The ability to win enough games to meet expectations is a crucial factor which a coach must consider in a job search. Because all coaches believe in their ability to coach up the talent they get, the feasibility of acquiring talent becomes a primary consideration.
As it should. Recruiting is arguably the most important part of being a college football coach.
But simply looking at recruiting rankings is not the best way to go about it. Instead, a coach should consider relative recruiting ability. Relative to what? The teams the school must play on a regular basis.
For instance, School A school might be able to sign top-25 classes on a regular basis, while School B can sign a top-40 class. But if five of the six schools in School A’s division routinely sign better classes than School A’s level, while only two of the schools in School B’s division can out-recruit B with any regularity, then B is the spot that is set up to have a talent advantage over the teams it needs to beat.
Examining the three open SEC jobs in the 2019 cycle (Missouri, Ole Miss, and Mississippi State) through this lens can yield interesting takeaways.
Ole Miss’ average class over the previous 10 seasons ranked 23rd. Arkansas was 29th. Missouri was 38th. These are not enormous differences. It’s fair to believe Ole Miss has a slightly higher ceiling than the other two, but none have reliably been top-half SEC jobs.
And the numbers are probably closer than that, as far as expectations go, considering Ole Miss’ average gets a huge bump due to some recruiting practices which are probably not repeatable and sustainable (from 2013-16, Ole Miss’ average class was 11th). Missouri has also established its SEC bona fides over this time, having been in the league for nine seasons.
But how do those numbers stack up to the teams against whom they have to play each year?
- Ole Miss must annually play four teams that recruit at a higher level (Alabama, LSU, Auburn, Texas A&M), two similar recruiters (Mississippi State, Arkansas), and Vanderbilt.
- For Arkansas, it’s tougher — four and three, since annual rival Mizzou is a far better recruiter than Ole Miss’ Vanderbilt draw.
- Missouri has the advantage, annually playing only three definite out-recruiters (Georgia, Florida, Tennessee), three similar recruiters (South Carolina, Kentucky, Arkansas), and Vanderbilt.
Practically speaking, assuming similar ability to get talent and produce a similar quality team at all three schools, the Missouri SEC schedule is, conservatively, about a half-win easier on a yearly basis. That adds up.
It’s also worth looking at which non-conference games have been scheduled during the term of the coach’s first contract.
Let’s stick with our example. How have Arkansas, Ole Miss, and Missouri set up their non-conference schedules for the next four seasons? Each has at least two non-conference games per year in that time frame which should be considered locks. But the difference in the harder games is pretty stark.
- Missouri has no non-con games in which it will be an obvious underdog, setting up likely 3-1 and 4-0 records.
- Arkansas plays Notre Dame on the road in 2020, hosts Texas in 2021, and plays at BYU and hosts Cincinnati in 2022. It’s difficult to expect better than 11-5 or so in non-con during this period.
- Ole Miss’ includes a couple games in which the Rebels will likely be underdogs and three teams running the triple option or a variant, which can be difficult to prepare for.
Scheduling in the non-conference to ensure making a bowl game is key.
Arkansas has won 1.6 SEC games per year since realignment in 2012. To make a bowl, Arkansas must schedule itself to 4-0 in non-con, then go 2-6. Texas and Notre Dame make it unlikely the Razorbacks are bowling in 2020 or 2021.
But Missouri can expect 3-5 or better in SEC play (averaged 3.8 SEC wins since joining). The Tigers can take chances in non-conference, yet are scheduling those games on Arkansas difficulty.
Scheduling suggests the chances of consistently making bowls — thus keeping fans somewhat happy — is much higher at Missouri than at Arkansas, with Ole Miss in the middle.
Assuming the quality of team a coach can produce is similar at all three schools, the competition level comes into play. The schedule suggests that the chance of consistently making bowl games, given current schedules, is much higher at Missouri than it is at Arkansas.
But coaches are optimistic and believe they can change fate. So let’s not just look at current averages, but at each school’s best three-year recruiting average over the last 10 classes.
New coaches always believe they’ll get the program running at max capacity. So comparing best to best is the way to go.
To examine each Power 5 program’s peak, I looked at its best three-year run in the previous 10 full years as of this publish (the February 2010 through February 2019 classes), according to the 247Sports Composite rankings.
It’s fair to note that there is a zero-sum element and that it is impossible for all these programs to operate at their peak at once, so at least some of these hypothetical new coaches will end up wrong.
Best three-year recruiting average last 10 years (2010-19 classes)
|School||Conference||Best 3-year average|
|School||Conference||Best 3-year average|
|Oklahoma State||Big 12||28|
|Texas Tech||Big 12||29|
|West Virginia||Big 12||34|
|Iowa State||Big 12||51|
|Kansas State||Big 12||55|
|Ohio State||Big Ten||3|
|Penn State||Big Ten||11|
|Michigan State||Big Ten||21|
- The Power 5 schools who don’t annually play any rivals with higher historic peaks are Alabama, Florida State, Georgia, Oregon, Ohio State, and Texas, and USC — though obviously Georgia and Oregon do play such teams elsewhere in their conferences at times. This suggests that a coach who does a good job at these schools should consistently be winning double-digit games. It’s certainly possible to have highly-rated recruits turn out poorly, and possible to have lowly rated recruits turn out great, but it’s not a great bet.
- P5s who have to annually play just one school with higher historic peaks are Clemson, Oklahoma, Miami, Nebraska, Michigan, UCLA, Washington, LSU, and Virginia Tech. And Miami, Nebraska, Washington, Virginia Tech, and LSU must sometimes face teams that meet this criteria from the opposite division as well. (It is worth noting that Clemson is likely to sign the #1 class in 2020, and if it follows that up with another great class in 2021, could take FSU’s spot in the top group. These things can have fluidity to them.)
- Power 5 schools who play only two schools on a yearly basis with higher peaks are Virginia, TCU, Penn State, and Wisconsin, though those in conferences with divisions have to face tough cross-over opponents pretty often.
- The most overmatched team? It’s Kansas, since all nine of its conference games are always against opponents who’ve recruited to higher peaks over the last decade. Due to being in the Big 12’s round-robin schedule, KU not only has to play at least nine games per year against teams that out-recruit it by a clear margin, but is also guaranteed to face all of its conference’s best recruiters.
New coaches, it’s reasonable to believe you’ll do a great job.
But looking at how that great job would stack up against the best of other programs is a smart way to figure out how tough a job opening truly is.