Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Talent is Good!

I arrived home on Friday afternoon and cracked open Sports Illustrated this week to learn that teams that are proximate to talent have an advantage. In a related note, faster receivers are generally preferable to slower ones, boobs are fun to look at, and we'd all be happier if banks were properly capitalized. The basic point that USC, Florida, and Texas have an advantage over the rest of college football because of their locations makes sense, although the reasoning as to why this would be increasingly true over the past several years rings hollow to me:

The Nebraska coaches have little choice but to hit the road. Their state produced only 43 BCS-conference players in the past five years, and the annual output isn't likely to grow. If they don't get their players from Florida, then they must go to California, Texas, New Jersey or some other state rich in high school football talent. To land those players, Pelini will have to work harder now than former coach Tom Osborne did when the Cornhuskers dominated the sport for the better part of two decades. Back then, a winning program was enough to lure recruits, in part because only powerhouses such as Nebraska, Michigan and Notre Dame appeared on television regularly. Now, every BCS conference team plays most of its games on television, and 15 years of the 85-scholarship limit has slammed shut the gap between football's ruling class and the former pigskin proletariat.

In the process, the three most important factors in college football recruiting have become location, location and location. Now, the best players are more likely to stay close to home.

Nebraska reached its apex under Osborne in the mid-90s. By that point, college football had already undergone its media explosion wherein most major programs are on the tube every week. Also, the 85-scholarship limit went into effect in 1994, the year in which Osborne won the first of his three national titles in four years. If anything, Nebraska illustrated one method to get around the scholarship limit with its walk-on program. The Huskers could run a high-contact, precision offense because the program's walk-on program gave the coaches an endless supply of cannon fodder for practices.

I digress. The point is that there is no reason to think that changes in college football in recent years have increased the importance of location in recruiting. If anything, the opposite would be true. If a player's friends and family can watch his games on TV regardless of where he goes to school, then wouldn't that player be more likely to go a significant distance for college? And if the 85-scholarship limit reduces the number of players that USC, Florida, and Texas can hoard from proximate high schools, then shouldn't this help secondary teams in their regions? Shouldn't UCLA, Texas A&M, and Florida State be better because of the scholarship limits? (The counter, I suspect, is that recruiting is a more exact science now than it was before because of the multiple scouting services and summer camps on campus. Thus, Pete Carroll can get a better sense as to the best players in Southern California.)

I'd hazard a guess that players have always tended to stay relatively close to home and we are only noticing the trend now because of the increased coverage of recruiting. There is no Rivals database for recruiting in the 70s, but I'd be shocked if Alabama, USC, Penn State, and Texas weren't getting a huge portion of their starting lineups from the area within a 200-mile radius of their campuses.

The chart regarding specific programs does seem fairly interesting:

1. I could probably find justification for Michigan hiring Rich Rodriguez from an episode of The View, so it probably won't surprise you to know that I found such a justification in Staples' article. Staples notes that population is generally shifting South. Thus, hiring a coach who has shifted Michigan's recruiting strategy somewhat from the Upper Midwest to Florida makes sense. (This strategy is especially smart in a period in which Miami and Florida State are both down.) More importantly, Michigan cannot run a system that presumes a talent advantage because Michigan is not going to have a talent advantage in a game against USC or Florida. Thus, Michigan needs a schematic advantage to compensate for the fact that it is not as naturally endowed with local talent as other major powers. Rodriguez's offense, once he has the right players to run it, presents exactly that sort of advantage.

2. Mike Leach doesn't get enough credit. We see the word "Texas" in his school's name and think that Texas Tech is surrounded by a bounty of high school talent, but Lubbock is in the western part of the state, most of the population and high school talent is in the eastern part of the state, and the state itself is enormous. Texas Tech gets only 10.2% of its talent from within 200 miles of campus, a very low number indeed. The one factor that works in Texas Tech's favor is the state identity point that Staples makes:

State loyalty often supersedes straight-line distance. "If I'm a recruit in south Georgia, and it's 200 miles to Gainesville and 200 miles to Athens, the physical distance is the same either way," DuMond said. "Georgia still has an advantage because I live in that state."

Then again, Oklahoma makes a living off of Texas players, so Texas pride can't be that strong.

3. Of the top 25 programs of the past five years (as measured by total wins), Georgia comes in second to Texas in terms of the average distance traveled to campus by its players. This stat confirms the maxim that Mark Richt has succeeded by simply keeping the state's ample talent at home. Georgia's stats are very similar to Alabama's, with the one exception being that Georgia has a higher percentage of players from within its state. I suspect that that stat reflects Alabama recruiting Mississippi and the Memphis area heavily, whereas Georgia does not recruit its neighboring states to the same degree.

4. Do you think that West Virginia fans get the irony of the state pride that they get from a team that is 92% out-of-state players?

5. One counter to Staples' thesis: USC players come from a very long average distance, most likely because a large portion of the 28% of the Trojans' roster that comes from outside of California comes from the East Coast and those 2,500 mile flights skew the numbers. The players from northern California also drive the numbers up. Still, if you're trying to make the point that "location, location, location" is king in recruiting, the team that tops your rankings has one of the higher average distances traveled of any program in the top 25.

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