Five-star fiction

A blue-chip recruiting class won't transform your favorite team

Updated: January 30, 2012, 11:13 AM ET
By Peter Keating | ESPN The Magazine
Houston NuttTyler Kaufman/Icon SMIHouston Nutt's three consecutive top-25 classes didn't lead to on-field success at Ole Miss.

DURING THE PAST YEAR, the past year, colleges have spent millions of dollars and thousands of hours scouting high school football players, breaking them down on film, ranking them on secret lists, feting them with parties and hostesses and luring them with scholarship offers. On Feb. 1, national signing day, we'll get to see which programs did the best job in their recruiting. What could be more fun? If your favorite school lands the best athletes in the country, it will lead to years of bowl victories and contending for national championships, right?

Not so fast, my friends. New research shows that the connection between landing top preps and winning games is shockingly weak -- so much so that fans should rethink how they judge a coach's recruiting efforts.

Four major services rate football recruits on a scale of one to five stars: ESPN, Rivals, Scout and 24/7 Sports. Sometimes these rankings differ, but there's usually at least a rough consensus among the services about most players. This year, for example, they all agree that safety Landon Collins, receivers Stefon Diggs and Dorial Green-Beckham, defensive tackle Eddie Goldman and quarterback Gunner Kiel are among the game's best prospects.

But getting any of them to sign a letter of intent doesn't guarantee much. Winthrop Intelligence, a college sports research outfit, recently analyzed every recruiting class from 2006 to 2010, tracking how more than 11,000 prep stars affected their college programs' success. Winthrop found no correlation between the number of recruits with three or more stars on an FBS team and its subsequent winning percentages. "We checked more than 100 performance statistics, including points, yards and touchdowns," the company writes in a report. "We found no significant relationship between higher-ranked recruiting classes and better performance statistics."

Peter Keating is a senior writer at ESPN The Magazine, where he covers investigative and statistical subjects. He started writing "The Biz," a column looking at sports business from the fan's point of view, in 1999. He also coordinates the Magazine's annual "Ultimate Standings" project, which ranks all pro franchises according to how much they give back to fans. His work on concussions in football has earned awards from the Deadline Club, the New York Press Club and the Center for the Study of Sport in Society.