No, that headline is not an April Fool’s joke. Athlon Sports released a roster ranking for every Power 5 team plus Notre Dame and BYU. For that ranking, Utah checked in at No. 45 nationally and No. 8 in the Pac-12. Now, you may be wondering, how did they arrive at that ranking for a team that has finished ranked in the top 25 each of the last three seasons? Was Utah docked because they lost so many players? The answer is the ranking is based on average recruiting ranking over the last five recruiting classes using the 247Sports Team Composite rankings.
Why this ranking is valid:
While you can make the point that the ranking of individual recruits is biased, this approach Athlon used is arguably the least biased approach to rank teams. It solely takes into account talent on a team’s roster, removing the “name bias” you often see in early season polls.
There have been five teams that have been ranked in every College Football Playoff ranking: Alabama, Clemson, Florida State, Ohio State, and Utah. Four of those teams (Alabama, Clemson, Florida State, and Ohio State) have won the last six national championships. Using the average recruiting ranking, each of those teams is in the top 12, and each team pulled in at least two top 10 classes prior to winning a national title in that stretch. Further, no team outside the top 12 has lost a single digit number of games over the past four seasons. The bottom line is that in the big picture, recruiting services do get it right. Teams that recruit well tend to perform well, however, there are exceptions, which brings us to...
Why this ranking has problems:
There are honestly too many reasons to list why this methodology is flawed because it is overly simplistic. This is only taking into account the big picture trends and does not account for smaller scale details. For example, it does not taken into account early enrollees in the NFL Draft or transfers. For example, Alabama, UCLA, and Washington are all benefitting in this ranking from players who currently play at Utah (Cooper Bateman, Kylie Fitts, and Troy Williams respectively, who were all ranked No. 101 or better in the 2013 class). Adding those three players to Utah’s 2013 class would bump that class ranking up to No. 24. This would not hugely impact Utah’s ranking, but it would bump them up five spots to a tie with Arizona at No. 40.
This ranking also does not factor in how a player translates to college football. Not every highly rated recruit lives up to the hype for various reasons, and plenty of two- and three-star recruits exceed their ranking. Players who were highly ranked as a recruit but do not contribute benefit a team more in these rankings than a two-star All-American. This gets at player development which is not accounted for in these rankings. For example, Athlon ranked the top 25 Pac-12 players for 2017, and only two players were rated five-star recruits (No. 4 Josh Rosen and No. 23 Iman Marshall), and only six players were ranked as four-star recruits. This means that less than one third of the projected 25 best players in the Pac-12 were blue chip recruits coming out of high school.
The two teams who played in the 2016 Pac-12 Championship Game were Washington and Colorado, ranked No. 5 and No. 12 in these rankings respectively. UCLA, Oregon, and Arizona State (ranked No. 2, 3, and 6) all failed to make a bowl, while Utah, Washington State, and Colorado (ranked No. 8, 10, and 12) all did.
While these rankings need to be taken with a grain of salt, there are things we can take away from them. One is that Utah’s recruiting rankings have improved since they started winning more, which is positive. Their two best classes out of the last five were the two most recent classes. This means a few things: the team is trending in the right direction recruiting, the team should get better and better as these younger players are in the program longer, and the only potential issue is that Utah is going to be a bit of a younger team this year than in years past, especially with all of the starters who graduated/left early for the NFL.