Now, the correlation between success on the recruiting trail and wins on the playing field is irrefutable. Each BCS champion since 2005 brought in a signing class ranked no lower than No. 15 four years prior to its title. Three teams — Alabama 2011 (2008 class), 2012 (2009 class) and Texas 2005 (2002 class) — parlayed a No. 1 overall signing class into a BCS championship.
There are those programs with success outpacing their star rankings. Of the final Associated Press top 25 this past season, there were seven teams without a top 25-ranked signing class over the past four recruiting periods. Some of these were non-BCS conference programs: Northern Illinois, Utah State, San Jose State and Boise State. It’s rare for non-power conference teams to compile highly touted recruiting classes, even a program like Boise State with its years of proven success.
That’s worked just fine for Chris Petersen. He has mastered the art of finding unheralded recruits and coaching them up to a top 10 level at Boise State. Bronco signees like Kellen Moore emerged from relative recruiting obscurity to make history. Moore was a three star prospect, but his offers were from Eastern Washington and Idaho. Two star prospect Doug Martin parlayed his offer from Petersen into a great college career and later, an incredible rookie season with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Perhaps no non-AQ program recruit better embodies the challenge of mining hidden gems presently than Colin Kaepernick. The Nevada product had no offers aside from Chris Ault’s, but by his senior season was captaining a top 11 team.
Such a philosophy is just the nature of coaching outside of the power conference sphere. Pat Fitzgerald has had to compete in the Big Ten with unheralded classes, routinely scored at a non-power conference rate below an average of three stars.
Fitzgerald faces similar academic recruiting restrictions that Stanford and Vanderbilt have successfully overcome, but Stanford evolved into a recruiting heavyweight under Jim Harbaugh, and shown no sign of stopping under David Shaw. James Franklin’s past two Vanderbilt teams exceeded recruiting rankings, but he’s employed an aggressive style similar to Harbaugh’s at Stanford, resulting in a No. 29 class last National Signing Day and looking at No. 19 on Wednesday.
Still, Fitzgerald’s Northwestern team topped Franklin’s Commodores this season.
Northwestern capped its 10-win season with its second victory over the SEC, beating Mississippi State in the Gator Bowl, 34-20. The Wildcats finished ranked No. 17 in the AP poll, which was 41 slots better than any of its last four signing classes finished per Rivals.com. The No. 58 ranked crop of newcomer ‘Cats inked in 2009 was the most highly touted of any of Fitzgerald’s recent hauls.
Classes ranked No. 77, 80 and 60 signed with Northwestern in 2010, 2011 and 2012.
In 2012, Cincinnati claimed a share of its fourth Big East Conference championship in the past five seasons and its second under Butch Jones. The Bearcats signing classes primarily making up this past season’s team were ranked in the 50s or lower.
Tennessee fans have two perspectives from which to evaluate Jones. The pessimistic view is that Jones was an underwhelming recruiting, and recruiting is king in the SEC. The optimist sees someone whose coaching outperformed his teams’ talent levels.
Jones heads into his first recruiting season at Tennessee much like his Cincinnati predecessor, Brian Kelly, transitioned to Notre Dame. Kelly’s Cincinnati classes did not rank higher than 60th, but his formula of coaching up players combined with the recruiting power of the Notre Dame brand has translated into success for the Fighting Irish.
Likewise, Jones is working to put the finishing touches on a group averaging 3.24 stars, per Rivals.com.
Baylor head coach Art Briles demonstrates another path to outperforming recruiting expectations. BU is on a run of three consecutive bowl appearances, and could be a dark horse Big 12 championship contender in 2013. Briles has done it with hidden recruiting gems, complementing a highly regarded centerpiece.
Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin III was no under-the-radar, breakout star when he came to BU in 2008. Griffin graded out as a four star prospect out of Copperas Cove, and was a contender for No. 1 draft selection by his final season. But other Bear stars surpassed their stars, like Terrance Williams.
The potential first round NFL Draft pick was a two star prospect at W.T. White High in Dallas. Kendall Wright was a three star recruit. Terrance Ganaway was another two star, originally signed to Houston without a single BCS conference offer.
Next season’s Baylor team features five star running back Lache Seastrunk, a one-time Oregon recruit who landed with Briles’ program before his freshman season. Surrounding Seastrunk is a supporting cast from signing classes averaging a mid-40s ranking.
The Big 12 crown Baylor seeks to wrest away in 2013 belongs to Kansas State presently. Perhaps no coach has ever mastered outperforming recruiting rankings quite like Bill Snyder, whose key contributors are often transfers and junior college prospects. So successful is Snyder’s formula in the Sunflower State, rival Charlie Weis is trying to emulate it at Kansas.