As we approach national signing day...
Two trends have been colliding over the last 20 years to create a scenario of increased parity across college football, and diminished value of the “star”-based recruiting rankings. A look at the “participation” statistics provided by the NCAA, as well as those provided by the NFHS and US Census Bureau reveals a trend of growth at both the NCAA division 1A/FBS level and the high school level. But, while the number of athletes participating at the FBS level of college football has increased by 11.0% over the 20 year span between 1988 and 2007, high school football participation has increased by approximately 31.6%. (Note: I say “approximately” because I was only able to obtain 9 high school data points and used the massively-brainy regression power of MS Excel to extrapolate the missing values… However, it was reported by the NFHS that participation in high-school sports has increased every year for the last 20 years; if anyone is a member of NFHS and would like to share the participation numbers in football from 1988-96, then we could have a more exact look at the growth on a year to year basis.) Also, a larger impact is the fairly stagnant number of scholarships available, rolling back and forth between 9 and 10 thousand over the last 20 years.
A selection of years (spanning the time-frame:)
NCAA Football High School Football %Schol/HS
Year 1A Teams 1A Ath 1A Schol. Year Athletes Yearly
1988 105 12,726 9,975 1988 841,900* 0.30%
1991 106 12,513 10,070 1991 882,685* 0.29%
1994 107 11,963 9,095 1994 923,470* 0.25%
1997 111 12,643 9,435 1997 971,335 0.24%
2000 114 13,190 9,690 2000 1 005,040* 0.24%
2003 117 13,711 9,945 2002 1 032,682 0.24%
2006 119 13,984 10,115 2006 1 104,548 0.23%
2007 119 14,131 10,115 2007 1 108,286 0.23%
What this suggests is that the portion of the bell-curve from which college coaches are recruiting talent is shrinking. In 1988, the players selected for scholarships across all of Division 1A football would have approximately represented the top 0.30% of all high-school football players (note: 11-player leagues; yes, I know that Nebraska and Iowa have both had some great success with 9-player league players, etc. I’m just trying to keep this somewhat simple.) In 2007, we’re talking the top 0.23% of high-school talent. Of course, keep in mind that the coaches are restricted to taking only graduating seniors. Would physical and mental maturation suggest that in any given year, 70-90% of the most-elite high school players are seniors? Tough argument to back up with numbers…
I suppose we would all agree that there probably exists the equivalent of prodigies within the realm of football talent… I don’t know what percentile you would want to attach to that status. I would assume that the 99.9th percentile would suffice as the level of being the cream of the crop. Among all players in 2008/9 this would correlate with the top 1113 high school players; I’m guessing (based on the aforementioned 70-90% conjecture) between 780 and 1002 of them were seniors and part of the 2009 recruiting class. That is enough players to fill somewhere between 31 and 40 FULL recruiting classes of 25 players. In other words, if the top 30-40 teams were the sole benefactors of the top 780-1000 players; then all of them would have teams made solely of players from the top 0.1% of high-school talent.
That's right... that "2 star" athlete that you are sometimes tempted to speak negatively of is most definitely from the 99.5th percentile of high-school football athletes. Among "academics" that correlates to a performance of 2320 or above on the 2007 SAT; 40 and above on the 2008 MCAT; 175 and above on the 2005-2008 LSAT exams; and somewhere around 780 and above on the GMAT. If you scored less than that on any of those exams, your performance would mean you are less than a 2-star among your academic peers... ouch. That's a pretty high-level of expectations.
I should also point out that the impact of this glance at the numbers is based on football talent adhering to a simple bell-curve. But, what I have not taken into account is the growth of high-school players’ exposure to better coaching: college summer camps, professional trainers, etc. If the overall access to such expertise has increased over the last 20 years (as a percentage of high-school players receiving such tutelage) then the bell curve could actually be expected to skew to the right over time (compared to its original shape;) meaning it would be even harder to differentiate between the talent in the “right tail.”
What does this all mean? Well I take a couple of points from it. First, if people can truly differentiate between the top couple of hundred players in the nation (let alone the top 40 at each position,) without seeing said players side by side and in the same context, then I greatly admire them and place them in the savant category of Gregory House M.D., one of U of M's greatest fictional graduates. However, I am a bit cynical as to such an amazing ability existing. Second, given that there are 119 schools divvying up the top 0.23% of talent each year, I am experiencing a renewed sense of importance regarding coaches and facilities. These players are all starting from nearly identical positions, where one year of intense studying, conditioning, and skill-building is more than enough to erase any gap between them and their peers (meaning today’s "number 1" can very easily become tomorrow’s bust, and vice versa.) This points to the third take-home message: chemistry and motivation. A “chip on the shoulder” of anyone from the top 0.1% of their profession can very quickly become a strong motivator of perfection… there are probably 900 of the top 1000 players who have this “chip.” Harness this source of motivation with the appropriate team-chemistry... anything is possible.
Coaching… check. Facilities… check. “Chip”… check. I like where our class stands.
Data taken from: