Next Wednesday, Missouri will sign what amounts to Barry Odom's first complete class as the Tigers' head coach. Mizzou's class of 22 commitments currently ranks 38th in the country according to the 247Sports Composite, and while a last-second run of commits could bump that up a bit, it won't that much. Odds are very good that Mizzou will finish between about 30th and 45th.
That alone is neither surprising nor particularly problematic. Mizzou fans can obviously point to recent history as a reason for why recruiting rankings are only so useful. When the Tigers went 10-3 in 2010, for instance, their last three classes had an average ranking of 29.3. When they finished in the AP top 5 in 2013, their five-year average ranking was 37.4.
Recruiting rankings are a starting point for quality, and you can make up the difference with quality development and tactical acumen. Teams do it every year.
However, recruiting rankings also tell you about a program's margin for error. If you have a class or two that doesn't work out, a class that produces a high number of dismissals or failed evaluations (or both), or a short series of classes that don't live up to your required retention rate, then you could pay for that for a while. In those instances, it’s nearly impossible to build the depth you need.
You can win big without top-15 classes, but you need a lot to go right. It doesn't take as many negative developments to derail you.
Since David Morrison recently initiated a “Can Mizzou pull a Clemson?” series, then, I thought it would be interesting to undergo a thought experiment of my own. It’s hard to say that Missouri will ever sign a top-15 caliber class, simply because about 13 of those spots are occupied by the same teams in a given year. College football’s bluebloods get the top-ranked recruits forever and always, leaving everybody else to figure out different ways to win games.
But under the right circumstances, if a top-15 class is possible, what would it look like? Where would it come from? We’ll take a look at the former question today and the latter later this week.
First things first: What is a top-15 class? (Yes, it’s a class that ranks in the top 15. That’s not what I meant, and you know it.) For the purposes of this exercise, we’ll define this as a class capable of ranking 15th. We could set the bar higher, but we’ll go with that.
Here’s the average makeup of a class that ranked between 13th and 17th per 247 from 2012-16:
- 23.0 commits
- 0.6 five-stars
- 9.2 four-stars
- 12.1 three-stars
- Average rating (based on their 0-100 scale, not the stars): 88.6
- Average points (based on I have no idea what): 247.6
Meanwhile, over that same five-year period, here’s the average makeup of a Mizzou class (average ranking: 36.4):
- 22.6 commits (0.4 fewer)
- 0.4 five-stars (0.2 fewer)
- 2.4 four-stars (6.8 fewer)
- 19.0 three-stars (6.9 more)
- Average rating: 85.2 (3.4 fewer points)
- Average points: 199.8 (47.8 fewer points)
The first thing you notice is the pure number of four-star recruits: a No. 15 class gets more than nine of them, and a Mizzou class gets fewer than three of them. (The 2017 class currently has zero.)
This is almost reassuring. You don’t have to go out and land a few five-star guys every year. The bar isn’t that high. But you need to land more fours.
One other thing to notice, however: Missouri makes up some of that initial difference by doing well in the three-star market. After all, the per-recruit average is only three points back. With that large a difference in the number of four-star signees, you’d perhaps expect a larger difference.
There’s a give and take here. Here’s what Bill Snyder told me a couple of years ago for a piece on how he built Kansas State:
As the profile grew, he had a choice to make.
"My thoughts are, don't forget how you got there. When we started out, I talked to my coaches, and I said we could go out and go after those four- or five-star guys, and I don't know what that means, honestly. We can chase those guys, and we may get some of them to visit. We may get into the kid's top five or four or three. But our reality is that we have more losses than anybody in college football history. We have 13,000 average attendance. We'd be wasting a lot of time and effort, which would be better served by going after those guys just underneath. Those are the fallback players the well-established schools fall back on, but those schools don't spend a lot of time getting to know them.
"So that's what we did. We have a lot of guys in the NFL, and we've got guys in there for 10, 11 years who weren't drafted, a number of guys who were walk-ons in the program. Our job is to develop people. You can't go scrape anybody off the street, of course, but if you can look at what this guy's going to look like in three years and how we're going to get him to look like that ...
"I think we've been fortunate in regard to recruiting. Granted, we've sent some fish hooks out there. I cautioned our guys ... there was a period of time in which we learned our lesson, saw the proof of the pudding. We had some [coaches] who were starting to reach out to some of those very high-profile guys, and we got beat up. Maybe we could have been successful doing that, but what we anticipated would happen, did happen. We ended up empty-handed."
From what we’ve seen of Barry Odom and his staff, their approach to recruiting hasn’t changed too much from when Gary Pinkel was running the show. They have sent more offers out to four- and five-star prospects — and maybe they will focus more heavily on this level of recruit when they have more success to sell (and are further removed from the 2015 boycotts). But his first class is made up almost entirely of the prospects one step down, a.k.a. “the fallback players the well-established schools fall back on.”
Consequently, we're seeing late action on a lot of Mizzou commitments. Notre Dame is going hard after receiver commit Jafar Armstrong. Linebacker commit Aubrey Miller was getting quite a few looks. Receiver commit Elijah Gardiner is getting the full-court press from Texas.
If the main takeaway from this piece is “They have to sign more four-stars,” the trade-off there is obvious. Aim for the big fish, and maybe you land a couple more. But you aren’t in the same shape with the Armstrongs and Gardiners. Right now, they sell this message hard:
mizzou took a chance on me while everyone else slept on me... and next year imma show em why they made the right choice— Jafar Armstrong (@jafararmstrong3) December 28, 2016
There is extensive risk to aiming for blue-chippers. You might land a couple or a few, but your fallbacks will lower-rated three-star guys.
But this piece isn’t about the risks, of course. It’s about the perceived end result. To land a top-15 class, Missouri needs to land more four-star guys. Easy, right?
In my next piece on the topic, I’ll look at where those four-stars might come from.