining what that is last year. The goal is to remove bias from recruiting rankings; you can dig into more detail on it on their site.

Each year they come out with a “Team Talent Composite” that ranks the talent on each team’s roster. You may not be surprised to find out that WSU ranked 57th in 2018, 60th in 2017, 65th in 2016 and 57th in 2015. Before we beat our chest too hard that “stars don’t matter,” all 4 college football playoff teams in 2018 were in the top 10 of 247’s recruiting rankings that year, and 3 of 4 were top 10 in 2017 and 2016. It’s more often about the Jimmy’s and Joe’s than the X’s and O’s, but in 2018 WSU was tops in the Power 5 in outperforming their 247 recruiting ranking on the field, and in 2017 they were No. 2. Stars matter, but Mike Leach has found a way to rise above.

The below chart looks at Leach and the Cougs’ insane performance among their Power 5 peers. The left column is each team ranked by their 247 Team Talent Composite, the right column is wins divided by that score, calculated as (wins/15 total available games)/team talent composite.

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It’s impressive to outperform your perceived talent in any given season; college football is extremely competitive and sometimes the stars align. The frustration from Cougar fans I have felt is that even when we have a great season, or multiple good ones in a row, we do our best Rodney Dangerfield and shake our fist that we still can’t seem to get respect nationally. It’s what spawns the aforementioned diamond in the rough ethos or hashtags like #CougsVsEverybody. We’re starting to see that perception change with WSU debuting at 21 in the pre-season’s coaches poll, and after four seasons of success there is expectation that comes along with that. Finishing 10th in the AP poll last season helps, but when we look at how consistently Mike Leach has outperformed expectations, it gets me even more excited for this season.

The next chart is looking at the same rankings as before, but in a scatter plot rather than a list. The upper left shows teams that had a high win total based on their overall talent (2015 Iowa, 2017 Wisconsin, 2016 Colorado, 2018 Syracuse). The lower right is teams that had a low win total based on their overall talent (2018 USC, 5 wins with #4 ranked team talent, 2017 Tennessee, 4 wins with #11 ranked team talent).

What is so interesting to me about this look at the data is WSU is consistently there in the upper left. Every other team around them has had at least one lower performing season since 2015. In “Wins Per Team Talent,” Utah went 2015: #3, 2016: #8, 2017: #33, 2018: #4. Another top performer, Northwestern, goes 2015: #5, 2016: #27, 2017: #4, 2018: #6. These are teams that 247 would rate as having very similar talent levels to WSU, but in the last 4 seasons each has had a down year. Thankfully Leach has been able to keep WSU riding high without a significant jump in talent level.

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Be it Bennett Ball or one of the first teams to go with 4 wide outs on almost every play under Mike Price, WSU has always had to find something to exploit to have success. Mike Leach and staff are getting everything out of the talent they recruit and putting a damn fun product out on the field. Leach understands who he is and is true to himself, he’s setting himself apart in putting the right pieces together to have success and it’s exciting to see the polls starting to take notice. Only a few more weeks until we get to find see if Leach and company can continue to punch above their weight. I like their chances.