SMQ: The Power Five Divide, Part III - Recruiting

by Zach Bigalke

In our ongoing look at disparities between Power Five conferences, this week’s SMQ dives into recruiting data to see where a divide might exist in talent.

Over the past few weeks in this space, we have taken up the project of investigating the discrepancies inherent between Power Five conferences. We know that there is a clear gulf between Power Five contenders and the Group of Five teams that dream of joining them on the big stage. Too often, however, we gloss over the ways in which not all Power Five conferences are created equal.

From investigating where conference champions are ranked to the way revenues and expenditures impact conferences, the goal is to see where there might be a fault line within the realm of Power Five programs. In doing so, we might find that what we call a Power Five is really a Power One or a Power Two with a slew of little-brother challengers lurking in the wings.

This week, we are going to focus on recruiting rankings. Compiling average player ranking for each Power Five team, and extending the study back to 2004 to include the Big East before its dissolution as a football conference, we can see how conferences cluster and where the fissures exist between them.

With those caveats aside, let’s dive into the charts and see what we can deduce from the shifting balance of recruiting over the past 15 years.

A quick word about the dataset

The data were collected from the team composite rankings at 247sports. This week’s column focuses on the period between 2004 and 2019 for two main reasons:

  1. Prior to 2004 the recruiting averages are less reliable from team to team in the 247sports database, while for 2020 and beyond the recruiting process is still ongoing and thus cannot be measured reliably until the cycle is complete.
  2. This allows the study to correlate roughly to what we looked at from the Department of Education’s Equity in Athletics Data Analysis project in Part II of the ongoing investigation into Power Five disparities.

From the raw numbers, an average annual recruiting quality was calculated for each conference. Also provided as a powerhouse baseline of sorts is Notre Dame’s annual recruiting averages, helping illustrate that it is not recruiting alone that determines who comes out on top — though it certainly plays a major role in determining who has a legitimate chance from season to season.

Rating recruits is by no means an exact science, as underrated players coming out of high school can blossom into stars and others who are highly hyped can fail to live up to their potential once they reach college. But in general, recruiting rankings have been shown to correlate significantly to where a team lands in the final standings in any given season. Thus we are using them as a test to see if this is a space in which conference disparities might be more clearly explained.

A chart for your consideration

With the disclaimers and methodological setup out of the way, let’s look at the numbers themselves. From the 16 years of data between 2004 and 2019, I have compiled the chart below that maps the average ranking for players recruited by conference teams from year to year.

What we learn from this graph are a few key things:

  • Notre Dame maps out from year to year in similar fashion to other major powerhouses, though that hasn’t always been the case. Looking at the beginning of the study, we see that what at the time was the Pac-10 conference actually had stronger average recruiting in 2004 than Notre Dame and every other conference. The big spike for the Fighting Irish transpired between 2006 and 2009, when the SEC (but not other Power Five conferences) started to significantly close the gap.
  • The SEC was not always the recruiting juggernaut among Power Five conferences that we tend to reflexively view them to be. In 2004, when this dataset begins, we find them effectively tied with the Big Ten and Big 12 behind the Pac-10. Five years later, when they are pulling near level with Notre Dame due to a combination of the Irish slumping in recruiting and the SEC having a boom year, the predominant league in the southeast shored up its top-dog status to the present.
  • Many fans and pundits tend to perceive the Pac-12 in a lesser light, viewing the western conference as less able to recruit the kind of talent that would allow them to more consistently compete with the SEC, ACC, and Big Ten. In reality, though, Pac-12 schools have historically recruited at a level that has been superior to the ACC and Big Ten and only over the past decade fell substantially behind the SEC. There is no significant gulf between the Pac-12 and other Power Five leagues besides the SEC.
  • Aside from the SEC, relative recruiting quality between the other Power Five conferences appears largely cyclical. The Big 12 and ACC have had brief moments taking over second place in the pecking order. In general, however, it has been the Pac-12 that most consistently slots in behind the SEC as the conference with the deepest recruiting, followed by the Big Ten in its most recent charge up the list.

Also included at the bottom of the chart is that green line representing the Big East through the BCS era. 2004 marks the point when Miami and Virginia Tech departed for the ACC, leaving the Big East scrambling to fortify its membership. A year later, Boston College departed and the league expelled Temple; in their place, the Big East added South Florida, Cincinnati, and Louisville from Conference USA.

Even before those additions, the league was reeling relative to what were then called the BCS automatic-qualifying conferences. It is no surprise that it devolved away from AQ status and into the Group of Five, especially after the defections of Pitt, Rutgers, Syracuse, Louisville, and West Virginia.

How much can we learn at this high-altitude conference level?

What is readily apparent is that A) not all conferences are created equal and B) teams within a conference are by no means on a level playing field. Standard deviation within each league cannot explain this necessarily, at least not on any statistically significant level.

Perhaps looking at the median rather than the average will help us better see where the gaps lie between Power Five leagues.

In terms of recruiting, the gulf between the SEC and the rest of the Power Five conferences is very real. The data, though, leans toward rejecting the notion that there are any disparities between the other four loops lumped into the Power Five.

Beyond the Big East, which is the only league that never intersected or took over the lead in recruiting over the course of its existence, we see that the Pac-12, Big 12, Big Ten, and ACC trade off understudy status behind the SEC with relative frequency.

What does that ultimately mean?

These disparities will eventually need to be sussed out on a more granular, team-by-team level. For the moment, though, we can see a definite gap between the SEC and everyone else that shows no signs of shrinking in any appreciable way in the near future. At points the other Power Five conferences have closed the gap, usually with the Pac-12 leading that charge. Given the demographics of the southern United States, though, it is explainable in terms of the SEC’s geographic footprint and the talent available in a concentrated area.

Yet the ACC shares much of that same recruiting footprint without any of the attendant advantages. What that says is that recruiting is less a cause of the disparity than a symptom of that disparity. Thus we must keep looking if we are to find any evidence of a widening gulf and what might explain that divide.

Next: The Power Five Divide, Part II - Revenues and Expenditures

Next week we will dive into coaching salaries to see if the people recruiting these players might better explain the gaps within the Power Five.

Zach is currently a graduate student in the Department of Kinesiology at Penn State focusing on the history and philosophy of sport. He has covered a variety of American and international sports online and in print since 2006 and was formerly the managing editor at Informative Sports and Sports Unbiased.